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Iranian filmmaking at two extremes

The directors are in the spotlight on the world stage after 'A Separation's' Asghar Farhadi won an Oscar. Their struggles to make films has led some to leave the country to work and others to continue to work within the country's system.

May 27, 2012|By Steven Zeitchik, Los Angeles Times
  • Rin Takanashi in "Like Someone in Love" by director Abbas Kiarostami.
Rin Takanashi in "Like Someone in Love" by director Abbas Kiarostami. (Cannes Film Festival, Cannes…)

CANNES, France — Cinematically speaking, few countries have experienced as wild a roller coaster ride as Iran in the past 14 months. Over this period, one or more of its filmmakers have a) won the country's first foreign-language Oscar, b) faced an extraordinary ban on filmmaking, c) seen their creative ferment recognized throughout Europe, d) packed up and moved their productions far from the Middle East.

"I guess you could say Iranian cinema is in both the best and the worst of times," said Massoud Bakhshi, director of "A Respectable Family," a semi-autobiographical tale about a man haunted by the Iran-Iraq war that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival last week.

Many of those extremes were indeed on display at the world's most prestigious film confab. The country was represented by a pair of films, Abbas Kiarostami's multi-generational drama "Like Someone in Love," in competition, and Bakhshi's "Family," in the Director's Fortnight. The two — warmly if not wildly received — represent opposite approaches taken by contemporary Iranian filmmakers: Kiarostami has chosen to shoot far from his native land while Bakhshi is attempting to tell his stories working within the system.

Meanwhile, Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-winning director of "A Separation," came to the festival to accept the European Union's annual Prix Media, given for "best European film project." It marks the first time a director from outside the Continent received the $77,000 prize. Androulla Vassiliou, the European Commission's commissioner for Education, Culture, Multilingualism, Sport, Media and Youth, turned out in a pomp-filled ceremony to give him the award.

But the festival also highlighted how Iran, a country with a rich history of the arts and a nearly century-old filmmaking tradition, is facing a complex set of troubles. The festival was missing the frequent guest Jafar Panahi, an international-film mainstay who has come here previously with well-received movies such as the soccer dramedy "Offside." Accused of supporting the protest movement that sprang to life after the disputed 2009 reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Panahi was convicted of national security violations and banned from making movies for 20 years.

And with censorship an ongoing issue in a country dominated by Islamists, its leading directors seem to be moving away from the country, not boring down in it.

Farhadi in many ways represents the best of times, having worked within the system to create films such as the missing-child drama "About Elly" and the legal-cum-family drama "A Separation." Even the state was extremely proud of the Oscar win, boasting on government radio how it had beaten "the Zionists" (an Israeli nominee).

But despite his rising stock, Farhadi, who has no formal French connection but is beginning to develop relationships with French producers, is next taking his skills to Paris. There he will shoot a new film featuring the Gallic stars Marion Cottilard and Tahar Rahim, not Iranian actors or a Tehran backdrop.

"I think this next film could broaden my audience throughout the world," Farhadi told reporters. He declined a one-on-one interview to talk about why he is taking his next production out of Iran, and a publicist bristled at the mention of Jafar Panahi, suggesting how sensitive matters remain at home. "Never ask Asghar about that," she said.

Kiarostami is one of the leading lights of Iranian cinema, having made more than three dozen films, including "Taste of Cherry" and "The Wind Will Carry Us" over the past 35 years, many of them poetic depictions of everyday Iranian life, sometimes with a subversive undertone. His films have won the Silver Lion at Venice and the Palme d'Or at Cannes.

He is part of a generation that flourished after the 1979 revolution, when an anti-Shah current was in the air and the politics of revolution turbocharged cinema. But he has been frustrated by censors' involvement in his work, and, at 71, has decided to give up on the country, at least for now.

"Ideally I'd like to go back to Iran," the charming, slightly anxious filmmaker said at a beachside restaurant several days after his movie premiered. "Everything is more simple and natural there."

Rather than formal restrictions on his work, he finds shooting in Iran to be a kind of death by a thousand paper cuts.

"When you're making a film in Iran you can have all the permits and everything correct, and then you get to the day of shooting and you learn the guy in charge of the permits has changed his mind because you've broken some unwritten law," he said. "And I don't want to spend what little time I have left in my life sitting behind closed doors wondering whether I'll be able to finish what I started."

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