The tragic endings of Iranian cinema

Iranian cinema has effectively undergone a “brain drain” due to the policies of the Islamic republic.

File picture shows Iranian director Panahi posing with his Silver Berlin Bear after award ceremony at 56th Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin
Iranian director Jafar Panahi, among many others, has been banned from filmmaking in Iran [Reuters]

They say choose your enemies carefully, for you will end up most resembling them. The trap is particularly treacherous for artists living under political tyranny. One can now see the wisdom of why the leading Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami has so carefully skirted politics, even in the direst circumstances, and thus safeguarded his cinema from falling victim to that overriding wisdom. One hundred years from now, the best of Kiarostami’s cinema will still mesmerise, baffle, and reward, when many other politically potent filmmakers will scarce be remembered.

Kiarostami’s longtime protege Jafar Panahi, however, has not heeded that wisdom, or the logic of his own mentor, and thus now seems like one of the most precious victims of the brutal theocracy he has valiantly opposed and to whose trap, alas, his cinema is falling head first.

Jafar Panahi’s most recent film, Parde/Closed Curtain (2013) “has won the top prize for best screenplay at the 63rd Berlin film festival“. Co-directed by Kamboziya Partovi, and in defiance of a 20-year ban on filmmaking, “the winner of the 2012 Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought, Panahi has been held under house arrest since December 2010 for allegedly making antigovernment propaganda”.

Needless to say, the custodians of the Islamic republic weren’t very happy with the events in Berlin: An Iranian filmmaker that was banned from making any films went ahead and made a film that won a top prize at a major European film festival.

According to reports, “Iran has protested against the awarding of a Silver Bear to Jafar Panahi for his film Closed Curtain (Parde) at the 63rd Berlin film festival, the ISNA news agency reported.”

What would become of a filmmaker when his work of art is so crowdedly fused with the politics of his time? 

Cinema and politics

Because of his active and courageous support for the Green Movement in Iran, Jafar Panahi has been given a prison sentence and banned from filmmaking for twenty years. Defying that ban, he has made two films – This is not a Film (2012) and Closed Curtain (2013) – both screened at Berlin Film Festival and then to an appreciable global celebration.

Both these films, alas, are self-indulgent vagaries farthest removed from the masterpieces like Offside (2006), Crimson Gold (2003) or Circle (2000) that have made Panahi a global celebrity. He should have heeded the vicious sentence and stayed away from his camera for a while and not indulge, for precisely the selfsame social punch that have made his best films knife-sharp precise has now dulled the wit of the filmmaker that was once able to put it to such magnificent use.

Not only physically but also mentally and emotively, Panahi is not in a position to think and film in his habitual engagement with his homeland. He is angry, and rightly so – and anger should never be the paramount sentiment when one stands behind a camera or in front of a keyboard. Given the political sentiments that film festival authorities around the globe have for Panahi, they indulge him in a political solidarity that dulls the wit of his cinematic judgment. These consolation prizes are a curse in disguise.

Panahi is not the only Iranian filmmaker who has become a victim of his courageous political stands. Another major force in Iranian cinema, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, shares his fate. After years of celebrated filmmaking in his homeland, Makhmalbaf began to make films in surrounding countries – Turkey, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Tajikistan – before he and his filmmaking family moved to Europe, and eventually lived initially in Paris and then London. Most recently, he has travelled to Israel and made another film, Gardener (2012) – this time in a Bahai temple.

Far from his natural habitat in the urban settings of his homeland, Makhmalbaf and his family are like fish out of water – with critical tenacity and remarkable cinematic verve continuing to make films, but, again, alas, his panache for virtual realism has now degenerated into angry and futile denunciations of his own culture and clime. The golden period of Makhmalbaf’s filmmaking in the 1990s – with masterpieces like Once Upon a Time Cinema (1992) and A Moment of Innocence (1996) – now seems like the distant dreams of another lifetime, when Makhmalbaf had his hands on the pulse of his people.

Following Mohsen Makhmalbaf, another icon of Iranian cinema, Bahram Beizai, has also left Iran and now lives in California. So far, he has judiciously stayed away from his camera and busied himself with staging his old plays, and with research and writing. For thirty years, Beizai has been subject to the vicious censorial policies of the Islamic republic that scarce allowed him to make films, and on the rare occasion he’s allowed, his cinema exudes with his creative genius though marred with much existential angst, anger, and arrogance.

Long before both Makhmalbaf and Beizai and is yet another major force in Iranian cinema, Amir Naderi left his homeland for good and moved to New York (with recent sojourns to Japan), where he has made a number of critically acclaimed films in his adopted settings – films like Marathon (1997) or Cut (2012) – that can scarce be considered part of “Iranian cinema” anymore. With remarkable tenacity and under exceedingly difficult circumstances and almost non-existent resources, Naderi has kept his cinema afloat, but his vision and imagination have long since departed from his homeland.

Even those who have opted to stay in Iran have not faired any better. Consider the doyen of Iranian cinema, Daryoush Mehrjui, whose cinema – graced with such masterpieces as The Cow (1969) and The Tenants (1986) – suffered massively once his literary comrade Gholam Hossein Saedi (1936-1985) left Iran and opted to live with the pain of exile in Paris until his premature death.

Another monumental figure in Iranian cinema, Sohrab Shahid Sales (1944-1998) ran away from the horrid censorial policies of the Islamic republic until his premature death in Chicago. Before his death, Shahid Sales had made major inroads into German New Cinema, by making some of his best films in his host country. But just like Naderi, this aspect of his cinema is scarce known in Iran, let alone being part of “Iranian cinema”.

Even before Shahid Sales, Parviz Sayyad had left his homeland in disgust and opted to live in Los Angeles, smack in the heart of the infested environment of the most useless and pestiferous Iranian community, to which the ugly faces of the Shahs of Sunset does perfect justice. Thus Iranian cinema lost one of its most gifted filmmakers from the robust environment of 1970s Iran to the sick and corrupt life of Tehrangeles.

Another vastly promising Iranian filmmaker, Bahman Qobadi began his career with making groundbreaking films like A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) and Songs of my Motherland (2002) – to which it was later opportunistically titled Marooned in Iraq to bank on the market of US-led invasion of Iraq – but soon began losing connection to his natural Kurdish habitat long before he left Iran, and became a businessman with an eye to the deeply divided and flawed Iranian expat community, with his most recent film simply unwatchable.

But not all Iranian filmmakers who left their homeland lost their senses of who and what they are. Like Amir Naderi, Susan Taslimi, a prodigious actress who graced Iranian cinema and theatre for decades, left Iran and opted to live in Sweden where she became an exceedingly successful actress and director in her adopted language and culture – and today, for all intents and purposes, she is a Swedish actress and filmmaker.

Examples abound and the point here is not to be exhaustive, but simply to mark the historic moment when the ungodly censorial polices of the Islamic republic, the injudicious choices of some filmmakers, and perhaps even more critically the aesthetic exhaustion of Iranian cinema as we have known and admired it for decades has brought a magnificent artistic adventure to an end.

Towering over all his colleagues, Abbas Kiarostami has made his last few films outside Iran – and scarce his compatriots have seen these films let alone have any affinity with them. While expanding his cinematic repertoire in new and perhaps even unchartered directions, a film such as Like Someone in Love (2012) shot in Japan or Certified Copy (2010) set in Tuscany, can hardly be called an “Iranian film”.

Unnatural rule, misty dreams

The ruling regime in Iran has succeeded in ripping the leading Iranian filmmakers from the fabric of their society and cast them into vague and ambiguous environments about which they know very little. Given their creative ingenuity – as now perhaps best evident in the works of Jafar Panahi or Mohsen Makhmalbaf – they can manage to create almost anywhere, from their living room to the occupied Palestine, but the result begins to abstract the filmmakers from that certain intuition of transcendence that approximates an artist to the sacred precincts of her and his culture. 

Cultural production is not a monogamous proposition. Art is promiscuous and keeps changing creative partnership – with poets one day, novelists another, and then off to filmmakers, dramatists, bloggers, musicians, journalist, you name it. Today, Iranian underground music is in tune with the pulse of the nation with the same verve and pulsation that Iranian cinema once was.   

This is not to say Iranian cinema has no future – but that future is being mapped out and navigated on unchartered territories far from major European or even non-European film festivals. Under the radar is now a young generation of filmmakers whose courageous and imaginative works are yet to receive any recognition in their own homeland or celebration in any major film festival. Right there, in the misty excitement of that haphazard anonymity, there is a Forough Farrokhzad feeling her way towards the making of her House is Black, and keeping her company are her legendry contemporaries – here is the young Daryoush Mehrjui, and there is Amir Naderi, and I see Bahram Beizai standing there – and how fortunate that they still don’t know who they are, and how unfathomable is the dream they are yet to narrate and name. 

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. Among his books is Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema (2007).