Women and the variety of ethnic communities are two of the most frequent themes dealt with in Iranian documentaries where the tradition for poetry overshadows journalism.

Tue Steen Müller
Previous founder/editor of the DOX magazine.

This has resulted in a number of beautiful and also important docs. TUE STEEN MÜLLER reports from his recent visit to a documentary film week in Iran.The only approach, I thought, was what Filmmaker Richard Leacock always emphasises to be the humble aim of the documentarist – to convey the documentarist’s experiences and emotions when he is there with his camera. Nothing else, no easy conclusions. Presence and observation. What is happening.

I was in Tehran for the first time, invited as the director of EDN to show and talk about European films. I was an official guest of the Iranian Society of Documentary Filmmakers. At the same time I was making a journey from which I wanted to bring something back home by taking notes and registering the Iranian documentary scene as it appears right now. Would that be possible to do without any official restraints? Would I be censored and politely shadowed as in Eastern Europe during the Iron Curtain era? Should I shut up and politely avoid talking about film censorship or the recent closure of newspapers, which according to the religious Mullah authorities were too open-minded in their support of the strong democratic winds under popular president Khatami? And should I conceal my constant wonder of why women are treated like second-class citizens?

It became a week of many wonders, a constant flow of questions from my side and a good feeling of pleasure. I was a visitor who stayed at an international hotel but thanks to the openness and generosity of my hosts, film professionals, I felt that I was treated as a colleague and not just another diplomat on a foreign mission. Time and again, I was allowed to ask the same stupid questions that enabled me to piece together a picture that is a bit more varied than the one presented by CNN and the BBC. I was literally put into a car and driven around a chaotic capital with a population twice the size of the country that I live in. Although the Iranian government exercises rigid control, the regimens of the religious world are in stark contrast with the total disregard for enforcing traffic regulations.

The bazaar, the holy shrines, the museums, the wonderful mountains at the outskirts, the tea, the water pipe, the women in black, the colourfully dressed women constantly struggling to keep their scarves over their hair, the view from hotel’s 10th floor. Imam Khomeiny on walls, on television, everywhere – and the CNN news on TV one night reporting directly from Tehran about bombings apparently carried out by the mujahedins. I turned my head and looked out over the city: the total absence of smoke made me think that the journalists must be working at locations where CNN is always the first to smell the smoke… even if the fire is not dangerous at all.

Background

Of course I knew something about Iranian cinema beforehand thanks to the Iranian retrospective at Cinéma du Réel in Paris in 1999, and of course I have seen the Iranian films that have received international awards. Not to mention films by Abbas Kiarostami that have been shown in Denmark. I am aware of the influence of this masterly post-neo-realistic treatment of reality that he exemplifies. Otherwise, I knew nothing before this week in Tehran last May.

The framework was a film week of Iranian and foreign documentaries programmed by the Society, the filmmakers themselves, in collaboration with Internews Network and supported by local sources and the Soros Documentary Fund. There were films by Heddy Honigmann, Patricio Guzman, Michael Apted and many others. The only other foreign documentary guest was Russian Sergey Miroshnichenko, who presented 7UP and 14UP Russia, the series conceived by Apted.

I watched around thirty documentaries and chose three insiders who could give me the answers to what was going on in Iranian documentary film.

Out of Control

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Tehran 25th Hour by Seifollah Samadian

One of the first films I saw was Tehran 25th Hour by Seifollah Samadian. It is a straightforward story of a nation that went totally bananas on the 9th of February 1998, when the Iranian football team qualified for the world cup tournament. Crowds thronged the streets. People were dancing and embracing each other, expressing nothing but spontaneous joy and enthusiasm. The 22-minute documentary has been shown at several festivals outside Iran but I had to watch it in a film studio since it was not publicly screened at the festival I was attending. “Why not?” I asked the organisers, who replied that the film was not given a public screening permit by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. “But all it shows is people who are happy,” I said. “And out of control,” they laughed. “Many consider the film as a warning to the authorities: Suddenly everything can explode into uncontrollable situations.”

In my own presentation I showed clips from European documentaries. I was informed in advance of what I would not be allowed to show in order to avoid offending anyone, and the Russian director had already told me that 7 minutes of his 14UP film had been cut before a public screening permit was issued. The scenes that were removed showed a discotheque and a beach. Though I was convinced my film clips had no scenes like that, a pin up girl poster on a wall in a film by Molly Dineen passed unnoticed. Nevertheless, the organisers told me after the presentation that an Iranian filmmaker was present in the projection room at all times, ready to cover the lens with a hand, ‘if something got past my attention,’ as they put it.

Vast Iran

Mahvash Sheikholeslami

Iran is more than the metropolis of Tehran with its population 12 million. If you did not know that already, a couple of days of watching Iranian documentaries will entice you to visit the exotic cultures and rituals found within the enormous Islamic Republic. It actually seems to be the most apparent aspiration of documentaries in Iran – to describe how people live and how huge and multicultural the society really is. For better and worse. Though many films and programmes are standard anthropological studies lacking in cinematic quality, a few exceptions stand out. One is by a woman director Mahvash Sheikholeslami who is a true poet in telling stories from the countryside. She made Silk (Youfak) in 1998 which tells the story about a country girl who enters womanhood. Its slow pace and amazingly beautiful 35mm camerawork expresses her metamorphosis in a metaphor: a silkworm that transforms into a butterfly.

Early-age marriages are quite common in Iran, as the veteran director M.R. Moghaddasian demonstrates in his short documentary Masa & Massan, which takes place in North Iran among the Turkmen. In a fantastic classroom scene, the teacher asks the boys in the class if any of them are married. Most of the 12-year-old boys raise their hands in the affirmative. This film from 1996 is part of a series of documentaries, Children of Our Country, made for television. I watched other examples, among them The School that was Blown Away by the famous feature film director Makhmalbaf, a sweet, 8-minute story about the difficulty of keeping a tent school intact during high winds. Makhmalbaf’s daughter won a jury prize this year at the Cannes Film Festival.

During a visit to Dega Film, the biggest company making documentaries in Tehran, I learned that series like these are very common. The company owner, M.S. Karimi, himself a film director who has been working many years in Austria, tells me: “We are currently producing a series for Iran’s Channel 1 about the Iranian family. The series will consist of 40 segments, 29 of which have already been made. It’s an enormous effort that keeps people employed, something which is good in itself. I consider it as part of my obligation, I’m sorry to say, to educate many film professionals in this country. They need to be instilled with greater respect for film work; the coffee house mentality is too prevalent here during the productions. The main problem in Iranian documentary cinema is that we lack a consensus about the true nature of the documentary and what it involves.”

Literary Tradition

I venture to put it in another way. In my opinion, the common Iranian documentary finds its themes in the countryside, it frequently uses fictional elements in the narration, the pace is very slow (at least to stressful Western eyes like mine), and in most of the films (“Par hasard?” I asked my hosts without getting any answer) women are protagonists. Moreover, foreigners have difficulty interpreting many of the films because the symbols and references are inaccessible to us.

“Yes, the genres are blurred,” Hassan Dezvareh confirms. He is head of international relations at the Iranian Young Cinema Society and is also an instructor in film at the university.

“It’s probably because of our literary heritage. Poetry is very important in this country. It is part of life itself. Young people write poetry and are fond of reading it. Therefore many of our documentaries are rooted in legends and mythology. On the other hand it looks like many young people are becoming increasingly interested in fiction. It’s a big problem that young filmmakers are not interested in research. And documentaries definitely lack a much more direct approach to modern themes.”

The Iranian Young Cinema Society has been an active presenter of Iranian films at several European festivals and markets. The official organisation not only promotes films but has also been involved in education and has granted money and facilities for the production of short fiction, animation and documentaries. The Society has succeeded in getting a cinema in downtown Tehran to show short films and documentaries at 10 a.m. every Monday.

Distribution and Censorship Problems

Like everywhere else, it is also difficult to see documentaries in Iran if they are not shown on television. To Robert Safarian, a critic who writes for the biweekly film magazine Gozareshe Film, it is actually the main problem.

“If the films are only shown at some festivals, we cannot really write about them, and without criticism and debate there is no development. Television broadcasts documentaries but most of them are about handicrafts, traditional customs, architecture and traditional carpets. This is what the audience expects when you talk about documentaries. Innovation is lacking and subject matter is limited. The documentaries do not seem to have an audience among students and intellectuals.”

At this point I feel compelled to ask about censorship: “Is it at all possible for filmmakers to deal with social issues in the Islamic Republic?”

“I don’t think censorship is the main problem. You can discuss everything and you can always find a different and more indirect angle of approach to problems,” he answers. “In Iran, documentaries are considered an art form, and the older generation are not eager to use new technology and handheld cameras. We lack inspiration from a journalistic approach that many foreign documentarists have.”

Hassan Dezvareh

Hassan Dezvareh from the Iranian Young Cinema Society has a much more direct explanation: “Young filmmakers can talk about everything, but the censorship exists in their own minds. They try to please the authorities.”

When I talked to Dezvareh, a young female student from his film faculty listened to our conversation. I could not refrain from asking her what she and her friends wanted to make films about. “About things that make you hope. About beautiful elements of life,” she replies. She continued talking about documentaries as a way of describing traditions, customs and cultures, which totally confirmed the way the two gentlemen had characterised the stereotype of Iranian documentaries.

“What about making a documentary about the young women in the streets dressed in black?” I asked her. “We in the West know nothing of their thoughts and hopes for the future.”

She laughed at my question and said that this subject would require a much more direct approach than is normally used in Iranian documentaries. (Unfortunately I didn’t get the young woman’s name – tsm.)

Women

I asked the critic Safarian to name his favourite documentaries of recent years. I got to see them, and they were a selection of films that have worked and will continue to work in the West. Apparently these films also appeal to Tehran’s urban population, who seem tired of the rural descriptions. Though they may not all be masterpieces, they simply communicate a different perspective on Iran, mostly based on human-interest stories, in a cinematic language that could be called international. That applies to two films by Ebrahim Mokhtari, Mokarrameh, Memories and Dreams and Zinat-A Special Day (DOX #29) that have been screened at festivals and sold to television abroad, as has the British-Iranian film Divorce Iranian Style by Ziba Mir-Hosseini and Kim Longinotto. All three of them on women… I didn’t see a single film on a man during my week.

Memories and Dreams

Christine is a 50-minute film by Mohammad Jafari about an Iranian born woman who was adopted as a child by Polish/Russian parents living in Sweden. She studied in the US and returned to Iran to find her biological parents. As she enters the arrival hall in the airport, all she can say is “Oh my god!” since a crowd of people have come to welcome her! They are all parents who have given up children for adoption to homes in other countries and all claim to have unmistakable evidence that they and only they are her parents. The director treats the subject with a lot of humour, and Christine is not the main character – the film deals with how Iranian society views the adoption issue, and even if it includes some politically correct scenes and unnecessary expert interviews, the film has the same refreshing, direct quality that I felt when I was there.

Another female character is Behnaz, a 24-year-old who is ‘Alone in Tehran’ (also the film’s subtitle). The short film about her depicts a girl who poses in front of the camera, at her own place and on the bus. She is an actress with no boyfriend and all too often with no job as well. The film was not accepted by the censors in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance for screening at the festival. According to the film professionals, Behnaz flirted too much with the camera, “like a European woman” someone told me, which is no compliment in ministry circles. The film, directed by Pirooz Kalantari, is definitely not a unique cinematic experience but is unique in that we are given a cinematic portrait of a young Iranian woman who actually speaks and addresses us.

These were my thoughts during the hours spent in traffic, in wonderful generous company and in front of the monitor at the Society’s office where a nice gentleman kept bringing fresh tea to the man from the North. I have never downed so much tea in my entire life! He didn’t say a word, but the women around me made up for that as did the women I met in the films. “Merci” means thank you in Iranian.


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