Making films in Iran, I came to understand why the country's cinema is so remarkable. It has risen above the restrictions of both Islam and Hollywoodby Mark Cousins / May 21, 2005 / Leave a comment
Why are Iranians such good filmmakers? There is a season of Iranian films coming up on British television in early May, the fullest ever retrospective of director Abbas Kiarostami at the National Film Theatre throughout the month, and an installation of his work at the V&A until June. Tehran-based directors have won, per capita, more movie prizes than those of any other country in recent years. In 1995, their feature films made 755 appearances at international film festivals. Britain, which has the same population, didn’t manage half that. Some of the best women filmmakers in the world today are Iranian. Akira Kurosawa, Jean-Luc Godard and Werner Herzog have called Abbas Kiarostami one of the great living filmmakers. An American critic said that “we are living in the era of Kiarostami, but we don’t yet know it.”?
How can a country that is not technologically advanced, not rich, was not involved in the invention of cinema, which made no films of consequence before about 1959, whose artists are far from free and whose religion is suspicious of imagery, be leading the way?
The first, unexpected, answer is Islamisation. Like other movie houses at the end of the 1970s, Iranian cinemas showed mostly escapist entertainment films with lots of sex and violence. In one of his first speeches on returning to Iranian soil, Ayatollah Khomeini said that he wasn’t against cinema, just the sleazy direction it had taken. Like Lenin, he felt that movies could “purify” his country, and so his ministry of culture and Islamic guidance put in place a set of prohibitions: Iranian directors could not show women’s hair or body parts, sexual touching of any sort, or any anti-government comment. What is less well known is that they also banned “demeaning behaviour,” denigration of people on grounds of ethnicity or creed, or violence. The latter was a bit rich from a regime which was more murderous than the one it replaced, but the irony is that the puritanism of the new Islamic Republic was rather similar to, say, John Grierson’s social ambitions for British documentary in the 1930s.
Such ideas can result in cinema of dull worthiness, but it can now be seen that the preference of Khomeini’s henchmen for spiritual and community themes over sexual or violent ones has rendered Iranian films graceful and satisfying compared to those of commercial industries. Forbid your filmmakers from representing what…