Iranian filmmakers - Part 6
Last week I had to moderate a discussion on Iranian cinema; The
panelists included distinguished film producers and commentators from
Iran as well as well-known scholars of Iranian cinema from the United
States. The discussion that followed made me reflect on three Iranian
filmmakers that I greatly admire.
To be sure, I have not watched many of the works of modern Iranian
film directors that are not available outside Iran. However, it needs to
be said that the work of three film directors that I am discussing today
and one of whom I had the chance of meeting at the Indian film festival
some years ago, represent the dynamism and range of modern Iranian
The three filmmakers that I have selected for discussion are Abbas
Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. All three are highly
talented film directors who have gained international critical acclaim
for fashioning new grammars of perception of Iranian society.
They represent, in many ways, the best of contemporary Iranian
cinema. Each of them has carved out a distinctive style of filmmaking;
each in his specific way is working towards an indigenous poetics of
cinema in which the shape of personal experience bears the weight of
cultural valences This exploration of indigenous poetics of filmmaking
should indeed be one of our priorities in Sri Lankan filmmaking as well.
In that regard, they can serve as models worth emulating.
Abbas Kiarostami is in many ways the most well-known of the Iranian
filmmakers. He is the Iranian director that the outside world knows
best; books on his wok have been written in English and French and other
European languages. I met him some years ago at the Indian film festival
where he was a member of the jury.
I have also been interested in classical Persian poetry for a long
time; I was in the habit of reading Persian classical poems which were
available in English translation. Sinhala readers are familiar with the
work of Omar Khayyam as two of his translations of his ‘Rubaiyat’ are
available in Sinhala.
However, Rumi (1207-1273) and Hafez (1320-1388) surpass him as poets.
Both these poets, it seems to me, have shaped the sensibility of many
Iranian film directors ranging from Dariush Merjui to Shahran Mokri in
Abbas Kiarostami is a filmmaker who displays a distinctive approach
to the world and to cinema, and his explorations of the world,
interestingly, are also explorations into the art of cinema. One central
theme that has animated his films from his earliest period is the
incredibly fascinating world of children.
He is able to observe the world of children with precision and
empathy, and for the most part not yielding to any sentimentality or
moral didacticism. In ‘Bread and the Alley (1970), Karostami tells the
story about a young boy, a loaf of bread and a dog. Here the director
has been able to observe the fascinating world of children with
perspicacity and sympathy.
In Recess (1972),Kiarostami explores the story of a young by who
smashes a window with his ball while playing, and is punished for it.
Once again the director constructs a world of children and enters into
it with tenderness. His film the Travelers (1972) narrates the story of
a young boy who is obsessed with soccer. Similarly in his film Two
Solutions, One Problem (1975), Kiarostami, once again, focuses on the
life worlds of children with sensitivity.
So, one of Abbas Kiarostami’s signature traits can be identified as
his fascination with the world of children; how he translates that
interest into a creative challenge to the art of cinematography is a
topic worth pursuing.
This is, of course, not to suggest that Abbas Kiarostami only deals
with the world of children. This is not the case at all; in films such
as Report (1977), Dead End (1977), the Solution (1978), Close-up (1990),
and life goes on 919920, Taste of Cherry (1997).His latest film.
Certified Copy (2010), which was honored at Cannes is in English/French;
it is a love story that addresses complex issues of fact and fiction,
and the many layers that constitute reality- issues that are close to
Kiarostami’s heart. One can see clearly how Abbas Kiarosami is able to
move deftly in the complex and demanding world of adults with due regard
for its many-sidedness.
There is indeed a continuity of interest, both thematic and
stylistic, between his films dealing with children and those with
grown-ups that marks his approach to reality and to cinema. Kiarostami’s
films are realistic works that aim to reconfigure a complex commingling
of documentary and feature films.
The eminent French philosopher and cultural theorist Jean-Luc Nancy
wrote a short book on Kiarostami’s films to illustrate his concept of
cinema. What Nancy said was that a film like ‘And Life Goes On’, based
on the Iranian earthquake of 1990, is neither fact nor fiction but
evidence – participatory witness to the world.
He asserted that ‘And Life Goes On’ is neither representation nor
reportage, but rather evidence. Kiarostami’s films neither duplicate the
world nor create it from scratch. I wish to take this very insightful
observation of Nancy a step further and argue that what we find in
Kiarostami is evidence of a special sort – poetic evidence.
It is incumbent upon us, in my view, to pay very close attention to
what I term poetic realism. What is interesting to emphasize here is
that Jean Luc Nancy did not select a European or American filmmaker to
establish his thesis – he sought out an Iranian director.
It is here that classical Persian poetry that I invoked earlier opens
up a useful window onto Kiarostami’s sensibility. He is not only a
filmmaker but also a distinguished poet.
In his book ‘Walking with the Wind’, which consists of a large number
of haiku-like short poems; in them, we observe how this poetic
comprehension of the pulse of life is inscribed vividly.
He is able in his poetry, just as in his cinema, to invest the very
ordinary with a newer and vibrant set of extraordinary meanings through
his poetic understanding of the world. This is clearly evident in the
following poem which is by and large representative of his work.
a sycamore leaf
on his own shadow
What we find here is a re-description of a very ordinary scene into a
newer awareness and aesthetic self-contemplation; he unsettles the
everyday logic to construct an alternative reality. It is my conviction
that this approach to the world, the desire to invest it with a poetic
meaning, grows out of Kiarostami’s deep interest in classical Persia
In other words, poets such as Hafez and Rumi, display this mode of
re-imagining; to call it, as many critics have done, a form of mysticism
is to my mind, misleading and to be guilty of mischaracterizing the
phenomenon. It can be described, I suggest, more accurately as a poetic
grasp of the world. Indeed, this is what we find in both his poetry and
Kiarostami once observed that, ‘My films have been progressing
towards a certain kind of minimalism.’ This minimalism, and the way it
combines simplicity and complexity, the static and he dynamic, reality
and poetry, and the way it articulates the re-entry into a familiar
world with new eyes and to give each moment its fullness can be traced
the invigorating influence of classical Persian poetry.
In Kiarostami’s films, the world acts within and upon the self and
the self in turn acts upon the world; this is facilitated by his poetic
comprehension of life. As with classical Persian poetry, Kiarostami’s
work allows his sensibility and creative intelligence to make their way
in the world under the benevolent guidance of poetic understanding.
Clearly, there are manifold influences at work in Abbas Kiarostami’s
cinematic sensibility, not the least significant among them being
European art cinema; However in my judgment, classical Persian poetry is
a force to reckon with in his creative endeavors. Indeed, this is an
influence one perceives in other notable Iranian film directors such as
Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui and Bahram Baizai.
The second modern Iranian filmmaker that I wish to focus on is
Dariush Merjui (1939-). He has exercised a profound influence in the
forward movement of Iranian cinema. He is the author of such widely
acclaimed films as The Cow (1968), The Postman (1972), The Cycle (1972),
Pari (1995), The Pear Tree (1996) and Santoori (2007).
All these films, with their different representational strategies and
points of emphasis shed light in the complex and inviting space that is
Iranian social imaginary. Indeed, the social imaginary and its
construction are the major thematic focus and unifying interest of
Mehrjui as a filmmaker.
Dariush Mehrjui is one of the most influential of Iranian film
directors, his films having played a significant role in the public
sphere. Like Kiarostami, he has garnered numerous national and
He is a public intellectual who has consistently evinced an interest
in expressive culture in general.
He has a deep and informed interest in painting and music and
philosophy. And these diverse interests are combined in an interesting
way to constitute his fabric of artistic sensibility. His film The Cow
in many ways ushered in the new wave in Iranian cinema.
The film deals with a simple story that is closely related to Iranian
peasant consciousness. A peasant named Masht Hassan is deeply attached
to his cow. When the cow dies during his absence, his fellow villagers
try to conceal the bitter truth from him.
However, eventually he learns of the unpalatable truth, and then in a
surprising turn of events he thinks he has become the cow – an idea
embedded in folk belief. It is a simple tale with both social and
It is a tale that connects to the idea of transmigration of the soul
found in Persian mysticism. Dariush Mehrjui presents this story in a
cinematic style that is minimalist, poetic, meditative’ it is in some
ways reflective of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy.
What is interesting about this film is the way in which the director
has chosen to illuminate an aspect of the Iranian social imaginary. He
deploys emotion as a form of thinking, and thinking as a form of
As a filmmaker Dariush Mehrjui seeks to approach the Iranian social
imaginary from different angles and vantage pints. Some of his films
such as The Cow foreground the peasant consciousness while others like
deal with the anxieties and perplexities of Iranian intellectuals living
in a world of contradictory imperatives- films like Hamoun and The Pear
Tree exemplify this interest of his; yet others focus on the intricacies
of urban consciousness.
As one examines Mehrjui’s films, one is struck by the fact that there
is a practical as well as a normative dimension to the idea if the
social imaginary as he perceives it.
This is to suggest, that according to his preferred ways of thinking,
how things are in the world should be related to the way how things
should be. It is this moral imagination that drives many of his most
successful films such as ‘The Cyclist’, ‘The Cow’, ‘Leila’ serve to
enforce this point. Mehrjui also rejects the idea that all things modern
have to be understood solely in terms of their perceived modernity.
He feels that modernity has to be affirmed at times, and interrogated
and re-shaped at other times. His films underline the point that the
most productive way of engaging modernity is not by imposing universal
normative standards, which invariably means, the application of
Eurocentric standards, but by invoking the local cultural idiom; indeed
it is this vernacular modernity that he is after.
The third filmmaker that I wish to call attention to is Mohsen
Makhmalbaf. Like Kiarostami and Mehrjui, he is a director who has won
international accolades. He is a filmmaker who emerged after the 1979
He is admired by some and denounced by others. Makhmalbaf has made
such important films as his films have to be understood in relation to
the turbulent times he experienced.
Makhmalbaf has distinguished himself not only as a filmmaker but also
as a novelist, script writer, cultural critic and social activist. His
films such as the Cyclist (1987), Time to Love (1990), Gabbeh (1995) A
Moment of Innocence (1996), Salaam Cinema (1994) and Khandahar (2001)
generated a great deal of interest among movie-goers.
The Cyclist, which is one of his most admired films and which was
shown at many international festivals, narrates the story of a poor
Afghan refugee living in he desperately needs money to care for his
As a means of obtaining money he agrees to ride a bicycle for one
week non-stop not exceeding the perimeter of a narrow circle. It is a
simple story and there is nothing profoundly original about it.
The strength of the film resides in the imaginative way in which
Makhmalbaf transforms this story into willed and persuasive cinematic
art as well as well as the way in which he captures subtly the
disillusionment with the revolutionary regime.
Time to Love is another film by him that manifests is gifts as a
filmmaker. It is a romantic story and it is presented in terms of three
different versions. Khandahar is a film that won for the director great
critical acclaim. It tells the story of an Afghan journalist who is now
living in Canada.
She is keen to meet her sister, who decided to stay in Afghanistan
while she migrated to Canada; she has resolved to commit suicide and is
desperate to go to Khadahar and talk her out of her planned insane
action. The film recounts her experiences as she travels from Tehran to
Khandahar. The minimalist style adopted by Makhmalbaf is perfectly
congruent with the theme and content of the film.
Makhmakbaf is interested in the exploration of the manifold
relationships between individuals and collectivities but always within a
political framework; here I am using the term political in its broadest
sense of power distribution. He comes from a family that was religious
but also political.
As a young man he fought against the dictatorial powers of the Shah
and spent four years in prison. After the Iranian revolution he was
omitted to preserving the revolution and its ambitions.
But after a while he became disillusioned with the extremes of the
regime; Mkhmalbaf’s work can best be understood in terms of political
He would have wholeheartedly agreed with Thomas Mann’s statement
that,’ In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political
What is interesting about Mohsen Makhmalbaf, in addition to his
political imagination is that he has always been interested in working
towards a Persian cinema.
He started his career as a staunch opponent of the Shah and an ardent
supporter of the new regime that came into power in Iran in 1979. His
early work reflects this bent of mind.
However, after a while hebecame disenchanted with the regime. The
work of his early phase is somewhat superficial and some times fails to
carry conviction. However, as he matured as an artist, he began to
display a talent that was original, Innovative and audacious. His
central impulse was towards the construction of a characteristically
Many of Moshen Maksmalbaf’s successful films bear witness to his
restless imagination that is constantly seeking to experiment with time,
space an narrative. Let us consider a film like A Moment of Innocence.
It is a biographical film in the best sense of the tem; it is also a
film that questions the overwhelming power of time and history.
Basically it is a love story. There are two are young revolutionaries
who are committed to killing to achieve their ideals; the director
Moshen Makhmalbaf intercedes into their life.
The historical Makhmalbaf who is now a middle-aged man admonishes his
younger version to persist in the act of assassination. As opposed to
this, the other Makhmalbaf, who is now a well-known film director
advises his young actor to spread the joy of love. Here the director has
taken an episode from his own life and invested it with a deep cinematic
As one astute Iranian commentator remarked, ’A Moment of Innocence is
a constellation of variations on the theme of de-telling the time, as if
Makhmalbaf is reaching out to the past to change its course. This
temporal abnegation of reality – making time effectively go against its
own logic – comes to a climax at the conclusion at the end if the film.’
I stated earlier that in all his films Makhmalbaf displays an
interest in politics. As he grew as a film director, as his vision
became more complex, this interest in politics began to express itself
cinematically in more nuanced ways.
In an interview he once remarked that his evolution as a filmmaker
can be understood in terms of four phases.
In the first phase he was moved by impulses of anti-fascism. In the
second phase he began to display a more complex understanding of social
issues as evidenced in films such as the Peddler and The Cyclist. In the
third phase, while exploring social issues, he was manifesting an
interest in experimenting with narrative perspectives.
Films such as A Time for Love and Once upon a Time, Cinema, reflect
this cast of mind. In the fourth phase he began to work towards a
critical humanistic cinema that is minimalist and inspired by Persian
cultural poetics. A film like Khandahar speaks to this trend.
When I say that Makhmalbaf’s films are framed within a political
framework what I mean by is that they raise certain issues related to
Iranian society and politics in interesting ways. One central theme
pervading his films has been the question of Iranian agency. Iran is a
modern country with an ancient civilization.
It is a theocratic state that is seeking to adapt to the calls of
modernity and globalization. Women are struggling for equality and
parity of status. Capitalism, with all its dislocations and
contradictions, is spreading throughout society. It is against this
background that Mohsen Makhmalbaf is aiming to create an Islamic cinema
that is close to heart beat of society in terms of content style and
What he is really after is the construction of a post-colonial
subject that is able to go beyond the easy generalizations put into
circulation by post-modern theorists.
His ambition to take into considerations the realities on the ground
– specificities of Iranian culture, history, religion – and project an
Iranian agency that is realistic and true to the imperatives of modern
Iran. It is indeed a challenging task, and if anyone, Makhmalbaf has the
courage of his convictions and the talent to address it productively.
What I have sought to do in this column is to focus on some aspects
of Iranian cinema based on encounters I have had with Iranian films,
filmmakers and film critics.
What the creators of modern Iranian cinema are attempting to do
should hold a deep interest for us because the idea of an indigenous
cinema is equally applicable to our own cinematic ambitions in Sri
Yasujiro Ozu (Japan), Ritwik Ghatak (India), Chen Kaige (China), Im
Kwon-taek (Korea) sought to create an indigenous cinema based on their
respective cultural traditions. Asoka Handagama in some of his films
aimed to draw on traditional Sri Lankan art in constructing his visual
In this regard, one can assert that the efforts of Iranian film
directors like Kiarostami, Mehrjui and Makhmalbaf deserve very careful