As the I for Iran series has taken the TIFF Lightbox by storm, with several sold out screenings and great press coverage, Sound on Sight has taken a moment to ask some questions on what has brought the series to Toronto and the greater impacts of Iranian cinema are within an increasingly globalized world.
Brad Deane, who is the Senior Manager, Film Programmes at TIFF, and the programmer for the series at TIFF Cinematheque.
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Amir Soltani, a Toronto-based film critic and contributor to The Film Experience and Movie Mezzanine, who also writes and co-hosts a podcast about Iranian films at Hello Cinema. Amir Soltani will be introducing Hamoun, Dariush Mehrjui’s incisive, ironic, and finally dreamlike study of middle-class Iranian life, on Saturday, March 28 at 3:45pm.
Check out the rest of the series schedule HERE
What has brought the I for Iran series from Fribourg International Film Festival to Toronto?
Brad Deane: More than a year ago, Thierry Jobin, the Artistic Director of the Fribourg International Film Festival mentioned that he was going to do this programme on the history of Iranian cinema at his Festival and asked if we would be interested in presenting it as well. While we feature new Iranian films at the Toronto International Film Festival and in the past few years we have hosted retrospectives of Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi’s films at the TIFF Cinematheque, we wanted to offer local audiences the opportunity to watch a small selection from the history of Iranian cinema on the big screen and see how it has influenced the current generation of Iranian filmmakers, given that it was a group of fourteen contemporary Iranian filmmakers who were polled to select the films.
Which film(s) would you consider to be the most important in the cannon of Iranian cinema – personally? Socio-politically/Culturally? Cinematically? And why?
Brad Deane: You could start almost anywhere in the series but I wouldn’t miss the rare opportunity to see Amir Naderi present his own films: The Runner and Water, Wind, Dust, as well as introduce Sohrab Shahid Saless’ A Simple Event. Naderi’s films are passionate and moving portraits that are at once allegorical and poetic, yet told with such effortless simplicity, while being grounded in the quotidian. Meanwhile, Saless, a favorite of Naderi, seems to be one of the most universally praised filmmakers in Iranian cinema, yet he is virtually unknown here in North America. His minimalist, observational portraits of the quotidian have influenced many filmmakers that have followed such as Rafi Pitts and Abbas Kiarostami.
What are some of the films that unfortunately were not able to be screened, how readily available are they to audiences interested in seeking them out?
Brad Deane: Logistically, this has been one of the most complicated series we have hosted. Tracking down prints and rights it’s always a big task but it has been a particularly difficult one this time and unfortunately we were unable to include some of the films we would have liked to present such as The House is Black and The Brick and the Mirror (you can see both of them in lower quality copies on youtube), as well as South of the City, Knucklebones, The Spring, Straight, Beehive, which we are hoping will resurface in the upcoming years to help further enrich our experience of Iranian cinema. On the other hand, as part of our commitment at TIFF Cinematheque to support and raise awareness of the vitality and necessity of film as a medium, we are very excited we were able to find beautiful 35mm prints for some hard-to-see films such as The Night of the Hunchback, Still Life, The Runner, Water, Wind, Dust, The Traveler, Where is the Friend’s Home?, Close-Up, and Gabbeh. These are to be revelations for the audiences when experienced they way they were meant to be seen, on the big screen!
While still often difficult to see, contemporary cinephiles are often familiar with the works of contemporary Iranian filmmakers and yet know very little about the rich history of Iranian cinema, in particular pre-revolution. For unfamiliar audiences, how would you characterize the pre-revolution cinema of Iran?
Amir Soltani: The bulk of Iranian cinema’s output before the revolution was made up of action films and song and dance comedies. These films were occupied with archetypes such as tough guys and dandies and dancers and prostitutes. Very few films of artistic value were produced until the Iranian New Wave began to take shape. The birth of this movement can be attributed to Farrokh Ghaffary’s South of the City in 1958 and the films that filmmakers such as Parviz Kimiavi and Ebrahim Golestan produced throughout the 1960s. With the double success of Masoud Kimiayi’s Gheysar and Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow in 1969, the movement came to fruition, thus bringing onto the scene in the final decade before the revolution arthouse filmmakers such as Kiarostami, Shahid Saless, Taghvayi and Beyzaei.
The legal issues facing Jafar Panahi have been well documented in the face of rigid censorship, how do we make sense of his works and other filmmakers who continue to make groundbreaking and liberating films within such a strict atmosphere?
Amir Soltani: Opposition to cinema, whether religious or political, has a long history that dates back to the establishment of Tehran’s first cinema building. While censorship of any form is unacceptable and it is impossible to deny the difficulties that Iranian filmmakers regularly go through to produce their films, two factors are important to study here. The first is that the censorship system is a lot more flexible than it looks from the outside, leaving room for behind the scenes negotiations about the contents of films. The second is the suggestion that Iranian filmmakers have evolved to learn a variety of tools with which they can work within this system. In fact, several of the great masterpieces of Iranian cinema that have been hailed for their implicit politics are indebted to the necessity of subtlety in their language.
Do you think there will be an increasing trend seeing Iranian filmmakers migrating to other countries to produce their films there, much as Abbas Kiarostami has?
Amir Soltani: Unfortunately, yes. The trend is disheartening – even if the quality of films like Certified Copy and The Past certainly isn’t – but while it is more common than ever before, it isn’t something Iranian audiences aren’t accustomed to. See: Sohrab Shahid Saless, Amir Naderi, Susan Taslimi, etc.
How familiar are audiences within Iran with these films, if some have been banned or restricted do they actively seek them out?
Amir Soltani: Very familiar. Naturally, when a film is banned, demand for it skyrockets. While these bans can be imposed on public screens, it is easy to find everything on the black market. This also applies to foreign films that cannot be publicly exhibited, but are readily and swiftly available through street vendors who carry high-quality Blu-rays in their black plastic bags.
Iranian cinema has developed a strong tradition of blurring the lines between fiction and non-fiction cinema, what do you think inspired this ideological and aesthetic trend?
Amir Soltani: This is a challenging topic that requires quite a bit of exploration. One of the significant factors in shaping this tradition was a strong desire in arthouse filmmakers to move away from the artificiality of mainstream cinema before the revolution and create authentic links to the Iranian society and culture. This led to the heavy influence of other traditions like Italian neorealism on Iranian films. Another factor was that the most influential voices in arthouse filmmaking both before and after the revolution had had vast experiences making documentary films, so the influence of documentaries on their fiction films was almost a natural extension in their artistic evolution. Ebrahim Golestan, Kamran Shirdel, Parviz Kimiavi, Abbas Kiarostami and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad all have an extensive body of documentary work.
What impact has Naderi’s cinema had on Iran and its film industry?
Amir Soltani: Naderi’s films have been incredibly influential in different ways. His frank portrayal of poverty and the adversities of life in the oil-rich Iranian southwest is unparalleled in cinema, and is enriched by his deep cultural understanding of the milieu. As well, Naderi’s work in the United States and Japan has provided a fascinating study of how filmmakers can transplant their ethnically rooted stylistic and thematic interests in new cultures and produce challenging films.