Modern Iranian Cinema: National and Global

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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This paper, part of my larger project exploring the relationship between the intergeneric and the transnational in the global literary marketplace with the circulation of Persian literature as a case study, traces the integration of Iranian cinema into the sphere of “world cinema” from the 1960s through the present. Iranian New Wave directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi established themselves as major figures on the international film circuit starting in the 1980s and 90s, often defying the strictures of the Islamic Republic. However, earlier pioneers in Iranian cinema in the 1960s, when political dissent was sweeping across the world, had paved the way for their success with a unique blend of national and global cinematography. I examine two pivotal early New Wave films that hover on the edge of the definition of “film” itself because of their radical blending of genres: Dariush Mehrjui’s "Gaav" ["The Cow"] and Forugh Farrokhzad’s "Khaneh Siyah Ast" ["The House is Black"].

Not only is "Gaav" based on Gholam Hossein Saedi’s work in two different genres—the play and the novel—but it also interweaves elements of fable, psychological drama, and political allegory for a thoroughly intergenre work that found great success on the international stage, especially among the Italian neo-realists. Farrokhzad’s "Khaneh Siyah Ast," meanwhile, overlays sequences of documentary, montage, biography, and autobiography with a voiceover of Biblical quotations and poetry in order to transcend the centrality of master narratives through unconventional combinations of form.

My paper identifies how these early directors’ intergeneric approach to the New Wave paradoxically set up a national cinematic tradition with an inherently global foundation, and follows this palimpsestic aesthetic of film through to two very different present-day success stories in Iranian cinema: first, Shirin Neshat’s avant-garde short and feature films as well as video installations, which draw on transnational collaborators and whose artistic and political impact circle the globe; and second, Ashgar Farhadi’s "Jodai-e Nader az Simin" ["A Separation"], whose groundbreaking portrait of a changing Iran on micro- and macro-levels of society won him Iran’s first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012.

Ultimately, I argue that this history of intergeneric work in Iranian cinema reveals its inherent globality by eschewing the potential for a hegemony of genres in the political economy of world literature.

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Since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, in Iran, the use of private and public spaces has been disrupted. The law imposes, in particular, a dressing code and specific codes of conduct regulating the interaction between men and women. In this particular context, art also has to comply with many changes which are consequences of the Islamizing cultural politics. The cinema as one of the most accessible art forms, also had to adapt itself to survive.
Using Anne-Marie Houdebine’s theory and methodology of semiology of indices, this work analyses the relationships between man and woman in the censured post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. The systemic analysis highlights the iconic, scenic, auditory and technical strata within movie scenes. It also highlights explicit elements which reveal the existence of a certain amount of repetitions on a formal scale in any analyzed film. We can see that a certain formal grammar is being observed when it comes to the expression of man and woman relationships in Iranian cinema. Illusions of closeness, love declarations, sexual propositions, eroticism, love and sexual relationships are suggested through various phrasal configurations of the indices, such as glances, abortive gestures, turn around scenes, images of the child, symbolic objects, outside and inside, car, courtyard, off screens, direct transitions and music.
Iranian cinema chastely explores love, expressing its own Iranianness regarding relationships between man and woman, by constructing space in the way that traditional Iranian architecture does (external space for guests and internal space for family and privacy), but also by using stylistic devices, as in classical Iranian poetry. By using cinematographic strategies, Iranian cinema tries to show the reality of people’s private and everyday life despite government censorship.
Our corpus is composed of six films dealing with taboos: The Blue Veiled (Rakhshan Bani Etemad, 1994), Syavash (Saman Moghadam, 1998), Red Ribbon (Ebrahim Hatami kya, 1998), An Umbrella for Two (Ahmad Amini, 2001), The Song of Swan (Saeed Asadi, 2001) and Fireworks Wednesday (Asghar Farhadi, 2006).

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Farhadi’s rise to international fame comes as no surprise as his films transpire at the core of the family allowing many people to relate to them. Similar as they may be to, for example, Ingmar Bergman’s "Scenes from a Marriage" (1973) or more recently, Roman Polansky’s "Carnage" (2011) and Richard Linklater’s "Before Midnight" (2013), his portrayal of marital problems are unique in their simultaneous depiction of socio-cultural issues of the society at large. What makes his scenarios particularly moving is his eye for details: Such as the band aid wrapped around Fouad’s finger in "Le Passé" which further familiarizes us with Ahmad’s softer side or in "A Separation," Simin’s smoking of a cigarette, which (de-)familiarizes us with Simin in indicating a rebellious aspect of her. Overall, mundane minutiae serve as elements of (de-)familiarization so as to (de-)familiarize the spectators with realities marking the characters as separate individuals and as members of a nuclear family. While "A Separation," as the title indicates, presumably, culminates in a separation, in "Le Passé," the separation only needs to be legally finalized as it is, presumably, a thing of the past. Part of the fascination of the western spectators with "A Separation" was the viewing of women who were hijab-abiding even within the quarters of their home. What the average viewer may have failed to read into it is how that translates into the reservations that the typical Iranian woman carries within her when faced with such a momentous decision as divorce, the obverse side of which is portrayed in "Le Passé" where the western woman, seemingly, follows her heart’s desire without much thought for the social outcomes of her decisions. The difference of setting makes all the difference in the (de-)familiarization process that takes place on a diegetic level in the two movies, for, whereas in "A Separation," Razieh’s failure to inform her husband of her day-time work as a caretaker de-familiarizes her in the eyes of her husband, in "Le Passé," Ahmad does not quite feel de-familiarized with Marie until he hears of the imbrications of Samir’s family ties with the current bonds the latter has formed with his soon-to-be ex-wife and her daughters of a former relationship. All in all, affiliations take precedence over associations further highlighting the significance of '(de-)familiarization' in these two films in its multiple senses.