Iranian cinema: a premiere

By Shahrzad Seyfafjehi

A cursory look and a list of our top recommendations for Iranian film beginners.

If you like browsing through lists of the best movies in cinema history, you have probably come across one or two Iranian movies. Four Iranian movies were included on the BBC’s top 100 films of the 21st-century list. Iranian cinema is among one of the most well-known international cinemas, with frequent appearances in prestigious film festivals and movie awards around the world. A Separation, winner of an Academy Award; A Taste of Cherry, winner of the Palme d’Or; and Taxi, winner of a Golden Bear, are just a few. Just like the contemporary history of the country, Iranian cinema has gone through turmoil and vast reformations. This art form has borne witness to famous actors, actresses, and directors who had to either leave the country or repent and go into early retirement after the 1978 revolution and the emergence of the new generation of cinema under the Islamic regime. The only static aspect, however, has been under-recognition.

While the first Iranian movie, Dokhtar-e Lor, was produced in 1932, by Imperial Film Company in Bombay, the most defining moment in the early history of Iranian cinema was marked by the prominent female poet, Forough Farrokhzad, with her debut short documentary. Fact and fiction mingle at the leprosy-stuck colony in Tabriz in The House is Black, and this paved the creative route that remains unchanged today. Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow, which was made in the sixties, the decade of the rise of Iran’s cinema, follows this trend. This movie adaptation of Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi’s short story about the eerie relationship of a villager and a cow was among the first to gain global recognition at the Berlin and Venice Film Festival, where it won the critics’ awards. 

The political thunder sweeping across the country during the seventies thwarted the upward movement of Iranian cinema. In the early 80s, with the creative legacy of their predecessors, the post-revolution directors’ films contained a completely altered narrative. During the monarchy, modernization was at the core of the state’s values, which explains why cinematic works of the time were predominantly engaged with the contrast between the old and the new; the rural and the urban. After the social movement known as the Iranian Revolution led to the complete change of the regime from monarchy to republic, the stories shown on screen were mainly born from society. But it was not until 1984, in the midst of the Iran-Iraq War, that Iranian movies reappeared on the international stage, with Amir Naderi’s The Runner premiering at Three Continents in Nantes. Shot in the war-stricken southern region of the country, the story followed the reclusive life of a young boy mesmerized by running. Before the world could forget about Iran’s cinema again, Abbas Kiarostami kept the Iranian directors’ seat warm in international film festivals with Where is the Friend’s Home? This poetic depiction of eight-year-old Ahmad’s journey to give his friend’s notebook back was shown at Locarno Film Festival and was the first of many of Kiarostami’s globally recognized works.

The 90s was a decade of surprise for the international perception of Iranian cinema, when 18 year-old Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple premiered at the Cannes Film Festival. This young female director transformed the image of Iranian women from oppressed by the new Islamic regime into innovative leaders of the first post-revolution young generation. Jafar Panahi was the next young director introducing the new face of Iranian movies to the world when he added the flavor of social and political criticism to his films. The young protégé of Kiarostami — who was now under house arrest, but nonetheless still active and actively winning awards — captured international attention with The Circle at the Venice Film Festival. He continued telling stories of women’s oppression and struggle under the sexist regulations of the Islamic regime in Offside, exploring the rooted antagonism of the Iranian state against this leading figure of the “new wave” of Iranian cinema. 

Next in line was Bahman Ghobadi, with his untold story of the underground rock scene in Tehran, No One Knows About Persian Cats, flaunting the hidden world of Iranian youth. Cinema in the second decade of the 2000s became a vital substance of hope for the Iranian people, shining a ray of light in the darkness of economic and social oppression within the country. In 2012, many people in Iran tuned in at midnight to watch Asghar Farhadi win an Oscar for his family drama A Separation. Later, in 2016, he won the same award for The Salesman. He was unable to attend the ceremony under the travel ban in the US against citizens of several countries, including Iran, imposed by the Trump administration.

In parallel to the domestic growth of Iran’s cinema, there are rising Iranian directors working on a transnational level. Free from the strict restrictions and censorship that domestic artists face, these directors have had the chance to explore and experiment with new aspects of Iranian art and culture. The presence of eminent female directors is what distinguishes this branch of Iranian cinema’s family. Names such as Marjane Satrapi, Shirin Neshat, and Ana Lily Amirpour exemplify transnational Iranian cinema with works ranging from film noir to graphic novel adaptation.

To finish, here are some recommendations for those interested in the new generation of Iranian cinema:

Under the Shadow (2016) by Babak Anvari

Persepolis (2007) by Marjane Satrapi

Breath (2016) by Narges Abyar

About Elly (2009) by Asghar Farhadi

Just 6.5 (2019) by Saeed Roustayi


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