Having pointed the spotlight on the cinema of Turkey, Sweden, Brazil and India in previous editions, the Zurich Film Festival continued its traditional “New World View” section by focusing on the recent work of Iran’s young talent.
Iranian cinema conjures many indelible images and notable filmmakers: Abbas Kiarostami’s documentary-fiction hybrids, Jafar Panahi’s militant neorealist beginnings, Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf’s rebellious tales of an upset population, Asgar Farhadi’s provocative moral conundrums, and the political symbolism of Dariush Mehrjui. In other words, it opens up an incredibly rich history of filmmaking whose constant potency — especially given the country’s severe restrictive policies on culture – make it one of the major epicenters of Middle Eastern cinema.
Under constant threat of state censorship, Iranian filmmaking has shown little signs of waning, but it continues to battle an oppressive government with a mastery of disguise.
For the most part, it appears that description still stands. That’s certainly the case if the Zurich Film Festival’s “New World View” sidebar is to be believed. The eleventh edition’s focus on the cinema of Iran proved a unique opportunity to review the interests and aspirations of a new generation of filmmakers, and how they might differ from those of the previous ones.
Still, a fair portion of the selected filmmakers follow in the footsteps of the above-mentioned, socially-conscious directors. Ida Panahandeh‘s “Nahid” and Hossein Shahabi’s “The Bright Day” are both tales of irrepressibly resilient women whose endless confrontations with societal norms ultimately fail to strip them of their dignity or their tenacity. They both share the societal critiques of the country’s finest, though perhaps lack some their nuance. “Wednesday, May 9,” on the other hand, gives its drama a sentimental edge that we don’t often get a chance to see in Iranian cinema.
There was also space for a quieter, more contemplative cinema in Safi Yazdanian’s “What Time Is It In Your World?,” a touching meditation on the act of returning home. The story follows a woman traveling back to Iran after her mother’s death, only to be repeatedly pestered by a gentle stalker. The man’s persistent kindness is marred by his troublingly extensive knowledge of her life. It’s a simple enough conceit that nevertheless allows for some bittersweet moments of revelation as aspects of the man’s character are progressively revealed.
In a similar vein, Sanaeeha’s deliberately-paced “Risk of Acid Rain” paints the portrait of an old, single man who continues to go to work despite having retired, and whose desperate loneliness eventually lead him to travel to Tehran in the hope of finding a childhood friend. Unusual companions are met along the way in this bittersweet story of time gone by, in which the gaps left to be filled are sometimes more important than what we see on screen.
However, there were some genuine surprises through the sort of films we are unaccustomed to seeing in general, let alone Iran. The first is Ali Ahmadzadeh’s peculiar “Atomic Heart,” a film which begins with a duo of ambling, well-to-do young women as they return from a party. Inevitably, Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy and “Certified Copy” spring to mind — only for Ahmadzadeh to take a sharp turn into philosophical sci-fi around the midway point, complete with multiple realities and Saddam Hussein.
It’s a bold move, and it doesn’t wholly satisfy, but it’s still something of a small miracle that such an eccentric concept doesn’t result in a catastrophe. For all its daring ingredients, however, nothing in the sidebar — or indeed the festival — can claim to match the temporal acrobatics of “Fish and Cat.” In this experimental slasher of sorts, Shahram juggles a multitude characters as well as action occurring both in the past and the present. All this is accomplished in a single shot that lasts an hour and 45 minutes. Characters from different times pass each other like ghosts, interactions are revisited from various points of view to ultimately make sense of one grisly event, and somehow it just fits together.
Add that to the couple of documentaries on show — the remarkable “Atlan,” an insightful tale of how engrained horsemanship is in the life of some Turkish populations, expressed through the struggles of one young man with his horse, is a particular stand-out — and it is quite clear that contemporary Iranian filmmaking doesn’t end with the artists of the New Wave. Though the influence of the latter is palpable, this new generation has groundbreaking of their own to do, and there’s enough talent visible here to prove the country is in good hands.