Bridging the Ideological Gap: Reform Cinema in Iran by Blake Atwood
A Book Review by Ali Moosavi.
I have always thought that for a deeper understanding of Iranian films, one has to have a better knowledge of the Iranian culture, history, and politics. Blake Atwood’s Reform Cinema in Iran (Columbia University Press, 2016) goes a long way to bridge the gap that currently exists for aficionados of Iranian cinema between what they watch on the screen and the socio-political background to the stories depicted in the films. In order to achieve a deeper analysis of the underlying social-political themes and messages in Iranian cinema, Atwood focuses on both a limited time period – i.e., Mohammad Khatami’s presidency of Iran from 1997 to 2005 – a small number of important filmmakers, and one or two of what Atwood considers their key works in relation to the Khatami era.
In his introduction, the author cites quotes from two contrasting personalities. Ayatollah Khomeini is quoted as saying “cinema is a modern invention that ought to be used for educating people” (3) whilst Lenin has remarked that “of all the arts, cinema is the most important” (7). This highlights the fact that cinema, and also now television and social media, have been recognized by leaders as very effective means of communication that can have a large impact on the masses. For this reason, their control has been a key policy not just in autocratic regimes, but as we have seen, by those seeking power in democratic states.
Atwood has examined the link between the films that have been allowed to be made and shown, and the so-called reform movement in Iran. He also mentions the role of the international film community on the Iranian reform cinema movement. One example he cites is that many believed that the Palme d’or win of Abbas Kiarostami in 1997 (for A Taste of Cherry, Ta’m-e gīlās) was an international endorsement of Khatami. The prizes gived to various Iranian films at international festivals has often been subject of various conspiracy theories in Iran, with some either condemning them or taking credit for them. For example, when Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (Jodaeie Nader Az Simin , 2011) won the Best Foreign Language Oscar, the then deputy culture minster in charge of cinema, Javad Shamaghdari, declared that his lobbying of the Academy was behind the win! At the same time, every time a non-establishment director such as Jafar Panahi wins an international award, it is immediately seen as a political and not artistic award. For me, it is difficult to envisage an international jury in Cannes, Venice, or Berlin sitting around a table discussing the merits of Khatami or Ahmandinejad regimes, and thus I believe this theory to be widely exaggerated.
Khatami’s victory at the Iranian presidential elections of 1997 had raised the expectations so much, not least by the local film industry, that there will be significantly more freedom of expression. In retrospect, knowing the considerable influence of the conservative hardliners, there was bound to be disappointment on a wide scale.
The first chapter of Atwood’s book focuses on the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and specifically his film Time for Love (Nowbat-e ‘āsheqi, 1991). Makhmalbaf is one of the most enigmatic figures in the history of Iranian cinema. He started as a hard line revolutionary filmmaker, then made a few truly artistic films and ended up as a fierce critic of the regime and being forced into exile. I was very surprised a few years ago to find a whole corner in Tehran’s Cinema Museum dedicated to Makhmalbaf and his family. This highlights one of the points that Atwood makes about the Iranian cinema community and the Iranian government: that the two often find themselves on opposite poles. Time for Love touched on a few taboo subjects such as intimacy outside marriage but was selected for screening at the Fajr Film Festival as Khatami came into power. Atwood shows the very delicate and thin line on which a moderate president in Iran has to tread. The conservative newspapers and members of parliament yield considerable power and can influence whether a film is publicly shown or even receives any awards.
Atwood uses the term “cine-mysticism” to describe films such as Time for Love and Hamun (Mehrjui, 1990), which deal with love in a mystical way. This, he argues correctly, is because intellectuals – including some film makers – who were feeling cut off and disillusioned turned to Sufism and mysticism as an alternative to the brand of Islam promoted by the Islamic Republic.
A chapter titled “Screening Reform” focuses on Rakhshan Banietemad, the foremost female director in Iran, and specifically her film Under the Skin of the City (Zir-e-pust-shahr, 2000) and her documentary Our Times (Ruzegar-e ma, 2002). Atwood argues, with some persuasive evidence, that Banietemad is perhaps the filmmaker most disillusioned with Khatami. Starting as a documentary filmmaker, Banietemad has made feature films that have stayed close to reality. The character of Tuba, played by Golab Adineh, in Under the Skin of the City could be taken as Banietemad’s spokesperson. She conveys Banietemad’s frustration with the very slow pace of reforms and also her disappointment with cinema and her own films that were making very little impact on bringing forth the reforms. This, as Atwood has pointed out, is shown in the film by Tuba asking a documentary crew who are interviewing people like her expressing their frustrations: to whom do you show these films to?
In fact Tuba’s character resurfaced years later in Banietemad’s Tales (Gheseha, 2014), in which she tries unsuccessfully to help some striking workers. Tuba is possibly the key character in both films. Atwood observes that in Under the Skin of the City “the articulation of Tuba’s political aspirations represents nostalgia for a lost hope, covered and obscured by the reformist movement’s phantasmagoria” (87). Tales was only released after President Rouhani came to power. Banietemad made no feature films throughout Ahmadinejad’s eight year presidency.
Atwood highlights the frustration of Khatami’s supporters, as well as filmmakers such as Banietemad, with Khatami’s undelivered promises and states that “Khatami’s broad vision for his country was out of touch with most of its citizens” (87). This allows the viewers of Iranian films to have this additional context in mind when watching films of that era. Atwood adds that Banietemad’s documentary, Our Times, is a key film, highlighting the increasing divide between the affluent north and the poor south districts of Tehran, “separated by an insurmountable social and physical gap” (90). In fact, this gap has been covered in many Iranian films, both commercial and artistic ones, from long before the revolution.
Many of the notable Iranian films can be interpreted in so many ways and be linked to the socio-political movements of the time. An unlikely film to be linked to Khatami’s movement is Kiarostami’s A Taste of Cherry, specially since Atwood quotes Kiassrostami as saying that he will never make a political film. Atwood interprets a scene where the main protagonist, Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), is covered in dust and dirt as showing a “feeling of being buried alive, which captures the sense of futility that arose from the stagnation that Iranian society experienced at this time” (110). In another scene where a taxidermist tells Mr. Badii to take an “alternative, rocky road,” according to Atwood “advocates the reform that Khatami’s movement promised rather than revolution” (111) and in the final scenes “the bright colours and the crane revive the possibility of hope and of reform” (112). Kiarostami has always said that his inspirations for his films were drawn from his life and that of others around him. At the time of making Taste of Cherry, he was at a low ebb, having gone through broken relationships and feeling depressed. The film appears to reflect his mood at the time, which he had laced with philosophical thoughts about existence and death. Though Kiarostami encouraged people to have their own interpretation of the film and avoided explaining the intention behind any of the scenes in his films.
In 1982, many years before he became president, Khatami served as minister of culture, responsible for controlling the media. A set of restrictive policies were put in place during his tenure at the ministry, for instance an edict that directors must not use women to “arouse sexual desires” (120). Again, referencing Kiarostami, Atwood cites Ten (Dah, 2002) as highlighting the “contradictions of Khatami’s leadership in the Islamic Republic, in his role both as president and as minister of culture and Islamic guidance, by drawing attention to the incongruity between his presidential policy toward women and his profound effect on the film industry” (121). Ten, meanwhile, paints a picture of the position of women in the male-dominated Iranian society in what is essentially a feminist film.
Bahman Farmanara, a prominent Iranian director who had not made a feature film since the revolution, used the relative freedom provided in Khatami’s presidency to make a return to cinema with Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine (Booye kafoor, atre yeas, 2000), which deals with the question of death and mortality. Throughout the film, the passing of a number of Iranian filmmakers is mentioned. According to Atwood, “the deaths of these renowned directors come to symbolize within the film the death of a certain kind of intellectualism. The film brings into focus the futility of an entire generation of artists and intellectuals, disempowered by a new governance system that evaluates their work according to new terminology and a new set of standards” (128). Therefore, the book argues that some of the older generation of directors who could not come into terms with the new codes, gave way to a younger generation who would find creative ways to get round some of the imposed restrictions. As the Farmanara character, a film director, says in the film, “When a filmmaker doesn’t make films or a writer doesn’t write, that is death. In fact, I am not afraid of dying. I am afraid of living a futile life” (129).
A chapter of the book centres on Masud Kimiai, perhaps the most celebrated and fervently followed director before the revolution. His stock declined rapidly after the revolution, particularly among the critics, though he still enjoys considerable public popularity. Kimiai rose to fame with Qeysar (Gheisar, 1969), which started a chain of films about anti-hero tough guys, often taking law into their own hands. The book focuses on Kimiai’s Protest (E‘terāz, 1999), which Atwood considers to represent the reformist movement “as part of everyday life, as regular as pizza” (131). Atwood adds that by making Protest, Kimiai effectively killed the anti-hero tough guy character which had come to symbolise his films. He notes that “Protest announces the death of the tough-guy genre in Iranian cinema, a death initiated not by revolution but rather by the rise of Mohammad Khatami’s reformist movement” (137).
Atwood informs readers that Qeysar was banned by the government because Kimiai refused to show Qeysar’s apprehension in the end, adding that that decision “is a testament to the film’s ambivalence about operating outside of the law, when such actions are in the name of a higher moral code not covered by the modern legal system” (155). In fact, initially the film ended by a freeze-frame on Qeysar’s face after he kills the man who had raped his sister, thus driving her to suicide. Later, the government censored this closing image and added a scene of Qeysar apprehended by police. Finally permitted, the film became a huge box office hit.
A less credible argument put forward by Atwood concerns a series of murders of Iranian intellectuals which became known as the serial murders. Atwood theorises that a scene in Abulhosssein Davudi’s commercial comedy Bread, Love, and a 1000cc Motorcycle (Nān o ‘eshq o mutur-e hezar, 2001), in which members of the religious police or basij cut the hair of those people they believe to be reformists, may refer to the infamous serial murders of reformists during Khatami’s presidency. A film that directly referenced these murders was Mohammad Rasoulof’s Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Dast-neveshteha nemisoosand, 2013), which predictably has never been shown publicly in Iran.
Another film discussed with regards to the reformist movement is Massoud Bakhshi’s documentary – or, as Atwood terms it, “meta-documentary” – Tehran has No More Pomegranates (Tehrān anār nadārad, 2007), which achieved the rare feat (for a documentary) of getting a successful public screening. Bakhshi very cleverly used a comedy musical format to throw the censors as, within this exterior frame, he depicts the gulf between the different classes in Iran showing contrasting images of the rich and poor in north and south of the capital city, respectively. As the narrator of the documentary, Bakhshi used Nosrat Karimi, a famous actor-director before the revolution who was banned from both professions after the revolution due to the bawdy nature of the comedies for which he was famed. By using his voice, and not his image, Bakhshi sidesteps another censor trap.
Bakhshi, as Atwood points out, directly challenges Khatami’s reformist movement. In fact, in his next feature film, A Respectable Family (Yek khanévadéh-e mohtaram, 2012), which is not covered in this book, Bakhshi was much more direct in his criticism of the deep-rooted corruption within the ruling conservative sector. As a result, the film has never received a screening permit, despite winning awards at foreign festivals.
In the conclusion to his book, Atwood spotlights This Is Not a Film (In film nist, 2011) as a film that “demonstrates how the cry for reform in the Islamic Republic has affected filmmaking and has refashioned many of its conventions” (204). He draws attention to the poster of the film having a prominent place in the Cinema Museum. He argues that this placement is a statement of protest and “testifies to the ways in which reform cinema has reorganized what it means to make a film in Iran, and how certain film institutions have been implicated in this process” (204). I happened to visit the office of Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who, along with Jafar Panahi, is a co-director of the film. I mentioned this summation of the book to him. He then showed me the poster mentioned in the book, hanging on one of his office walls. Apparently, it had been taken down from the cinema museum on the order of the authorities.
So, who should be reading this book? It’s not for casual viewers of Iranian films. But for those with more than a casual interest, Reform Cinema will help them achieve a greater understanding and appreciation of Iranian films by learning about the socio-political events that influenced the themes and subjects. Reform Cinema is not only an essential book for institutions that teach Iranian cinema, but also a very valuable source for those studying the reform movement’s place in the Iranian history.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of the The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015) and is based in the United Arab Emirates.