Seeds of discontent: Triumphs and woes of Iranian filmmaking

Hani Mustafa , Tuesday 28 May 2024

Last week Iran was in the limelight following the death of Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian, and six others in a tragic helicopter crash. But there is more niche news from Iran as well.

Mohammad Rasoulof
Rasoulof holds photographs of actors Missagh Zareh, left, and Soheila Golestani before the premiere of the film in Cannes (photo: AP)

Filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof fled his home country last month to avoid an eight-year prison sentence. He managed to appear on the Cannes red carpet for the premiere of his film The Seed of the Sacred Fig, where he raised pictures of his two actors Missagh Zareh and Soheila Golestani, who were unable to leave.

Now the exiled filmmaker who won the Golden Bear in the Berlinale in 2020 for his shocking but marvellous film There Is No Evil, is going to face a drastic change in his narrative works as shooting in Iran will no longer be as easy as it was before. The previous film discussed the notion of free will by telling four different stories of executioners who work for the regime — a cry against capital punishment.

It seems There Is No Evil may have been one of the reasons the Iranian authorities believed Rasoulof’s films were directly critical of the political status quo. Many readers and scholars of post-revolution Iran agree that the judicial system is not fully independent of Iran’s supreme political powers. Now it is clear that the Iranian authorities were provoked even more by The Seed of the Sacred Fig depicting female characters without hijab, especially since the outbreak of widespread demonstrations against the mandatory veil following the death of Mahsa Amini in September 2022 were still at their height. Last Saturday, when the Cannes official competition jury announced this year’s awards, The Seed of the Sacred Fig won the Special Jury prize for its screenplay as well as the Fipresci Award.

The Iranian regime has been sensitive to any artistic or media production critical of the government, the political system, or even what are seen as Islamic laws. This wasn’t the first time that an Iranian film faced harassment from the censors. In 1997 the late filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami was almost unable to participate in the Cannes competition with his iconic Taste of Cherries because the film is about a man resolved to kill himself. The censors thought the narrative incited nihilistic and blasphemous behaviour. Fortunately Kiarostami managed to release the film, which won the Palme d’Or jointly with Shohei Imamura’s The Eel.

The story of Jafar Panahi’s years-long struggle against the Iranian authorities too is well known. First he was criticised for making films that expose injustice in Iranian society, especially against women, as in The Circle, which won the Golden Lion at the 2000 Venice Film Festival. He was later banned by the court from making films for 20 years. He made a few films secretly, but in 2015 he wrote, directed and acted in his film Taxi, showing the streets of Tehran from his viewpoint as a taxi driver and discussing the situation of filmmaking with others. The film premiered at the Berlinale and won the Golden Bear.

Continual clashes between artists and the Iranian authorities since the 1979 Revolution are among the elements that have shaped contemporary Iranian cinema. A documentary was screened at the Cairo International Film Festival in 2014 describing how Iranian filmmakers have managed to bypass the strictures of censorship: Jamshed Akrami’s Cinema of Discontent interviews some of the prominent Iranian filmmakers asking them their opinion of censorship and how they managed to overcome it.

Dariush Mehrajaui, who is seen as the father of modern Iranian cinema, was one of the main interviewees. He lived in France for a good few years after the revolution, then he returned and made some films in Iran. He criticised the authorities not only in his films but also publicly. In 2022 he posted an emotional video on social media saying that he cannot take it any more. “I cannot stand it. I will protest at the Culture Ministry with my assistants. I won’t give up until I get my rights.”  In October 2023 he was killed with his wife by four men who claimed that they worked with him and had financial issues. One of them was sentenced to death and the others were put in jail.

Iranian cinema since the 1980s has gained recognition from the film critics and cinefiles, with many mainstream film lovers knowing the names of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, Dariush Mehrajaui, Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof. These represent different generations and different styles, but they share similar topics and storytelling techniques, especially regarding realism and poetic narratives.

One of Iranian cinema’s main features is the manipulation of the censorship regulations which drove some filmmakers to rely on symbolic and poetic approaches while others used ordinary, minimalist narratives that dealt more with the depth of the human experience like Kiarostami’s Where Is My Friend’s Home? This film, made in 1987, was one of the earliest films to introduce Iranian films to the international audience when it won the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival in 1989. The film follows an eight-year-old child who mistakenly took home his friend’s notebook as he tries to reach the house of his friend on the other side of the village, terrified of the class teacher.

Kiarostami used non-professional actors, natural lighting, and a very ordinary remote village as his shooting location to create a sense of authenticity. In this film he used local children who had never been in front of the camera. This method was repeated by other Iranian filmmakers like Samira Makhmalbaf in The Apple, which won several awards including a FIPRESCI Special Mention in Locarno Film Festival in 1998.

It is increasingly inarguable that most internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmakers cannot handle the political pressure at home and need to leave the country. This is becoming more inevitable now the conservative tendencies of the authorities are stabilising following tremors like the Green Movement against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s government in 2009 and last year’s Mahsa Amini protests. Recently the hardliners have gained ground thanks to the ongoing genocide in Gaza, which makes many Iranians who otherwise wouldn’t stand by their government as it takes action against Israel.

Short link: