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Iranian New Wave

Continued from Part One.

Jafar Panahi

Undoubtedly, Kiarostami's most talented pupil is Jafar Panahi, who worked as an assistant director on Through the Olive Trees before Kiarostami helped him make his amazing 1995 feature directorial debut, The White Balloon (which had the distinction of being distributed in the United States a whole year before Gabbeh). In this film, a young girl embarks on a journey to buy a new goldfish for the Iranian New Year celebration (actually the first day of spring). Unfortunately, she loses her money and spends most of the film trying to get it back. Perhaps the most Bicycle Thief-like of Iranian films, The White Balloon concentrates less on "realism" than on finding beauty within naturalism; the structure of the film couldn't be more controlled. Unlike The Bicycle Thief, though, The White Balloon also works as a charming children's film. Panahi's next film, The Mirror (1997), very much follows in his mentor's footsteps - especially Close Up - telling the story of a little girl who waits to be picked up by her mother, gives up and decides to find her own way home. Halfway through, the film suddenly turns into a documentary, telling the story about the making of the film.

But The Circle (2001) is something else altogether, a daring yet confident work from a filmmaker who has come into his own. It was banned in Iran but found an audience in the United States. Concentrating on the unfair treatment of women, the film tells several consecutive stories: two women released from jail seek illegal passage out of town, another woman is thrown out of her home for being pregnant, a third woman tries to abandon her baby daughter in the street and is arrested for prostitution, while a real prostitute is arrested as well. The film begins with a horrible wailing noise; in a prison-like hospital, a family despairs because a woman has just given birth to a baby girl. When the film winds up, all of our main characters - who cross paths, Slacker-like, during the course of the film - sit in a similar prison cell. Panahi uses his unerring eye for natural detail during the course of the film and effortlessly and seamlessly combines it with this scathing social commentary.

Crimson Gold

Kiarostami returned to help Panahi for his fourth feature film Crimson Gold (2003), another accomplished film that introduces us to a cross-section of fascinating characters, wallows in intricate everyday detail and offers a bit of wry observation about the way we live. A sluggish, overweight pizza deliveryman (Hussein Emadeddin) wishes to marry but can't afford a proper ring. When he visits an upscale jewelry store, he's treated like garbage. As he tries to deliver pizzas to a soldier he once knew during the Iran-Iraq war, to an illegal party, and to a lonely rich man, each situation winds up illustrating just how and why he will never be able to transcend his current social and financial status. Like The Circle, this film begins and ends in violence, though this time that violence is far more shocking.

Ali Reza Raisian

In 2002, Kiarostami provided an original story to another director, Ali Reza Raisian, who used it to create Deserted Station When their truck breaks down, a man and a woman go to the nearest town - a small depot consisting mostly of women and children - for help. While the man heads out to fix the broken vehicle, the woman takes over the schoolteacher duties for the day, bonding with the children, especially a small disabled girl. For the film's remarkable ending, the couple drives away in the repaired truck and the children refuse to stop running after it. Deserted Station is more character-driven than many of Kiarostami's films and gets most of its mileage out of the emotional ties between the children and the teacher.

Majid Majidi

Some might equate Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami to an Iranian Spielberg and Lucas, controlling and guiding the trends and talent for most of the industry. But other talents still manage to emerge, independent of those two mighty godfathers.

Though Majid Majidi began his career as an actor in Makhmalbaf's films, he has guided his own directorial career. Indeed, Majidi has unquestionably enjoyed more commercial success in the United States than any other Iranian filmmaker. His feature debut, Children of Heaven (1998), became the first Iranian film to be nominated for a Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Very much in the vein of Where Is the Friend's Home? and The White Balloon, this film focuses on a pair of siblings, an older brother and a younger sister. On his way back from the repair shop, the boy loses his sister's shoes and they arrange an elaborate scheme to share the same pair of shoes during the school day. Salvation comes when the boy enters a race in which second prize is a dazzling new pair of sneakers. Slicker and more crowd-pleasing than previous features, Children of Heaven nonetheless crosses the finish line with its beautifully rendered details and emotional truth intact.

Majidi followed that hit with The Color of Paradise (2000), which is both the worst Iranian film ever to be released in the United States and the most popular and financially successful. Taking a cue from Makhmalbaf's The Silence, the film tells the story of a blind boy who has become a burden to his heartless father. Majidi goes for over-the-top melodrama here, drawing characters in broad strokes without any of the carefully observed nuances that make the less commercial Iranian films great.

Baran

Fortunately, Majidi reformed for his next film, Baran (2002), which, like Makhmalbaf's timely Kandahar, deals with Afghani refugees in Iran. To help support her family, a girl disguises herself as a boy and gets a job at a construction site. She takes over the tea-making duties of a young man, who gets jealous and inadvertently discovers her secret. For this film Majidi left behind his sentimental leanings and takes a more neo-realist approach, going so far as to depict the illegal refugees running and hiding when the inspector visits the worksite. Taking a cue from Kiarostami, he also uses the unique space of the worksite itself as a sort of character in the film.

Tahmineh Milani

A few other filmmakers have enjoyed some success here in the US, but on a much smaller scale. Feminist filmmaker Tahmineh Milani is herself perhaps more interesting than some of the films she's made. One of Iran's only high-profile female filmmakers, she is forever tangling with the government. She waited seven years to get her film Two Women (1999) approved, and, after the release of her follow-up film, The Hidden Half (2001), she was jailed for supposedly "anti-government" remarks.

The story of her imprisonment received arguably more coverage than the release of her films. The films themselves have a hysterical, melodramatic quality and show little regard for dialogue or cinematic shape. Two Women tells the story of a scholarly woman whose spirit is crushed by her father, an unwanted husband, and the advances of a stalker, while her friend lives a relatively free life in Tehran. In The Hidden Half, a judge learns that his wife once led a revolutionary and highly dynamic life.

Bahman Ghobadi

Another filmmaker has been seen here as both an actor and as a director. Bahman Ghobadi first became known to US viewers as the man in the hole in Abbas Kiarostami's The Wind Will Carry Us. The director yells a few questions down to him, and Ghobadi's voice floats back up, but we never see his face. With such a strange debut, Ghobadi may be destined for great things. The actor later appeared as one of the blackboard-toting teachers in Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards.

Ghobadi made his feature directorial debut with the highly original A Time for Drunken Horses (2000), the first Iranian film in Kurdish. Using mostly untrained children, the story concerns a group of siblings who desperately try to raise money for their handicapped brother, a teenager with the body of a two-year-old. The film has a chilly, damp look and avoids the sentimentality inherent in other films about children. Ghobadi's film had a decent US theatrical release in 2000 when his film was picked up as part of the Shooting Gallery series.

Marooned in Iraq

Ghobadi followed up with Marooned in Iraq (2003), another unusual film with an absurd group of characters performing in deadly serious surroundings. A band of Three Stooges-like musicians, two sons and their father, travel the countryside looking for the father's former wife. Their encounters range from silly to shattering to sublime.

More Recent Work

While Ghobadi acted professionally before turning director, another director found it necessary to act. Bahman Farmanara's Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (2001) came after decades of the filmmaker's scripts being rejected by the government. It was written almost in disgust, telling the story of a filmmaker who can't get a script approved and finally accepts a job making a documentary for Japanese television about Iranian funeral services. Lumpy, sad Farmanara plays the title role in a film saturated with death; as part of the documentary, he makes preparations for his own funeral. It's an intriguing film, but so steeped in death that the black comedy sometimes gets a little too black.

Released right around the same time, Babak Payami's Secret Ballot (2001) tells an African Queen-like story of an idealistic woman who travels around on election day attempting to collect ballots and the grumpy soldier assigned to drive her. The film rambles a bit, but also cleverly and deliberately recalls our own 2000 election crisis in Florida.

Iranian films have become a regular fixture at film festivals and repertory houses across the United States, even if some of them never secure regular American distribution. Two such standouts are The Girl in the Sneakers (1999) and Exam (2002).

In Rassul Sadr Ameli's The Girl in the Sneakers (1999), a 15-year-old girl, Tadai (Pegah Ahangarani), sneaks away to meet her boyfriend, is caught, and runs away to Tehran where she spends a whole day wondering what to do next. This film lacks the artistry of other, similar women-themed films but it gets by in its own workmanlike way.

Nasser Refaie's Exam (2002) is another simple film using only one set and a limited number of characters. A group of women gather outside a university and wait for their chance to get inside to take a test, which will determine whether or not they go on to college. The camera floats around between groups of women with contrasting results.

The Iranian New Wave has ebbed a bit in recent months, at least in terms of its impact in the US, thanks either to over-saturation or to a shift in political attitudes toward the Middle East. But it's far from over. Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf will hopefully have many years of filmmaking left in them, and both have planted the seeds for future generations. Jafar Panahi and Samira Makhmalbaf at least have already shown tremendous talent and promise for the future.

Controversy still reigns. Manouchehr Mohammadi's The Lizard (a.k.a. Marmoulak, 2004) has recently arrived in US theaters. After having been a smash hit in Iran, it was suddenly pulled from theaters there for its controversial content: a thief disguising himself as a cleric.

Other filmmakers like Bahman Ghobadi appear to be moving beyond the borders of Iran and into the outlying regions, exploring different nationalities and behavior. Perhaps his example will lead more filmmakers to do the same.

Tellingly, Ramin Serry's touching Maryam (2000) arrived in US theaters in 2002. It tells the story of an Iranian-American girl living in America during the 1979 hostage crisis. She slowly becomes the victim of her cruel classmates and must overcome several small crises at once. Mariam Parris plays the title character with heart and grace, shifting through various phases of shame, loyalty and acceptance.

Maryam came at a perfect time, deliberately referring back to the strained US-Iran relations of the late 1970s, as if attempting to heal the wounds before they opened and festered all over again.

Jeffrey M. Anderson has written for the San Francisco Examiner, the Las Vegas Weekly and several other publications, though he's surely best known for his own site, Combustible Celluloid, currently featuring over 1200 of his reviews.

GreenCine Recommends...

Essentials

  • Dariush Mehrjui's The Cow (1971). While Jeffrey quite rightly begins his survey of the Iranian New Wave with Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami, we can't overlook the film many credit with launching the wave in the first place.

    Mehrjui broke with the commercial model of films being made under the reign of the Shah and instead chose a socially aware naturalism. Originally shot in 1969, the film was seized by Iranian authorities; but a print was smuggled to the 1971 Venice Film Festival (hence the release date), launching an immensely popular run through the festival circuit. As Michael Hertenstein wrote recently on the occasion of The Cow's revival at the Chicago Film Festival, "International acclaim forced a limited release in Iran, with explosive effect. A public accustomed to schlocky products of a derivative local film industry was suddenly confronted with the possibility of a truly Iranian cinema, along with images that became cultural icons."

  • Mohsen Makhmalbaf's The Cyclist (1989). Werner Herzog isn't the only fan of this one. ZenBones 's one, too: "It would be hard for me to imagine that anyone could watch this film and not feel simultaneously deeply lost and saved by it. Any film that can make you connect so strongly to someone from another world can only be described in one way: a masterpiece.

  • Abbas Kiarostami's Close-Up (1990). It's hard to choose just one Kiarostami, but for the purposes of introduction to the world of recent Iranian cinema, it would be hard not to choose this one. If you need any arguments other than Jeffrey's, see our November 2003 write-up.

  • Jafar Panahi's Crimson Gold (2003). Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote in April 2004: "Jafar Panahi's fourth feature, scripted by Abbas Kiarostami, tied with Spike Lee's 25th Hour as my favorite film of last year. I saw Crimson Gold twice at the Toronto film festival last September and had the impression that despite its simplicity and directness it had more treasures to impart - treasures that had as much to do with the state of the world as with the state of Iran. Having recently seen the film again, I find that the simplicity remains and the resonance has grown."

Suggestions for Further Clicking

  • Gilberto Perez on Hamid Dabashi's book, Close-Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present and Future: "How can it be, people sometimes ask when I recommend an Iranian movie to them, that a country under an oppressive Islamic regime is producing such good cinema? One answer is that the Islamic regime has kept rapacious Hollywood out, thus giving the local talent a chance to develop. Dabashi's book helps us towards a better explanation. It sketches a history of Iranian cinema in the context of Iran's encounter with modernity."

  • Stephen Nottingham: "Iranian Cinema."

  • Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa on Kiarostami in Senses of Cinema.

The Cyclist

  • Interviews, reviews and more at Mohsen Makhmalbaf's page at the Makhmalbaf Film House.

  • "Shahla Azizi" - not her real name; she lives in Tehran with her two children and is evidently being careful - reflects at Alternet on the spectacular but all-too-brief success of Marmoolak (The Lizard), the comedy first approved and then pulled by Iran's "all-powerful, un-elected Guardian Council."

Go back to Part One.

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