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.
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
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.
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.”
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