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Monday, February 19, 2007

The legacy of Iranian Cinema

Iran celebrated the anniversary of its revolution last week; the legacy of which is much debated. While there are allegations of political censorship, social progress is actively promoted by both media and politicians with high levels of female employment including in the police. While it is alleged that the great humanist ideals of the revolutions have been compromised by rise of theocrats, Iranian minorities including Jews and Kurds have a better life then minorities in Israel and the Arab world. Are they more wrong than India, Israel and North Korea in developing nuclear weapons? Is Iran a trouble maker or is it their only way out in a world unable to stand up to Israeli high-handedness and the USA which replaced the democratically elected Mossadegh government and has constantly worked to destabilize the post-revolutionary government? Is it a country going backwards under the pressure of religion or is it the only self-reliant economy in a region known not to be capable of making safety pins without foreign support?
One area where Iran’s legacy is unambiguous is in the world of cinema. Iranian cinema came to international light in the 90s when Abbas Kiarostami’s “The Taste of Cherry” won the Palm d’Or at Cannes. The short film depicts a day in the life of a wealthy man who has decided to commit suicide and is looking for a man who would throw twenty spades of earth over the hole dug by him where he would lie down at night after taking an excess of sleeping pills. The film focuses on the conversations he has in his van with an army junior, a studying priest, and an old man working at the natural history museum as he tries to convince them to do the job in exchange for good cash. The army trainee runs away from the van and the priest uses religious rhetoric in vain to convince the man to reconsider his decision. The old man agrees to do the job but he says that the beauties of the natural world: the sun rises, the moon, and the taste of mulberries and cherries, are worth living for despite all the sorrows. This final conversation does have some impact on the man, but what happens eventually is not shown. Overall, “Taste of Cherry” is a brilliant search for the meaning of life using minimal sights and sounds and is a landmark in world cinema.
While “Taste of Cherry” is deeply spiritual, many Iranian films brilliantly tackle war and its effects on common lives like Bahman Ghobadi’s “Turtles can fly” about a gang of orphan Kurds selling land mines as scrap metal in Iraq, Ghobadi’s “Marooned in Iraq” about an old musician looking for his estranged wife known to be ill from Saddam’s chemical weapons, and Bahram Beizai’s “Bashu” about relationship between a mother of two and an orphan traumatized by war.
Many films question society’s attitude to women as in Darius Mehrjui’s “Leila” about the life of a childless couple tormented by pressure from in-laws pushing for a second marriage and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s “Kandahar” about life of women under Taliban.
Several of Iranian movies deal with life of children as in Majid Majidi’s “Color of Paradise” on life of a blind kid unwanted by his father who is remarrying and Majidi’s “Children of Heaven” on the beautiful relationship between a brother and a sister in a poor family.
Some films go at the verge of daring like the poet Forough Farrokhzad’s “House of Black” about life in a leper colony and Samira Makhmalbaf’s “Blackboard” on the journey by a group of teachers traveling across Kurdistan, blackboards on their back, looking for students.
While Iranian directors, especially the Makhmalbafs, have been criticized for playing to a western audience, one theme runs though all Iranian movies: Humanism. And while some films had been censored, Kiarostami doesn’t think of it as a problem as rules are well defined and not dependant on whims of censor board. Also while some argue that the golden age of Iranian cinema is over, Bahman Ghobadi and Samira have injected a fresh dose of life. Iranian film institutes have also bred a new breed of Tajik and Afghan film makers (Siddiq Barmak of “Osama” fame). I first came across Iranian films in the Mumbai film festival and have had a chance to see many courtesy the amazing collection in Singapore libraries. And I highly recommend Iranian films to anyone who gets a chance to see them to know a world beyond Karan Johar and James Cameron.


Bombay Addict said...

Superb post.

I completely agree with your views here. "Taste of cherry" was really very moving. The scene of him lying in the grave is haunting. Have you seen "Close up" ? Or "Ten" ?

The one thing I've always loved about Iranian cinema is their thread-bare, stark, minimalist style. Its a wonder what you can do with limited budgets.


thalassa_mikra said...

Shivaji, sorry to digress from the main focus of your post which is cinema and discuss some of the minor stuff in there. I'll reproduce the comment I left about your post on Desipundit:

There is a lot I disagree with in Shivaji’s post, but a few things I do agree with. For one, he’s partially correct about the minorities.

Jews fare much better in Iran than anywhere else in the Middle-East (except Israel) despite the rhetoric of Ahmedinejad. They’ve lived in Iran for thousands of years, and unlike the Iranian government’s despicable treatment of Baha’is, the Jews have been a recognized and fairly protected minority.

The Iranian Kurds however, despite being fellow Muslims, have been persecuted and their autonomy movement suppressed since the days of the Pehlavi dynasty. Ironically, the Islamic regime provided support to Iraqi Kurds in their fight against Saddam.

He’s also correct about the work participation of women. Compared to Indian women, Iranian women have a far greater proportion of seats in universities and technical institutes. Except for a few positions (no female judges), almost everything else is open to women, and large numbers of women work.

The 1979 Iranian revolution started as a fairly eclectic revolution based on humanistic principles that was hijacked by right wing Islamic clergy. The communist, socialist and nationalist forces of the revolutions were later brutally executed by the Islamic regime.

I disagree with him about the role of Iranian politicians, because I feel the truth is far more complex.

(Apologies for this long, rambling comment)

Shivaji said...

Bombay Addict:
I havent seen Close Up or Ten yet. I agree with your description of Iranian films.

I dont think I disagree with any of your points