BY Michelle Orange in Opinion | 03 JUN 18
Featured in
Issue 196

Recent Iranian Films Challenge the Stereotype of Movie-Making in a Repressive Country

Michelle Orange traces the recent history of Iranian films, from Jafar Pahahi’s Taxi (2015) to Mani Haghighi’s Pig (2018)

BY Michelle Orange in Opinion | 03 JUN 18

In a scene from Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (2015), a film student asks the director for advice. He does so while sitting in the back of the cab that Panahi, playing himself, drives around Tehran throughout the film. Taxi, which won the Golden Bear at Berlin International Film Festival, makes both implied and explicit references to the circumstance of its director: following extensive clashes with Iran’s censors, Panahi was arrested in 2010; his sentence included a 20-year ban on filmmaking. The following year, he released This Is Not a Film, the first of three lo-fi features he has made in defiance of the ban. In Taxi, Panahi tells the aspiring director that landing on the right subject is the hardest part. No one can tell you which story to tell: ‘You must find it yourself.’ The important thing, he continues, is to be original. His new film, Three Faces (2018) shared the award for Best Screenplay at the 71st Cannes Film Festival with Italian director Alice Rohrwacher's Lazzaro Felice (Happy as Lazzaro, 2018).

Mani Haghighi, Pig, 2018. Courtesy: FilmPressPlus

The story of the last 40 years of Iranian cinema, as told by the international media, is one of art versus oppression, of free expression battling the forces of censorship. With Iran’s Islamic Revolution in 1978-79 came the intrusion of government powers into creative endeavour: Iranian filmmakers must gain the permission of the federally run Cinema Organization in order to produce, distribute and screen their work. In Taxi, a young passenger – who happens to be Panahi’s niece – lists some of the government’s key rules: Iranian movies should not depict violence, contact between the sexes, political discussions or anything that might be termed ‘sordid realism’.

Like Panahi, Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof was arrested in 2011: he was imprisoned for a year and also remains subject to a 20-year filmmaking ban. A Man of Integrity (2017), which Rasoulof shot without sanction in northern Iran, tells the story of Reza, a Job-like figure who resists the systemic corruption devouring his rural village. ‘In this country, you’re either the oppressed or the oppressor,’ a character tells Reza. A Man of Integrity won Un Certain Regard at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival; Variety hailed it as a high point in a body of work preoccupied with ‘the means by which an authoritarian regime succeeds in silencing independent voices’. Critics have also praised Panahi for using his own subjection to fuel his work. ‘Oppression has transformed Panahi’s art,’ The New Yorker critic Richard Brody wrote in 2015. ‘Under the pressure of circumstances […] Panahi turns the kind of reflexive cinema that, in the US, would risk critical dismissal as narcissistic into a furious act of political defiance.’

Some fatigue with the stories told by and about Iranian cinema has also set in. Famously oppressed in Iran, Panahi and Rasoulof have faced criticism in the West for fostering a certain creative conformity: must an Iranian film always grapple with censorship and the consequence of autocratic rule in order to be considered Iranian outside of Iran? Some critics complained that the celebration of Panahi’s Taxi favoured politics over quality; others found A Man of Integrity to be overdone, a story of relentless oppression that staggers under the weight of its metaphors.

Objections such as these suggest the limits of defining any national cinema. The nature of any nationally identified artistic movement is fraught: the terms of its existence are generally framed from without and pose a threat to whatever genuine collective creative synergy is at hand. The Iranian example is instructive precisely because Iran – exclusive, repressive, authoritarian – is well-positioned as a sort of against-all-odds creative oasis in an increasingly homogenous global marketplace.

Jafar Panahi, Three Faces, 2018. Courtesy: FilmPressPlus

That is the story, anyway. But Mani Haghighi is not having it. The Tehran-born actor, writer and director of films including Men at Work (2006) and Modest Reception (2012), debuted Pig (2018) at this year’s Berlin International Film Festival. Over the course of a press conference for the film – a comedy about a blacklisted Iranian director (Hasan Majuni) – Haghighi, who was educated in Canada, bemoaned the narrow lens through which international audiences have come to view Iranian cinema: ‘How many times do you need to hear this? Yes, there is censorship in Iran; yes, it’s difficult to live with; and, yes, we are dealing with it […] But there is so much more to discuss. Let me ask you a question: why do you think Iranian films are supposed to be some kind of a tour guide of Iran for you? We’re not here presenting our country and telling you, ‘‘Come, look how victimized we are, come and help us!’’ It’s sickening and tiring.’

Haghighi has also confronted the limits of ‘Iranian cinema’ as it is practised. He has been rejected from festivals because his eclectic films were not ‘Iranian’ enough. In Pig, his protagonist frets that a serial killer targeting famous Iranian directors may not add him to the list. Abbas Kiarostami,  who died in 2016 and for whom Panahi once served as assistant director, did more than perhaps any filmmaker to enhance the reputation of Iranian cinema and to establish its contemporary traditions. ‘Iranian films were supposed to be simple humanist tales of innocence with minimalist
story structures, non-professional actors, realist narratives,’ said Haghighi. ‘I’m still in love with many of those films. But I also feel suffocated by the pressure of their legacy on Iranian filmmakers.’

Part of that pressure is to approach filmmaking as a vehicle for political statements. Haghighi says: ‘There is not a slogan that I wish to express in my film and I’m making the film in order to express that slogan.’ It is interesting to note, then, the extent to which documentary – a genre with an open embrace of advocacy – has energized Iranian cinema with films like Sonita (2015) and Starless Dreams (2016), both of which explore the experience of young girls in Iran in a way that feels intimate, risky and fresh. In the former film, director Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami is drawn into the plight of her subject, an Afghan girl in Tehran who seeks a recording career in a country that forbids women from performing.

In Starless Dreams, director Mehrdad Oskouei interviews detainees at a Tehran home for ‘delinquent’ girls, to numinous and frequently heartbreaking effect. Both films bear their politics lightly; both directors serve the subject at hand, not the other way around.

The question of who is telling the story of contemporary Iranian film has one very easy answer: Asghar Farhadi, Oscar-winner for A Separation (2011) and The Salesman (2016), is the best known and most celebrated director currently working in Iran. Though his most successful films hew closely to the mode of Iranian cinema, Haghighi seeks to escape – quiet, humanist social dramas rich in political subtext – Farhadi’s most recent work marks a departure. Everybody Knows (2018), which opened the Cannes Film Festival this May, is Farhadi’s first movie set outside of Iran. Described as a thriller, it stars Penélope Cruz and Javier Bardem performing in Spanish, and was shot in Spain, Italy and France with an entirely Spanish cast and crew, save for Farhadi’s regular editor, Hayedeh Safiyari.

The vagaries of film production are many and Farhadi’s decision to work outside of Iran may have been a matter of expedience, driven by funding and opportunity. But matters of expedience have already done much to shape what we think of as Iranian cinema. Everybody Knows can’t help but challenge those expectations and suggests that Farhadi is ready to add a new chapter to its story.

Main image: Mani Haghighi, Pig, 2018. Courtesy: FilmPressPlus

This article appears in the print edition of the June - August 2018 issue, with the headline 'Find it Yourself'.

Michelle Orange is the author of This Is Running for Your Life: Essays (2013). She lives in New York, USA.