Because for more than 30 years our prevailing images of Africa and Asia have been informed by news coverage rather than cultural exchange, it's particularly interesting to see places like China, India and the Middle East on film, for the first time revealed to us through the documentary lens and interpretive storytelling of native artists rather than foreign journalists -- the latter seemingly limited by the old-school editorial tenet, "if it bleeds, it leads."
Film, one could argue, is then the perfect emissary, taking on as it does an understanding for so many years confounded by a one-sided vocabulary, and expanding it not only with new images of lives real and imagined, but whole new conversations about personal freedom and cultural expression.
The UA Center for Middle Eastern Studies presents its third-annual Middle Eastern Film Festival with five diverse features screening Thursday through Sunday at downtown's Screening Room. In conjunction with the Department of Near Eastern Studies, this year's festival focuses on Iran, a non-Arab country (whose native Persian belongs to the Indo-European languages), bordered mainly by Afghanistan, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, and the southern border of the former Soviet Union. Just so you don't have to look it up, like I did.
Assistant Director Dr. Anne Bennett says the intent was "to choose recent films that had not yet had a theatrical release in Tucson." In particular, she cites The Apple, The Mirror and Leila, films critically acclaimed during their release in 1997 and 1998 in larger markets. Dolphins, a 1999 feature made in Germany by Iranian émigré Farhad Yawari, won the Audience Award for Best Feature at this year's off-Sundance Slamdance festival, where Bennett discovered it. Described as a modern fairy tale told visually and musically, the 40-minute piece will screen together with Agha Joon, a 25-minute short by female filmmaker Zohreh Shayesteh, an Iranian emigrant to New York City.
"There are so many Iranians who've lived outside of Iran ever since the 1979 revolution, I thought it'd be interesting to see some of the work of these émigrés," Bennett says.
All, save the language-less Dolphins, are in Farsi with English subtitles.
KAMRAN TALATTOF IS finishing his first year as assistant professor of Persian language and literature at the UA. He teaches courses on Iranian culture, and is an eloquent commentator on the role of film as a medium for change. Many of the following responses are from an unpublished article on the subject. Asked how Iranian film differs from other Middle Eastern filmmaking, his answer also informs its comparison to American commercial cinema. "(Iranian) movies are about very normal incidents," he says, "and exclude action and any significant adventures."
TW: How else is Iranian film distinct?
KT: Many other Middle Eastern countries have produced great films, but Iran has been lauded as one of the great exporters of cinema during the last decade. In addition to having general differences in language and culture, post-revolutionary Iranian cinema has been capable, without benefit of any advanced technology, to fill a vacuum in its viewers' innermost self. It has been able to satisfy a need beyond the thirst for understanding other cultures, beyond entertaining the idea of the Other, beyond the idea of entertainment per say. It has been able to say something beautiful about life, and this has made Iranian cinema desirable not only to Iranians, but also to the West.
A second reason to look at Iranian cinema is that by understanding the way films are composed, structurally and culturally, we may also understand more about an Iranian society which has experienced some rather agonizing periods of change. Iranian cinema, like other cultural production, has not only been affected by socio-political changes wrought by the 1979 Iranian Revolution, but it also played a role in bringing about change both before and after the revolution. In the post-revolutionary period, its representation of the female has greatly affected the process of cultural change.
TW: How does censorship inhibit (or foster) independent filmmaking in Iran?
KT: Before 1979, the possibility film offered for reaching the masses was not lost on the politically minded. As a result, we witnessed the development of a sort of political film genre conveying ideological statements about the ills of society and necessity of political change. This is often referred to as the "Alternative Cinema" movement. The movement spawned a group of intellectual artists who denounced the existing escapist cinema, and launched a wave producing national films of high-quality cinematic and social consciousness (also conceptualized as the Iranian New Wave).
Their works have provided the context for the success of Iranian Cinema in the '90s. Like many other cultural products in this period, the New Wave filmmakers advocated social change and adhered to a leftist discourse which sought, more than anything else, to change the political arrangement by criticizing the unpleasant realities of the Iranian life under the King Mohammad Reza (1941-79). Consequently, they came under growing censorship.
Many of their movies were banned for a long period, and released, if at all, only after modification. Censorship forced the filmmakers to employ a symbolic mode of communication to convey their social and political messages. Although the rules and purpose of censorship have changed, it still plays a role in the production of cinema. Movies sponsored by the government have no problems.
However, like in the pre-Revolutionary period, independent filmmakers came up with creative ways to convey their messages and to portray a more realistic female image. This, and the use of new themes regarding gender issues, children, nature and cultural problems, has fueled a revival of Iranian cinema. The challenge to meet codes and create a high-quality film that also speaks to the people's situation has motivated a number of very talented artists.
As has been the case in literary activities in the post-revolutionary period, cinema witnessed the emergence of a new generation of female directors in unprecedented numbers. In the past 10 years, despite all of the restrictions, Iranian cinema has been illustrious in international arenas. The number of directors in Iran exceeds 300 today, 12 or 13 of whom are women. They participate in the production of what has come to be more than 150 films a year.
You may be familiar with some of these titles: Where is the Friend's Home? Life and Nothing But, Under the Olive Trees and A Taste of Cherry, by the very influential Abbas Kiarostami, a Cannes Palme d'Or winner. Also, The White Balloon, by Jafar Panahi. The Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise, by Majid Majidzadeh, won the Montreal International Festival First prize in 1998 and 1999.
This burgeoning film industry, the organizations and associations that revolve around it, the many dynamic film periodicals that specialize in cinema, and the role women are playing in this field to make more space for themselves are all part of a larger process of cultural change in Iran. In this process, cultural producers in film, literature and music challenge the state Islamic ideology. Perhaps it is as a result of this that the ruling elite are increasingly divided over creating more or fewer opportunities for cultural change.
THE FEMALE PERSPECTIVE is central to all of the films featured in this year's festival. Jafar Panahi returns to an ordinary day made extraordinary through a young girl's eyes as she travels through the streets of Tehran in The Mirror (1998). Thematically similar to his previous export, The White Balloon, this film is described as "a dazzling metafictional exercise," and an "ingenious, daringly original commentary on the nature of documentary filmmaking."
Darlush Mehrjul's contemplative critiques of modern Iranian society (The Cow, Hamoon) are already considered classics in Iranian cinema. Unveiled here is Leila (1997), the story of an affluent modern woman who finds out she's sterile. Though her husband is accepting, her mother-in-law urges her to convince him to take a second wife, in order to have children.
The Apple weaves fiction and documentary into a "tale of discovery" based on the real experiences of twin girls locked away for 12 years by their parents. Filmed in Iran in 1998, director Samira Makhmalbaf was only 17 years old when she started this project.
Finally, we have the two "foreign" films: Zohreh Shayesteh's previously mentioned Agha Joon, the story of an aging father and his three grown children living in New York City. The father, new to American shores, takes up residence with his son.
Farhad Yawari's Dolphins is distinctly both the most multi-cultural and least culturally specific in the lot, made by the independent Iranian filmmaker from his home in Germany and filmed entirely without spoken language. Its fantastic story follows Lara, "a sensitive young woman who, although she isn't insane, is being held in a psychiatric clinic." She escapes by submerging herself in an underwater dream world, filled with the ethereal sights and sounds of the sea.
Yawari left Iran in 1985. Dr. Bennett, who listened to him speak at Slamdance, says one of the things that interested her about the film was the director's struggle to make a film that transcended the boundaries of any one particular language. "Yawari spoke about how difficult it was to get financial backing (in Germany) for a film that had no dialogue, that didn't look very "German"; and wasn't about Iranian refugees. There was pressure to identify it as either Iranian or German.
"So it's interesting, on that level, that it's also a film about claustrophobic spaces: the young woman in a mental hospital, and her dream of liberation (linked with water imagery) and ultimate escape."