Blackboards (Samira Makhmalbaf)

In 1993, and then last year. Not bad going for a nation with such modest cinematic aspirations. But the Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has found it somewhere in its heart to twice allocate major spotlights to Iranian cinema in the last decade. Of course MIFF isn’t alone here. There is a certain western indulgence of late in Iranian cinema ­ flagged as having started somewhere around Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow in 1969 and proceeding through the oeuvres of mainstays such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Majid Majidi.

Last year’s brief ‘Journey to Iran’ courtesy of MIFF left many eager for the next instalment ­ if only because absent last year was Kiarostami’s follow-up to his all but canonised masterpiece, Taste of Cherry (1997). For the wait, we have been rewarded with The Wind Will Carry Us (1999). This is a somewhat ambivalent film. On the one hand, cinematically uninformed viewers (at least in terms of Kiarostami’s folio of work) can easily feel impaired by many of the codes, devices and references imbedded in the film. On the other hand, its linear narrative and structure is generally accessible to those at least willing to make the effort.

Indeed, some effort is required. Several people I spoke with confessed to nearly falling asleep during its MIFF screenings. Much of the challenge comes in Kiarostami’s broad refusal to use temporal cuts within sequences. Thus we are called on some four times in the film as the engineer clambers to the top of a hill to take his mobile phone calls ­ each time we must witness every step of the engineer’s ascent. Kiarostami is seemingly trying to involve us in the real time of the subject’s passage through this village. Perfect realism is never reached of course ­ the real time of the plot is still longer than the 118 minutes of film ­ but this is a sufficient approximation to carry home the point.

In typical auteur fashion, Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us reads in part as a document of the filmmaker’s own experience. Kiarostami’s work as a landscape artist is evident in his strong compositional distant shots of the dry hills around Siah Dareh. As a window onto the setting, the engineer is clearly an outsider to the village life. He (and therefore the audience) watches the villagers through small, obscured frames: his camera lens, the mirror in which he shaves.

While the film embraces a strong first-person narrative, it is forever sabotaged by what is unknown. We never quite find out what the engineer is doing there, nor anything about his unseen colleagues. We don’t meet the ditch digger the engineer converses with on top of the hill, likewise the ditch digger’s girlfriend who stays hidden in shadows in the underground cavern.

In spite of the film’s singular focus, Kiarostami plays hard to get. I found myself more in appreciation than enjoyment of The Wind Will Carry Us. Great material for a film studies class, but not the engaging masterpiece I was led to anticipate.

Hassan Yektapanah’s Djomeh (2000) is a quiet-natured vignette that seems to walk straight off a Kiarostami set. No surprise considering Yektapanah was a former assistant director to Kiarostami. For a debut director, Yektapanah shows a skilful hand at compelling considerable meaning into a film with such a simple plot. Yektapanah’s story follows an Afghan man in Iran who finds himself lovesick and up against strong cultural barriers in his quest for a wife. Djomeh is less ambitious than many new Iranian films, and for that it’s accessible and warming. But overall it’s too derivative, and to me it read like ‘Iranian cinema by numbers’. That said, Yektapanah has made an initially confident mark on new Iranian cinema, and will be worth watching for future efforts.

Majid Majidi’s The Colour of Paradise (1999) stands at the more accessible end of the scale. Like his last feature, Children of Heaven (1998), The Colour of Paradise is likely to get a general release and find itself embraced warmly by a wide audience. Majidi’s films are perhaps amongst the most commercially savvy of Iranian cinema (Children of Heaven was nominated last year for an Oscar; but more telling, it’s the only Iranian movie my local Movie Land stocks).

If Iranian cinema could ever approximate schmaltz, then Majidi would be called on to pave the way. Majidi’s screenplay conforms to the three-act structure, exploring a strained relationship between a blind boy and distant father. The narrative is quite a neat package ­ strutting a path of exposition, tension, crisis and resolution (of sorts). Somewhat laboured, Majidi even employs sufficient dramatic foreshadowing to keep the heartstrings tugging along. The father’s ambivalence towards his son is counterpointed three times in the film: in the beginning at the school; half way when he delivers him to the carpenter; and near the end on the bridge. Perfectly rounded at the edges, The Colour of Paradise meets audience expectations square on.

Of contemporary Iranian cinema, it is the emerging folio of work from Samira Makhmalbaf that most stands out. After investigating male dominance of Tehran street life in her politically ambitious debut The Apple (1998), in Blackboards (2000) she addresses a different kind of outdoor space. A group of male teachers are seen crossing the mountains of the Iran-Kurdistan border with large blackboards on their backs. These freelance teachers split up and one of them finds himself wandering alongside a lost nomadic tribe trying to get back across the border. Amidst firing from an unseen enemy, here the outdoor space is unsafe for all ­ as practically all aspects of daily life are made routine out of doors.

As in The Apple, Makhmalbaf constructs some weighty and urgent tensions between and for her characters, but at no stage does she pass judgement. Hers is a model of directorial restraint in the face of great opportunities to contrive our attention and responses. It is at the end, when the border is finally discovered, that Makhmalbaf’s restraint is most evident. Throughout the film the narrative is left open enough to allow for various kinds of endings ­ but Makhmalbaf takes the simplest, least contrived route. In the hands of most other directors, it’s easy to imagine any number of neat endings: the teacher could have crossed the border with the woman; she could have stayed with him; or, she could have returned the blackboard to him. Any of these endings would have charged the film with great symbolic function, but Blackboards is all the richer for avoiding these hideous traps. Makhmalbaf’s restraint is certainly on par with Kiarostami’s The Wind Will Carry Us, but in view of the greater moral tensions in Makhmalbaf’s films, her effort is all the more rewarding.

About The Author

Ben Zipper writes on both dance and film. He is also a programmer on the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and completed his first novel.