An overview of the New Iranian Cinema (Part 5)

Part 1   Part 2   Part 3   Part 4

In the last part I described how I split the main identifying characteristics of the New Iranian Cinema (NIC) into two categories, the realist/neo-realist elements, and the more surprising modernist and self-reflexive elements, such as for example the film making explicit reference to its being a film or to the filmmaking process. I believe it’s really these that made the NIC films some of the most fascinating of the last 25 years, and largely responsible for their international acclaim. I use modernist for lack of a better term, so in this part I want to define and describe what I mean. The elements of NIC I’m referring to with that word are not self-consciously modernist, or theoretical in the way Brecht was, nor playfully postmodern in their self-references in the way say Godard and Tarantino can be. Rather these elements are integrated so naturally that they seem far more simple than they really are, and only serve to re-inforce the idea of life being inter-twined with art (and vice-versa).

Modernist elements

Kiarostami, as the longest-working of the four, was the first to introduce such a dimension to his films, and it is fair to say that it all started with Close-Up, telling the simple and true story of one man, which in Kiarostami’s film is transformed into something far more profound and resonant. 

Close-Up came for Kiarostami after two films centred on children (Where is the Friend’s Home? and the documentary Homework, for more on this see Part 4) and thus marked a change in direction. In fact, Kiarostami was originally planning a project similar to Homework, this time focussing on the topic of pocket money given to children and what they do with it, but his plans took a different turn when he read and was inspired by a news article. The article was about a film-obsessed unemployed print worker (Hossein Sabzian) who had just been arrested for pretending to be the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf to an upper-middle-class family (the Ahankhas) and duped this rather gullible (and flattered by the interest) household into believing he would make a film with them. Kiarostami became immediately fascinated by this story and saw its potential to be made into a film, so he dropped the pocket money project, got on the phone with (the real) Mohsen Makhmalbaf and the two men went to meet Sabzian, who was then in custody and awaiting trial.

Soon Kiarostami had convinced the actual protagonists to re-enact the events on film, including the reluctant Ahankhas (naturally they were wary of being twice bitten), and even got the court judge, who happened to be a big fan of Makhmalbaf’s movies, to agree to let him film the trial. So all these people were gathered together, all because of cinema, to make cinema, and the result was a film that is both part-documentary (the real people and the real court case are in the film) and part-fiction (the reconstructions of Sabzian’s meetings with the Ahankhas cannot help but be different to what really transpired, and Kiarostami’s directorial choices necessarily must shape an overall message into the film). Kiarostami himself once said of this film: “Even I, the film-maker, get confused as to which parts were fiction and which documentary”. The Iranian scholar Hamid Dabashi summarised it even more disorientatingly:

“[When watching Close-Up] one knows one is watching a fiction (Kiarostami’s Close-Up) that is based on fact (Sabzian’s real story) that is based on fiction (Sabzian pretending to be Makhmalbaf) that is based on fact (Makhmalbaf as a leading Iranian filmmaker) that is based on fiction (Makhmalbaf making fictional stories in film) that is based on fact (the reality Makhmalbaf transforms into fiction).”

Despite this complex-sounding structure, Close-Up is truly a seamless mix, whose magic chemistry results in a beautifully simple and humanistic depiction of real life as it idealistically should be. All parties show understanding to each other, the Ahankhas end up being in a film as they were promised they would be, and, most movingly of all, in the hands of Kiarostami the hapless Sabzian is immortalised as one of cinema’s most fascinating characters. Most other people would perhaps have seen only a weak pathetic individual and maybe even a fraudster, but Kiarostami saw in Sabzian a man suffering because the gap between his “real self” and his “ideal self” is so large due to his own material restrictions, until that suffering finds a temporary escape through a lie. The escapist power of the medium of film, and also its ability to transcend its characters into something universal and evocative, was on full display in this masterpiece and would continue to be in Kiarostami’s 1990s films.

So, Close-Up set the trend in blurring the lines between documentary and fiction, life and art, reality and film, and the other NIC film which most resembles it, and definitely owes a huge debt of influence to it, is Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple, which I already discussed a bit in Part 4. Just like Kiarostami’s film, The Apple is a documentary-fiction hybrid, based on a sensational real-life event and filmed almost immediately after it happened, with the real people involved playing themselves. Throughout, there is a constant tension between what is or isn’t staged, and what is documentary or acting, and while watching you cannot help but ask yourself in amazement how Samira Makhmalbaf possibly convinced these people to be in her film, let alone coaxed performances out of them. Again, just like Close-Up, it uses the full potential of film as a medium to make a transcendent and symbolic piece of art, and therefore goes well beyond the mere on-screen representation of real life and the realist traditions described in Part 4.

Also influenced by Kiarostami was Panahi’s The Mirror, which in its use of a conceptual trick is even more radical than either Close-Up or The Apple in blurring the line between fiction and reality. I spoke in Part 4 about the recurrence of child-focussed films, and initially The Mirror starts out treading on similar ground to The White Balloon, following 7-year-old Mina (actually played by the younger sister of the girl in White Balloon) as she gets lost in the city when trying to get home from school. The difference here though is that The Mirror takes a very unexpected turn midway through when the girl, seemingly exasperated during a take, states that she no longer wants to act and runs off, leaving Panahi and his crew (now visible on camera) debating what to do next. The cinematic illusion and the fourth wall are not so much broken as irreparably shattered.

This abrupt twist shifts the film into an examination of what is ‘filmed’, what is ‘reality’ and what lies in-between the two. We see Panahi decide to continue following Mina with his camera and crew, so that the action behind the story remains the same: Mina is still trying to get home. What adds tension now however is that, apparently at least, this is no longer staged but real life, it’s the real girl actress who is trying to get home and from this point to the end of the film she is no longer “acting”. By this stage, it is hopefully obvious that deliberately intermingling “staged” scenes with “unstaged” scenes is a recurring motif of the NIC, and in The Mirror, Panahi seems to be saying that both real life and art’s fictional representation of life share the same essence and emotional truth. What’s more, Mina’s rebellion (and her independence and resourcefulness) also sits perfectly with the film’s subtextual theme of calling for women’s rights in Iranian society, so nothing is in this film without good reason. We never do find out if the second half of the film is indeed unstaged, but I think it’s fair to assume that it was all staged. Panahi is in complete control of what he is doing in this film, be it in the steady tracking shots of the first half or the hand-held camerawork following Mina from a distance in the second half, and his status as the most technically skilful of the NIC directors is clear.

I have said before that Mohsen Makhmalbaf is the one who most often re-defined himself over the course of his career, and it was probably in no small part due to seeing what Kiarostami had been doing, that he too started making films about the link between fact and fiction, and the relationship between life and art. The pinnacle of his endeavours is also the most personal of all NIC films, A Moment of Innocence, in which he recreates the most defining and traumatic event of his youth, the stabbing of a policeman during the revolution which I described in Part 3. Partly an attempt to exorcise the demons of his own past, he acts in it himself and is joined by the actual policeman he’d stabbed twenty years before, who it turns out is now a part-time actor and the two met by chance at an audition.

Naturally, they both play themselves in A Moment of Innocence, but there is a film-within-a-film structure because the plot revolves around Makhmalbaf and the ex-policeman trying to make a film about the violent event which brought them together. Each of them first finds and then mentors a young actor to play their respective youthful counterparts. Yet there comes a time when the two young actors stop acting and simply “become” young Makhmalbaf and the young ex-policeman, and as always in the NIC it is seamless. But this time when the stabbing is set to happen, the two young men instead exchange a flowerpot and a piece of bread, rather than a gun and a knife. The regrettable events of the real past are allowed to erode into a symbolic and poetic re-imagining in Makhmalbaf’s vision, although we are made painfully aware that rewriting the past is possible in cinema, but not in reality. It’s a moving ending, made all the more so by the collaboration throughout the film of the man Makhmalbaf had stabbed, the two now being reconciled. In its themes of different perspectives (in this case how Makhmalbaf and the policeman each saw the event differently) and of the subjectivity of truth, A Moment of Innocence is one of the most modernist, perhaps even post-modernist of NIC films.

The NIC directors are fully aware that their films, despite much of mainstream realist cinema’s ambition to depict some kind of fixed reality, can only be subjective, and this infuses them with a rare sense of self-consciousness without ever being pretentiously mannerist. To go full circle let us return to Kiarostami, who no doubt influenced the other 3 directors mentioned, but who in the meantime was creating some of the films representing the pinnacle of the NIC’s blend of sophistication with natural simplicity. After Where is the Friend’s Home?, the last two films comprising what is often labelled Kiarostami’s ‘Koker trilogy’ (after the region of Iran they are set in), Life and Nothing More and Through the Olive Trees, each refer back to the preceding film. In 1990 a devastating earthquake struck the Koker region, where Kiarostami had filmed Where is the Friend’s Home?, and killed over 50,000. This led Kiarostami to drive to the region, accompanied by his young son, in search of the two boys who’d acted in his film to find out if they had survived. What he saw in this trip moved him to make Life and Nothing More, in which a director, played by an actor in the film but essentially a surrogate for Kiarostami, searches for the two boys among the aftermath of the earthquake. Again reality inspired Kiarostami’s film and again real life and filmed life combined organically…

Through the Olive Trees shows the making of Life and Nothing More, focussing on the story of a bricklayer who had played a small part in the 2nd film as a non-professional actor but is now playing himself in the 3rd film. Characters from the previous films suddenly appear, including, in Through the Olive Trees, the sought-after boys who were never found in Life and Nothing More. This sort of Russian doll structure once again sounds far more complicated than it actually plays out in the films. Interestingly, Kiarostami remarked about these films “I didn’t have the least intention as such of making a film about the shooting of a film”. Cinema here just happens to be part of the story inasmuch as it serves as a tool for Kiarostami to celebrate the humanity and quiet dignity of his characters, who have lived through a horrific nightmare and yet continue to enjoy life. The “Koker trilogy”, like Kiarostami’s Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry, is a celebration of life —  the one constant guiding both cinema and reality — and it ranks among the very finest masterpieces of world cinema.

So I have described roughly what makes the NIC such a unique, innovative and sophisticated cinema which was doing things very few other national cinemas were at the time, and which many film critics were surprised to see come from a country with a fundamentalist religious regime not known for its modernity. Most of all however, this part of the NIC is the ultimate refutation of those critics of NIC’s success who claim it only got international acclaim because it mostly shows rural Iran and poor characters and that is supposedly the side of Iran foreign audiences are most comfortable in seeing. Such criticisms have often been levelled at the NIC and its prominent filmmakers have at times been accused of being opportunistic careerists making films showing the poverty of Iran just to please foreign audiences and festivals. Well, first of all, let’s just say that these kind of arguments are completely unfair, since nobody judges Western directors on this basis; nobody would attack Ken Loach, for example, for making films about the underprivileged in Britain which are then shown in foreign festivals. Iranian directors too then have the right to choose whatever subject they wish to focus their art on. Secondly, if scholars and philosophers worldwide have written articles and volumes on the NIC, it isn’t because these films show poor rural Iranians, but because of how they show what they show. Meaning, it’s this deceptively simple yet highly sophisticated self-reflexive modernist style which made Iranian cinema so fascinating to cinephiles the world over from the late 80s to the early noughties.

In the next part, I will discuss the influences and motivations behind the NIC’s signature style, in an attempt to explain how and why that style formed. Thanks for reading! To be continued….

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