Slipping Past the Censors
What controversial cinematic history can explain about Iran.
On Tuesday, the U.S. Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its judges had nominated “A Separation,” an acclaimed Iranian film by director Asghar Farhadi, for two Oscars: Best Foreign Language Film and Best Original Screenplay. Few Americans know it, but Iran actually has a long and rich cinematic tradition. Here are some of the country’s best-known — and most controversial — offerings.
Many Western cinemaphiles were first introduced to Iranian movies in 1997 after director and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami took home the well-deserved Palme d’Or for his film Taste of Cherry. And yet Iranian film has had a long and lively history — one that began well before Taste of Cherry and has often been fraught with political and social controversy. As the world holds its collective breath awaiting the results of the Iranian election and all its implications, here is a list of 10 films that have stirred the country’s politics over the years.
1. The Cow (Gaav), Dariush Mehrjui, 1969
One of the first, if not the first, of Iran’s New Wave films, this picture had an enormous influence on Iranian cinema, pushing several generations of filmmakers to focus on serious social issues. Perhaps not the most entertaining movie, The Cow, a psychological drama, portrays a poor villager who is so upset by the loss of his cow that he begins to think he is the cow, eating hay and living in the barn. The shah banned The Cow for depicting the country as poor and backward, but it is rumored that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini respected the film so much that it was the reason he did not ban movies outright in 1979.
2. Caesar (Qaysar), Masoud Kimiai, 1969
Caesar is one of the first to develop what is perhaps my favorite Iranian film archetype, the Iranian antihero. Starring Iran’s version of Clint Eastwood, Behrooz Vosooghi, Caesar tells the story of a man who, after coming home to find that his sister has been raped, avenges her honor by going to kill the guilty parties. This film signaled a turn to increased depictions of violence in Iranian cinema in the 1970s and appealed to a whole generation of young Iranians who liked the idea of vigilante justice. It was these same kids who overthrew the shah, many sporting the Caesar hairdo.
3. The Deer (Gavaznha), Masoud Kimiai, 1975
The Deer also stars Vosooghi, a poor man who takes on the authorities. This time, the protagonist is an opium addict running from the police. The original film ends with a spectacular shootout, but the censored version shown in Iran in 1975 ends on themes of surrender. In fact, The Deer was the film playing at Cinema Rex in 1978 when its doors were locked and set on fire, killing the 500 patrons trapped inside — an event that marked a major turning point in the revolt against the shah.
4. The Imperiled (Barzakhiha), Iraj Ghaderi, 1982 One of the earlier Iran-Iraq War films, The Imperiled follows a small group of anti-revolutionaries accidentally freed by the opening of the shah’s prisons in 1980. During their escape to the Iraqi border, this group — a former SAVAK agent, a capitalist, and a murderer — get caught up in the war, valiantly defending an Iranian border town. Iranian film connoisseurs might consider The Imperiled an odd, if not obscure, top-10 pick. But though The Imperiled was never banned, authorities disliked the movie so much that it essentially ended the careers of its stars — Malik Motii, Ali Fardin, and Said Rad (all icons from the ’60s and ’70s). The controversy surrounding the film eventually led to the resignation of the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, who was succeeded by Mohammad Khatami, who later became president. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a godfather of sorts in contemporary Iranian cinema, hated The Imperiled so much he claims it was the reason he started making movies.
5. Bashu, The Little Stranger (Bashu, Gharibeh-ye Kuchek), Bahram Beizai, 1986
This is by far one of the best Iran-Iraq War films, distinguished by director Beizai’s treatment of taboo subjects. A cry against a war that eventually killed more than a million Iranians, it was banned by the authorities. The film was also controversial for taking on ethnic disparities and racism in Iranian society by depicting a dark-skinned child from southern Iran trying to fit in among the white northerners. Equally daring at the time, it highlights a strong female character, typical of Beizai’s films but rare for 1980s Iranian cinema. The drama centers on a child named Bashu who, after his family and village are destroyed by the Iraqi Army, escapes to a farm run by a woman and her two children. The woman (who becomes Bashu’s adoptive mother) is left to fend for herself and her children in a difficult environment.
6. Gabbeh, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1995
I love Makhmalbaf. In addition to being a controversial character — a reputation he’s earned — he makes fascinating films. Gabbeh is a triumph in part merely because of its rich hues (the film’s subtitle is aptly named, Life Is Color.) Makhmalbaf shows off his daring by challenging the often unspoken rules against depicting bright colors in film, while simultaneously pushing the gender envelope. The film follows the story of a young woman who wishes to marry a mysterious horseman, but when her dreams are delayed she lives out her fantasy in the carpet she is weaving.
7. The Snowman (Adam-e Barfi), Davoud Mirbagheri, 1997
This movie was a smash hit in Iran when it was released. It was actually made in 1994, but remained banned until Khatami came to power in 1997. The prominent themes of cross-dressing and the desire to travel to America were both forbidden enough to incite quite a brouhaha. Groups of young, ultraconservative militants attacked some of the theaters showing the film, but oddly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weighed in to say he wasn’t opposed to it. Even though The Snowman had circulated heavily on the black market before its 1997 release, it eventually became Iran’s highest-grossing film at the time.
8. The Hidden Half (Nimeh-ye Panhan), Tahmineh Milani, 2001
Dozens of excellent women directors made their mark after the revolution, and Milani is one of my favorites. The Hidden Half follows the story of a woman who aims to convince her husband, a judge, to show mercy to a woman sentenced to death. She does this by divulging her own revolutionary activities as a member of a communist group in the 1970s. Milani faced serious legal charges after the movie’s release for its depiction of the early years of the revolution, apparently even facing a death sentence. Milani has directed a number of other excellent gender-conscious films since The Hidden Half. Unfortunately, her most recent film, Cease-Fire, was an uninspiring romantic comedy about a couple heading toward divorce (think The Break-Up, without Jennifer Aniston).
9. The Lizard (Marmulak), Kamal Tabrizi, 2003
One of the funniest movies to come out of Iran in the past 30 years, The Lizard is about an imprisoned thief who escapes by donning clerical garb. As a cleric, he is hilariously mistreated — taxis refuse to pick him up and a young boy pretends to receive his blessing as he picks his pocket. The film was such a pop-culture sensation that young Iranians began referring to clerics on the street as lizards. The Lizard was never officially banned, but it was pulled from theaters after several of the country’s ruling clergy protested. Interesting side note: Director Tabrizi went on to produce some of the campaign videos for Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s presidential bid in 2005.
10. Santouri, The Music Man, Dariush Mehrjui, 2007
Although soul-crushingly depressing, this newest feature by Iranian film veteran Mehrjui is a rare examination of a major social ill plaguing Iran — drug abuse. The tale of a talented and popular musician whose life falls apart due to his addiction to heroin, the movie even ventures into gritty shantytowns and the haunts of homeless drug addicts. Santouri was banned from public theaters in Iran after an initial screening, but is now available on DVD. Rumor has it the authorities considered the main character’s battle with drugs a veiled reference to Khamenei’s own purported youthful dabbling in opium.