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 Revolution, 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.'