The inaugural Iranian Film Festival Australia kicked off in Brisbane on 4 August 2011 in spectacular fashion with a sell-out screening of Asghar Farhadi’s acclaimed new film Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (A Separation, 2011). With true Iranian hospitality, the event culminated in a party featuring Persian music and delectable servings of Iranian wedding rice. In Brisbane, the festival celebrated the diversity of Iranian filmmaking with eight films screened over four days and with a more condensed program travelling to Canberra and Adelaide.
Farhadi’s film was the obvious choice for opening night. Earlier in the year Farhadi was presented with the Golden Bear at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. This was followed by a steady stream of other awards, including the Sydney Film Prize at the 2011 Sydney Film Festival. A Separation is a sophisticated urban family drama whose narrative poses a series of ethical dilemmas to its characters and viewers alike. The opening shot of the title sequence places us inside what might be understood in a literal and metaphorical sense to be an apparatus of reproduction and surveillance. Positioned inside a photocopier, we see a variety of official documents being duplicated. Among these are identity cards and passports; each separated by the flash of the photocopier and accompanied by the familiar drone of the scanning arm moving under the plate of glass.
Self-reflexively figuring the process of filmmaking has become a common feature of post-revolutionary Iranian film. Works that spring to mind include several well-known examples by Abbas Kiarostami such as Nema-ye Nazdik (Close-Up, 1990), Zire darakhatan zeyton (Through the Olive Trees, 1994) and the closing coda of Tam-e gilas (Taste of Cherry, 1997). Mohsen Makhmalbaf too has engaged in this contemplation of the medium, most notably in Salaam Cinema (1995) and Nun va Goldoon (A Moment of Innocence, 1996), with Rakshahn Banietemad’s Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City, 2001) forming a more obscure example. This latter film is bookmarked by two scenes featuring the filming of a documentary during which the film’s fictional female protagonist speaks directly to camera asking: “who’s watching all these films anyway?” Banietimad is cleverly returning the gaze of the mostly Western viewers of a genre of “realist” Iranian films that had been circulating to international film festivals for over ten years. While neither A Separation nor any of Farhadi’s other films to date could be counted as examples of this overtly reflexive cinema, the opening shot, in its literal presentation of a device for the reproduction of images and its suggestion that such a device may be used for the control and surveillance of identity, draws our attention to the ideological potential of images. Furthermore, by placing us “inside” the apparatus, which I read to be a stand in for the camera, Farhadi is deliberately aligning our view with that of the camera. Unlike the classical spectator, however this “look” does not coincide with the point-of-view of a character, which in Laura Mulvey’s formulation brings together the three “looks” of cinema — character, camera and spectator — for the purposes of identification. Instead, I think Farhadi is proposing to give us a view from the inside in order to provoke a kind of “camera consciousness” that, according to Deleuze’s formulation is neither subjective nor objective(1). In fact, Farhadi uses actual point-of-view shots only sparingly. Rather than allow his viewers to become closely identified with any one character, his camera works to shift our allegiances many times throughout the film. In interviews, Farhadi has frequently commented on the way that he does not wish to hold his spectators by the hand and direct them toward a predetermined meaning. Rather, he hopes that his films can engage viewers to think for themselves and to ask questions. This is not to say that Farhadi’s film does not control our view and access to information. Indeed, this film’s central dramatic conflict between a middle-class family and a lower-class woman engaged to care for an elderly man revolves around a seemingly imperceptible gap in knowledge and a red herring introduced by both the title and the opening premise of the film: Simin (Leila Hatami) is suing her husband Nader (Peyman Moaadi) for divorce so she can take their teenage daughter Termeh (played by Farhadi’s own daughter Sarina Farhadi) to America so that she can have a “better life”. Nader won’t leave Iran because he is committed to the care of his father, who suffers from Alzheimer’s disease.
Into a tightly woven plot that still leaves much to the imagination, Farhadi manages to weave a rich texture of social, cultural and to some extent religious issues that ultimately pose themselves as ethical dilemmas that cut across class, gender and generational lines. This tightly-plotted, gripping narrative is supported by stunningly nuanced performances from the principal cast, particularly by Peyman Moaadi and Leila Hatami. In a Skype discussion with Farhadi that I had the privilege of moderating onstage in Brisbane during the festival, he spoke of the rigorous rehearsal process that he engages in with his cast prior to filming. Taking his model from directing theatre, he works with them separately and together to develop the psychological dimensions of the characters. I think this is one thing that distinguishes his work from many other Iranian directors: the high level of psychological realism achieved is one of the things that makes Farhadi’s films feel so new and fresh. In the main, Iranian filmmakers have mostly provided us with broadly sketched allegorical types. Watching films like A Separation, one can’t help but get the impression that those types and non-professional actors who have served Iranian cinema so well in the past have run their course and it is time for Iranian cinema to move on to a new phase of development.
One director whose films abound in such allegorical types is Mohammad Rasoulof. Continuing the worldwide tribute to Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi following their arrest in late 2010 for allegedly making a film without a permit, IFFA screened two of Rasoulof’s films: Jazireh ahani (Iron Island, 2005) and Keshtzar haye sepid (The White Meadows, 2009). Both films exhibit a surreal aesthetic and play out in semi-mythical spaces somehow isolated and removed from the “real”, material world towards which they nonetheless point. Iron Island takes place on a marooned and decaying oil tanker inhabited by a motley community of mostly Arab-Iranians. The ship forms a veritable shantytown, thriving with workers and activity, but with no hope of social mobility for any of them. In fact, the ship’s autocratic ruler, Captain Nemat holds their wages for “safe keeping”, and controls communication by forbidding radio and television and supplying only one mobile phone, which is tightly monitored. Additionally, all the newspapers are years old, maintaining the illusion that the Iran-Iraq war is still underway. It is hard not to see the thinly veiled allegory where the ship functions as an emblem for Iran itself. This obvious allegory aside, the film also carries a much more nuanced and important message about the treatment of Iran’s ethnic “others”(2). Iron Island is stunningly shot amidst the cloudless seascape of the Persian Gulf by cinematographer Reza Jalali. The decaying hull of the ship is rendered majestic, framed against the crystal blue canvas of the sea that seems to expand limitlessly towards the horizon in compositions reminiscent of works by Italian surrealist painter Giorgio de Chirico. Ironically, the limitlessness evoked by the sea is juxtaposed with the enclosed space and dark bowels of the ship, which is slowly sinking.
We encounter a similar aesthetic and a similar irony in The White Meadows. In this film, whose setting and narrative is even further removed from a “documentary” tradition, Rahmat, an old, solitary man travels from island to island collecting tears: the tears of birth, marriage, death and all the other joys and sorrows of life. Stunningly filmed by cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori in the naturally surreal landscape of a salt lake near the holy city of Qom in the north of Iran, the white “meadows” of the film’s title are nothing but an eerie series of salt encrusted islands forming an archipelago across the expansive sea. While Rhamat collects the people’s tears, he is careful not to spill a drop, suggesting that they are needed for some highly important ritual. Ironically, however, it is also suggested that the saltiness of the sea and land are the result of so many tears spilled over the ages: the tears of the nation perhaps. As with Iron Island, Rasoulof presents us with a none too subtle allegory. However, not only do these tears suggest the sorrow of the contemporary nation, they also point to the importance of weeping and mourning in the Iranian Islamic tradition more broadly.
According to festival directors Anne Demy-Géroe and Armin Miladi, one of their aims was to present a broad spectrum of the cinema of contemporary Iran and to include, as far as possible, films that are not so readily picked up on the international film festival circuit. Tala va mes (Gold and Copper, Homayoun Asadian, 2010) is representative of one of the most prevalent genres in contemporary Iranian cinema: the spiritual film. Such films frequently feature an individual being presented with a situation that tests their faith. One beautiful example that hit the international festival circuit a decade ago was Zir-e noor-e maah (Under the Moonlight, Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi, 2001). It followed a young seminary student as he begins to question his faith when he is forced to venture out of the confines of the seminary to witness poverty and humanity up close. In Gold and Copper, a young man, Seyed Reza (Behrouz Shaibi) is also preparing to enter the clergy when he his wife, Zarah (Negar Javaherian), is diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Now, he must juggle his studies with looking after Zarah and caring for the couple’s young daughter and small baby. Additionally, he must ensure the family’s economic security by weaving the rugs that Zarah can no longer manage. The situation both tests and bolsters his faith. While some films of this genre tend to be too ideologically rich for Western audiences, Gold and Copper employs a familiar melodramatic mode and intimate characterisation that allows for a more universal appeal.
The term “Iranian cinema” cannot be limited to films made by resident Iranians, but must necessarily include the rich body of work made by an increasing list of diasporic and exilic filmmakers. These include a generation of young directors, many of who were either born in the West or who had fled with their families as young children and teenagers with the onset and in the aftermath of the 1979 Iranian Revolution. These include Babak Shokrian (America so Beautiful, 2001), Mojgan Khadem (Serenades, 2001), Granaz Moussavi (My Tehran for Sale, 2009), multimedia artist-turned-filmmaker Shirin Neshat (Zanan-e bedun-e mardan [Women Without Men, 2009]), and Maryam Keshavarz, whose controversial debut feature Circumstance (2011) screened at IFFA in Brisbane. Another group are made up of filmmakers who have fled Iran in recent years due to the increasingly unstable political climate, restrictions on freedom of expression and the mounting pressure of tightened censorship regulations. Among this group we find some of the greats of Iranian cinema including Amir Naderi, Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf (who, with his filmmaking dynasty now calls Kabul, Afghanistan home), and Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi who went into exile in 2009 and is now working on his latest film in Turkey.
In-between these two groups, we find Rafi Pitts, whose latest film The Hunter screened in Brisbane, Adelaide and Canberra. Having fled Iran in 1981, Pitts lives in England, but has returned to Iran to shoot all of his features. This means applying for filming permits and abiding by the strict Iranian censorship regulations. For example, once the authorities have granted a filming permit, it is difficult to accommodate any changes to cast and crew. This led to Pitts himself taking over in the lead role for The Hunter when it became clear that the actor originally cast to play Ali Alavi was too unreliable to meet the tight production schedule. The Hunter is a sophisticated, minimalist thriller about a young man who shoots two police officers after the deaths of his wife and daughter. Pitts’ style, in its carefully modulated minimalism and limited dialogue is reminiscent at once of the work of Michelangelo Antonioni and the cool, stark films of contemporary German filmmaker Christian Petzold. Like Petzold’s Die innere Sicherheit (The State I am In, 2000), which only obliquely hints at the political legacy of Germany’s 1970s left-wing terrorist movements, The Hunter allows Iran’s contemporary political situation to hover ominously at the narrative’s margins, in the ever-present but unseen off-screen space. Filmed in Tehran during the 2009 election campaign, Pitts incorporates incidental radio speeches by Ayatollah Khamenei and tentatively prefigures the unrest that would erupt soon after shooting was completed (it is reported that Ali’s wife, an innocent bystander, was accidentally shot by police during a street protest.). Pitts could not have known that this plot device would be realised only months later in the post-election protests, not only with the much-publicised death of Neda Soltani, but the numerous youth who would also lose their lives in the protests.
In addition to his style, which is obviously influenced by European modernist cinema, Pitts also incorporates references to a range of other, controversial Iranian films. At one point, scenes from Ebrahim Golestan’s 1965 feature Khesht va Ayeneh (The Brick and the Mirror) play on a television screen, and at another moment, we see a clip from Forough Farrokhzad’s 1962 poetic essay film about a leper colony Khaneh siah ast (The House is Black). Both films represented a burgeoning modernist film practice in the pre-Revolutionary era and both figure an underlying critique of the society in which they were made. Another film less overtly referenced by Pitts is Panahi’s Ayneh (The Mirror, 1997). When Ali’s wife and daughter fail to return home one evening, he goes in search of them. At one point he visits his daughter’s school, the very school where little Mina (Mina Mohammadkhani) is stranded in Panahi’s film after her mother fails to collect her from school. In part, Pitts’ film shows us the flip side of Panahi’s mirror (which itself has two sides), giving us one possible answer to the question of why Mina’s mother failed to collect her from school that day. One of the strengths of The Hunter is its cinematography by veteran Iranian cinematographer Mohammad Davudi who is known for his work with Majid Majidi (Rang-e khoda [The Colour of Paradise, 1999] and Baran ). Throughout The Hunter, Davudi uses his signature high-angle shot to connote the view not so much of a higher, spiritual being as in Majidi’s films, but to suggest the presence of a cool, all-seeing surveillance apparatus. Davudi also brings to the film smooth tracking shots through the forest during the chase between Ali and the police and effectively shoots a dangerous car chase sequence in thick mist. The film’s limited colour palette of cool blues and greens further adds to the film’s chilly, bleak contemporary aesthetic.
For me, the only disappointment of the festival was Chiz-haie hast keh nemidani (There are Things You Don’t Know, 2010) by first-time director Saheb-Zamani Fardin. This film is the latest in a cycle of Iranian films that use taxi drivers, delivery drivers or urban car journeys with an array of incidental passengers to bring a range of people from a variety of backgrounds into contact with one another. More successful films of this type include Crimson Gold (Talaye sorkh, Panahi, 2003), Ten (Kiarostami, 2002), and renowned Iranian actress Niki Karimi’s directorial debut Yek shab (One Night, 2005). There are Things You Don’t Know revolves around the theme of unrequited love and offers some decent performances by Leila Hatami (who we also saw in A Separation) and the less experienced Mahtab Keramati and Ali Mosafa as the taxi driver. Even at a duration of 92 minutes, the film seems too long and Fardin has not yet mastered the difficult task of night filming, leaving much of the film, which predominantly takes place at night, too steeped in shadow to successfully convey the weight of this intimate drama. Unfortunately I missed Majid Barzegar’s debut feature Fasle Baranhaye Mousemi (Rainy Season, 2010), which, like A Separation, deals with the theme of divorce, but this time shows its effect on a teenage son.
Perhaps the most controversial film of the festival was Kesharvarz’s Circumstance. The director has lived most of her life in America, growing up in New York and graduating from Northwestern University, and is one of the younger diasporic filmmakers. With Circumstance, Keshavarz shows interest in navigating the divide between Iranian youth seeking out a liberal lifestyle and the conservative environment that ensures that such a lifestyle can only take place underground, in the shadows, away from the prying eyes of the morals police. For her subject matter, Keshavarz takes a burgeoning sexual relationship between two young women, Atafeh (Nikohl Boosheri) and Shireen (Sarah Kazemy). In part, it is suggested that their attraction to each other is born partly out of the clandestine circumstances under which Iranian youth may explore their sexual awakenings (illicit mixed parties with drugs and alcohol) and partly out of the necessary homo-socialisation of women under the rules of gender segregation in Iran. Watching over them is Mehran (Reza Sixo Safai), Atafeh’s brother who, during the course of the narrative develops into a somewhat hypocritical conservative informant for the morals police. He also develops an obsession with Shireen and spies on her with a series of hidden cameras he has secreted throughout the house, including in his sister’s bedroom. It is clear that he is meant to emblematise Iran’s culture of surveillance and repressive control of people’s public and private lives, but Keshavarz’s treatment of this character comes across as a little too heavy-handed, despite Safai’s solid performance. Brian Rigney Hubbard’s cinematography is at times stunning, with his camera sensuously caressing the beautiful faces and bodies of the leading actresses in extreme close-up. Unfortunately, the repetition of such shots ultimately becomes weary and all too naively voyeuristic.
On its release in the US, several weeks after I saw the film in Brisbane, Circumstance received highly divided responses from its mixed Iranian and non-Iranian audience. In the main, non-Iranian viewers found it a moving and eye-opening portrayal of love under repressive circumstances; Iranian viewers found it grossly inauthentic, a sentiment that was not lost on Brisbane’s Iranian community. The subject matter of Circumstance would have made it impossible for Keshavarz to obtain permission to film it in Iran; as a result she elected to shoot it in Beirut, Lebanon. Neshat was similarly forced to find an analogue for Tehran when she made Women Without Men, which she filmed in Morocco. Somehow the historical setting and surreal aesthetic of Women Without Men meant that the markedly non-Iranian location and obviously Moroccan faces of the extras did not grate so much on expectations around authenticity. Even I, who have visited Tehran only once, found the Beirut cityscape of Circumstance an unconvincing analogue. I wondered why Keshavarz didn’t seek out some stock footage of the Tehran skyline for her establishing shots. For Iranians, even the interiors seemed somehow “too Arab”. Yet another signifier of authenticity in film is language. Circumstance is quite literally “accented”, with its main cast, who are all US residents, unable to transcend their own linguistic roots between languages and cultures. These are but a few of the many, complex criticisms that have been levelled at the film.
What I find very interesting about the divided reception of the film are the differing values expected of and attributed to the film medium. On the one hand, the film has been judged for its capacity to create an authentic image of the Iranian homeland and the experiences of the oppressed. On the other, the film engages in a form of self-Orientalising that seems to appeal to non-Iranians and proves that an Orientalist tendency is still alive and well amongst Western audiences. I think both perspectives misjudge the film and do not account for the effects of “circumstance” on film style. Let me suggest that Circumstance constitutes a textbook case of what Hamid Naficy called “accented cinema”(3). As mentioned already, the film is literally accented in language and in setting. I would argue that it is also tellingly marked by Keshavarz’s necessary accentedness as a diasporic filmmaker living in the US. According to many cultural theorists, diasporas maintain complex relationships between the host land of the now and the homeland of the past. In Keshavarz’s case, the homeland in the present is only partially accessible. While she spent several years living and studying in Shiraz, unlike Pitts’ carefully allegorical method, the direct approach and controversial subject matter of Keshavarz’s film prevented her from filming there. This leads to the creation of a necessarily imagined homeland that, in Circumstance, functions simultaneously as the site of a repressive social order and as that imaginary place of return. These two tendencies: a critique of the current order and a romanticised memory of homeland to be restored and redeemed, ultimately produce a conceptual tension that I believe lies at the heart of the film’s flaws. This may be illustrated with a sequence that elicited chuckles from Brisbane’s Iranian audience. At one point in the film, the family visit their holiday house near the Caspian Sea. This is the site of a much-loved and now (for the diaspora) lost and longed-for seaside holiday destination: Iran’s Riviera. Keshavarz represents the trip with a nostalgic tone as the family remember old poems and songs during their journey north through the lush countryside. Once there, the family enjoy a picnic by the sea and the male members swim freely. At one point, Atafeh’s father remarks with more than a hint of nostalgia in his voice: “I long for the day that we can swim here together!” Rather than being spoken by a contemporary Iranian subject, these words seem to emanate from elsewhere; separated from Iran both spatially and temporally.
It is this diasporic sense of separation and longing that also makes Keshavarz’s critique of authority decidedly off the mark as it too is infused with a distant wish for a diasporic reclamation and restitution of the homeland and constructs its critique simplistically across gender lines: woman as passive object in need of rescue; man as active subject and the sole source of women’s oppression in the family as much as in society. Such a simplistic dichotomy, which also constructs an artificial split between secularism and religious tradition, ignores the more complex interrelationships between secularism, religion and feminism in Iran and Iranian feminism’s differences from its Western counterpart. According to Nima Naghibi’s critique of the emergence of an imaginary “global sisterhood”, Western feminists (among them diasporic subjects like Keshavarz) naively seek to “liberate” their sisters in the Islamic world(4). While Circumstance lacks a literal gesture of liberation (the women remain doubly oppressed), her film does seek to give representation to an oppressed minority, thereby in a sense attempting to rescue a suppressed image of homosexuality in Iran. Circumstance was an ambitious project, perhaps too complex for a first-time director such as Keshavarz, who would do well to take advantage of her diasporic status and accent her films strategically, rather than indulge in an imagined return to homeland that, unfortunately for the time being, is guaranteed to fail.
It has been both a terrible and terrific year for Iranian cinema. While Farhadi has been receiving accolades, some of his compatriots have been suffering under the Iranian regime’s heightened censorship and political sensitivity. Recently Panahi lost his appeal against a six-year jail term and twenty-year filmmaking ban. He remains defiant however, with In film nist (This is Not a Film (2011) shot on video in his home earlier this year and smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival on a USB device hidden in a cake. The fate of his collaborator Mojtaba Mirtahmasb is still not clear. He was arrested in September 2011 along with a number of other filmmakers and producers in what appears to be the worst crackdown on the filmmaking community since the Revolution. Earlier, in June 2011 Iranian actress Marziyeh Vafamer, star of the first ever Australian-Iranian co-production, My Tehran For Sale, was arrested, accused of violating Iran’s strict modesty laws in the film. Her sentencing to a one-year jail term and ninety lashes raised international outrage. Luckily she has now had her jail sentence reduced and escaped the barbaric flogging. (It is also troubling that Australian exhibitors almost entirely overlooked Moussavi’s outstanding and important film.) Amidst this tumultuous year, This is Not a Film has been picked up by Australian distributor, Sharmill Films, and if my memory serves me correctly it is the first Iranian film to get a national commercial release in this country since Panahi’s Offside (2006). I believe audiences can also look forward to the release of A Separation in early 2012, the film having been picked up by Australian distributor Hopscotch. This dearth of access to Iranian films is one thing that makes the appearance of this first ever Iranian Film Festival in Australia so important and so timely. As important as Panahi’s “not” film is, it would be a shame if Australian audiences’ access to Iranian cinema outside the major festivals in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Adelaide were limited to this. The IFFA directors have done a splendid job in mounting the first of what I hope to be many, many more Iranian film festivals here in the land down under.
- See Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen vol. 16, no. 3, 1975, pp. 6-18; and Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 2: The Movement-Image, trans Hugh Tomlinson and R. Galeta, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1989, pp. 7, 23.
- For more on the cinematic representation of Iran’s ethnic “others” see Michelle Langford “Iran and its Others: Locating Cultural Diversity in Iranian Cinema”, The International Journal of Diversity in Organizations, Communities and Nations vol. 6, no. 6, 2007, pp. 151-158.
- Hamid Naficy, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2001.
- Nima Naghibi, Rethinking Global Sisterhood: Western Feminism and Iran, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2007.
This festival report was commissioned and edited by Adrian Danks, Australian Cinema Co-Editor.
Iranian Film Festival Australia
4-7 August 2011
Festival website: http://www.iffa.net.au/