Despite fierce repression and censorship by its conservative Islamic government, Iran has long had one of the most dynamic and flourishing film industries in global cinema.
However, anyone following Iranian cinema is sure to be exasperated by the level of oppression faced by filmmakers and actors. Just last week the Iranian actress Marzieh Vafamehr was sentenced to a year in jail and 90 lashes for her role in a film about the limits imposed on artists in the Islamic Republic.
Last year, filmmaker Jafar Panahi and his artistic collaborator, Mohammad Rasoulof, were given six-year prison sentences for “propaganda against the state.” Panahi was also banned from all artistic activity for twenty-years.
The pretext of censorship is often used for the decline of Egyptian cinema, but Iran proves censorship doesn’t necessarily entail a fall in standards. Of course there are exceptions, but the celebrated Egyptian films are usually the ones bold enough to defy censorship.
Still, comparing the two industries, one can find some similarities in state censorship of both Iranian and Egyptian cinema. For instance, Panahi’s Crimson Gold (2003) was banned in Iran because it was “too dark,” an argument previously used regarding El-Kitkat by the Egyptian filmmaker Dawood Abdel Sayed, who spent a long time trying to find a producer for it. There are many other examples.
Crimson Gold, directed by Jafar Panahi and written by Abbas Kiarostami - two of the most notable contemporary Iranian filmmakers - unravels Iran’s intricate, contradictory and multifaceted social structure. It combines Panahi’s neorealism and Kiorastami’s philosophical contemplations to produce a highly poetic and subtle journey of an obscure yet genuine delivery man.
The film opens with what sounds like an eagle’s cry, which is followed by an attack on a jewellery shop owner then a suicide by the attacker himself. As the film turns to flashback, it reveals what brought about this fateful ending to the film’s protagonist, a delivery man called Hussein, a schizophrenic played by Hossein Emadeddin.
Through his job Hussein faces a number of strange encounters, mostly in the wealthier side of town. Stark class disparities, one of the main themes of the film, are tapped into not from the usual angle of how injustice is caused by the class structure, but from the psychological effects of this divide.
As the elite revel in their own closed society, those less fortunate are merely onlookers - emphasised in one of the most powerful scenes in the film. However, the film also reflects upon the repression that affects anyone in this complex society regardless of their social class.
Characters are drawn with such meticulous precision that even secondary characters are fleshed out quite well. The script offers very natural exchanges, hinting at what leads to Hussein’s downfall.
The most captivating element of Hussein’s performance is how such powerful emotions infuse his expressionless face and careless demeanour. The few moments when he appears on the verge of collapse are perhaps more powerful due to their contrast with his usual demeanour.
One such moment happens inside the jewellers’ shop when some characters are treated with disdain and one can sense the psychological impact.
Hussein’s last delivery stop produces the climax to his mundane journey, while maintaining the subtlety of the film’s approach.
The film contains much that is relevant to Egyptian society, and one has to wonder why Iranian films are not screened more often in Cairo. Not only are they artistically accomplished, but offer insights into a somewhat similar society. Perhaps it would be a good initiative for Cinema El-Fourn, which usually selects a very fine and diverse selection, to screen more Iranian films.
The film will be screened next Wednesday 19 October at 8pm in Darb 1718, located in Qasr El-Shamee Street, Al-Fakhareen (Mar Girgis metro stop), Old Cairo.