An overview of the New Iranian Cinema (Part 4: The Recurring Traits of NIC)

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3

Continuing on from last time, let’s now begin to look more closely at the NIC and the films of those four directors I’ve introduced. A lot of films will be referenced and sometimes it might be a bit much to keep track of, but imdb links for all films will be embedded into the titles. Just another note, sometimes a few spoilers might be given out about the plots of some of the films, but even if you have not seen them I hope this shouldn’t discourage people from watching them, all of them being about far more than just plot. If this series of posts gets anyone wanting to see any of these films, then it will have more than accomplished its goal. But now is time to look at what similarities really make these films gel into one cohesive “movement”.

Of course this means temporarily overlooking the many stylistic differences between all these films, but the point is to find general trends. And it is the case, as we shall see, that many aesthetic features and thematic concerns are common to NIC films. Firstly, these films developed a documentary-style realism which shows a debt to Italian neo-realism. At the same time, they differ from these realist and neo-realist traditions. There is a self-conscious, self-reflexive tone in many of them, where they draw attention to the film’s artificiality (e.g. remind us that it is a film) to ponder the fine lines between art and reality, which is more characteristic of modernist art. For the purposes of categorisation then, I have divided the NIC’s characteristics into two groups: 1) traditional realist/neo-realist elements, and 2) self-referential modernist elements. It is my belief that NIC finds its signature style in the unique blend of these two very different types of traits. In this part I’ll discuss the first group, and in the next part I’ll discuss the 2nd group.

1. Realist/Neo-realist elements

So let’s give a brief rundown of what is meant by the realist/neo-realist elements in NIC first. A brief reminder here, that Italian neo-realism was a hugely influential movement in cinema, started just after WW2, by the likes of Roberto Rossellini, Vittorio De Sica and Cesare Zavattini, who wanted to move away from the contrived dramatic and escapist plots of most studio films, and bring a more real brand of cinema with “ordinary” stories about “ordinary” people. In his manifesto for a neorealist cinema, Zavattini wrote: “The time has come to tell the audience that they are the true protagonists of life”. The NIC mirrors this attitude and approach, both in spirit and in the logistics of filmmaking.

For example, NIC films are often made with non-professional actors, filmed on location rather than in studios, they use direct sound recorded on the scene rather than post-dubbing, they contain leisurely-paced long takes rather than fast-paced editing,  They tend to have simple storylines, usually open-ended, with little dramatisation or sensationalisation, no “extra-ordinary” events tend to happen. They are often set in rural areas of Iran and focus on poor, working-class characters. All of these are clear hallmarks linking the NIC to the legacy of the neorealist tradition.

Many NIC films (particularly Kiarostami’s and Panahi’s) end with a final freeze-frame shot, a technique made famous by Truffaut’s The 400 Blows, which like many NIC films takes a close look at childhood. Indeed the use of child protagonists in prominent roles is another trait which NIC films have in common (again reminiscent of Italian neorealism, e.g. The Bicycle Thieves, Germany Year Zero or Shoeshine). Naturally though, the context of Iran in the 80s and 90s is different to 40s Italy, and Iranian cinema turned increasingly to child characters for many reasons, including the lack of star actors and the fact children were subject to less censorship restrictions.

So child protagonists became a key recurring element in the NIC. In the 1980s, it was predominantly boys: Where is the Friend’s Home? (Kiarostami, 1987) and Homework (Kiarostami, 1989), and even films by other famed Iranian directors like The Runner (Naderi, 1985) and Bashu, the Little Stranger (Beyzai, 1989). These centered on the touching stories of young boys struggling in the adult world, with the exception of Homework which was a documentary about an Iranian school and the pressures it puts its pupils under.

During the 1990s it was more typically girls: Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995) and The Mirror (1997) both deal with a young girl getting lost on her own. Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998) is a docu-fiction based on a real-life event, concerning two 11-year-old twins who were locked up inside their home by an over-protective father. Even one of the surprise foreign-language hits of the 90s, the Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven (Majidi, 1997), tells the heart-warming story of a young brother and sister in a poor Tehran neighbourhood, though it lacks the sophisticated innovation of the other films mentioned here (essentially it’s NIC-lite, and aims more to be a crowd-pleaser than the work of the 4 directors we’re looking at).

As we said in part 1, it was essentially Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? which kicked off the NIC as a cinematic current of international repute, by winning multiple awards at the Locarno festival. For this deceptively simple masterpiece, the first of what would later become the so-called “Koker trilogy”, Kiarostami travelled to rural northern Iran to film the story of a conscientious young boy, Ahmed, on an after-school quest to return his classmate’s schoolbook, which he took home by mistake. The moral dilemma posed to Ahmed becomes compelling because he knows the friend will be expelled from school the next day, if his book is not presented to the teacher. Ahmed responds with an innate sense of duty and an innocent, unknowing every-day heroism, despite the indifference of the adults and figures of authority around him, which only make this boy’s determination to do “the right thing” all the more impressive. It’s clear that Kiarostami used all his experience from working with and for children at the Kanun in making this. The young local boy playing Ahmed (Babek Ahmedpour) gives a wonderfully earnest performance as this conscientious boy (actually Kiarostami later revealed one of the tricks to his pensive stare was to give him mental arithmetic to do whilst shooting a scene), and Kiarostami wraps up everything beautifully in a surprising ending that is moral without being moralistic.

On the surface this seems a retelling of many a neorealist film to an Iranian setting, but there is more at play. For instance, the mazy village pathways and zigzag trails Ahmed frantically searches for his friend’s home in (purposely created by Kiarostami for the film) lend the rural settings a de-familiarising aura. Already the realism is being appropriated to add a new layer of meaning. Something comparable can be seen across other NIC films, like Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh (1996) in which the rug-weaving of a nomadic tribe is depicted as a radiantly colourful spectacle, veering from realism into mythology and even poetic symbolism (in this film colour is life). Similarly in Samira Makhmalbaf’s Blackboards (2000), set in Kurdistan, the surreal image of itinerant teachers carrying their blackboards on their backs, resembling birds against the rural landscapes, is another example of a desire to blend the everyday and the extraordinary, to play with representations of village life, and thereby form a new brand of realism/neorealism.

The use of child protagonists also resonates on a national scale; they are often allegorical stand-ins for something wider, a disguising from the censors of a metaphor for wider socio-political meaning. Samira Makhmalbaf’s debut film, The Apple, provides such an example. As previously mentioned, it recounts the story of an overly protective father who locked his twin daughters in their own home, frightened of letting them go outside. This news-item immediately attracted Samira’s interest because, to her and her father Mohsen, it was the “story of our nation”, Iran’s patriarchal, fundamentally religious society having deprived its citizens of freedoms under the pretence that it was for their own good. Not only is it a true story, but the real people (the family, the neighbours, the social worker) “act” before the camera in reconstructing the real events. What makes this film even more remarkable is that Samira refuses to judge or condemn, instead casting an anthropological eye on the father, trying to understand his reasons, and on the girls’ tentative first steps into the outside world. In effect they are turned into an optimistic metaphor for Iran’s slow march towards a more open society. The film ends with the twins’ blind mother, herself just as secluded as her daughters, wandering into the street and tentatively reaching out for a symbolic apple, an ending which suggests a feminist allegory about the potential for all women to seize opportunities. In this regard, The Apple may be likened to other socially conscious NIC films highlighting the situation of women in contemporary Iran, such as The Circle (2000), Offside (2006) and Ten (2002), or more loosely to the films of Rakhshan Bani-E’temad.

Besides documenting the nuances of gender divisions, NIC has also been thematically preoccupied with the ethnic and class differences present in Iranian society. Iran is a multi-ethnic country with significant Kurdish and Turkmen minorities, and a large community of Afghan refugees who fled to Iran during the Soviet-Afghan War. All four directors have addressed this issue of these cultural minorities in Iran in their own way. The Makhmalbafs have done this most explicitly, gradually moving away from making films in Iran to direct attention towards the plight of the Afghan people. Kandahar (Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 2001, a film again based on a real event) and At Five in the Afternoon (Samira Makhmalbaf, 2003) were both shot on location in Afghanistan, with non-professional actors, and speak of the tragic experiences of ordinary Afghans.

Kiarostami, too, touched on Iran’s minorities, albeit in a characteristically oblique way, in the minimalistic, parable-like Taste of Cherry, where the suicidal Mr Badiei encounters three characters each representing one of the main ethnic minorities in Iran: a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan seminarian and a Turkmen taxidermist. While Taste of Cherry is far too philosophical and metaphysical a film for any aspect of it to have one universal meaning, this deliberate choice clearly resonates in building an abstract microcosm of Iranian society, with each member of a different ethnic group bringing a different attitude to the man’s suicidal request (suicide is an extremely taboo subject in Iran, actually an earlier Makhmalbaf film Nights on the Zayandeh-Rood (1990) was canned altogether by the censors just for touching on suicide).

Panahi also handled this theme in an implicit way, before his more overtly socially-minded films, in his first feature The White Balloon. The film (co-written with Kiarostami and bearing a slight resemblance to Where is the Friend’s Home?) revolves around a seven-year-old girl’s quest to buy a goldfish and was a minor hit in the US and Europe, where it was received as a charming story of innocent children. But in truth the sombre ending belies such a simplistic interpretation, as a sudden shift in point-of-view from the girl to a lonely Afghan balloon-seller holding the eponymous white balloon, and crucially the final freeze-frame shot is not of the girl we have followed throughout the film, but of the young Afghan now alone and with nobody to celebrate Persian New Year with. This subtle perspective shift at the end serves as an effective reminder of the outsider status such refugees hold in Iran.

After his more obliquely social (and we could even say more Kiarostami-esque) early films, Panahi’s style became more journalistic. His films exposed Iranian society’s malaises, like Crimson Gold (2003), yet another film inspired by real events, in which a schizophrenic veteran of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), is now struggling financially and living in the poor neighbourhoods of Southern Tehran. In contrast, his job has him delivering pizzas to bourgeois homes in the affluent areas of North Tehran. We also see him get snubbed by a condescending uptown jeweller, this is a character who only asks for a little dignity and respect but fails to be afforded it, and the episodes exemplify his alienation until he is drawn to a desperate act. Once again a documentary-style realism, and many handheld long-take camera shots, add to the taut tension of this gripping depiction of social inequality.

These more recent works by Panahi were not the first to directly deal with social and class divisions. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, himself regarded as somewhat of a ‘working class hero’ for being a self-taught filmmaker who came from a poor background (see part 3 for more biographical info), was already making films dealing with the socially excluded and disadvantaged in the 1980s, such as The Cyclist (1986) and Marriage of the Blessed (1987). The latter in particular foreshadowed Crimson Gold, in its depiction of a traumatised veteran of the Iran-Iraq war struggling to re-integrate into society (it’s worth noting that such an approach to this subject was in itself courageous, as the war was a very sensitive subject for the censors and one which the regime still glorified). This class-consciousness reflects an enduring thematic concern of the NIC, which has seldom focussed on the affluent middle classes of large cities like Tehran, either in setting or in character, except to present a contrast of social milieus. Such inclinations, as well as aesthetic features — free of eye-catching angles, ostentatious camera movement, or clever editing — and a preference for minimalistic de-dramatised narratives, often based on real-life stories, are the trademarks of NIC’s realism, mixed with a consistent use of poetic symbolism to elevate reality into something more philosophical or more thought-provoking on film.

In the next part I’ll discuss the second group of recurring traits which emerge in the NIC films, that is the modernist elements. It’s in the fusion of the poetic realist/neorealist style and approach discussed above, with a modernist sophistication that the overall NIC style can really be defined. Thanks for reading! To be continued…

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