Al-Ahram Weekly Online
18 - 24 October 2001
Issue No.556
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

Limelight

A taste of splendour

By Lubna Abdel-Aziz

Lubna Abdel-AzizThe slender figure found his way to the stage amidst thunderous applause. His head inclined modestly, his attire dark and unconventional, his eyes concealed behind the familiar dark round glasses, he seemed to smile from within. He received his Lifetime Achievement Award, bowed ever so slightly as the applause continued. The year was 2000, the place - Thermal Auditorium of Karlovy Vary, Czechoslovakia, the occasion, their 35th International Film Festival, the man - Iranian film director/auteur, Abbas Kiarostami.

The lavish endorsement of the crowd was for the man, as well as for the New Wave of his country's national cinema. For a land that has gone through so much political and religious turmoil, how has it been able to generate a style so distinguished in its splendour, so resolute in its courage, that festivals around the world regularly seek its presence? Why have Iranian films with their small budgets, heavy censorship, religious restrictions and limited distribution gripped the imagination of film connoisseurs around the world?

The answer is clear. It is effortlessly simple, conceptually complex and visually lyrical. Its themes are universal and such inbred traditional restrictions are the very reasons why a screenwriter or director can literally speak to us without the use of words, in the comfort of ambiguous, concealed, and symbolic imagery.

Abbas Kiarostami director/auteur


The story of Iranian cinema is as old as it is new. The fascination with images started 2,500 years ago on the walls of the ancient temples of Persepolis, the centre of art and culture of the known world, until its destruction by Alexander the Great in 330 BC. The grandeur of Ancient Persia fell to the Greeks, Parthians, Sassanids, and later the Arabs in 641 AD. During the Muslim era the country developed world famous Muslim centres of culture and learning. Between the 1200s and 1900s, it gradually lost its wealth and power until the discovery of oil in the 20th century, which set the country on the road to new wealth.

Shah Mozaffar Al-Din introduced cinema to Iran after viewing an exhibit of cinematography at the Paris Exposition of August 1900. By 1930 there were no more than fifteen theatres in Tehran. Today the number of theatres exceeds 500. Most of its film production was cheap, banal and obscene, called Filmfarsi. The New Wave was inspired by the social and cultural developments occurring in the country during the 60s. The first remarkable film in the New Wave was Dariush Mehrjui's seminal film, The Cow (1969), a disturbing tale of poverty and mental breakdown in which the mysterious death of a cow in a village drives its owner insane. It was followed by Massoud Kinyayee's Qaysar, and Khosser Tarqvaie's Calm in Front of Others. They set off a trend that was cultural, dynamic and intellectual. The Iranian viewer became discriminating, encouraging the new trend to prosper and develop. In 3-4 years, 40-50 noteworthy films were made, establishing the New Wave of Iranian cinema.

Mohamed Reza Pahlevi became Shah in 1941. But in 1979, he was overthrown by Moslem revolutionaries, causing an almost fatal blow to Iran's film industry. FilmFarsi and foreign productions were perceived as agents of moral corruption. Filmmakers were indicted, film productions came to a halt.

The new wave was determined to survive despite codes, censorship and a plethora of restrictions. One advantage was their President Mohamed Khatemi, who actively supported the New Wave movement and remains a formidable movie fan. He was the creator of the blueprint for the revival of Iran's cinema, encouraging serious artistic works of the calibre that will gain recognition at International Film Festivals. It paid off. Abbas Kiarostami gained broad international appeal with his loose trilogy. In 1987 Where is the Friend's House? won him the bronze Pardo at Locarno Film Festival, And Life Goes On won the Rosselini Prize at Cannes and the third film in the trilogy was the outstanding Through the Olive Trees. The crowning of his work however, came in 1997 with his film, Taste of Cherry, awarded the most coveted prize in filmdom after the Oscars, the Palme D'or for best film, at Cannes Film Festival.

A Tehran native, Kiarostami joined the school of painting and graphic arts at the University of Tehran. He began his career by designing posters, illustrating children's books and directing commercials. But he soon started to fulfill his dream. He directed short and long feature films depicting real life subjects. Textures of humanity, gently and lyrically seen through the eyes of the artist, became his trademark, focusing on children as the key to understanding the world. .

The subject of his much acclaimed film, Taste of Cherry is suicide, a forbidden act in Islam as well as other religions. How could he deal with such a subject given the mood of his country and government? Kiarostami defends his choice " It is the role of art to discover, question, and expose taboos for what they are worth". The story is about a middle-aged man who lost his will to live. The cycle of happiness and despair are not separate but intricately tied to each other. Such a universal theme has been expressed again and again in world literature. Shakespeare stated "there is a soul of goodness in things evil" and Shelley cried, "Our sweetest songs are those which tell of saddest thought". At the depth of sadness one seeks happiness and at the height of happiness one courts the reality of sadness. He has won the world with his universal views as he dressed fiction in the garment of fact, and fact in the garment of fiction.

Besides Kiarostami, many prominent directors carry the banner of the national Iranian cinema. Makhmalbaf is a name that stands out in the ranks of the New Wave cinema. He tackles the poor, the damaged, the disenfranchised, and the downtrodden. Kandahar, his latest effort, explores the pitiful fate of Moslem women under Taliban rule. There are over a dozen Iranian directors whose works are viewed, hailed, and honored at festivals, museums, and art theatres around the world. They will eventually find their way to commercial theatres and filmgoers will then have a taste of the excellence on celluloid coming out of Tehran. So, in Kiarostami's words, borrowed from Jean Claude Carrière: "We should continue dreaming until we change real life to conform to our dreams" or as his own ancestor Omar Khayyam put it almost 1,000 years ago:

"Ah love, couldst thou and I with fate conspire

To change this sorry scheme of things entire,

Would not we shatter it to bits - and then

Remould it nearer to the hearts desire?"

Iranian New Wave Cinema is exerting a credible and earnest effort as it reaches out for its place in the sun.

The audience at the elegant Opera House applauded loud and long, as the slender figure found his way to the stage, with head bent low and round dark glasses. He bowed slowly as he received yet another Life Achievement Award. This time the tribute was offered by the people of Egypt at the 2001 Silver Jubilee of the Cairo Film Festival. The head of this year's international jury is the modest, the brilliant, Abbas Kiarostami. Often compared to the illustrious, the elite, such as Satyajit Ray, Vittorio de Sica, Jacques Tati, it is appropriate to close with a quote from another member of this select group, that best defines his extraordinary creations: "Words cannot describe my feelings about them; I simply advise you to see his films" Akira Kurosawa.

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