Film Festivals

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This article by Jack Florek was prepared for the June 20, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Iranian Cinema Unveiled

We found life in the graveyard. If our films celebrate life, it’s

because they come from the heart of death.

The words are from Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of

contemporary

Iran’s top filmmakers, spoken as he seeks to explain how, despite

harsh government censorship codes, so many richly humanistic and

vibrant

films have emerged from Iran in recent years. Recent films such as

"The White Balloon," "Gabbeh," and "The Wind Will

Carry Us," thoughtful and meditative in character, have found

great favor with international audiences.

Makhmalbaf is just one of 14 Iranian filmmakers featured in Jamsheed

Akrami’s new documentary, "Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema

after the Revolution." A kind of primer course for any modern

cinema enthusiast, the film is liberally garnished with clips and

interviews with many of Iran’s most celebrated filmmakers including

Abbas Kiarostami ("A Taste of Cherry"), Majid Majidi ("The

Color of Paradise"), Mohsen Makhmalbaf ("Gabbeh"), and

Jafar Panahi ("The White Balloon"). It will be screened as

a part of the New Jersey International Film Festival on Thursday,

June 21, at 7 p.m. at Loree Hall on Rutgers’ Douglass College campus

in New Brunswick. Professor Akrami, who teaches film and television

at William Paterson College, will be on hand to introduce the film

and take questions from the audience after the screening.

Unlike many international events, Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution,

fueled as it was with so much anti-American sentiment, played front

and center in the American consciousness. Now the common perception

among American film audiences is that this poor nation’s original

and enchanting films are a kind of miracle, like a flower growing

from a rock. But as Akrami’s "Friendly Persuasion" makes

clear,

creativity may flourishes under the most restrictive environments,

and some of the filmmakers actually attribute the startling

originality

of Iranian films to the need to creatively circumvent the government’s

rigid censorship codes.

"That’s not a totally baseless idea," says Akrami, in a phone

interview from his home. "Historically, if you look at some other

dictatorial systems, you see that there has often been a blooming

of arts and literature under the dictatorship. That seems to be the

same case in Iran. Sometimes you become more creative out of

necessity."

In Iran, it is forbidden to show a man and a woman touching in even

the most casual manner. This applies equally to married couples. And

all women shown on screen must wear scarves covering their hair. Of

course, overt eroticism is banned altogether. So rather than show

a scene in which a woman dresses in front of her mirror — as is

common fare in Western films — an Iranian filmmaker may choose

to focus his camera on a close-up of her delicately textured sleeve

hanging limp against a deep black background. Then suddenly, when

a graceful, half-closed hand emerges through the end of the sleeve,

the audience gets the message, and in a style not commonly seen in

standard Hollywood movies.

Some Iranian filmmakers choose not to challenge restrictions in any

way. Jafar Panahi makes children the focus of his films because these

censorship codes are not as restrictive as those applied to adults.

In this way, children are not just children, but become a kind of

metaphor for the discovery of a miraculous new world, surrogates for

the adult explorer.

Akrami left Iran in 1978 after working there as an editor and film

critic for several Iranian film magazines. His father worked for the

Iranian government, and neither of his parents had much interest in

films. "I guess I got my interest in filmmaking on my own. I was

self inspired," he says. He made his first feature-length

documentary,

"Dreams Betrayed," about political filmmaking under the Shah,

in 1986, and is currently at work on "Kiarostami 101," a

documentary

on the celebrated Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. Akrami has been

teaching at William Paterson for six years.

One particular strength of "Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema

after the Revolution" is Akrami’s technique of cutting the film

around specific subjects in such a way that a kind of dialogue

develops

among the interviewees. We are then able to see often diametrically

differing opinions offered by the various filmmakers concerning their

working conditions in Iran.

"I tried very hard to keep a balance in terms of the opinions

being voiced in the film," says Akrami. "It’s very easy to

go one way or the other in doing a movie like this. If I only had

people voicing opinions against the regime, then that would have been

propaganda. So I wound up including all opinions, even those I don’t

personally agree with."

Ebraheem Hatami-Kia believes that the best way to deal

with the governmental restrictions is to simply live with them, saying

"we must accept boundaries set by Islam." Later he adds,

"Our

cinema is a mirror that reflects our society accurately."

On the other hand, Bahram Bayzai openly seeks looser restrictions,

saying that portraying female characters as wearing headscarves at

all times, even in their own homes, is "just too much." He

then adds, "We have to comply anyway, without being content. But

I think that those claiming that they are content are lying."

Other filmmakers, such as the prominent Abbas Kiarostami, whose film

"A Taste of Cherry" won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the

50th Cannes Film Festival, do not see censorship as a problem.

Kiarostami

asserts that the government restrictions play a very small part in

how he chooses to make his films and coyly denies there is are any

censorship codes at all in Iran, preferring to call them simply

"religious

limitations."

Since the 1979 revolution, the Iranian government banned the showing

of all Western films within its borders. This led to several years

without any cinema at all. In 1983 the government then brought

together

many of the nation’s former filmmakers, and took steps to create its

own Islamic cinema with the establishment of the Farabi Film

Foundation.

Now the government of Iran controls all aspects of production, running

a monopoly on film stock, equipment, and labs as well as issuing

screening

permits on a merit-based rating system. Because of the ban on Western

films, these home-grown films, including the most artistic, are

eminently

marketable. By keeping ticket prices down (roughly one-eighth the

price of a pack of cigarettes), and by restricting other competing

means of entertainment, such as restaurants or video arcades, Iranian

films are able to turn a profit even without reaching any foreign

markets.

One immediate surprise to Western eyes while watching

"Friendly Persuasion" is the presence, among the 14

interviewees,

of two female filmmakers, Tahmineh Milani and Rakhshan Bani-Etemand.

Both women have been making films in Iran since the late 1980s. But

as Akrami explains, they are not so unusual. "Before the

revolution

there were no professional women filmmakers in Iran," he says.

"But now there are seven or eight women who are able to make their

careers as filmmakers. Some of them have made close to 10 movies.

So their careers are established."

But despite a greater presence as filmmakers, women as they are

portrayed

in the films are firmly entrenched in their traditional roles, often

entering a scene while carrying a tea tray.

"Friendly Persuasion" took Akrami nearly four years to

complete.

"The reason it took so long was the difficulty in getting access

to the 14 filmmakers," he explains. "I had to wait here in

this country for them to be invited to film festivals and I was able

to interview most of them while they were here. That took almost three

years. Finally I took a short trip to Iran and spoke with the

remaining

five or six filmmakers that I wanted to include in the documentary.

It then took me about a year to complete the post production."

When asked if he felt the filmmakers were at liberty to speak openly

and honestly for his documentary, Akrami says he believes they were.

"All of them are a little more open and frank in their opinions,

probably because the interviews were conducted outside Iran and they

felt, maybe psychologically, a little freer to express themselves.

Those that attack the censorship issue in the film are doing so in

Iran as well, although maybe not as openly as they do in the

documentary."

Akrami’s "Friendly Persuasion" is not a slick product, Much

of it appears somewhat rough and unpolished. At 100 minutes, it is

long and sometimes repetitive, and there seem to have been some

untaken

opportunities for editing. Also, the many featured film clips often

appear grainy with distorted colors, as if they were made from copies

of copies. In addition, some of the interviews appear oddly awkward.

Perhaps because the voice and presence of the interviewer have been

edited out of the final film, some of the interviewees appear to be

quite uncomfortable while isolated in front of Akrami’s camera.

But the raw information behind this presentation is fascinating.

Although

it is short on solid answers, "Friendly Persuasion" is a both

a valuable introduction and a storehouse of information on the Iranian

national cinema and their richly poetic films of warmth and wonder.

Watching it one begins to ask oneself why American films — with

so many freedoms at their command — can’t do as well.

— Jack Florek

Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema after the Revolution ,

New Jersey International Film Festival, Loree Hall, Room 024,

Douglass College Campus (near the corner of Nichol Avenue and George

Street), New Brunswick, 732-932-8482. Director Jamsheed Akrami is

guest speaker at the screening of his new documentary about Iranian

cinema. Website: www.njfilmfest.com $5. Thursday, June

21, 7 p.m.

Top Of Page
Film Festivals

New Jersey International Film Festival is presented by

the Rutgers Film Co-op/New Jersey Media Arts Center, New Brunswick.

Screenings are Fridays through Sunday in Scott Hall, Room 123, College

Avenue Campus (near the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street).

Thursday screenings are in Loree Hall, Room 024, Douglass College

Campus (near the corner of Nichol Avenue and George Street). All

programs

begin at 7 p.m.; $5 non-members. Information 732-932-8482; Website:

www.njfilmfest.com

Journey Swiftly Passing . Barbara Klutinis’ award-winning

experimental film. On a double bill with Bahman Ghobadi’s debut

feature

"A Time for Drunken Horses" about impoverished orphans in

Kurdistan; Friday to Sunday, June 22 to 24. Luis Bunuel & Salvador

Dali. Screening of two French surrealist classics: Bunuel’s "Un

Chien Andalou" (1929) and "L’Age d’Or" (1930) by Dali;

Thursday, June 28.

Drowning By Numbers . Peter Greenaway’s 1991 black comedy

about the English obsession with game-playing and love of landscape.

On a double bill with "Dud," Akira Tetsuka’s short film and

winner of the NJIFF’s best student film; Friday to Sunday, June 29

to July 1. Cat People. Jacques Tourneur’s 1941 cult classic

thriller about a woman who fears sexual arousal will transform her

into a deadly feline. On a double bill with Tourneur’s "I Walked

with a Zombie"; $8, Thursday, July 5. The Mystery of

Picasso.

The 1956 collaboration between Picasso and filmmaker H.G. Clouzot

in which the motion picture screen becomes the artist’s canvas. With

the animated short "Drumba"; Friday to Sunday, July 6 to 8.

Solaris . Metaphysical science fiction by Soviet director

Andrei Tarkovsky, his 1972 artistic response to Kubrick’s "2001";

Thursday, July 12. Wired Angel. Director Sam Wells presents

the screening of his experimental feature that reinterprets the

15th-century

legend of Joan of Arc; Friday to Sunday, July 13 to 15.

Hearts of Darkness . Fax Bahr’s harrowing documentary about

the making of Francis Coppola’s 1979 war epic "Apocalypse

Now";

Thursday, July 19. The Wedding Cow. Tomi Streiff’s funny road

movie and romantic comedy about a hitchhiking librarian. On a double

bill with "Strong Roots"; Friday to Sunday, July 20 to 22.

The Witness . Jenny Stein’s documentary prize-winner about

a construction worker’s aversion to animals. With three short films

by New Jersey media artists and/or winners of the NJ Film Fest

competition:

"Stop the Violence" by April Allridge; "The Melody

Bar"

by Robert Bertrand; and "Mighty Mutts" by Anne Paas; Friday

and Saturday, July 27 and 28.


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