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A weary warrior of Iran

Bahman Farmanara continually battles Islamic censors to depict modern-day life.

January 12, 2003|Jeffrey Fleishman | Times Staff Writer

Tehran — As the moon faded in the midmorning sky, girls in black chadors sledded on snow-dusted mountains. Down in the valley, beyond their laughter, a somberness settled over Bahman Farmanara, the Iranian filmmaker whose characters struggle with emptiness and depression in a society ruled by religious fundamentalism.

Farmanara yawned. He was long-faced and groggy. Battling again with government censors over his latest work, the tale of a depraved gynecologist who runs over an angel with a car, the 60-year-old director had slept little the preceding night. Instead, he'd watched "Nurse Betty," a movie in which Renee Zellweger's character endures an uninspired life by melting into soap operas.

"It was a silly thing," he said. "A way to escape.... Some films are like Prozac, some like Valium."

Whatever buzz "Nurse Betty" conjured wore off quickly, and soon Farmanara, in a mood as reflective and contemplative as his films, was speaking of the troubled balance between artistic integrity and censorship.

For nearly six months, he has been attempting to convince Iran's religious leaders that his film, "A House Built on Water," does not threaten the values of the Islamic state.

The movie's protagonist, however, may raise a few clerical eyebrows. He is Dr. Reza Sephidbakhat, who performs abortions and "restores the virginity" of promiscuous Muslim women before they marry. He drinks too much, sleeps with prostitutes and has a heroin smuggler for a son. To round it all out, there's that head-on crash into the angel.

"The guy's in a moral freefall," said Farmanara.

The internationally acclaimed director is accustomed to having his work banned in his native land. Throughout the 1990s, the 10 scripts he delivered to the government review board were all rejected. His 1978 production, "Tall Shadows in the Wind," had the misfortune of being banned twice: first by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and then during the Islamic revolution that swept the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

But Farmanara kept writing stories that examined the quiet yet devastating human toll exacted by the corruption and squelched freedoms of modern-day Iran. When the censors relented in 2000, he marked a triumph with "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine," a black-humored tale about a filmmaker -- played by Farmanara -- obsessed with making a documentary about his own funeral. The movie veers close to autobiography. It received worldwide praise and won eight awards, including best film and director, at Iran's Fajr Film Festival.

"I made a joke that the rapidity of the censors' approval was because the 'Smell of Camphor' was about my death," said Farmanara, sitting in his living room in a blue chair near big windows showcasing a spine of snowy mountains rising less than a mile beyond.

Farmanara, who received a film degree from USC and spent more than a decade living in the U.S. and Canada, reminisced over movie scenes as a servant clattered teacups in the kitchen. He is especially fond of the playful, poetic dialogue in films such as "All About Eve" and "Rear Window." When he was a boy, Farmanara watched Hollywood movies with his family once a week. He'd buy a few snips of celluloid from the projectionist and, with a flashlight and magnifying glass, illuminate them on his wall at home.

He views life, he once said, as a succession of frames.

Movies enchant him still. After one of his brothers had a heart attack, Farmanara returned in 1990 from Canada, where he was distributing films, to help another brother run a textile factory with 200 employees. He churned out fabrics and plot lines, sparring often with the censors and attempting to regain the stature he'd earned in the 1970s with such films as "Prince Ehtejab."

Today, with the success of "Smell of Camphor," Farmanara has gained a kind of wisdom from the battles he and other Iranian filmmakers face as their final edits endure one more test before they are permitted an audience. But he also seemed weary from fighting so much -- at least as he spoke on this recent morning.

"I consider foreign praise to be the cream on the cake," he said. "But my cake is the Iranian audience. No matter how much praise I get from the foreign press, I'm still unfulfilled. I didn't make it for the French or Italian critics. I made it for the Iranians."

Sometimes he fixates, unable to move beyond the fate of a film bottled up by censors.

"It clouds what you're doing in the present. It's like postpartum depression," he said. "If you don't watch it, it can consume you forever.... When you're not allowed to work, it's a form of dying for the artist. 'The Smell of Camphor' is not about death, but about living a futile life. That's more torturous than death.

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