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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

So he has made his last several films abroad, including 2010's "Certified Copy," an English- and French-language love story between a Brit and a French woman set in Tuscany, Italy. His latest is a Japan-set story of a call girl and a soft-spoken professor with whom she becomes involved. If there's a trace of Iranian life or politics in it, it's invisible to everyone but the director.

Kiarostami's decision highlighted how difficult things remain in Iran. There are many film schools, but voices are suppressed in a de facto way too, by a government-controlled distribution system as well as a dearth of theaters.

Panahi has been perhaps the hardest-hit director. After receiving the ban in spring 2011, he decided to make a movie called "This Is Not a Film," in which he is seen putting together a movie (and acting in one, because there is no official ban on him starring in a film) but not actually directing it. A clever meta workaround, the film played the Toronto International Film Festival and received attention on the world stage. But Panahi has not been willing to test the ban and make a traditional feature.

While Farhadi's Oscar win would seem to offer new opportunities for filmmakers, directors in similar positions from other countries say it's rarely that simple.

"Even if you leave aside censorship, there's a myth that because one director won a prize it will get easier for an entire country of filmmakers," said Cristian Mungiu ("4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days."), who five years ago was thrust in a similar position to Farhadi when he became the first Romanian to win the Palme d'Or. "From my own experience it's just not true. One win doesn't affect what films other people make, not unless there's a cultural change in the country."

While changing a culture from within isn't easy — particularly in a system with government and religious pressures — some Iranian filmmakers say they relish the challenge.

Bakhshi is one of the directors who has decided to stay, and he believes he'll make more nuanced films as a result. "It's a lot easier sometimes to provoke and get arrested or just to go away to another country," he said. "It's a lot harder to make a movie within the system." "Family," his debut feature, indeed is made within that system — the script was scrutinized and eventually approved by the government.

The movie does offer criticism of vague corrupt entities who take advantage of the money the government gives to families of fallen soldiers. But what little explicitly political content it includes tends to offer a rosy picture of the government and Iran's leadership during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war.

That war, and the tribal and religious forces behind it, actually had a positive affect on art, Bakhshi said. "The 1980s were a very special time because the government's strict ban on all Hollywood movies [under Ayatollah Khomeini; it has since been relaxed] meant that we couldn't see Hollywood movies," he said. "So we were exposed to all these great works of art. I think I watched Kurosawa movies on TV."

But just because filmmakers have the right tools doesn't mean they'll be allowed to use them. As Bakhshi got up when the interview concluded, he turned to a reporter and said, "Please be very careful how you quote me," he said. "I still have to return to Iran."

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