6 Gems from the Cinema of Iran

At the time of writing this article, Iran has been in the throes of unrest for about five weeks. On the 16th of September, a 22-year old Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the morality police who assaulted her for refusing to wear her hijab properly.
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At the time of writing this article, Iran has been in the throes of unrest for about five weeks. On the 16th of September, a 22-year old Kurdish woman named Mahsa Amini died in the custody of the morality police who assaulted her for refusing to wear her hijab properly.

Iran seems to always be in the news, whether it is about their nuclear deal, civil unrest, or a tragic occurrence claiming many lives and leaving many more wounded. The ongoing protests are shaping up to be the loudest and angriest since the 1979 Iranian Revolution.

Forty days after the death of Mahsa Amini, police fired live rounds and tear gas at protesters who went to her grave to honor her. Back in July, the government arrested filmmakers Mohammad Rasoulof, Jafar Panahi and Mostafa Al-Ahmad  for expressing dissenting opinions.

And yet, Iran is not a monolith, defined solely by their struggles under the regime. The country is home to a good number of the sharpest voices in world cinema, as well as the most poignant, heartfelt and masterfully crafted visual stories. There are simply too many to count. This list is anything but exhaustive.

Here are 6 gems from the cinema of Iran to watch in honor of Mahsa Amini and the tons of others who have lost their lives in this struggle. These films, among other things, provide a lot of insight into Iranian culture and society.

If you’re not used to watching non-English Language films, remember that Bong Joon-ho once said that the moment you can overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, a whole new world would open up to you.

A Separation (2011)

Written and directed by Asghar Farhadi, A Separation, which won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film at the Academy awards in 2012, is a powerhouse of a film. Set in Iran in present times, the story follows Nader and Simin, a husband and wife who find themselves at an impasse. Simin wants to leave the country to give their only daughter, Termeh, a better experience than they had growing up, while Nader is against the idea. He wants to stay behind to take care of his father who has Alzheimer’s.

Simin argues that this reason is pointless since Nader’s father cannot even remember that he is his son. “No, but I know him!” Nader replies. None is the villain here; both have reasons which are perfectly comprehensible. They are only trying to do the right thing. However, since, according to Syd Field, all drama is conflict, Nader and Simin’s rigid commitment to their desires makes for entertaining, compelling cinema. The introduction of another character, Razieh, a caregiver Nader hires for his father, further stirs the pot of the plot.

Nader comes home one day to find his father tied to the bed. Razieh is nowhere to be found. He later fires her and Razieh sues him for making her have a miscarriage which according to her, came as a result of being pushed out of the house by Nader. The matter is taken to a judge who attempts to reach an amicable resolution.

A Separation is a frenetic, chaotic film, however, Farhadi’s masterful direction never lets the audience lose interest in the action, lose sight of the themes being explored, or get bored by the characters.

Like with his other social dramas, Farhadi takes a simple premise and explores it as profoundly and with as much empathy as possible. Going by what we see online and in biased news reports, Iran is nothing but a monolith of a country, with tyranny and hostility being a common denominator. By creating nuanced characters and a riveting situation, the director is able to show the mundane, everyday struggles of citizens in his country. Not everyone has lived under a regime where religious law is strictly enforced. Not everyone has experienced the specific circumstances that Farhadi creates for Simin, Nader, and Razieh. But that is what film is for. It is an opportunity to live several lifetimes by identifying with various groups of people around the world.

Roger Ebert thought A Separation (2011) provided a useful portrait of Iran in the 21st century. According to him, “Some inflamed American political rhetoric has portrayed it as a rogue nation eager to start nuclear war. All too many Americans, I fear, picture Iranians as camel-riding harem-keepers.”

And watching films like A Separation is, I believe, one of the ways to combat these preconceived notions.

Close-Up (1990)

Abbas Kiarostami is perhaps the most prominent figure in Iranian Cinema. He made more than forty films in his long career, including documentaries and short films. His oeuvre comprises a good number of classics. His 1997 film, Taste of Cherry, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival that same year. And three of his films, Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), and Close-Up (1990), were ranked among the top 100 foreign films in a 2018 critics’ poll by BBC Culture.

Close-Up is a docufiction, a genre which combines documentary with the fictional elements of narrative film. It is about the real-life trial of a man who conned a family by telling them he was the filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and would let them star in his new film. Everyone involved acts as themselves. There is a monologue by the main character in the movie’s latter half that all film enthusiasts should hear. It initially got negative reviews when it was released in Iran but was met with a lot of acclaim outside the country.

Dennis Lim, of the Los Angeles Times, called it “a window into the psyche of a complicated man and into the social and cultural reality of Iran.” If you’re interested in seeing a master at work, blending the real-life occurrences with the constructed reality through the use of a cinema-verité style, then this film is for you.

Persepolis (2007)

Persepolis is a personal favorite. Adapted by Vincent Paronnaud and Marjane Satrapi from Satrapi’s graphic novel of the same name, the film, a coming-of-age story set against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution, follows ‘Marji’ through the ups and downs of life in Iran, Vienna and France.

The film was made in the black-and-white presentation of the graphic novels. Satrapi explained that this was so that the place would not look like foreigners in a foreign country but simply people in a country, to show how easily a country can become like Iran.

Persepolis is a harrowing film. Even though it is presented in animation, the knowledge that it is merely an adaptation of an autobiographical text somehow makes it more depressing. Although, like Close-Up, it plays like a type of docufiction, especially in the instances where Marji’s vivid imagination has her talking to God and Karl Marx in her dreams.

It co-won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2007, alongside Silent Light, and is a good place to begin to get into films about Iran.

The House is Black (1962)

Also known as Khaneh Siah Ast, The House is Black is a 1962 short documentary (21 minutes) by Iranian poet, Forough Farrokhzad. This was the only film she produced before her untimely death in 1967 at 32.

Described by Eric Henderson as “one of the prototypal essay films,” and as the film that “paved the way for the Iranian New Wave,” The House is Black juxtaposes the “ugliness” of the world with gratitude and hope. Filming in the Bababaghi hospice leper colony in the North of Iran, Farrokhzad casts an unflinching gaze on the plight of the inhabitants of the colony while splicing in narration from the Old Testament, the Quran, and her own poetry.

Her ruminative voiceover combined with the bold images creates a nuanced, empathetic picture of the of lepers abandoned by the rest of society. Farrokhzad is able to show the humanity behind the disease. Her compassion for the lepers led to her adopting a child from the colony after she was done filming.

It is another great entry point into Iranian (arthouse, documentary) films.

This is Not a Film (2011)

This film which is not a film was made under house arrest by the Iranian filmmaker, Jafar Panahi. A documentary partly shot on an iPhone, it depicts Panahi’s day-to-day life during his house arrest. He ruminates on the purpose and meaning of filmmaking and speaks with his family and lawyer. 

A flash drive containing the film had to be smuggled from Iran to Cannes inside a birthday cake. This is Not a Film is art made in protest of being tagged an enemy of the state. It is a self-portrait of sorts, an attempt at unbridled self-expression by an artist whose creativity has been challenged by a seemingly indestructible force of political tyranny.

The reason Panahi was under house arrest is because back in 2011, he and fellow filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof were arrested for filming without a permit and for creating anti-regime propaganda or more accurately, “propaganda against the system.” The both of them had their sentences reduced in 2011, although Panahi remained on house arrest and was banned from leaving or making films outside of Iran.

At the moment, the 62-year old filmmaker is serving a six-year sentence.

At Five in the Afternoon (2003) by Samira Makhmalbaf

The last film on this list is not set in Iran but a post-Taliban Afghanistan. I’ve added it because the writer-director, Samira Makhmalbaf, is Iranian. She is the daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf.

At Five in the Afternoon follows Nogreh, a young woman that is determined to get an education in spite of the protests from her conservative father who considers it blasphemy. Her ultimate goal is to become the first female President of Afghanistan.

There is a quiet energy to Makhmalbaf’s direction, which merely invites the audience to consider the situation and with empathy, ruminate on it. A visually striking film, it won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 2003.

Honorable Mentions

  • About Elly (2009) by Asghar Farhadi

Farhadi’s social dramas always seem to have an element of a thriller to them and this is extremely evident in About Elly (2009) where a young teacher on a vacation suddenly goes missing. The second half of the film will no doubt have you at the edge of your seat.

  • Under the Shadow (2015) by Babak Anvari

Set in the 1980’s during the Iran-Iraq War, the film is about Shideh, whose building is hit by a missile in battle. Soon, strange things start happening and a superstitious neighbour suggests that the missile was cursed and might be carrying malevolent spirits called djinn. The film uses horror elements to explore motherhood and what it means to be a woman in a society such as Iran’s, especially in wartime.

  • A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night (2016) by Ana Lily Amirpour.

The director describes this film as “the first Iranian vampire spaghetti western,” and if you’re familiar with film styles and genres, then you can begin to piece together what the film looks like. Like Under the Shadow, this film also has feminist leanings combined expertly with horror.



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