Having established some general historical context in the previous parts, now is the time to move on to what is really the centrepiece of this essay: the films of the four most internationally reputed NIC directors. I introduced them briefly before (as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi), so now is the ideal moment to take a quick biographical tour of those who will be our main protagonists (or at least their films will be). That way in the next parts, we’ll know enough about them to focus on their art first and foremost.
The humanist philosopher: Abbas Kiarostami
As mentioned in part 2, Kiarostami is the doyen of the group and the only one who was already working in film pre-revolution. Before moving to the Kanun institute, he had started out as a painter and used his graphic design skills for an advertising agency – a job which left him dissatisfied due to commercial considerations coming before creative and artistic ones. Hence the move to Kanun in 1969, where he eventually worked for the film department.
There, as we said, he got his break making films for/about children, and developed many of the characteristics he would be famed for later (working with non-professional actors especially children, a style of realism at once naturalistic and poetic, the use of long takes). And it was with one such film that he finally broke onto the world stage, and with that also pulled all of Iranian cinema into international spotlight. In 1989, Where is the Friend’s House? took five prizes at the Locarno Film Festival. Three years later, Kiarostami not only saw his film And Life Goes On (1992) judged Best Film in the Un Certain Regard strand at Cannes, but was also honoured with the Roberto Rossellini Prize for his career overall.
The rest of the 90s was no less successful, with Beyond the Olive Trees, Taste of Cherry (which won the Palme at Cannes) and The Wind Will Carry Us each equally lauded by film critics and scholars. Jean-Luc Godard himself, in typical bombastic style, pronounced that “Cinema starts with Griffith and ends with Kiarostami”. As it happens he later changed his mind, because Kiarostami did not sit on his laurels in the noughties, and continued experimenting and re-inventing himself, often going down some surprising avenues…. but more about that later.
The born-again artist: Mohsen Makhmalbaf
Mohsen Makhmalbaf was occupied in an altogether different way during the revolution years. Being brought up in a strict religious household, he was taken in by the rhetoric of the militant Islamists and as an idealistic, hot-headed youth wanted to actively take part in the revolution to remove the Shah from power. This he did, when as a 17-year-old, he attempted to rob a bank in order to gain funds to finance his revolutionary faction’s activity. The plan went badly wrong from the very first step; Makhmalbaf was to steal a gun from an on-duty policeman but a bitter fight ensued, the policeman shot Makhmalbaf in the stomach and Makhmalbaf stabbed him with a knife (these are events he later re-explored artistically in his film A Moment of Innocence).
After four years of jail and torture, Makhmalbaf was finally released when Khomeini’s revolution toppled the Shah’s regime. It was then that Makhmalbaf’s evolution from revolutionary youth to humanist artist began, when in the early 80s he taught himself the basics of filmmaking and found a new way to express himself. Beginning with anti-war films in the 80s which criticised Iran’s government, and moving on to more poetic self-reflexive films in the 90s (certainly influenced by Kiarostami), his ideology slowly went through a complete 180-degrees turn. He has often spoken of his disappointment at the revolution’s failure to meet its promises towards the Iranian people, and nowadays is often at loggerheads with the Iranian regime and has lived in exile for the past decade.
It is interesting to note how reaction towards him in his home country has changed with time. With cult hits and popular success in the 80s, he was regarded as a working-class-hero to so many. The story of Kiarostami’s documentary Close Up revolves around Hossein Sabzian, an imposter who pretended to be Makhmalbaf – the fact someone would impersonate Makhmalbaf, and the way people so wanted to believe they were indeed meeting the real director, only testify to his status in the late 80s. (Funnily enough IMDb’s profile pic of Makhmalbaf is still a picture of Hossein Sabzian…) Today however, he appears to be seen in an altogether more suspicious light by his compatriots. Having left the country, and stopped making films which were explicitly about Iran and Iranian issues, accusations that his films are just made for foreign film festivals have followed (Kiarostami has often faced this as well), but this is a bigger topic which we’ll return to later.
The anthropologist: Samira Makhmalbaf
In 1996, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, together with his wife and children, formed the Makhmalbaf Film House, simultaneously a film school and a collaborative production company, which he runs in his own home with family members and friends as students. Under his guidance, his daughter Samira Makhmalbaf displayed directorial talent precociously, making The Apple (1998) when only 18 years old, and touring with it on the film festival circuit. Her follow-up film, Blackboards (2000) won the Jury Prize at Cannes, and announced her as one of the most interesting young directors in world cinema.
Her cinema involves looking at important topical issues, and the lives of her subjects with a poetic, anthropological eye. She has made films in Kurdistan and Afghanistan with non-professional actors, about the experiences of the ordinary rural inhabitants of those regions. Apart from her debut, The Apple, none of her films have been set in Iran, no doubt a result of having to follow her father in his exile. So she too, does not have an entirely positive relationship with her home country and it is difficult to imagine either her or her father making another film in Iran at this stage. However her international acclaim is unquestionable, and as we’ll see later there’s much in her films which make her fit with these other 3 directors.
The socially-minded artist: Jafar Panahi
Jafar Panahi studied film in Tehran and began making shorts and documentaries for TV. In the 90s he worked as Kiarostami’s assistant director and the older director spoke early on of the potential he saw in Panahi. Two of Panahi’s feature films were in fact based on rough scripts given to him by Kiarostami (The White Balloon and Crimson Gold). He developed his own style, however, displaying a passionate concern for social injustice, and soon established his own glowing reputation internationally, winning awards at Cannes, Venice and Berlin.
If Kiarostami and the Makhmalbafs were respectively philosophical, poetic and anthropological, Panahi was the most journalistic in tone, consistently making films about contemporary societal topics the authorities would much rather he stay away from (prostitution, treatment of women, political elections). More than any of the other 3, he came in direct conflict with the censors (also due to the fact the other 3 eventually left Iran, unlike Panahi), and in 2010 he was arrested under charges of planning to make a “propaganda” and anti-establishment film. Despite worldwide outcry, Panahi was sentenced to house arrest and a 20 year ban on filmmaking, although he has managed to circumvent this by making films from his own home and getting them sneaked out of Iran.
The fact all of these filmmakers are now either in self-chosen exile, or stuck under house arrest, is a reflection of the difficulties of being an artist under the rigid censorship of the Iranian regime, but censorship is something we’ll talk about in more depth later. In part 4, we’ll finally begin to look more closely at their films, starting by identifying some of their common traits and recurring features, which give an overall style to the NIC. Thanks for reading! To be continued…