Written & Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
One aspect of Iranian society that Westerners seem to not fully understand is the rights of women inside that country. If you read up about contemporary Iran, there is an ongoing dialogue about extending the rights of women and activists pushing this. Once again, our myopic American viewpoint continues to judge others as a hivemind conglomeration of thought. Cue Abbas Kiarostami, who always seeks to blur the lines between reality and fiction, making his films strange narrative documentaries. We also have the dawn of digital video, which allows filmmakers to make movies fast and find ways to place the camera where film cameras could not go.
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The Color of Paradise (2000)
Written & Directed by Majid Majidi
One thing I came into this film series was wondering what influence the Islamic religion would have on these films. Iran is a type of presidential democracy with a co-equal (or maybe more powerful) theocratic branch. The revolution in 1979 had a significant influence on pushing Islam to the forefront of every aspect of Iranian life. As a Westerner, my perspective on Islam has been shaped by a strong Judeo-Christian bias in my youth. Now that I’m an adult, I can see with much greater clarity and have a better understanding of religion and dogma.
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Taste of Cherry (1997)
Written & Directed by Abbas Kiarostami
For a film about such an intimately emotional experience, Taste of Cherry chooses to distance itself, placing the whole of the movie in an almost purely rhetorical realm. We learn very little about the personal life of our main character and not much about the people he encounters during his journey. Conversations orbit around significant existential questions, yet the movie is very much about the beauty of human existence and frailty. This is also a movie that Roger Ebert gave a single star to because he said it lacked any forward momentum, which I think was sort of the point. This is a piece of ambient cinema, and it defies Western expectations.
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Bashu, The Little Stranger (1986)
Written & Directed by Bahram Beyzai
There is an emphasis on homogenizing foreign cultures into a monolith. This does a disservice to the broad diversity that exists inside these borders. We sometimes forget that national borders are artificial things, and people are often corraled inside sovereignties they have no direct connection with. Bashu, the Little Stranger, chooses to displace a Southern Iranian from the Khuzestan province due to the Iraq-Iran War. By moving this person into the Caspian north, we see how prejudices and cultural dissonance affect how we treat our fellow citizens.
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The Cow (1969)
Written by Dariush Mehrjui & Gholam Hossein Saedi
Directed by Dariush Mehrjui
When attempting to convince the American population that war with another country is a good thing, our intelligence community and media outlets try to Other-ize our “enemies.” They report about these nations as if they are some hive mind of villains devoid of art & culture. If you listened to them, you’d think a place like Iran is full of people just sitting around thinking about how much they hate America. Now, there are plenty of legitimate reasons for Iran to hate America, and I’m sure some people there are focused on the conflict. However, Iran has a vibrant cultural history, and they have a very lush film industry as well. They aren’t making cinematic universes full of CG explosions, but I see that as I plus. I will be spending this month looking at just some of the great films to come out of Iran. I think it is essential to explore the art of people we are taught to see as enemies. As Roger Ebert said, “[…] movies are like a machine that generates empathy.”
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Under the Shadow (2016)
Written & Directed by Babak Anvari
It should come as no surprise that, being a Westerner, I know very little about the Iran-Iraq War. The opening prologue of this film explains that it went on for almost a decade, the 1980s. I would suspect most ignorant Americans like myself, not helped in any way by the media, consider Iraq and Iran the same in most ways. However, the Middle East is a more complex region than most in the West give much credence too and if anything comes of watching this film I’ve already found a well-reviewed text on the Iran-Iraq War to read and educate myself on. That opening prologue was most definitely added for audiences outside of the region, and the rest of the film doesn’t spend time expositing the details of the conflict, which is precisely as it should be. The human element becomes the focus, and primal emotions help us connect with the characters.
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Close-Up (1990, dir. Abbas Kiraostami)
In America, its not uncommon to see a film “based on a true story”. The audience has come to expect that while names and events are real, screenwriters have “punched up” the script with dramatic tropes and formulas designed to add drama to what they see as dull, uninteresting reality. On the opposite end of things, you have documentaries like Capturing the Friedmans where the reality of the situation is so horrific and dramatic we have to wonder how much is exaggerated and manipulated by the director. In Abbas Kiraostami’s film Close-Up he takes an approach to the “based on a real story” movie that is some sort of amalgamation of narrative film and documentary. This is one of few times I have watched a film unable to figure out what was reality and was staged.
The film revolves around the case of Ali Sabzian, a man posing as Iranian film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and receiving the good will and shelter of the a family in Tehran as a result. The films opens with an obviously staged scene, the reporter, who first published the story that brought it Kiraostami’s attention, is traveling with police via taxi to the family’s home to witness the arrest of Sabzian. From there the film becomes a patchwork of the actual video footage of Sabzian’s trial and re-enactments of the events. The re-enactments actually feature the real people involved, including Sabzian. The reason this could happen is, that Sabzian never stole from the family he stayed with and the crime was non-violent. By the end of the film, we learn what Sabzian’s motivation was and see the family show great sympathy for him in court.
While most films about real crimes attempt to illuminate and make the mystery something that can be understood, Close-Up works to confuse things and make Sabzian a harder and harder character to pin down. What it becomes is a meditation on why someone not involved in the Arts would feel such a strong connection to someone who made their living off of cinema. Sabzian lives with his mother in the wake of divorce. His wife took one child, his mother raises the other. He works in a dead end job as a printer, and Sabzian claims that in director Makhmalbaf’s work he finds his own suffering put into words he cannot explain. Sabzian is an incredibly sympathetic figure, but even he confuses us because he talks about how he feels drawn to be an actor, that the idea of losing himself in a character is appealing. So, is the Sabzian speaking court truly his honest self, or another persona he has taken on?
This was not going to be the film Kiraostami was supposed to make at the time. However, after reading about the story in the paper he became obsessed with it and couldn’t sleep. So he contacted the parties involved and began making the film. As much as he wants to capture reality on film, he unabashedly manipulates certain scenes. When Sabzian is released from jail at the end of the film, he meets the real Makhmalbaf there are “audio difficulties” with the microphone equipment. Kiraostami has admitted freely after the fact that the audio problems was a manufacturing of him out of respect for the conversation between the two men, but instead of simply saying he was doing this, he made it another layer in the reality and fiction of the film. This is definitely a film that challenges the perceptions of the audience and will make them constantly question the reality or artifice of each and every scene.