To Kiarostami or Not To Kiarostami: Iranian Cinema in Transition at Chicago's 14th Festival of Films From Iran
by Anthony Kaufman
Abbas Kiarostami did not attend the 14th annual Festival of Films from Iran at Chicago's Gene Siskel Film Center (Oct. 4-Nov. 2). And not a single one of Kiarostami's films played at the event. But the presence of the master of Iranian cinema was eminently felt. Local experts Mehrnaz Saeed Vafa and Jonathan Rosenbaum held a brief lecture about Kiarostami's style, influence and upcoming projects (a DV documentary about "Ten" is likely to show up in Cannes); Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami premiered, unannounced, his latest documentary, "A Walk with Kiarostami," a half-hour verite stroll with the legendary director through the green marshes of Galway, Ireland, accompanied by discussions about frame, light, and photography; and perhaps most significantly, Kiarostami emerged as the benchmark against which all Iranian filmmakers are judged.
"There has been a pressure to emulate that Kiarostami touch, which, of course, is impossible," said Mani Haghighi, the director of "Abadan," which was an unprecedented world premiere for Chicago's Festival of Films from Iran, the longest-running annual Iranian film series in the U.S. ("Abadan" might have debuted at this year's Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, but has yet to be approved for exhibition by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.)
Haghighi told audiences that his film was also rejected by a European film festival for not being "Iranian" enough. "We really like it," he recounted his rejection letter, "but when you say Iranian films, audiences expect 1.) a child, 2.) preferably, a child looking for something and 3.) set in a rural context." (Haghighi could have been describing Kiarostami's landmark 1987 film "Where is the Friend's House?")
"Abadan," as the director is proud to explain, doesn't abide by any of the conventions that made Iranian cinema such an international success in the '90s. "I was trying very hard to deviate from this pattern, which I think has been exhausted," he said. Made for $35,000, and shot on DV, the film is a modern dramatic comedy about a man caught between allegiances to his wife, whose father is missing and he has agreed to find, and his younger girlfriend, who is about to emigrate from the country. The film is most notable -- and sometimes shocking, as an "Iranian" film -- for its use of profanity. (Every few minutes some variation of "shit" or "fuck" is uttered.) A haphazard handheld filmmaking and editing style also adds to the contemporary feel -- and as a direct, self-conscious rebuke against Iranian cinema past.
"The bubble has burst, and this is a relief," said Haghighi. "The demand that was put upon us has been lifted." Haghighi spoke of a third generation of new Iranian filmmakers who are finally forgetting about simplicity of form and "just making the film," he said. "If you like MTV or the 'Matrix Reloaded,' it's okay." He added, referring to the fact that the popularity for Iranian films is declining, "I like this crisis."
Unfortunately, a crisis is a crisis. And "Abadan" is less likely to make international waves than a film with more Kiarostamian influences, such as Alireza Amini's "Letters in the Wind," another debut film, and surely the most solid and beautifully crafted work in the festival. Set in an army base outside of Tehran, the film focuses on a lonely recruit who carries a tape recorder around with him and plays a cassette of random women's voices. Soon, the whole company seeks solace in these disembodied feminine murmurs, and then later uses the tape recorder to send messages to their families back home. Carefully photographed, poetically conceived, and just plain funny, the film may not be as edgy as "Abadan," but it's just as modern and twice as moving.
Most of the films showcased at the Festival of Films from Iran took place in noticeably contemporary settings. Two debut films focus on the endless troubles of wayward urban teens, Iran's arthouse Oscar submission "Deep Breath" and Asghar Farhadi's "Dancing in the Dust." "Tehran 7:00 A.M." chronicles numerous residents in the capital city (the highlight being one segment involving city-run urine tests). And two lively mainstream entries are set among the country's upper-middle class. "Report Card Day" is a sometimes cornball, sometimes affective "Kolya"-like romp about a suicidal 8-year-old boy who takes up with a white collar ex-con out for revenge. And outspoken female director Tamineh Milani's "The Fifth Reaction" follows a young widow's fight to keep her children from being taken away by her ultra-strict father-in-law.
Perhaps the most Hollywood-style Iranian film I've ever seen (and the most avowedly pro-Western), "The Fifth Reaction" eventually borrows from "Thelma & Louise" in its celebrations of women and car chase plotting. Ten years ago, Miramax might have turned this occasionally silly, yet suspenseful feminist crowd-pleaser into a hit. ("The Fifth Reaction" won this year's audience award; Milani also won in 2001 for "The Hidden Half.")
But Jamseed Akrami, who spoke during the festival's centerpiece panel "From Iran to the World -- The Visibility of Iranian Cinema," painted a troubling portrait for Iranian film exports today. Within the last few years, only two Iranian films have broken $1 million at the U.S. box office, Majid Majidi's "Color of Heaven" and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's "Kandahar." "The bad news is the performance has been declining since 'Kandahar,'" says Akrami, who blames, in part, distributors for mishandling such recent fare as Bhoman Ghobadi's "Marooned in Iraq," poorly timed to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, and Majidi's "Baran." "Miramax just dumped it," said Akrami of the Majidi film. "If Miramax can't make $5 million with it, they just don't care." Akrami also sadly admitted, "Maybe there is a vanishing appeal for Iranian films."
In the '90s, Akrami recounted a turning point for Iranian cinema in the U.S. with Jafar Panahi's "The White Balloon," which made almost $900,000 in 1996. Then, with the 1980 hostage crisis still lingering in people's memories, there was an image problem for films from Iran. Akrami, who was hired as a consultant on October Films' release of "The White Balloon," recounted then October exec Bingham Ray coming up with a mock tagline, "This is a movie that's going to take your heart hostage." Needless to say, the actual campaign did not mention Iran.
Today, Akrami says, "I don't think the non-Iranian audiences are quite ready for the new crop of socially committed Iranian films that have been so successful in Iran. They find them a bit heavy in range and depth of issues they tackle." He cites Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's "Under the Skin of the City," released in the U.S. by Magnolia Pictures. "The film was a box office champ in Iran, but here even the critics didn't respond to it enthusiastically. The film required a prior knowledge of the social realities in Iran to be appreciated," he explains. "Audiences, used to simple children's films or more esoteric film statements from Iran, probably need some time to warm up to the new crop."
On the brighter side, however, according to the Film Center's Barbara Scharres, the audiences for this year's festival were refreshingly diverse. "We have traditionally drawn the majority of audience members from Chicago's Iranian American community," she says. "This year I was very pleased to see that our enthusiastically supportive Iranian American patrons were joined by a markedly significant number of people just getting acquainted with Iranian cinema."
While audiences may wax and wane for Iranian cinema worldwide, filmmakers in the country face significant challenges that may have more to do with politics than distribution. Incidents of government censorship and strong-arming filmmakers persist. While "Abadan" director Haghighi maintained his cordial relationships with the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance during the festival, and told audiences that he was recutting the film to abide by certain strictures and appeared confident that an Iranian theatrical release was forthcoming, Jamsheed Akrami was far less forgiving. "The role of the government is undefined," said Akrami. "I feel for the Iranian filmmakers trying to live up to a draconian censorship code."
Akrami noted that Jafar Panahi had been interrogated twice by authorities, while his latest feature "Crimson Gold" is forbidden from release in Iranian theaters. And Babak Payami, director of "Secret Ballot" has since left the country for good, after being arrested and interrogated. During the Toronto Film Festival, where his latest film "Silence Between Two Thoughts," screened, Payami told the World Socialist Web Site, "Before I even submitted anything to the Ministry of Culture, I was arrested on the street, taken in, interrogated, during which I refused to respond to any questions. Then my office was raided in my presence without any legal justification; there wasn't a single charge laid, a single warrant issued, nothing."
Contacted after the festival, Akrami noted that Iranian filmmakers have been experiencing far more difficulties with censors in recent years. "The Iranian filmmakers and the Islamic government are locked in a sort of undeclared face-off right now," he said. "The government is trying to intimidate the filmmakers and the filmmakers are trying their best to circumvent the government and its censorship codes."