How did Iranian cinema go global?

The films of Iran’s Amir Naderi brings the world to his homeland, while bringing his homeland to worldly recognition.

Amir Naderi Reuters
Iranian director Amir Naderi poses during a red carpet event at Venice Film Festival [Denis Balibouse/Reuters]

On Friday 16 March 2018, I had the distinct privilege of joining legendary Iranian filmmaker Amir Naderi and Dave Kehr, the curator at the Department of Film, on stage at Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York to launch a magnificent retrospective of his work.

Irresistible Forces, Immovable Objects: The Films of Amir Naderi begins with The Runner (1984), one of the last films he made in Iran and continues with the rest of his oeuvre that he directed in the US, Japan, and Europe. 

This is not the first time the cinema of Naderi is celebrated in the US or anywhere else in the world. Over the last quarter century that I have known and been involved in his cinematic adventures, I have been a close witness to numerous similar celebrations in the US, Europe, and Japan, marking the unfolding thresholds of his unique and inimitable visionary artistry.  

How has Naderi navigated his illustrious cinematic career from a pioneering filmmaker in the rising moments of Iranian New Wave in the late 1960s up to such career celebrations around the world is the story of how Iranian cinema has transcended itself to become an unfolding drama in the course of world cinema. Naderi, just like his close friend and fellow luminary, the late Abba Kiarostami (1940-2016) – whom the world of cinema lost so tragically early – is no longer pigeonholed within any national cinema. He has, by the power of his singular imagination, assumed his unique signature.

How did that happen and what does it mean?

A Steady stream of truth against a sea of troubles

I was born to the world of cinema with the cinema of Naderi (born in Abadan in southern Iran, 1946). Though he is not much older than I am, he was already an accomplished and widely loved and admired filmmaker upon my arrival in Tehran to attend college in 1970, the year he made his inaugural film, Goodbye Friend.  

This was at the height of the Pahlavi dynasty – wealthy, powerful, luxurious, with no revolutionary cloud in the sky of the second Pahlavi monarch except for a handful of Marxist guerrilla fighters waging an ill-fated attack on a police station in northern Iran. The astonishing achievement of Naderi’s cinema has been to stay attuned to the politics of his time but never succumb to its vagaries when he disappears behind his camera to discover the world for us.

Goodbye Friend told the story of a vagabond thief plotting his last heist. The most elemental forces of Naderi’s cinema are already evident in his first film: a solitary man facing insurmountable obstacles for one final, definitive achievement. Almost 50 years later, his latest film, Mountain (2016), tells the same story. 

This is not to say his films have not been political. His Harmonica (1973), and Tangsir (1973) were definitive to the political upbringing of multiple generations. But no matter how politically accented, these and all his other films were still obsessively fixated on the struggles of one man against a mountain of odds.

This singular theme has remained constant in Naderi’s cinema and came to global attention in his towering masterpiece: The Runner (1984) – the story of a solitary boy in southern Iran turned into a sublime allegory of humanity surviving the odds stacked against him with steadfast courage, verve, and imagination.

The Sisyphus of Iranian Cinema 

Naderi left his homeland and came to live and work in New York in the early 1980s, but his cinema did not become “American” or “postnational” after this move. His cinema became purer, more sublime, to the point that he has now completely shed the modicum of narrative storytelling his cinema ever had. It has now reached the zenith of the clean, visceral, undiluted visual realism that has always been definitive to his cinema, which has always thrived on a glorious mute visuality – where no words compromise the vision.

By now Naderi has transcended any claim of any national cinema on his art. He began his career in Iran, subsequently moved to the US and more recently has made feature films in Japan and Italy. He is currently back in the US, editing his most recent film shot in Los Angeles.

Would that make him an Iranian, an American, a Japanese, an Italian, or any hyphenated combination filmmaker? The answer to that question is much less important than the consistency of his cinematic vision that has steadily moved towards pure allegory. Naderi’s cinema has always been unburdened with excessive loyalty to storyline. He is a minimalist storyteller. He has now become the quintessence of his own metaphoric cinema.

Once, a high ranking Iranian official in charge of censorship, Naderi told me a while ago, laughing, asked him for his script to approve his next film. He took a pen and a piece of paper from the man’s desk and drew a straight line from one end of the page to another and said to him “that’s my script – it’s the story of a boy who goes from here to there, pointing to the two ends of the straight line on the page”. That line was the script of his remarkable film Water Wind Dust (1989).

That story always reminds me of the final works of the glorious Spanish artist Joan Miro (1893-1983), which I once spent weeks studying closely at Fundacio Joan Miro in Barcelona. Towards the end of that collection of Miro’s work, there is an alcove where three of his last works are ritually staged. On three huge white canvases, we see nothing but a singular thin black line drawn from one end of the canvas to the other.

Pure allegory

I have had multiple occasions to argue how the formation of national cinemas – and national cultural movements – in general, are predicated on national traumas. Filmmakers can either degenerate into political pamphleteering that caters to European film festivals or transcend those national traumas and cultivate their own signature art. The late Abbas Kiarostami and Amir Naderi are paramount examples of the latter case.

In Naderi we are witness to the lifelong fixation of one artist, in his case now close to half a century of filmmaking, having seen a dream and then devoted his entire life to showing it. Much is, of course, biographical in Naderi’s cinema, particularly his masterpiece, The Runner. But the question is what he does with his biography. 

Few artists around the globe have managed to overcome the bizarre and ridiculous accident of their birth and upbringing and show the world what they have seen. Rooted as they are in their homeland, they spread their branches and blossoms in a world of their own, which we cannot but sit down politely to learn, admiringly to love, patiently to own.

Yes, Naderi is an Iranian filmmaker. But in his cinema, he brought the world to his homeland, and in the very same cinema, he brought his homeland to a full worldly recognition – all in pure, beautiful allegory of what it means to be human – all too frightfully, solitarily, human.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.