I intend this to be a fairly hefty and thorough contextualisation and account of some of the best recent Iranian cinema, so decided to split it into separate parts!
Back in 1999, at the very early days of my growing interest in cinema and 3 years after I had spent a summer in Iran, came my first taste of Iranian cinema proper, with a chance late-night-TV viewing of Abbas Kiarostami’s Through the Olive Trees. Not fully understanding the subtleties of Kiarostami’s art at that time, I was nonetheless gripped and the film’s images have stayed with me ever since. Over the next few months, I realised, with a little surprise, that this Abbas Kiarostami who I’d taken for some obscure filmmaker only known to the most hardened cinephiles, was in fact world-renowned. Without even seeking his name, I still heard it in many different places: the Guardian for example were calling him the best director around whilst elsewhere he was being voted “Most important filmmaker of the 90s” by serious critics.
Then delving a little deeper, I came to know of other fascinating Iranian films: The Apple for example, and A Moment of Innocence were the next 2 Iranian works I watched. The mark they made upon me was of doing things I’d never seen before in films in terms of blending fiction and reality, and that was when I really took notice that something very interesting indeed was taking place in contemporary Iranian cinema. In this essay, I hope to expand a little on that and what I mean by it.
But there’s no need to take my word for it anymore, in the 14 years that have passed, Iranian cinema’s reputation has reached new heights. Iranian films and Iranian judges are now stalwarts at international film festivals, and an Iranian film has won top prize at each of the three major festivals. Kiarostami won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for Taste of Cherry, Jafar Panahi won the Golden Lion at Venice with The Circle, and most recently Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation won Berlin’s Golden Bear. Heck, that film even won an Oscar too, about the ultimate sign of cinematic mainstream approval! In other words, Iranian cinema has in the last 20 years been one of the most potent counterexamples to the conservative tradition which for decades has regarded the canon of World Cinema to be a handful of European countries + USA + Japan.
How and why did it get there? What is this so-called “New Iranian Cinema”, to give it its most common moniker? What is so exciting and different about it, and what is ‘Iranian’ about it if anything? Should we be surprised (as many are) that Iran, with its reductive reputation as a fundamentalist Islamic state, is producing such poetic humanist films?
These are the questions I want to answer over the forthcoming parts. To make clear what I shall mean by New Iranian Cinema (which I’ll shorten to NIC from hereon), I’ll focus on a period of roughly 25 years from 1987 to 2012, and on four directors. They are Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi. Naturally this is omitting much of the great diversity of Iranian cinema, including other Iranian directors also worth mentioning (the likes of Beyza’i, Bani-Etemad or the relative newcomer Farhadi for example), but these four filmmakers represent the most prominent and internationally recognised proponents of the NIC. While their films have differences and contrasting elements, I will attempt to identify recurring themes and features and assess the factors which have shaped these, and in the next part will continue this overview with a short history of Iranian cinema.
Thanks for reading! To be continued…..