The Iranian New Wave

ON THE OPENING night of the 1995 Telluride Film Festival, famed
German director Werner Herzog declared, ‘What I say tonight will be
a banality in the future. The greatest films of the world today are
being made in Iran.’ Almost a decade later, Herzog’s words ring
true. Iran, along with Taiwan and Denmark, is widely regarded by
film aficionados and international film critics alike as creating
many of the best movies around.

At a time when Hollywood’s global domination shapes moviemaking
in most countries (most blockbuster-action films like
Spiderman and T3 take in more money overseas than
they do in the United States), Iran, a member in good standing of
President Bush’s Axis of Evil, is in the midst of a cinematic
Golden Age. Like Italian Neo-Realism or Denmark’s celebrated Dogme
95 movement, Iranian films eschew flashy special effects and
gimmicky plot lines in favor of simple, straightforward narratives
and a minimalist aesthetic in which natural elements like water,
wind, and dust take on poetic resonance.

That’s why it’s infuriating, even heartbreaking, that several
renowned Iranian directors, including Abbas Kiarostami, Bahman
Ghobadi, and Jafar Panahi, have recently been refused visas to
enter the United States. ‘For years, I’ve been appalled at the
treatment of all Iranians entering the United States, who routinely
get fingerprinted,’ writes Jonathan Rosenbaum in an open letter
protesting the treatment of Iranian artists both in the U.S. and
abroad. ‘It shows a lack of interest and even contempt of some
Americans towards other cultures.’ For his part, Ghobadi, who was
to be feted at the Chicago International Film Festival last
October, forwarded his prize to Dubya himself.

The irony of the visa refusals is especially pointed, writes Noy
Thrupkaew in The American Prospect (June 2003),
since recent films, including Kiarostami’s Ten, Ghobadi’s
Marooned in Iraq, and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Under the
Skin of the City
, have not only upped the political ante in
Iranian filmmaking, but also ‘deliver the very criticisms one might
think the U.S. administration would be eager to hear-particularly
from an Iranian people whose struggle for democracy our president
claims to support.’

Criticizing the Iranian government through film is no easy task.
Since the 1979 revolution (when Hollywood films were banned and
several movie theaters burned), Iranian filmmakers have labored
under a draconian censorship system that prohibits, among other
things, unfavorable portraits of the army, police, or family;
physical contact or tender words between men and women; and showing
any part of a woman’s body besides her hands and face (which must
be shrouded in a scarf). Some filmmakers, like Kiarostami, choose
to see the bright side of all this repression. In Jamsheed Akrami’s
documentary Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema after the
, Kiarostami compares himself to an architect who
enjoys the challenge of building on a crooked lot and notes that
the restrictions have led filmmakers to adopt a more allegorical,
creative style of filmmaking in order to sneak by government
censors. Other directors, like Bani-Etemad, are less charitable.
‘In any country where women aren’t free,’ she tells The
Village Voice
(March 12, 2003), ‘no one is free.’

Many Iranian artists are banking on President Mohammed Khatami
to reform the system. He started relaxing some of the movie
production codes almost 20 years ago when he was minister of
culture, but he was eventually forced out by hard-liners. When
Khatami was elected president in 1997, he immediately set about
striking some of the more odious governmental restrictions,
including script approval. But, given the larger struggle between
reform-minded leaders like Khatami and the right-wing conservatives
in the Iranian judiciary and military, the future is uncertain. As
writer Mike Hertenstein has noted, ‘Given the present complexities
and tone of world affairs, one can more easily imagine events
tending to strengthen the hand of repression, bringing about a
cataclysmic change of circumstances in which a crackdown on the
Iranian film renaissance is but the least of tragedies.’

Which is a shame, because a crackdown on Iranian film would mean
not only fewer great movies to see but also one less window to the
world. ‘We have very few ways of learning about Iran as a country
apart from cinema,’ Rosenbaum has said. ‘This alone makes Iranian
film very important.’

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