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Sunday, 20 March 2011





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Three 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 cinema

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 interesting ways.

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.

Autumn afternoon
a sycamore leaf
falls softly
and rests
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 poetry.

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 cinema.


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 international awards.

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 metaphysical meaning.

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 emotion.

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 revolution.

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 ailing wife.

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 imperatives.

He would have wholeheartedly agreed with Thomas Mann’s statement that,’ In our time the destiny of man presents its meaning in political terms,’

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 Persian cinema.

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 meaning.

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 vision.

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 Lanka.

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 registers.

In this regard, one can assert that the efforts of Iranian film directors like Kiarostami, Mehrjui and Makhmalbaf deserve very careful study.


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