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The Iranian Film Experiment: An Invitation to Study

A translated version of this piece is Available in: العربية (Arabic)

There is a noticeably growing interest in cinema by young Yemenis. While some of us chose the academic path, enrolling in film schools and universities, the rest, and they are many, gravitated towards self-teaching through online educational sites—for many reasons, mainly because of scarcity in opportunities. These encouraging efforts no doubt call for optimism and they will, hopefully, continue until a mature Yemeni film movement is developed. Such formation, however, requires learning from the experiences of pervious film movements that emerged in different countries; especially from those that share similar cultural contexts.

Film movements arise from specific cultural and historical factors. Some come into being for purely cinematic reasons, such as the French New Wave, which was established by film critics, who became filmmakers, at the end of the 1950s because of their exasperation with Hollywood movies and their mechanical structure. Others emerged for political reasons, such as the Third World Cinema movement that was established in Argentina in the 1960-1970s and then expanded to other areas of the global south as a reaction to imperialism and Western capitalism. While some movements formed because of all of those reasons, such as Italian Neorealism. But what they all had in common was that they did not develop in isolation from their predecessors.

Pioneers of film movements study schools that came before and build on them (such as the Italians: Rossellini and De Sica; and the French: Godard and Truffaut; and the Iranians: Mahrjui and Kimiai). Neorealism in Italy benefited from Poetic Realism in France, and the former influenced the French New Wave. Iranian directors then took in the two schools to come up with the New Iranian Cinema. This article concentrates on the Iranian experience, because of the geographic proximity of Yemen and Iran, and looks into the characteristics that a Yemeni film maker seeks inspiration from in their own experiments.

The history of the film industry in Iran

A shot from the film “Through the Olive Trees”

Iran entered the world of cinema early on. In 1925 the Armenian-Iranian inventor and director Ovanis Ohanian established the first film school, and directed the first Iranian film in 1930, called Abi and Rabi. In the following three decades, Iran produced dozens of films, which critics later called FilmFarsi. Most of that era’s films were purely commercial and influenced by Bollywood. The major turning point that transformed Iranian film, announcing the appearance of the Iranian New Wave, was the production of three films in 1969: The Cow by Dariush Mehrjui, Qeysar by Masoud Kimiai, and Tranquility in the Presence of Others by Nasser Taghvai. Subsequent films followed this style, such as Downpour by Barham Bayzai in 1972 and Abbas Kiarostami’s The Traveler in 1974, before the tide of the New Wave broke on the rock of the Islamic Revolution. The Islamic regime at the time considered cinema as a means to corrupt youth, as Ayatollah Khomeini called it, before he retracted and allowed it within suffocating parameters of expression.[i] The film movement resumed production with Amir Naderi’s film The Runner (1984) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is my Friend’s House (1987), which launched Iranian cinema onto the international scene. Critics disagree on the name of the movement, arguing between the Second New Wave and New Iranian Cinema. Here we will refer to it as the New Iranian Cinema, even though it represents an extension of the previous movement.

Film industry in Yemen

In both North and South Yemen, ideas have fluctuated since the 1950s. In 1950, Absurdity of Old Age was produced, and in 1963, From the Hut to the Palace was produced in Aden.[ii] Attempts at local production ended then, until the beginning of the 21st century. The critic Huda Jafar says in an online article, published on Eye on Cinema, that the Yemeni post-unification government established an institution for theatre and film and a higher institute for theatrical arts that were only further “dens for looting”.[iii] The first feature attempt that deserves recognition is A New Day in Old Sana’a by the director Bader Ben Hirsi in 2005, followed by I am Nujood, Age 10 and Divorced by Khadija al-Salami in 2014, and finally 10 Days Before the Wedding by Amr Jamal in 2019. In the years between these films, there has been continuous attempts by young film makers through the short films they produced through self-finance .

A shot from the film “The Wind Will Carry Us”

Simple

Most new Iranian films are made using simple methods and scarce means. They are characterized by a simple image and a few filming locations, based on real places and characters. They also depend on one main character around whom the whole story revolves. In 1997 the Cannes Film Festival awarded Abbas Kiarostami its most important award, the Palm d’Or, for The Taste of Cherry. The film tells the story of a man in his forties (Homayoun Ershadi) who travels through the streets of Tehran looking for a person who would bury him after he commits suicide. Most events take place inside the man’s car, and occasionally we are shown the mountains and people of Tehran. The conversations that take place between the man and the other characters – from whom he asks this shocking request – about the futility of life and the frustrations of the Iranian individual, present us with a work that is worthy of its ranking in the BBC’s 100 most important films list. Director Jafar Panahi was forced to follow the same method when a sentence against him in 2011 banned him from writing and directing for 20 years. Four years later he tried to circumvent this verdict by driving a taxi and filming his conversations with the passengers. The result was the film Taxi (2015) that was smuggled to international festivals. The conversations were centered around Iranians’ film culture and their love of it despite the censorship. He won both the critics award and the Golden Bear in Berlin International Film Festival in 2015.

A shot from the film “Taste Of Cherry”

The short story model

The New Iranian Cinema depends in its feature productions on the ‘short story model’, as Iranian film historian Hamid Naficy calls it in his book, A Social History of Iranian Cinema. Naficy quotes the American critic M. H. Abrams, who wrote that “the short story writer introduces a limited number of persons, cannot afford the space for a leisurely analysis and sustained development of character, and cannot develop as dense and detailed a social milieu as does the novelist”[iv]. Similarly, the Iranian director does not have the production resources and the space for expression that the European or American director has. Naderi’s The Runner takes us on a journey along the port and the sea, along with a child who lost his house because of the war. In Where is my Friend’s House? we see the Iranian villages of Koker and Poshteh through the eyes of a child looking for the house of his classmate so he can return his textbook to him. In The Mirror (1997) by Jafar Panahi, we follow a child whose mother did not come to pick her up from school, so she decides to look for her house in the crowded streets of Tehran.

These stories may seem extremely simple, but watching them carefully leads us to realize that though they may appear simple, they are not easy films. They introduce us to philosophical and ethical conversations with scenes from the everyday of the Iranian life and poetic imagery so fascinating that they appear to be one of life’s coincidences. Except, they are made with meticulous precision. The “short story paradigm” with its limited number of characters and its limited locations may enable the Yemeni director to work with available resources to produce complete and coherent films. More importantly, it may inspire directors to concentrate on stories not limited to vendetta, death, underage marriage and terrorism (although, admittedly, terrorism was the topic of my first film).

A shot from the film “TheMirror”

The everyday, the uneventful, and the immersion in the country’s culture

The stories of New Iranian Cinema concentrate on the banalities of life, whether for political reasons, such as the scope of expression and the strictness of the Islamic censorship system, or artistic reasons, such as the influence of Persian Sufi poets such as Rumi, Khayyam, and Hafiz on directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, or the effect of films by directors of Neorealism in Italy such as Rossellini and Di Sica. The main drive, however, is their passion for the details of daily life in Iran and the Iranian individual. “To create work that everyone around the world will understand, root yourself deep in your culture… Get to know the places, ideas and people, their loves and concerns” said Abbas Kiarostami.[v] In the latter’s The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), a crew goes to cover the news of the death of a woman who has exceeded 100 years of age, but upon their arrival they discover that the woman has not yet died so they remain there, waiting. As they wait, the manager of the crew discovers the life of the villagers and their wisdom. In The Mirror, Panahi takes us to accompany a child trying to find her house. On the bus, the viewers forget the child for a while and listen to the conversations of the people, whose conversations are not of importance, yet they are gripping and entertaining. Yemen has a wealth of dialects, culture, landscapes and people, and if we dig deep into the roots of our communities, we will tell our stories to the world not only so they understand them but to feel them.

A shot from the film “Where’s the Friend’s House”

Working with non-actors

A characteristic of New Iranian Cinema is to work with non-professional actors, ‘non-actors’, especially in the works of Abbas Kiarostami. In his book Lessons With Kiarostami, he warns his students against working with semi-actors. Either you work with a professional actor proficient in their craft and in control of their talent or look for other options. What are these options? “Who can write dialogue for an illiterate worker, a taxi driver, or a religious old woman better than an illiterate worker, a taxi driver, or a religious old woman?” answers Kiarostami.[vi] He, of course, does not mean this in the literal sense, but that the film maker has to find people who have the characteristics the director is looking for from the streets. Working with non-actors has its own challenges and obstacles and is not a magical wand in the face of the scarcity of professional actors, and it requires sophisticated directorial skills to convince people and gain their trust. This, however, may be the solution for the Yemeni director who constantly finds great difficulty in finding actors.

The New Iranian cinema has many achievements domestically and internationally, not only because of its ability to overcome difficulties but also because it presents a work that reflects the directors’ poetic and complicated view through which they see their country and people. Hamid Naficy attributes one of the reasons of this success to these directors’ international culture and mentions in his book that the directors of New Cinema were thinkers and intellectuals before becoming artists, and they became respected and revered personalities in society because, like Kiarostami, they used the camera as a pen, known as camera-pen.[vii] The critic Ahmed Talibi Nijad, author of the book A Simple Event – A Review of the New Wave Trend in Iranian Cinema, said in an interview with Hamshahri magazine in 1995 that the New Wave directors “raised the expectations of the viewer”, who’s no longer convinced by action and violence films. He takes as an example Kiarostami’s film Through the Olive Trees, which grossed 15 million Toman’s in a short period, while action and violence films failed during the same period.

Artwork by Rofaida Ahmed

The rise of film movements was preceded by many years of preparation, study and experimentation, along with lots of determination. But Iranian directors’ road was not, and still isn’t, paved with flowers. On the contrary, Jafar Panahi is still banned from making films by a court order and Mohammad Rasoulof is in prison as this article is being written. This is not a letter of encouragement that overlooks today’s burdens and to give an oversimplified view of the process of creating a film movement, but a call to get prepare for it. I hope the reader finds in this article their way to this film movement that resembles looks just like us.

 


[i] Naficy, Hamid “Iranian Cinema under the Islamic Republic.” American Anthropologist, vol. 97, no. 3,1995, pp. 548–558. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/683274

[ii] Cinema in Yemen. Trying to draw the missing pictureYemeniamerican. (2018, December 06).  https://bit.ly/36HDiXa

[iii]Jafar, H. (21 October 2020). ِ ‘A Question on Cinema in Yemen: Contemplations in a Chain of Loopholes’. https://bit.ly/39OYZ9L

[iv] Naficy, H. A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984–2010

Duke University Press, 2012

[v] Kiarostami A, & Cronin, P. (2015). Lessons with Kiarostami. New York, New York: Sticking Place Books.

[vi] Kiarostami, A& Cronin, P. (2015). Lessons with Kiarostami.  New York, New York: Sticking Place Books.

[vii] Naficy, H. A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984–2010 Duke University Press, 2012

 

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Yousef Assabahi

A Yemeni filmmaker based in Los Angeles.

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