Inside a Cage: How Iranian cinema makes hay while it rains

 Dhritee Bordoloi takes a long look at a cinema that works with constraints. 

Iranian Cinema-01.jpg

Illustration by Shristi Roy

Ahmad (Babak Ahmadpour) paces around his mother (Iran Outari), his face tense. He has a mission and he must fulfil it: he has to return a notebook to his friend Mohammed (Ahmed Ahmadpour). He needs to go. He needs to go now. His mother who is washing clothes and tending a new-born baby and trying to keep order, tells him: “Do your homework. Then you can play.” To which he responds, “I don’t want to play, I want to return his notebook.”

This scene, from Abbas Kiarostami’s film Where is My Friend’s House, runs for eight  minutes because that might be how long it takes to convince a parent of the urgency of your quest. And it is a quest. Ahmad’s friend, Mohammed, is not doing well in school. If he does not finish his homework, the teacher warns, he will be expelled. But Mohammed leaves his book behind. Ahmad now must return Mohammed’s notebook and save his academic career. This is small. This in incidental. Perhaps the teacher doesn’t mean it. Perhaps he’s only trying to get Mohammed to work harder. But in Ahmad’s world, this is what he must do and the world seems to be conspiring against him.

Screenshot (169).png

Film: Where is My Friend's House

Image Source: Google

The innocence of the child who was not told he is acting in a film, the depiction of time, the humanistic approach to situations, this is what makes Iranian cinema. What sounds like an adventure, is the adventure of reality that Iranian filmmakers capture on their cameras.
Its humanism defines Iranian cinema. In its simplest definition by the film viewing website Mubi, humanist cinema “explores humanity, decency, kindness and other things that are truly worth being alive for”. From winning the top awards in international film festivals to getting banned from filmmaking, Iranian directors have been through it all. At the time of writing, they seem unstoppable. 


Iranian cinema had to go through a major transition during the Iranian Revolution (1978-79) where the monarchy was toppled and the Islamic Republic established. With that, new censorship rules were imposed and many producers and actors fled the country in fear of persecution. All the films made before the revolution were closely assessed to remove sexual references and political connotations. The government also wanted to curb the influence of western culture.

After 1979, Iranian filmmakers had to come up with innovative ways to talk about life in Iran. “There was a lot of repression; freedom was curbed, especially of artists. Filmmakers wanted to level against that. Also at the same time they had to escape the censors…and escape the wrath of the government,” says Mehdi Jahan, guest faculty at SRFTI (Satyajit Ray Film and Television Institute), who follows Iranian cinema passionately. “There are two things we have to consider — one is the way they express the socio-political realities; and the innovative cinematic method they have used over the years to express what Iran was going through during that period.”

Jahan says the innovative cinematic method is heavily inspired by Italian neorealism (1943-50) — which depicted the socio-political realities of post-war Italy by showing the sufferings of the common people in the continuing economic crisis. Vittorio De Sica and Roberto Rosselini used real life locations and worked with non-professional actors. These characteristics are seen very frequently in the films of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, who brought Iranian cinema to the world screen.
While making a film is not for the faint-hearted, Iranian film-makers have had to deal with more than the regular challenges of budgeting, finding a team, keeping the funds coming, distribution and so on. The government had imposed several strict rules that the filmmakers had to comply with. Some of these seemed to be the kind one might expect: filmmakers were to show respect for the veil, they were not to depict violence. But there were others that seemed perplexing: no character could be shown wearing a tie. 

“You can’t show physical contact or touch between a man and woman, even if they are siblings, because the actors are not related in real life,” says K, 24, a film student and filmmaker from Tehran, Iran who requested anonymity. “Filmmakers like Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof don’t make their films with permission and release it without permission. They can’t show their films in film theatres, they can’t have any producers. We have to find their films on the internet.”

Jafar Panahi was convicted for “making propaganda against the government” and sentenced to 6 years in prison and banned from making films for 20 years. Despite that he still made films like This Is Not a Film (2012), Closed Curtain (2014), and Taxi (2015). All three films were smuggled out of the country and were screened in the three most prestigious film festivals of the world: Berlin, Venice and Cannes.

Unlike directors like Panahi and Rasoulof, Abbas Kiarostami made films with the approval of the Iranian government. A master of symbolism and metaphors, he used them to convey his worldview while still complying with the government’s censorship. Some of Kiarostami’s most famous films include Taste of Cherry (1997), Close-Up (1990), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), Through the Olive Trees (1994), Homework (1989) etc. He is known for his documentary-style narratives, long conversations that take place in cars, and use of Persian poems in his dialogues. But beneath the beauty and simplicity of his films are several political undertones. One of his films, Where is the Friend’s Home (1987) of the Koker Trilogy, is a simple and touching film of a young boy trying to find his friend’s home to return his notebook, but under that is a metaphorical political statement. “This film studied the contrast between the old and the new, the thoughts of the older generation, how conservative they were, and also the modern generation. The conflict between modernity and tradition,” notes Jahan. “I have often noticed that we are not able to look at what we have in front of us, unless it’s inside a frame,” Kiarostami told The Guardian in a 2009 interview.


Abbas Kiarostami .jpg

Abbas Kiarostami, Director

Image Source: Google

Gagan Dev, a 21-year-old filmmaker from Cochin, Kerala says Iranian cinema draws from Dastangoi, a 13th century Urdu oral storytelling art form. “Urdu stories dealt not with what’s good or bad in a story,” Dev explains, “it was concerned with revealing a feeling, a small everyday truth. Sometimes forty pages would be written to describe one emotion. In a way they are poems that have the quality of motion. Iranian films deal with similar things.”

K states how restriction in Iran was not only from the government, “Some restrictions are from the government, other parts are cultural…there are several topics and relationships that are simply not accepted.” In Taste of Cherry, for which Kiarostami received the prestigious Palme d’Or of the Cannes Film Festival, a man is intent on killing himself and seeks someone to bury him. Suicide is considered a sin in many religions, including Islam, but the ending of the film where the director breaks the fourth wall is quite an innovation. “It was a practical choice because he wanted to create doubt in the minds of the viewers…maybe he didn’t die, maybe it was just a film. So, that was his way of engaging with the censors,” says Jahan. “There is also an element of homosexuality in the film, which is something that is debated even today, because Kiarostami never said anything overtly about that. Homosexuality is also a sin in Islam. So Kiarostami tried to tackle two things in that film, suicide and homosexuality, but he stayed within the realm of the acceptable by using symbols..”

images (24).jpeg

Film: Taste of Cherry

Image Source: Google

Looking at the vast body of work and the reception, we can gauge that Iranian cinema is thriving despite constraints. But could it be that it is thriving because of these constraints?
Iran has a very strong film culture, and through that a strong sense of unity. Tehran has film clubs and a vibrant film criticism scenario. “People support each other, people come together to create art together. The community spirit is very important and unites the artists with a common cause” says Jahan.  In Jafar Panahi’s docu-fiction Taxi, Panahi drives around Tehran in a taxi with cameras attached inside and the conversations with different passengers are captured. Nasrin Sotoudeh, a human rights lawyer in Iran, makes an appearance in the film and before she gets down she gives a rose to camera saying “That is for the love of the film. I put it there for the people of the cinema, on whom you can always count.”

The motive of every filmmaker is different. Viewership is an essential element which decides the kind of films that are made. Renoir remarked that the “alertness and receptivity” of the French audience helped contribute to the quality of French films. In India, stardom and fandom might be factors. What is the motive in Iran? Panahi stated in his short documentary Where are you Jafar Panahi? (2016), “the filmmaker who works on social issues, what is the origin of his stories? From the society he lives in.”

“Whenever there is an authoritarian government, whenever your freedoms are called, you need art to move forward. One of the greatest ways of registering your protest is by documenting the realities of your people,” Jahan says. “ These filmmakers look for really innovative methods to express what is going on in their countries…and through these films, we get to know what Iran was going through.” Iran also has a big commercial film industry which paints a very rosy picture through its films, because it is controlled by big companies and the government. But through Panahi’s illegal and brave filmmaking, Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf’s poetic and symbolic films, Asghar Farhadi’s modern approach to internal conflicts, and many more such filmmakers we get a glimpse of the conflicts in Iran. When one is excited they can feel their heart, when they are working on something intense they can feel their mind. But have you ever felt your soul? You can, when you watch these films. It's not an epitome of beauty or wonder, but something here and something close.


Film: Taxi

Image Source: Google