Introduction: Contemporary Independent Iranian Cinema
[Editor’s note: The upcoming issue of Film International (issue 69, vol. 12, no. 3/2014) is dedicated to “Contemporary Independent Iranian Cinema.” This is a slightly abbreviated version of the introduction to this issue, written by the issue’s guest editors Parviz Jahed and Amir Ganjavie. To subscribe or order an individual copy, follow this link.]
The current issue of Film International is dedicated to the problematic aspects of contemporary independent Iranian cinema. Our hope is to investigate the works of notable independent Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi as well as the underground movies that are produced and distributed without the permission of the authorities and which are subjected to censorship and intense governmental pressure. Our overarching goal in publishing this issue is to generate critical debate regarding the historical and current situation facing Iran’s independent cinema and its major figures, the code of practice of the film censors, and the barriers facing independent cinema in Iran.
We are pleased to be able to provide a comprehensive volume on this topic and hope that our call for contributions inspired heated debates among Iranian film scholars. The definition of independent cinema in Iran certainly led to controversies among the contributors, four of whom tried to tackle this question. According to Milad Dokhanchi, independent cinema only exists from a Marxist perspective and he argues in this volume that culture is given an autonomous status in the Marxist framework and is considered to be a useful tool for countering the ideology of power. Through the lens of Michel Foucault, the author tries to show the shortcomings of this approach. Dokhanchi claims that culture operates as an extension of bio-political interventions and governmentality, given that this is not independent from the apparatus of power. He argues that nothing is “independent” about the western movie industry and that this is also true in the case of Iranian cinema where we can see a close affinity between independent film-makers and the state apparatus.
For Parviz Jahed, independent cinema in Iran defines especially in relation to underground cinema. Jahed argues that underground cinema refers to a movement that exists as a consequence of Iranian film-makers’ civil disobedience and refusal to adhere to the rules dictated by the Iranian government. It embraces a body of work that represents a margin of Iranian cinema and is being made without the required authorization or financial and technical support from the government. As he notes, technically, Iranian underground films more resemble the clandestine movies made during the Spanish Civil War under the Franco dictatorship rather than the experimental films made by the American underground film-makers of the 1960s and 1970s. Iranian underground movies are mainly low-tech and lack professional actors, indoor or outdoor lighting, crane shots or dollies. As Jahed notes, because of their political messages, independent film-makers in Iran have always been subject to censorship and intense pressure from the authorities. In such a situation, the Iranian government is trying to reassert its control by making arrests and making an example of those film-makers who violate the rules by sentencing them to prison and banning them from film-making. However, as he points out, the underground film-makers have always managed to persevere to some extent and achieve recognition for independent Iranian cinema on an international scale.
Mansoor Behnam provides a comprehensive article examining the definitions of Iranian independent cinema and underground cinema and the implications of these terms. In order to propose a definition, Behnam examines the works of independent film-makers like Kiarostami, Panahi and Bahman Ghobadi. He also investigates the implications of censorship and the restrictions imposed upon independent film-makers by the post-revolutionary Iranian government. Behnam pays particular attention to how the democratizing and liberating process occasioned by digital technology and new media have helped directors challenge the hegemonic forces of the Iranian state. In this regard, he looks more closely at This is Not a Film (In film Nist, 2011), a collaboration between Panahi and Mojtaba Mirtahmasb. As Behnam notes, Panahi and Mirtahmasb use digital cameras and an iPhone to try bringing the challenges faced by independent Iranian film-makers into focus. Here, the dynamics and productive implications of digital technology allowed Panahi to practise his creativity as a film-maker, even if in a clandestine manner.
The question of how to define independent cinema is also a motivating factor in Roxanne Varzi’s article, in which she discusses the evolutionary process seen in the works of independent film-makers and proposes her own definition of independent cinema. According to Varzi, there have been three distinct phases of development in Iranian cinema. In the first phase, film-makers focused on representations of rural areas, with directors like Kiarostami hoping to represent exotic, colourful images of Iran. The resulting films were welcomed warmly at film festivals that showed an eagerness to view Iran as a land of mystery. As Varzi argues, following the Green Movement, festival audiences were less motivated to see the “other side of colourful Iran” and wanted instead to see more political movies from Iran; this constitutes the second phase. Thus, during this stage, if a movie did not depict the tension between the government and the people then it could not be sold to foreign audiences. Given this, Varzi argues that until recently independent film-makers used their aesthetic tools to either bolster a vision of Iran as colourful, tribal, innocent and secular or Islamic, fatalistic, revolutionary and militant. These visions did not properly respond to the demands of the Iranian New Wave with its claims of representing an authentic Iran. However, Varzi argues that independent film-makers have recently tried to show an authentic Iran. For example, the works of directors like Farhadi represent the emergence of movies that no longer represent Iran as an exotic land or a country with constant political struggle. Here, we see the daily life of Iranians in reality. For Varzi, Farhadi’s latest movie, The Past (Le Passé, 2013), is the most recent development in this genre and its central issue is not even about a problem directly related to Iran. As she notes, this is what marks truly independent cinema since the director has found the ability to honestly narrate a story for his audience. As Varzi claims, staying true to one’s art for the sake of art rather than for political responses is perhaps the most truly political and independent act in recent years.
As Varzi points out in her article, one of the main challenges in regard to independent Iranian cinema is the claim that some films have been made primarily to appeal to international film festivals and to please westerners by misrepresenting Iran; they depict the country as an exotic land of mystery (such as ancient mythical Persia) or misery (terrorism and poverty). The critics therefore encourage Iranian film directors to produce more appropriate movies with a ‘national theme’. Amir Ganjavie investigates the reasons for this concern and argues that in the age of globalization, nationalism is one of the only tools available to resist foreign hegemony. Given this, he argues that although nationalism has the potential to become a tool for excluding others and to fall into the trap of nativism, this does not explain all of its complexity; it can also function as a strategic tool in the face of globalization and can provide a utopian glimpse of a better society. According to Ganjavie, what independent Iranian film-makers need to do is to free the core of national cinema from the shackles of its regressive, ideological elements, and the nativism which could stifle it. He goes on to define the way that independent Iranian movies can engage with the concept of nationalism while simultaneously preserving their independence.
How can Iranian independent film-makers try to mitigate the impact of film censorship while simultaneously being political? Three of the articles in this volume have been written with this question in mind. In one, Niklaus Reichle argues that there are many decisive aspects which can influence whether or not a movie is banned in Iran, including the availability of economic means, the overall attitude of the governing administration towards film-making, and the quality of a director’s or producer’s relationship with the responsible officials at the Culture Ministry; for Reichle, the question of movie style also plays a very significant role. He argues that one of the main reasons that Asghar Farhadi’s movies escape censorship issues in Iran is their melodramatic structure. Here, Farhadi’s melodrama must be understood as subversive, since it does not provide straightforward answers to moral questions. Instead, Farhadi turns morality into the object of discussion and provides a critical way of addressing the issue. Here the unique structure of melodrama in Farhadi’s films, and the fact that they take an apparently neutral position, allows him to make valuable and critical moral statements in a subtle way without necessarily running the risk of censorship and banning.
The interaction between repression and style is the central focus of Kara Abdolmaleki’s article, in which he reviews the works of Abdolreza Kahani. Abdolmaleki argues that the absurdity of Kahani’s cinema is the result of financial hardship, political oppression and cultural stagnation. Using elements of absurdity helps Kahani’s films to a great extent so that they become politically charged, though this has led to bans, censorship and his exclusion from national – and sometimes even international – festivals. Nevertheless, in his relatively short artistic career, Kahani has gained considerable attention from Iranian critics. The characters we encounter in Twenty (Bist, 2009) or Naught (Hich, 2009) are from among the most destitute stratum of society, entangled in fierce competition to safeguard the very scarce means of survival at hand. In the course of such competition, the law is bent and morality becomes a joke. Here, besides political oppression, Kahani blames cultural stagnation and religious dogma for cultural-economic underdevelopment in Iran.
In the same vein, James Udden argues that trying to appear “neutral” is the main reason for the success of the English-language Iranian film quarterly, Film International, one of the main independent journals in Iran which has also become an important tribune for different independent film-makers to raise their voices. In his article, Udden provides a comprehensive analysis of the journal from its origin, and tries to show how the journal has survived in the face of many challenges. In remaining neutral, Film International addresses controversial topics by simply delivering the news without providing any commentary. However, Udden argues that this “neutrality” eventually helped the journal show the internal divisions in Iranian cinema. Furthermore, the journal has always maintained an open dialogue with the West, by not only publishing articles on Iranian cinema, but also the entire world. Given this, Film International shows another side of Iran in a constant attempt to be in dialogue with the outside world, a voice which is very distinct from the official powers.
What could be regarded as the specificity of Iranian independent cinema? As the contributors to this volume argue, it is difficult to answer this question since we can detect different patterns in the evolution of independent cinema in Iran. However, one constant characteristic of independent Iranian cinema is the representation of child protagonists. Following the release of A Simple Event (Yek Etefagh Sadeh, 1974), the figure of the child became a very common characteristic of the Iranian cinema. What are the reasons for the presence of children in Iranian cinema and how is this representation related to the socio-economic problems of Iranian society? Farshad Zahedi’s article, “The Myth of Bastoor and the Children of Iranian Independent Cinema,” answers these questions. Zahedi provides a succinct analysis of the genesis of the wise child and how the myth of Bastoor generates this figure in Iranian literature and then Iranian independent cinema. Zahedi notes that the wise child of Iranian cinema is a reaction to the adult characters in dominant movie genres as well as to the censorship and production control system. He argues that the wise child myth represents, in some cases, an unconscious reaction of Iranian culture to the identity crisis caused by social contact with modernity. To highlight this social tension, the “school,” depicted in the works of directors like Kiarostami, gives directors a perfect microcosmic space. Here, the wise child is embodied in an errant girl or boy who hopes to find his own identity, which is not provided in the circle of the family and the state. The children can be seen as the only subject that can escape the ideological state apparatus, and their particular logic embody the ontological status of the people.
This issue concludes with Niki Karimi, one of the best-known and most in-demand actresses in Iranian cinema, who has also directed a few independent features. Karimi discusses the difficulty of producing independent movies in Iran and highlights the problems she has faced as a female director.
Iranian independent cinema is still under development and, as our contributors show, it is difficult to find consensus on its future; while some see the future as being bright, others present a bleak picture. Given this, many more volumes are needed in order to deeply understand the status of Iranian independent cinema and its future; no single volume could do it justice and fully shed light on its complexity. Having said this, we are very proud to be able to prepare this volume and believe that it shows some of the complexity surrounding the future of Iranian independent cinema and that it opens horizons for reflection.
Parviz Jahed is a film critic, independent scholar and film-maker. He is the editor-in chief of Cine-Eye (Cinema-Chashm), a Persian language bimonthly film journal published in the UK and concentrated on independent cinema in Iran and around the world. Jahed is also the editor of Directory of World Cinema: Iran, published by Intellect in the UK in 2011. He is currently editing the second volume of the Directory, which is forthcoming in April 2015.
Fascinated by the issue of alternative and utopian space in modern urban settings, Amir Ganjavie has published several articles and two books, one on utopia (Le Rôle de la pensée utopique dans l’aménagement des villes de demain [“The role of utopian thinking for planning the future city,” Éditions Universitaires Européennes, 2010]) and the other on walkable neighbourhoods (Pour une ville qui marche [“For a city that walks,” Éditions Universitaires Européennes, 2010]). His most recent contribution is an article on the meaning of space in cinema, analysing the representation of space in the films of Tsai Ming-Liang.