Kiarostami's coded messages from Iran

June 26, 2009
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Since the early 1990s, Iran has produced a new school of filmmakers whose fusion of formal innovation and rough realism picks up where the French New Wave left off. And, much as movies like Godard’s Masculin, Feminin (1966) anticipated the evenements of May 1968, the films of directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have prefigured the demands for a more liberal Iran now being made on the streets. With television pictures from Iran in short supply as the regime tries to silence the protesters, these remarkable films offer an alternative glimpse into what ordinary Iranians think and feel.

Although political repression in Iran makes it impossible to make films that directly criticise the regime, directors like Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf—and the many others that have followed them—have subtly questioned the existing order through their films. In fact, cinema seems to be one of the few things that bridges, at least to some extent, the divide between public and private life in Iran that Anna Fifield described last week in the Financial Times.

Such is the connection between film and politics in Iran that Makhmalbaf, who now lives in Paris, has been speaking for Mir Hussein Mousavi since the Iranian security forces shut down his campaign headquarters in Tehran. “In a country where there are no real political parties, artists can act as a party,” he wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian last Saturday (also see his interview with Foreign Policy). In fact, Makhmalbaf’s biography parallels Mousavi’s: as a young man he was an Islamic militant and supported the 1979 revolution, but has since become disillusioned with the Ahmedinejad regime.

Kiarostami’s films, like the extraordinary Taste of Cherry which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997, seem to be more preoccupied with the existential than the political. But again this approach has to be seen in the context of censorship in Iran. His films, which are not shown in Iran but are also not banned, can also be read as veiled critiques of the way the Islamic Republic stifles life in Iran. They function as coded messages to the outside world.

One of the best examples of this is Ten (2002). The film consists of ten connected episodes, all of which take place in a taxi with a female driver. In each episode the camera is completely static, mounted on the dashboard facing either the driver or the passenger, so we either see the driver and hear her passenger or hear her and see her passenger. Within this frame—another apparent restriction that actually allows the filmmaker to be more creative—Kiarostami draws a remarkably vivid picture of the dreams and frustrations of Iranian women.

Kiarostami’s latest movie is Shirin, which was shown at the Edinburgh film festival last week and opens across the UK today. It echoes Ten in terms of form and content. Once again, we are looking at women’s faces: in this case, over 100 women—mostly Iranian but also including Juliette Binoche, in a headscarf—who are themselves watching a film. In fact, they were staring at a white screen and imagining their own stories. It's hard not to wonder whether some of them were thinking about a different Iran.