Influences and Motivations behind New Iranian Cinema
Having identified the distinctive features of the New Iranian Cinema (NIC) in parts 4 and 5, it’s worth now trying to trace these back to their underlying influences and motivations. These are bound to be a complex blend. We have historical factors, economic and political factors, cultural factors, aesthetic factors, personal factors coming from the individual artists… all play a role in shaping these films. But without hopefully simplifying too much, I shall look at 3 of the most evident factors behind the NIC, starting with censorship.
It goes without saying that of all the imperatives to influence post-revolution Iranian cinema, censorship regulations have had the most direct impact on what the films contained (or didn’t contain). And here is quite a paradox, because after the revolution, a totalitarian and puritanical Islamist regime came into place, leading to fears over the artistic potential of Iranian cinema from that point on. Yet, far from being shackled by suppression, Iranian cinema somehow found independence enough to shine and triumph over censorship restrictions, by meeting the creative challenge of having to bypass them.
Historically, film censorship had been stern even in the days of the Shah when anything resembling criticism of the state and regime was heavily suppressed. After the revolution, Khomeini’s attitude towards cinema was ambivalently caught between two instincts; suspicious of its Western influence, he nonetheless was pragmatic about its potential as propaganda tool and thus did not seek to remove it, instead aiming to ‘purify’ it according to the ascetic codes of Shi’a Islam. The first instinct led to the majority of foreign films being banned: this in fact turned out to be a positive for Iranian films, as it meant less market competition. The second instinct resulted in a set of strict censorship regulations: women had to remain veiled on-screen, even in situations where they realistically would not be, such as in their own homes; nor could they be shown in close-ups because the audience’s gaze too came under religious scrutiny. From then on, censorship went through alternating periods of tightening and relaxing; an example of the latter came under the more arts-friendly reformist Mohammed Khatami, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance (the ministry responsible for supervising the film industry) from 1982 to 1992 and later President from 1997 to 2005, and a well-known supporter of filmmakers. But Iranian authorities maintained tight control over all aspects of the film industry, even having to approve screenplays at the pre-production stage and subjecting all films to a thorough vetting process before allowing exhibition permits, to make sure the films were morally acceptable.
Restrictive circumstances can have the ironic side-effect of motivating artists to invent indirect means of expressing their ideas. The idea that creativity can flourish when one has constraints rather than complete freedom, seems to hold true for Kiarostami, and for Panahi who makes the most of censorship rules by thinking of clever ways to sidestep them. For example in the opening credits sequence of The Circle where we hear, but do not see, a woman in labour, in what we later find out is a prison hospital. The screams of the woman as the credits roll over a black screen serve as an atmospheric opening to the film, yet this scene could not have (realistically) been depicted visually since a woman in the company of a female midwife would normally be unveiled in such a setting. Thus Panahi, in order not to either violate censorship rules or depict a situation which would be realistically absurd, found an efficient solution. Another example is how he avoids showing any physical contact between the actors playing the girl’s parents in The White Balloon, only letting us hear the father shouting angrily off-screen; but this only adds to the subtle hints at unseen oppression in the film.
As for Kiarostami, he told Bert Cardullo in an interview:
“[Iranian cinema] reflects the way in which each filmmaker has come to terms with, and found ways of expressing himself within, the limitations that exist.”
He also has stated many times that his approach to such restrictions were as “an opprtunity to be creative”. It is the limitations he imposes on himself in a film like Ten that make it such an original work, and this principle of strict rules encouraging creativity was also at the heart of the infamous Dogme 95 movement started by Lars von Trier and Thomas Vinterberg. However let’s not forget that in the case of Iran these limitations stem directly from political oppressors, and such measures are never on the whole ideal for artists. The complications of making films in Iran has even now led Kiarostami to increasingly work abroad (his last two films were made in Italy and Japan), while Jafar Panahi is under house arrest and banned from making films because of being deemed to have broken the censorship laws. As for the Makhmalbafs, they have been in exile for a decade now and the likelihood of them making films in Iran again is slim.
So how has this resulted in the trademarks of the New Iranian Cinema? Well for a start, the recurring use of child protagonists can be said to stem from censorship. A repressive regime stifling what artists can say leads to a tendency towards allegory, filmmakers must be more oblique in what they want to say about the state. In this case, the child character is the perfect way to make a metaphor about the state and future of the country. As I mentioned in Part 4, Samira Makhmalbaf admitted this explicitly about The Apple, but something similar can also be read in all other NIC children (e.g. the girl in The Mirror being a metaphor for the modern Iranian woman striving for independence). Such an approach has a far greater chance of slipping past the censor, who seldom suspects anything beyond the surface of what appears to be an innocent child’s tale. Furthermore, censorship rules and modesty laws are far looser towards children, who can be shown in close-up with greater freedom.
A similar reason also must be factored into the recurring choice of rural settings in NIC films: most of the film can be shot outdoors in a wide open space and rural women can realistically be imagined outdoors in traditional garments, unlike urban women who when at home would be unveiled. Indeed many NIC films are forced to take place almost entirely outdoors, including Kiarostami’s Koker Trilogy or The Wind Will Carry Us. From this also follows the naturalistic realism aspect of NIC, since there is very rarely any filming in studios or interiors, which would require artificial lighting; instead NIC films depend on natural light in exterior settings. What is lost however is the ability of showing adult characters in moments of privacy, for example a husband and wife conversing at home. Ever inspired by a challenge, Kiarostami finds some compromise between the privacy of an interior setting, and the imposition of having to film outdoors, by using the setting of a car very often in films, starting from Life and Nothing More and A Taste of Cherry (almost all set in cars) and taking it to an extreme in Ten (entirely set in a car). Inside a car people are still relaxed enough to be intimate in their conversation but nonetheless are in public, which can explain why female characters are still wearing the veil.
The fact is that Iranian filmmakers were forced to negotiate censorship restrictions, and the result was a different form of cinematic language, one that necessarily showed less… we won’t see sex, nudity or violence in NIC films. In terms of film form, the modesty rules banning any kind of intimate subject matter can be deemed largely responsible for the lack of close-ups and the general use of mid to long shots, as well as the lack of actual physical contact between characters. This departure from standard tropes of conventional commercial cinema (Hollywood is all about showing for example) is inevitably what attributed to the NIC part of its special character, and as I’ve hopefully shown briefly here it can go some way into explaining some of the main features of NIC films. It does not however begin to tell us where such radical and inventive modernism and self-reflexivity (as described in part 5) could have come from! For this I will have to say more about the artistic and poetic legacy of Iran, which shall be in the next part.
Thanks for reading! To be continued…