The Melbourne International Film Festival (MIFF) has showcased the New Iranian Cinema since a special focus in 1993 called “Spotlight Iran”. It has routinely highlighted particular peaks and trends, and has consistently followed the work of such significant directors as Abbas Kiarsotami, Mohsen and Samira Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi and Majid Majidi (along with some notable omissions). It has also provided a particular view of Iranian cinema and even society – one that has dominated on the international festival circuit over this period. But many of the key directors of this earlier, globally significant era are no longer working within Iran and recent crackdowns on specific social movements, forces of democracy and filmmakers (such as Panahi) have resulted in something of a recession in this cinema and its international circulation. There are obvious exceptions to this trend – Asghar Farhadi’s Jodaeiye Nader az Simin (A Separation, 2011)’s massive critical and even popular success, most obviously – but the last six or seven years have seen something of a general decline, specifically in terms of films finding significant favour outside of Iran. But these patterns of fecundity and sparsity are actually symptomatic of the last 40 years and Iranian cinema has long incorporated and been defined by work made both within and outside of Iran, by films screened to local audiences and those only available – officially, at least – outside of the country.
This year MIFF will present three recent films – Massoud Bakhshi’s Yek Khanévadéh-e Mohtaram (A Respectable Family, 2012), Mani Haghighi’s Paziraie sadeh (Modest Reception, 2012), and Negar Azarbayjani’s Aynehaye Rooberoo (Facing Mirrors, 2011) – representing different approaches to the complex and difficult conditions of filmmaking and artistic expression in modern Iran (Abbas Kiarostami’s internationally financed, Japan-set Like Someone in Love  belongs to a further tradition of transnational cinema). Although it would be misleading to suggest that these films share significant preoccupations and tropes, each does attempt to give some sense of the psychological and physical conditions of contemporary Iran, dealing with the political, cultural and social through indirect, oblique, and often symbolic means. The most direct film of the three is Facing Mirrors, a varyingly schematic account of the burgeoning and hard-won friendship between a young, traditional mother whose husband has been jailed, and a pre-operative transsexual escaping from the conventional frames of behaviour and identity imposed by her father and brother (she is promised in marriage). Although this low budget film is often clumsily constructed, and features several scenes (such as a poorly staged car accident) that seem narratologically convenient rather than dramatically cogent or true, it nevertheless provides a fascinating glimpse of the complex gender roles and codes that define modern Iranian society. Like the other two films discussed below it is preoccupied by issues of family and fidelity, and features characters who wish to escape from the social roles that are being mapped out for them. It also includes numerous scenes of the two main characters driving through the landscape, a key motif of all three films and one of the dominant tropes of modern Iranian cinema. For those unfamiliar with the realities of contemporary Iran, it may be surprising to discover that gender reassignment surgery is in fact permissible (it is actually more common than in most other countries), but this does not reduce the difficulties of living within the conservative and regimented demands of family and society. Nevertheless, the film’s lasting impression emerges from the subtle and nuanced performances of the two main actors, Shayesteh Irani (the “smoking girl” from Panahi’s Offside ) in particular.
Modest Reception is, in many ways, the most satisfying of the three films. The fourth feature of Haghighi (who also co-stars, and has collaborated on several of Farhadi’s films), it is an absurdist comedy of Beckettian proportions that follows a pair of characters – whether brother and sister, husband and wife, or lovers remains uncertain – attempting to give money to various people in a remote, desolate, mountainous border region of Iran (and such border regions also feature strongly in a significant number of internationally recognised Iranian films). The pleasure and frustration of the film lies in the exchanges between this male and female couple and the ethical and moral questions that their activities provoke. It is never certain as to why they are carrying out this mission, though the most resonant possibility is that they are distributing this money for their ailing mother, a woman from this isolated region who wants to redistribute some of her wealth to its economically impoverished inhabitants. Although the film does take some liberties with dramatic plausibility, and is structured more as a series of vignettes or encounters than a dramatically consistent or cohesive whole, it does also contain moments of genuine humour and emotional power.
In many ways Modest Reception harks back to the ethical and moral cinemas of Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf but lacks something of their poetic and quotidian depth. It can be meaningfully compared and contrasted to such a seminal film as Kiarostami’s Ta’m e guilass (Taste of Cherry, 1997), specifically its questioning pursuit of issues of community, ethical responsibility and mortality. The film also shares the basic narrative and structural form of this and other Kiarostami works such as Zendegi va digar hich (And Life Goes on…, 1992), featuring characters travelling by car through a landscape while encountering complex issues of mortality, class, shared values and regional specificity. As in many of these other works, Haghighi’s film features Tehrani characters dealing with the vastly different expectations, traditions and moralities of the non-urban population. Modest Reception does not have the philosophical weight or formal command of Kiarostami’s cinema – few films do – but it does probe the motivations and ethical considerations of its two central characters and the various figures that they encounter.
But there is also a cruel streak in Haghighi’s film that aligns it more closely with works such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema (1995). Whereas Taste of Cherry gently probes the ethics and beliefs of its characters, Makhmalbaf’s reveals the lengths that these auditioning characters will go to – or not, in some cases – to be selected for the director’s subsequent film. Although these “actors” are then granted a role in the film that is actually being made, the ways they have been manipulated and urged to compromise themselves for the cinema leave a sense of bitterness and unease. Haghighi’s film shares some of these qualities. It ends up driving the characters into a much darker place than we initially think they will venture. A number of the exchanges are predominantly comic or at least humorous – such as that between two brothers offered bags of money to immediately halt the delivery job they are carrying out and the sibling tensions that are gently unleashed – but the film takes on a considerably darker complexion during several striking, though perhaps not adequately built to, scenes featuring a dying mule, a mass of cloaked motorbike riders, and the burial of a newborn baby. It is the exchange that emerges from the final of these scenes that is the film’s most shocking and ethically compromised, a truly uncomfortable moment that again “references” – in this case the penultimate sections of – Taste of Cherry.
Bakhshi’s A Respectable Family is also a film that reflects upon post-revolutionary Iranian history and cinema, its main character even screening an Amir Naderi film for his students in an early scene. It also references the bitter and catastrophic memory of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war through the fragmentary reminiscences of its protagonist, a university professor who has lived in Europe for 22 years. Some of these moments are amongst the most remarkable in Bakhshi’s film, particularly those that feature documentary footage of the repatriation of an Iranian village. But the film also has some difficulty in organising and communicating its complex temporal structure, as well as the relation between various characters, the present and the past. In some ways this relative failure is also a strength, communicating the difficulty of dealing directly with the past in contemporary Iran, as well as the relationship between those still living in the country and those who have decided to settle elsewhere; a complex sense of the here and there, the now and then that marks the work of many ex-patriot and exiled filmmakers. As is indicated by its title, Bakhshi’s ironically named film foregrounds the legacy of family and murkily details the ugly and violent realities of contemporary urban, political and cultural life. The film struggles to clearly suggest and situate its main targets, although it does identify an emerging corporate culture and police state as its most unsettling and even deadly presences, but is nevertheless a resonant work highlighting the tortured bonds of history, family, community and knowledge. It also has a strong sense of place, moving between the more open terrain of Shiraz (though still one of Iran’s largest cities) and the largely claustrophobic interiors of Tehran. This sense of place, and the attendant contrast between the urban and the rural, Tehran and other regional centres, is also an important aspect of all three films.
The picture of contemporary Iran that emerges from these three films is complex and understandably incomplete. I don’t think these films represent the strongest strand of contemporary Iranian cinema – and their formal inventiveness is certainly a notch below such recent works as Panahi’s In film nist (This is Not a Film, 2011) and A Separation – but each still provides a fascinating glimpse of the various ways in which this cinema addresses questions and issues of moral certitude, ethical weight and contested history.
A Respectable Family, Modest Reception and Facing Mirrors are screening as part of the 2012 Melbourne International Film Festival.