Tuesday, April 03, 2007

A glimpse into Iranian Cinema

There was a very interesting article by Doug Saunders in the weekend edition of The Globe and Mail about censorship and Iranian cinema. It seems the censors have been increasing in what can be eliminated from the movies. In the past I have read about Iranian movies being banned and even certain scenes being left on the editing floor, but in the article Doug Saunders outlines the procedures to get films made in Iran --

Step One: The government must first approve the script.
Step Two: The government then provides shooting approvals, lighting and equipment.
Step Three: After the film has been made, "the government can edit, alter or ban the film, and controls the time and quantity of its exhibition."

Doug interviews three film-makers and their different approaches to handling the censors.

1) Bahman Ghobadi -- The award-winning director of the wonderful Turtles Can Fly and A Time for Drunken Horses is debating leaving Iran for good because of the censors. Ghobadi's new film, Half Moon, is about female musicians but he had to "remove every scene of women making music, or even appearing in the same room room as any music". Despite all the concessions he made, the government informed him that his movie would never be shown because they felt "that it contained messages of Kurdish independence." Going by his previous films, that accusation seems highly unlikely. But what might be possible is that the movie contains Kurdish characters just like in his previous films and ofcourse, the fact that Ghobadi is a Kurd himself might have sealed this decision.

In the end, the censors were preventing him to work freely. Also, the fear of the ministry was causing Ghobadi to censor his work in advance while writing and editing his films. Currently, Ghobadi has decided that he can't work in such an environment and will finally leave Iran for Toronto.

2) Rakshan Bani-Etemad -- Rakshan's example is extraordinary. She has been able to make films on controversial topics such as Iranian bureaucracy (Off Limits), the wasteful nature of the Iraq-Iran war (Gilaneh), a passionate love triangle (Nargess) and heroin addiction in Iranian society (Khoon Bazi). But all her films have been distributed and shown in Iran. Rakshan approach is that she works with the censors and "willingly gives up scenes of images, or even sometimes entire film ideas, in order to get the important things across". She does admit that she is not happy with the system but for her, it is very "important that Iranians see her movies that she is willing to sacrifice almost anything within them". Rakshan does feel that is she being "pushed to her limit" regarding what she can or can't say, but for now, she is staying put.

3) Jafar Panahi -- Jafar's films are a treat but they also get the full brunt of the censors. He refuses to submit to the censors and a result, gets his movies banned. But film festival, critics and cine fans around the world have bestowed awards and praise on his sublime features -- The Circle, Crimson Gold and Offside. For him the challenge is to stay in Iran and continue to make films without giving up even a scene. In 2003, he was arrested by the Information ministry and interrogated for four hours. He was asked why he doesn't leave Iran since most of his audience lies outside the country? But that would be playing into the government's hands as per Panahi: "The government is encouraging people in all kinds of cultural and political activities to move outside of Iran. I can't let them win this way."

So for now, Panahi faces a tough and lonely battle. What hurts him the most is that people in Iran can't see his movies and as it stands, he is left "without an audience in his own language".

Despite all these restrictions, I have always found watching Iranian films a rewarding experience. All their films are alive and vibrant -- they have something to say and are not pointless entertainment. The characters are so real that any of them could easily step out of the silver screen and assume an honest living in Tehran or other Iranian cities. Inspired partly by the article, I decided to find some Iranian films to watch. In the end, the three random picks ended up being a great choice, especially the Panahi & Abbas Kiarostami film.

Crimson Gold (2003, Director Jafar Panahi, Writer Abbas Kiarostami): Rating 10/10

Vintage cinema! Film-making of the highest order. A simple story yet so beautifully done; it also manages to convey messages of certain universal society class differences.

There was a scene in the film Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin (1996, India, Director Sudhir Mishra) that has stayed with me for over a decade. A couple of street gangsters break into a middle class apartment during a party and hold the people hostage. While they are killing time, one of the men waves his gun around and tells his accomplices that no matter how much power they get or how much money they make, they won't ever get respect like the people in the apartment. Those words are quite true and an unfortunate reality about societies all around the world, even North America -- people are quickly judged by their profession or their clothes. And even if certain people try dress the part, they won't ever get the respect they deserve because of preconceived notions. And this feeling of class difference is at the heart of Crimson Gold.

Ali and Hussein are average men who go about making an honest living by working as pizza delivery men. When Ali finds an expensive purse, he comes across a receipt for an Italian necklace which cost 75 million Tomans. The two are shocked that someone could spend so much on a necklace. So they decide to visit the jewelery store and look at what such an expensive necklace looks like. But the jeweler refuses to let the two in because of how they are dressed. So a few days later, Hussein dresses smartly and returns to the store with his fiancee and Ali. But even then, the same jeweler manages to find a way to get the message across that this store is not for people like them. This insult eats at Hussein and results in him going over the edge.

Besides this class difference, other interesting aspects of Iranian society are shown:

-- the police are keen to arrest young people coming from a party where the men and women have been drinking. Such parties are deemed illegal.
-- there are some references to a time when women didn't have to cover up in Iran.
-- attitude difference of Iranians who live abroad and return to Iran are shown.
-- the poverty and rich life is shown.

Unlike the characters in Is Raat Ki Subah Nahin , Hussein gets to taste the rich life for one amazing night.

Under the Moonlight (2001, Director Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi): Rating 7.5/10

This is a touching film that looks at people living on the fringes of society -- unemployed people who are forced to live under bridges or seek shelter by the roadside. Sayyed is studying to become a cleric. Yet he is only doing this to please his parents wishes. He does not exhibit the behaviour of a devout religious person. For example:

1) he continues to read sport magazines even though such an act is frowned up by the elder clerics.
2) Sayyed is not comfortable with the idea of wearing a turban which is a requirement.

But he continues to quietly go through the motions. For the final part of his graduation, he needs to go buy the proper attire. He makes a trip to the city center to buy his robe, shoes & other materials required to perform the final rites as a cleric. On the train ride back, a young boy steals the bag containing these items. Sayyed sees this as a sign from God that maybe he was not meant to be a cleric. He is curious to find the boy and learn to see what caused the boy to commit the theft.

From there on, Sayyed becomes a spectator himself and watches the harsh life of a few street people who society has forgotten. He brings food for these people and even spends a night under the bridge with them. He is clearly effected by these people's plight and his confusion between the need to pursue religion vs serving these people only increases. In the end, another sign helps him make the right decision.

Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine (2000, Director Bahman Farmanara): Rating 8/10

Death in all forms hangs over every frame in this film. This means physical death, mental death, and even perceived death that comes when society makes living so hard for its citizens that they are like the living dead. Bahman is shown to be a film-maker who has not made a film for over two decades since he was banned by the Iranian government. For Bahman it is essential to not live a futile life and making films is a big part to ensure that does not happen. In that regard, he is happy to make a comeback with a documentary about funeral rites in Iran. In following Bahman,Smell of Camphor... is broken up into 3 acts --

Act One: "Bad Day" -- His son's phone call in the morning is the best thing to happen to Bahman all day long. After he leaves the house, death follows him around everywhere -- he sees his dead wife, he gives a ride to a woman whose one day baby was born dead, and the thought of his dead friends stays with him. When he goes to visit his wife's grave, he finds that someone else has been buried in the plot next to her grave -- he had reserved the plot next to his wife for himself.

Act Two: "Funeral Arrangements" -- This is where Bahman tries to get props and hire his friends to play actors. Scenes of typical funeral rituals are shown. Also, Bahman visits his mother who suffers from Alzhemier's and can't recognize him. Bahman considers his mother's equivalent to death itself.

Act Three: "Throw a stone in the water" -- This is where Bahman confronts his fears of death. The death circus that surrounds him & his confusion regarding whether to make the movie or not, has shades of a Fellini film.

Overall, despite the depressing topic, elements of dark humour, surreal dreams and self-mockery made this a refreshing viewing.

Update, Oct 2011:

All the quotes are taken from the March 31, 2007 article which is now available online via Doug Saunders' website. Also, given the recent injustice against Panahi, Saunders' interview is even more relevant.

Also, the following line that I typed back in 2007 is now sadly even more true.

So for now, Panahi faces a tough and lonely battle.

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