Despite censorship hurdles, Iran has achieved world renown for its cinema

A still from Kami's Party

A still from Kami's Party which was screened during the Asia House Pan-Asia Film Festival 2014

Despite censorship hurdles, Iran has achieved world renown for its cinema

10 March 2014

By Nazanin Mondschein

Iranian cinema has been internationally lauded in recent decades as one of the most important national cinemas in the world. The first film camera was brought to Iran from Europe in 1900 by the Shah at the time; however, it was not until the country’s New Wave movement in cinema in the 1960s that philosophically complex and often artistically innovative films—the hallmarks for what Iranian cinema is known for—began to be made.

For the majority of the Pahlavi monarch’s reign prior to the New Wave, Iranian cinema largely consisted of narrative-driven love story melodramas and action-filled thrillers, catering to mainstream tastes. By the 1960s, filmgoing in Iran had reached an unprecedented popularity, culminating at Masoud Kimiai’s 1969 landmark revenge thriller, Qeysar.  However, that seminal year also marked the beginning of a new era of filmmaking withDariush Mehrju’i’s release of the widely-acclaimed The Cow (1969). Considered the beginning of New Wave, The Cow is a deeply philosophical story about a man and the loss of his only valued earthly possession—his cow. The combination of a striking aesthetic, a poor, rural setting, and an intellectually stimulating plot constituted an important departure in Iranian filmmaking from its melodramatic past. Directors such as Sohrab Shahid Saless and Bahram Beizai continued this new style of filmmaking through the 1970s and 1980s with relatively successful domestic reception.

By 1990, Iranian cinema had achieved world renown. Abbas Kiarostami’s 1989 film Where is the Friend’s House? is typically cited as the beginning of Iranian cinema’s presence on the international film scene after it was awarded at the Locarno International Film Festival in Switzerland—the first time for any Iranian film. The realistic style of filmmaking and seemingly simple story of a village boy and his lost notebook are reminiscent of the Italian Neorealist films of the post-World War II era. Realism, humanist sentiments and child protagonists continued as common themes in this New Iranian Cinema movement of the 1990s and early 2000s. Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995), Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997) and The Colour of Paradise (1999); and Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly (2004) are among the most acclaimed films of this period.

The prominence of children in the New Iranian Cinema has been linked to the extensive censorial regulations on filmmaking in Iran, especially following the country’s theocratic rule beginning in 1979. Films are not permitted to be made—let alone exhibited—without prior scrutiny by a government-run censorship board. The criteria of the board is based on the Islamic practices and beliefs of the ruling government and includes both specific clauses, such as the mandatory veiling of women, as well as general requirements, such as the upholding of standards of decency and modesty. The ambiguity that characterises the decision-making process of the censorship board is the cause of much tension between it and the filmmakers, as it can take years for scripts to be approved. This creates the need to employ novel ways to express the forbidden; in the 1990s, complex themes were often explored under the guise of simplicity with the portrayal of children. Indeed, many have attributed the nuanced quality of the narrative and artistic considerations of contemporary Iranian cinema to the subtlety necessitated in maneuvering around impasses. In other cases, the tenuous process of gaining approval has caused a number of Iranian filmmakers to leave the country in order to evade the pressure to conform to the criteria of the censorship board and the insularity created by a government-regulated industry.

Among those filmmakers in self-imposed exile are Mohsen Makhmalbaf and his daughter Samira, whose film The Apple (1998) garnered much international acclaim. Others, such as Kiarostami, mostly make films abroad, but occasionally still work as scriptwriters or consultants in Iran. The decision to film abroad often means that filmmakers will explore topics considered controversial domestically, and in some instances, reference to Iran is left out altogether: Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s recent film The Gardener (2013) was set and filmed in Israel, while Kiarostami’s 2012 film Like Someone in Love is set in Japan and features solely Japanese actors speaking in their native tongue. After Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film A Separation was awarded an Oscar, the Iranian government revoked its initial endorsement of the film (now considered tainted by its American popularity); Farhadi’s following film, The Past (2013), was set and filmed in a Parisian suburb.

The stringent control of the film industry in Iran makes it difficult to discern the tastes of domestic audiences. This year’s Fajr Film Festival, run by the Cultural Ministry of Iran and held in Tehran in February every year, gave a historical and religious big-budget CGI (computer-generated imagery) film, Hussein Who Said No (The Resurrection) by director Ahmad Reza Darvish, six awards, including for best director and best film. However, one of the most talked about films amongst festival goers was a social drama about President Ahmadinejad’s government’s oppression of young oppositional political activities on a university campus—Reza Dormishian’s I Am Not Angry (2013). The film was pulled from the Festival after an initial screening because of its provocative themes.

While the slim margins of tolerance for themes, styles and character portrayal, has caused much strain on the art cinema movement of Iran, the drama genre (which tends to make up most of the Iranian films shown abroad) is still largely characterised by a particular kind of narrative and philosophical complexity for which Iranian cinema is famous.

Iranian filmmakers often describe the influence of poetry on filmmaking in Iran, where poetry is part of the rubric of Iranian culture. The thought-provoking and often moving stories of contemporary Iranian cinema still possess a poetic quality and a richness of meaning, despite the politics that inevitably surrounds it. While Iran remains in the international political spotlight, its cinema continues to be an important means of access to the culture and psyche of the people of that country.

Nazanin Mondschein is an Australian-American of Iranian descent. She is currently completing an MA in Film Studies and Philosophy at King’s College London with a focus on contemporary avant-garde and experimental Iranian cinema.