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Documenting Discontent: Talking With Jamsheed Akrami About Iranian Cinema

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Photo courtesy of Jamsheed Akrami.

Three years ago Jeff St. Clair affixed the title “Is Abbas Kiarostami the World’s Most Talented Film-maker?” to my review of the Iranian director’s 1999 masterpiece “The Wind Will Carry Us”. I, of course, would not only answer yes to his rhetorical question but would go one step further and argue that Iranian filmmakers collectively have been making the greatest films for the past 30 years at least. They are the equivalent of the French nouvelle vague of the 1950s and early 60s but paradoxically produce great films under the heavy constraints of a clerical state that not only puts obstacles in their path but drives some of the elite figures into exile or in the case of Jafar Panahi kept under house arrest.

Recently I was fortunate enough to view four documentaries about Iranian film by Jamsheed Akrami, a Professor in the Communications Department of William Paterson University in New Jersey, that were made between 2000 and 2013 and are now available from Arab Film Distribution, which markets DVDs to institutional customers such as university libraries and film departments.

The price is too steep for the average CounterPunch readers but I strongly urge film professors, Mideast studies faculty members and any other academics concerned about the problems of artists in an authoritarian society to set aside money for the films when they are preparing their budget for the next fiscal year. Akrami, who has a supreme mastery of Iranian politics and cinema, is an accomplished interviewer who adroitly blends the words of these stellar filmmakers with excerpts from their work that are spellbinding.

Although I have reviewed well over twenty films by Iranian directors since the early 2000s, including nearly every film Abbas Kiarostami has made, and have read scholarly treatments on Iranian film, I was surprised by how little I knew while watching Akrami’s documentaries. Even if you have never seen an Iranian film, the documentaries will still engage you intellectually and politically since they relate to the nagging problem of artistic freedom globally.

As I hoped to make clear in my review of Andrzej Wajda’s “Afterimages” in last week’s CounterPunch, restrictions on artistic freedom are generally associated with restrictions on the rights of working people and poor farmers, which prevail in Iran no matter the pretensions of the “revolutionary” clerics. As a universal rule, if you censor artists, you are likely to ban trade unions and trample on the rights of the oppressed. It is no accident that Donald Trump proposed eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities at the same time he threw his considerable weight behind legislation that would permit open shops nationally.

In a profile on Ebrahim Raisi, who is a candidate in the upcoming elections in Iran, the New York Times notes that the “conservative” populist is “pounding away at the themes of inequality and corruption [so] he can reap enough votes from the declining provincial sector to propel him to victory.” He is also refraining from “raising any of the social issues his faction usually cares so much about, such as Islamic dress codes and segregation of men and women” in an effort to garner votes from the more urbanized and secular-minded segment of the population that identifies with the Green Movement. One imagines that some of these more politically aware and democratic-minded citizens might not want to absolve Raisi for his role as the deputy prosecutor in Tehran in 1985 when he and three others, including the current minister of justice, Mustafa Pourmohammadi, imposed the death sentence on thousands of political prisoners.

All of the contradictions posed by his candidacy are reflected to one degree or another in the Iranian art film, even if obliquely. The major exception, of course, is Jafar Panahi who has defied the censors and spoken openly about the need for democratic change. In the four documentaries considered below, you will find directors and screenwriters wrestling with the challenges facing the Iranian people and doing the best they can to create a vision of a society based on their own humanitarian instincts even if ideological considerations remain in the distant background.

After providing some brief commentary on the four documentaries, I will conclude with the interview I conducted with Professor Akrami, the only one I have done with a filmmaker since I began reviewing films in the early 90s. Although most of my questions bear directly on the issues raised in his films, there are others that have been on my mind since I began reviewing Iranian films 13 years ago. Those who have enjoyed Iranian film will appreciate Akrami’s keen insights and hopefully others who are unfamiliar with this supremely accomplished body of work will be inspired to get up to speed through various streaming websites or from DVD’s borrowed from public libraries.

Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the 1979 Revolution (2000)

This is an excellent introduction to Iranian film that in addition to interviews with its major figures includes commentary from film scholars and from Richard Peña, the curator of the Lincoln Center Film who is an unabashed devotee of Iranian film (and far more knowledgeable than me.)

One of the consequences of the 1979 revolution was the creation of a state cinema that made it possible for art films to be funded. Despite all the obstacles put in the path of its makers, they were able to benefit from a generous funding program that filled the vacuum by the collapse of the commercial film industry. Once a new state-sponsored industry got off the ground, Iran began producing 70 films per year—obviously not all of them were art films. For comparison’s sake, Brazil produced 5.

Yet these 70 films operate under strict budget constraints—between $100,000 to $200,000. So this means that they will not be able to produce the typical Hollywood summer blockbuster like Batman vs. Superman (thank god). Like the Nicaraguans who cobbled together spare parts for broken machinery during the Sandinista revolution, Iranian filmmakers make do with what they have. A rail used for tracking shots might be used for 3 different films on the same day, something Michael Bay would consider a huge insult. (The real insult are his stupid films.)

Of course, those who pay the piper call the tunes. I learned from this film that there are strict rules against a male character touching a female character in an Iranian film, even if they are members of the same family! Furthermore, female characters are forced to wear the hijab even when they are shown in their own household, a restriction that is not even called for in Islam. If Iranian women can show their hair when they are at home but not when they are depicted on screen, Abbas Kiarostami saw no alternative but to avoid filming women indoors since it violated his sense of realism. I should add that there is one exception to men and women touching in Iranian films. The censors permit violence to be dramatized. Kissing a woman’s face in a movie is banned but slapping her face is not.

Mohsen Makhmalbaf, one of Iran’s greatest filmmakers who is now living in exile and whose films deserve a wider circulation in the West, observes that the subordinate position of Iranian women in film reflects their role in society. The censors clearly understand that depicting a strong and independent woman in a film might unleash tendencies in society that they would prefer to suppress. All of the directors are deeply troubled by the restrictions, especially the female directors, but must obey the censors or face the sort of punishment meted out to Jafar Panahi.

Above all, through its carefully selected excerpts, “Friendly Persuasion” communicates the humanism that is shared by all of the major filmmakers working in Iran. There is a strong identification with society’s lower classes and the economic travails of a developing country that is part of a tradition going back to the glory days of cinema when Akira Kurosawa, Satyajit Ray and the Italian neorealists were setting the tone for art films everywhere. If films like “Ikiru” or “The Apu Trilogy” are those that you would count as among the world’s greatest, it is about time that you began discovering Iranian film.

A Walk with Kiarostami (2003)

This is a 31 minute film that I wish would have been 3 times as long. It shows the great director on a ferry boat approaching one of the Aran islands (where Robert Flaherty made “Man of Aran”) and walking along a dirt path near a river on a rainy afternoon the next day in Galway on the occasion of a Irish film festival. Accompanied by Akrami while he takes pictures with an old-fashioned SLR film camera, Kiarostami answers his various questions (just as Akrami was kind enough to answer mine.)

Self-deprecating, witty and brimming with insights about art and society, Kiarostami is both entertaining and enlightening. This exchange is typical. Akrami points out to Kiarostami that he has used various media throughout his career, including poetry, photography and painting. Does he end up adopting a given medium by choice or by chance? Kiarostami replies:

Mostly by chance and you can and a few other things to the list. I used carpentry one point my life and it had the same exact function for me as poetry, photography or painting. I think we do all these things because of our restlessness. It is a restlessness resulting from the fact that you have to somehow to survive and add something to yourself to counter your deeper feelings of inadequacy. You always feel the urge to enhance yourself in order to be accepted. Unlike some people who think one needs to set a goal to achieve success, I don’t think it can actually work like that. Maybe in the fields like business or science it could. But in the arts it can only come from a feeling of restlessness. You think you are inadequate, not good enough, and you have to add something to yourself.

The Lost Cinema (2007)

This documentary is a revelation. It makes the case that there was a New Wave in Iran during the 60s and 70s when the Shah was in power. As is the case with the Islamic Republic, censorship abounded but with a different emphasis. Under the Shah, you saw plenty of women being embraced by men and not wearing a hijab but you had to be careful about indicating that Iran was a police state. This led filmmakers to use metaphors for life under a dictatorship such as Bahman Farmanara’s 1979 “Tall Shadows of the Wind” that depicted a rural village oppressed by scarecrows originally intended to protect them from evil. Since the scarecrows were clearly a symbol of the dreaded Savak, the film was banned. But even after the Shah was overthrown, the Islamic Republic maintained the ban since they were worried that the scarecrows could be interpreted as the morality police that have bedeviled Iranian society for the past 38 years.

A Cinema of Discontent (2013)

This covers some of the same terrain as “Friendly Persuasion” but is much more focused on the restrictions imposed on filmmakers. It illustrates the many techniques that they use to sidestep the censors in order to create a sense of intimacy between man and woman by bending but not breaking the rules in an on-going cat and mouse game. With a virtual who’s who of Iranian cinema, including Asghar Farhadi whose Oscar-winning 2017 “The Salesman” depicts the intrusion of censors in a staging of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, it includes excerpts from many different films that bring the workarounds into focus. Given the brilliance of the techniques used by a host of great directors, one can only yearn for the day when they can work in complete freedom as citizens in a free society.

* * * *

An interview with Jamsheed Akrami.

Q: In A Cinema of Discontent, the directors speak without much inhibition about censorship. Were there any worries about repercussions?

A: I was clear with the filmmakers regarding the focus of my documentary. Most of them knew I had covered both the bright and the dark side of Iranian cinema in my previous works. But I told them in advance that “A Cinema of Discontent” would be an exploration of the dark side of Iranian cinema, a draconian system of censorship unprecedented in the history of any national cinema.

I realized most people who follow Iranian films abroad, even the experts, are really not that familiar with the extent of censorship in Iranian cinema and how the films are affected by the censorship codes. That’s partly due to the filmmakers’ uncanny ability to not only get around the codes but also somehow make them invisible in their films. But obviously as documented in my film, they ultimately pay a price. Some may compromise their artistic integrity; others may have to let go of many of their film ideas as they would be impossible to produce.

Even inside the country, the Islamic regime tends to tolerate the level of criticism voiced in my film. They want to pretend dissent is allowed. The problem is no matter how much dissent is expressed by the filmmakers, the censorship codes remain unchanged.

Q: In 2004 I saw Jafar Pahani’s “Crimson  Gold”, the first of over 20 Iranian films I have reviewed. I was surprised by the open critique of class inequality and the inclusion of a scene showing the morality police arresting people at a party for the crime of dancing with each other. It was only some years after seeing it that I was even more surprised to see that Kiarostami wrote the screenplay, whose other films steer clear of making political statements except in the most oblique fashion. Was the idea for the film Panahi’s? Or was it a joint venture?

A: Kiarostami was Panahi’s mentor and used to give him story ideas all the time. He would do that for a number of other young filmmakers as well. These were stories mostly based on real events that he felt were important and wanted to see them made but not by him, as he thought they belonged to a period of his career he had left behind. “Crimson Gold” is a socially conscious film about class differences whereas Kiarostami’s own films at the time, “Taste of Cherry” and “The Wind Will Carry Us” were deeply personal meditations on death and mortality. Ten years earlier, he might have directed a film like “Crimson Gold” himself, though I don’t know how he would have dealt with the violent parts of the story. He hated violence.

Q: I found “The Lost Cinema” to be a real eye-opener. Like most people, I tended to view the great Iranian films of the post-Islamic Republic period as an unintended consequence of the overthrow of the Shah. I assumed that Iran was a totalitarian dungeon under the Shah but realized watching the film that he saw art films as a PR asset—just as long as they kept the criticisms of the regime symbolic. Obviously speaking in relative terms, was Iran a fertile environment for the arts in the 70s despite Savak? Who influenced Iranian filmmakers?

A: Iranian filmmakers were strongly influenced by both American and European films in the 70s. Iran was a thriving film capital before the revolution. All Hollywood majors had offices in Tehran, and European films were being shown in great numbers and sometimes even before they opened in major American cities. Tehran International Film Festival was one of the top ten festivals in the world. Shiraz Art Festival was a cutting edge cultural event that would bring top international artists to Iran to perform for a mostly alienated audience hopelessly torn between tradition and modernity. Staging international film festivals and artistic events were all part of the Shah’s ill-fated modernization campaign that was cosmetically changing the face of the country but also adversely impacting the intricate social fabric of the Iranian society.

The Iranian New Wave films were the by-products of the cultural tension inherent in a rapid pace of modernization within the context of an essentially conservative society. They depicted the pitfalls of this conflict. Dariush Mehrjui’s “The Cow,” the movie that heralded the Iranian New Wave in the 70s,was a prime example. The story of the mental breakdown of a villager who assumes the identity of his dead cow, the only cow in an impoverished village, could sustain all sorts of interpretations pointing to social ills. Iranian New Wave filmmakers were all educated and modern thinking, but their movies were highly critical of the modernization campaign of the Shah.

Q: As a follow-up question, can it be said that there is a continuity in Iranian film from the 1960s to today thematically and stylistically? After 1979, a film might have to show a woman wearing a hijab inside her home but the overriding problems of poverty and authoritarianism have remained consistent in films such as “Tall Shadows of the Wind” and “Crimson Gold”.

A: The Islamic regime pretends no praiseworthy cinema existed before the revolution, which is a lie. The quality post-revolutionary cinema was a natural continuation of the pre-revolutionary art-house cinema. It was the New Wave filmmakers such as Mehrjui and Kiarostami who picked up the spear from where it had fallen and forged ahead after the revolution. The Islamic regime’s one significant move was halting the production of the cheap box-office driven films that had existed before the revolution. They also banned the import of foreign films, which had the positive impact of helping the domestic film industry grow, but the negative consequence of depriving the cinemagoers from watching foreign films legally in the theaters.

Q: Is it possible that Iranian film has begun to have an impact outside the country’s borders in the way that Hollywood used to? I say that as a passionate fan of Nuri Bilge Ceylan whose works have the visual power of Kiarostami and the social commentary of Pahani.

A: I have always thought of Iranian films as an antithesis to Hollywood movies. I think that’s the main reason for their international appeal. They are about things that you no longer see in American movies. Obviously that quality does not endear them to the multiplex moviegoers, but makes them a breath of fresh air to art-house audiences. The first time I noticed Iranian films were having an impact was when I saw David Lynch’s “The Straight Story.” The simple story of a man traveling on a lawnmower to see his dying brother was a lot more like a Kiarostami film than a typical David Lynch film. It had the same beguiling simplicity, the same depth of humanity and the same minimal production values that we had come to expect from Iranian films. Too bad Richard Farnsworth was not a non-actor.

Over the years, many international filmmakers have admitted being influenced by Iranian films. Nuri Bilge Ceylan was a big admirer of Kiarostami’s films. I remember having a brief chat with him at the Fajr Film Festival in the 90s.  He had only made two films at the time, and just couldn’t stop praising Kiarostami.

Q: I find the work of Asghar Farhadi extremely interesting and was even a bit surprised to see him interviewed in “A Cinema of Discontent” since he is not someone directly affected by censorship as far as I can remember. Although his films are distinctly Iranian, there is a universality about the themes such as aging, love, personal loss through tragedy, etc. I was curious to see how you regard his work.

A: Farhadi has proven himself to be an insightful social commentator. His films are probing and poignant commentaries on Iranian realities. But he manages to elevate them to a level of universality that makes them relatable to audiences all over the world. The moral dilemmas and human anxieties he examines in his films  transcend cultural borders.

As a reaction against the isolationist policies of a theocratic government, Farhadi projects Iran as part of the global community in his films. That’s why he likes to make movies outside of Iran, and there are allusions to foreign works in his films, like the staging of an American play, “Death of a Salesman” in “The Salesman” or the echoes of movies like Roman Polanski’s ‘Tenant” and “Death and the Maiden” in the same film.

Although he doesn’t make direct political statements in his films, art itself can be a potent political force, and it’s through the seemingly innocuous touches or the art of implying that we see the manifestations of political statements in his films. “The Salesman” actually evokes Dariush Mehrjui’s “The Cow,” which Farhadi pays homage to, more than it does Arthur Miller’s play. The two films are not only about seeking the truth but also about the inability to understand and accept the truth. And that’s something fundamentally political in a politically repressed society.

Farhadi is a highly popular filmmaker in Iran. “The Salesman” broke box office records and became the highest grossing Iranian film ever. The enthusiasm for seeing the film was so intense that the theatres had to add 2 am screenings and resume screening again at 6 am in the early days of the film’s opening in Tehran.

Of course he has his detractors too, especially among the hardliners, who made an issue of “The Salesman” being partially supported by a film fund from the government of Qatar. They said Qatar sponsors ISIS, and wanted to draw the ridiculous conclusion that the government which finances ISIS also financed Farhadi’s film.

Q: “A Walk with Kiarostami” was an amazing film. I only wish it could have gone on for 90 minutes. It struck me that his ability to fend off some of your questions and to treat them ironically was related to his films. If you are looking for an obvious message in something like “The Wind Will Carry Us”, you are missing the point. Any thoughts?

A: Kiarostami obviously was not interested in making “message” movies. That doesn’t mean his films were free of messages. The beauty of his work was in how he was leaving it up to the audience to discern and decipher messages as they wished. At a mid-career point in the 90s he decided to make what he called “half-made” films, meaning that he would only make half of a film and would let the audience construct the other half in their minds. This helps explain the ellipses, omissions, and the distancing touches as well as the open shots and open endings in most of his films. I remember how excited he was right after he had finished shooting “The Wind Will Carry Us” as he was telling me he had eight characters in the film that wouldn’t be shown at all. He wanted the audience to imagine those characters. Through withholding information from his audience, he was actually trying to empower them to make their half of the film by filling in the gaps according to their own imagination and interpretations.

Unfortunately, his work was not fully appreciated in Iran. The more he received recognition outside of Iran, the further his Iranian audiences drifted away from him. I told him once that he was one of the top five filmmakers in the world and top ten filmmakers in Iran. I guess he liked my not-so-serious assessment because he later quoted me in an interview with an Iranian film magazine.

It was so poignant that the banners in his funeral last summer read, “The First Welcome, The Last Farewell,” a sad admission of how the funeral gathering was the first real demonstration of appreciation for him, while it was also bitterly the last goodbye.

Q: Further, with respect to “The Wind Will Carry Us”, I have often wondered why Kiarostami chose a Kurdish village as a backdrop. Is it possible that the reticence of the villagers had something to do with their ethnicity? I tend to rule that out because I wouldn’t associate Kiarostami with having a focus on the national question but wonder if you have any thoughts.

A: I think the Kurdish village was more like a backdrop in “The Wind Will Carry Us.” Maybe the same way a movie like “Lost in Translation” used Japan as a mere backdrop. There are Japanese characters all over the place but the movie is not about them. In Kiarostami’s film we also have minor Kurdish characters but the film is not about the Kurds and Kurdish issues. Landscape in Kiarostami’s films is used mostly for its visual appeal, and the Kurdish landscape in “The Wind Will Carry Us” was no exception.

Kiarostami had a certain affinity for populating his films with ethnic characters. “Taste of Cherry,” for example, featured Kurdish, Afghan, and Turkish characters in major roles, but the film had nothing to do with ethnicity issues. Ethnicity as an element of national identity is such a complicated issue in Iran.

Q: Although this does not relate directly to your documentaries, I wonder what you make of some of the younger Iranian filmmakers who are working outside of Iran like Ana Lily Amirpour, Babak Anvari and Ramin Bahrani. I am not sure if Bahrani should be included since he was born in the USA and makes English-language films but would appreciate your thoughts.

A: You can add a few other names to that list, including Ali Abbasi whose Danish debut “Shelley” was an interesting horror movie evoking “Rosemary’s Baby.” Interestingly, with the exception of Bahrani, the other filmmakers have shown an interest in making horror movies. It’s easy to infer they might be projecting the horrors of life in the country of their heritage. But one could also argue they may be reflecting the horrors of xenophobia in their adopted countries.

You can also add to the list the names of some well-known Iranian filmmakers who’ve been forced into living and working in exile: Amir Naderi, Parviz Sayyad, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Bahman Ghobadi.

Q: Finally, as someone clearly in favor of democratic change in Iran, how do you view the upcoming elections? The NY Times reported that at a rally for Rouhani there were open manifestations of support for the Green Revolution. Could Iran be poised for a new challenge to clerical domination?

A: Though the Green Movement is banned in Iran, the aspirations that inspired it are very much alive. I don’t think the Green Movement was necessarily a revolutionary movement. It was a call for reform. Iranians are sick and tired of revolutions. They are totally disenchanted with the whole idea of revolution because they did it once and ended up trading a secular dictatorship for a theocratic one.

The regime has constantly blown up chances for making reform. They are apprehensive of any reform that can be seen as a sort of conciliatory gesture. They think that was the deadly mistake the Shah made. Therefore, they have focused all their efforts on keeping the revolutionary zeal alive, even after almost forty years. They have also relentlessly burdened people with all sorts of economic and social pressures, as a ploy to push people’s political demands off the table.

The next presidency in Iran will be either a continuation of the present bleak political situation or a change of direction toward further deterioration, which seems like almost a trend in recent elections in the other parts of the world. Just look at what’s happening in this country. I don’t think the current collective global leadership has been any worse in modern history.

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Louis Proyect blogs at http://louisproyect.org and is the moderator of the Marxism mailing list. In his spare time, he reviews films for CounterPunch.

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