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The Personal and Political: Celebrating Iranian Film


The films featured in the 12th edition of the UCLA Film and Television Archive's Celebration of Iranian Cinema recall the great neo-realist works of Italian directors Vittorio De Sica, Roberto Rossellini and Luchino Visconti. Just as films such as "The Bicycle Thief," "Open City" and "Umberto D" were studies of the human condition in post-World War II Italy, these Iranian movies are heart-wrenching, emotional experiences that explore contemporary problems in the Islamic country.

The monthlong festival includes six features and four documentaries.

Among the highlights are:

* "Kandahar" (Jan 10): Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Cannes Jury Prize winner about an Afghan exile's attempt to return to her homeland, under Taliban rule, to save her suicidal sister. The film is inspired by the real-life experience of its star, Afghan Canadian journalist Nelofer Pazira. The film also received attention recently when it was revealed that one of its stars, Hassan Tantai, who plays an African American medic, may be an American fugitive named Daoud Salahuddin. "Kandahar" opens its commercial run Friday at the Fine Arts in Beverly Hills and the Town Center in Encino.

* "Under the Moonlight" (Jan. 15): Directed by Seyyed Reza Mir-Karimi and winner of the Critics' Week Prize at Cannes, the haunting drama deals with a young cleric-in-training who, during a crisis of faith, is drawn to a community of homeless men living under a bridge in Tehran.

* "Unfinished Song" (Jan. 19): Maziar Miri's film about a young musicologist who travels back to his home province to record the songs he remembers from his childhood, only to discover that most of the songs are unsung because of the fundamentalist ban on women singing.

* "Under the Skin of the City" (Feb 2): Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's devastating drama about members of a working-class family in Tehran trying to better themselves. The film revolves around a feisty factory worker, her disabled, weak-willed husband and her four troubled children.

A Turn Toward Personal, Art-House-Type Fare

Although previous UCLA festivals featured more commercial Iranian films, this year the films are distinctly personal, art-house fare.

"This could simply be coincidental, but this year we have noticed the ratcheting up of more films that address problems in Iranian society far more directly," says Cheng-Sim Lim, programmer for the archive. "We have noticed in the last one or two years there has been a definite shift in tone in the films made by some of their more interesting directors."

Lim says, "I actually think it is part and parcel of the debate that is going on in Iranian society right now, because in Iran there is a fight going on between the political reformers and the hard-core clerical right wing. The split is reflected in the film community as well. You have the more popular thread of Iranian filmmaking, which tends to support the right-wing groups--the hard-liners--and the filmmakers who make more of the art cinema are more in the reformist camp. It is this latter group that has become more vocal in voicing its displeasure with what is going on in Iran."

The humanistic approach to filmmaking reflects the general nature of the Iranian people, says Mark Amin, vice chairman of Lions Gate Entertainment, who was born in Iran and provided funding for this year's series.

"Generally speaking, Iranians are emotional people and generally humanistic," Amin says. "I think that shows in the work despite what is going on politically."

Still, filmmakers and their films can run into problems. Lim points out that Bani-Etemad, despite being one of the country's top directors, was harassed while making "Under the Skin of the City," which offers an uncompromising look at domestic violence and drug use in Iran. Although Bani-Etemad is not as strong a feminist as other Iranian directors, "she does have a reputation of being a director who has done a number of films focusing on women," Lim says.

"Because of her reputation and what the film is supposed to have been about, she was harassed in production in one or two locations and she had to quickly pack her bags. She told me she had trouble with the scripts at various points, and she said that things had gotten tougher under Mohammad Khatami, the president. Even though Khatami is a reformist president, there are so many factions fighting.

"The interesting thing about Iranian society right now is you have this incredibly humanistic cinema that is interesting in both artistic and political ideas," Lim says. "A cinema that is not afraid to express those ideas--but in a poetic way, not necessarily in the strictly polemical way. These films in large part are getting seen in Iran, in contrast to a place like mainland China, where some of the work of their most interesting filmmakers gets shown in international film festivals but not in China. These [Iranian] filmmakers are supported by the government, and the films in a large part are funded by the government and shown in Iran publicly."

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