Taking a look at Iran this year, we will see surreal thrillers, intricate allegories, genre cinema, experimental films in the field of visual arts and documentaries showing a world that might seem stranger than fiction.
Our guides will be a generation of filmmakers who grew up under the shadow of the minimalistic classics that dominated Iranian cinema at the turn of the century: Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, winners of the Palme d'Or, the Golden Bear and the Golden Lion.
Over the last 40 years, Iranian cinema has experienced an extraordinary boom, taking film festivals by storm all over the world. Prior to 1980, international film festivals showed Iranian films only 43 times; by 2017, however, this figure had jumped to more than 2,500. Likewise, Iranian films had captured only two prizes before 1980, whereas they've now won more than a 100. These figures also describe the changing landscape of film festivals, of course, but they nevertheless show the recent explosion of Iranian cinema, the scale of its visibility and, above all, its extraordinary ability to reach the hearts and minds of viewers around the world.
How is it possible that such profoundly human films are being made in such a fundamentalist country, critics have wondered, coining the term the "Iranian Second Wave," whose characteristic features include its inspiration in Neorealism, documentary aesthetics, the use of amateur actors, a large number of child protagonists and its focus on the working class, social inequalities and poverty. Aesthetic choices have been motivated in equal measure by the modernist instincts of filmmakers who are confronting traditional Islamic society and trying to find their own language in films limited by censorship.
Iran : Iran is cinema of a completely different kind. These are films that take on stereotypical ideas about contemporary Iran, as well as anything else that seems to us to be the idiom of Iranian cinema. The directors that we will present deal with the restrictions and prohibitions on cinema under a theocracy in a completely different way. We will show films of a generation that were born and raised in the Islamic Republic, where travel outside the country was very limited, and a modern (Western) lifestyle was more or less stigmatized. And yet they are perfectly capable of keeping up with global pop culture. Their knowledge of the pre-revolutionary world is mediated. They get it second-hand, both from family stories and from official propaganda. There is also television footage, of course, since the Islamic Revolution was one of the first upheavals in history to take place practically right in front of the cameras. Amirali Ghasemi (from the Parking Video Library), who is also the curator of the program (un)Broadcasted Event, will talk about multidimensional relationship between the Revolution and cinema.
What are Iranian millennials talking about? About themselves, their city, relationships between men and women and the tension that is generated when you cross the border between private space into the public sphere. The symbol of the link between the private and the public spheres is the automobile, which occupies an extremely important place in contemporary Iranian cinema. It transports protagonists through the city and at the same time provides them with privacy. In Ali Asgari's Disappearance, a car provides a couple of lovers with their only safe space as well as a place for confrontation: it is only there that they can conduct a sincere conversation before they get lost in a web of lies, half-truths and fabricated facts. In Atomic Heart, there is a transgression when a man impersonating a police officer gets in a car with some girls returning from an illegal party. This symbolic transgression is only the beginning of a metaphysical journey through the streets of nighttime Tehran straight into the heart of darkness.
The city is a set where personal dramas play out. Tehran is shown as a modernist Moloch, the city as a machine, indifferent to the fate of individuals. But the walls of buildings become a space for resistance, and the city gains a voice, ceasing to be a silent witness to historical events. Under the cover of night, they thoughts that cannot be spoken aloud in the light of day can be written on them. Keyway Karimi documents the history of Iranian graffiti in his acclaimed Writing on the City, for which he was sentenced for insulting Islam and the government to 223 lashes and six years in prison (thanks to interventions, his sentence was reduced to a year). Just like Agnès Vardar in Mur moors, in Karimi's film, graffiti takes on the role of the city's subconscious, which is usually tightly enclosed within the four walls of homes but can occasionally be seen on the walls of the city.
Being enclosed within four walls is another device used by Iranian filmmakers of the next wave. Kazem Mollaie's Kupal is a baroque, surrealistic thriller that tells the story of a series of unfortunate events that lead to the house arrest of the protagonist. In the film, Levon Haftvan (Fatshaker, New Horizons Competition 2013), no stranger to festival audiences, plays a paranoid hunter living inside a walled fortress that is defended by cameras and armored doors. Expressions of enclosures, suffocation, cages, unconscious patients and trained animals keep appearing in all the films as a metaphor for enslavement that is inserted into a more or less (sur)realistic background. Shahram Mokri's Invasion shows a post-apocalyptic world in which men living in a camp are subjected to rigorous choreographed exercises in an effort to retain past events that are blurred in their memories. This is one of the subtler critiques of Iran's traditional values and historical politics.
Our review of the latest cinema from Iran is also a way out of Iran. No national culture fits completely within the political borders of the nation state. Contemporary Iranian culture is no exception. On the contrary, art created outside the country by dissidents and political refugees has a special meaning in its discourse. But we also want to show directors who were born in the diaspora and who grew up there but who still have to come to terms Persian traditions and identity. Iranian cinema from outside Iran will be present in the form of debuts that pose confrontational questions, as well as in the work of Shirin Neshat, who, in Looking for Oum Kulthum, searches in the life of the Egyptian diva for a model of modern femininity beyond the European cultural canon.
The Iran : Iran section will be accompanied by an exhibition of Iranian video art at the BWA Studio Gallery (27 July - 18 August).
Ewa Szabłowska, curator
What cannot be shown in an Iranian film:
Since the Islamic Revolution, censorship has been in force in Iranian cinema, regulating films at every stage of their production and distribution. In a nutshell, you cannot show intimate scenes, which means no physical contact between characters of the opposite sex. All women must be dressed according to the religious rules on modesty: their arms and legs must be completely covered, and they have to wear a coat that goes down to just above the knee. A headscarf is obligatory. While these rules apply only to public spaces in everyday life, women depicted on-screen must be completely covered at all times, even in their own home or bedroom. It is forbidden to show couples in bed even if they are dressed and their bodies are not touching. It is forbidden to show the consumption of alcohol, as well as characters who are under its influence. Criticism of Islam, as well as of religious rules and religious figures is, of course, prohibited. Filmmakers who have been forced to follow all these rules have developed a film language that enables them to get around restrictions: long shots, avoiding split screens, expressive looks and long conversations that make up for the limited repertoire of gestures.