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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
Iran’s top filmmakers, spoken as he seeks to explain how, despite
harsh government censorship codes, so many richly humanistic and
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
creativity may flourishes under the most restrictive environments,
and some of the filmmakers actually attribute the startling
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
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
"Dreams Betrayed," about political filmmaking under the Shah,
in 1986, and is currently at work on "Kiarostami 101," a
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
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,
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.
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
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
many of the nation’s former filmmakers, and took steps to create its
own Islamic cinema with the establishment of the Farabi Film
Now the government of Iran controls all aspects of production, running
a monopoly on film stock, equipment, and labs as well as issuing
permits on a merit-based rating system. Because of the ban on Western
films, these home-grown films, including the most artistic, are
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
One immediate surprise to Western eyes while watching
"Friendly Persuasion" is the presence, among the 14
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
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
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
"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
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
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
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.
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
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.
21, 7 p.m.
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
begin at 7 p.m.; $5 non-members. Information 732-932-8482; Website:
experimental film. On a double bill with Bahman Ghobadi’s debut
"A Time for Drunken Horses" about impoverished orphans in
Kurdistan; Friday to Sunday, June 22 to 24.
Dali. Screening of two French surrealist classics: Bunuel’s "Un
Chien Andalou" (1929) and "L’Age d’Or" (1930) by Dali;
Thursday, June 28.
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.
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 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.
Andrei Tarkovsky, his 1972 artistic response to Kubrick’s "2001";
Thursday, July 12.
the screening of his experimental feature that reinterprets the
legend of Joan of Arc; Friday to Sunday, July 13 to 15.
the making of Francis Coppola’s 1979 war epic "Apocalypse
Thursday, July 19.
movie and romantic comedy about a hitchhiking librarian. On a double
bill with "Strong Roots"; Friday to Sunday, July 20 to 22.
a construction worker’s aversion to animals. With three short films
by New Jersey media artists and/or winners of the NJ Film Fest
"Stop the Violence" by April Allridge; "The Melody
by Robert Bertrand; and "Mighty Mutts" by Anne Paas; Friday
and Saturday, July 27 and 28.
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