In the cinema, realism is both an aesthetic and a political idea. And like all such contested ideas its meaning is somewhat slippery. Soviet cinema of the 1920s, the documentary movement of the 1930s, Italy and India’s post-war neo-realist schools, 1950s working-class films from England, the international efforts of cinéma vérité in the 1960s, today’s Dogme 95 films from Denmark and the neo-neorealism of Iranian cinema: all these march under the banner of realism. What this diverse array of film-making ideas and practices also shares is an antagonism for American politics and an aesthetic rejection of Hollywood.
The latest realist school, from Iran, has dominated the world of the film festival and cinémathèque throughout the 1990s. Abbas Kiarostami’s existentialist exploration A Taste of Cherry (1996) topped many critics’ 10-best lists of the decade and often was accompanied by up to five other Iranian films. Iran is a country of approximately 60 million, many of whose films are made under the auspices of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. It is also a nation whose Ministry of Culture doubles as the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. Given these conditions, it is perhaps surprising that Iranian films are so highly regarded in the West. In part this success has to do with the high estimation granted to films that provide alternatives to Hollywood. The allegorical feel of many of the films also leaves ample room for interpretation about what the films are saying about Iran and the rest of the world.
Iran has always had a healthy film industry but since its Islamic revolution in 1979 culture has become a much-vaunted part of state policy. Iran has strict regulations on foreign film imports and has boosted state support for both production and consumption of the arts. Interestingly, the films that are celebrated at Cannes are not always the same as those that draw the crowds at home. The international hit, A Taste of Cherry, for example, was watched by only about 75,000 people in Iran. Similarly, Jafar Panahi’s newest film, The Circle (2000), currently distributed in 32 countries, was removed from Tehran’s annual Fajr Film Festival last year and is currently banned from domestic release because of its depiction of police corruption and prostitution.
In The Circle, Panahi has made what some consider to be the most explicitly feminist critique of the Islamic state so far. Using a circular structure of overlapping stories, the film follows a day in the life of three women recently released from prison. Although we are never told their crimes, we are given a clear picture of the repressed nature of women’s lives as they are subject to male authority for everything from buying a bus ticket to having an abortion. When even a cigarette is an all-but-forbidden pleasure, it wouldn’t be that hard to transgress the rules. The film begins with a family’s panic and disappointment at the birth of a baby girl and ends with the fugitive women back in prison. Ironically, the jail cell is no more repressive than the rest of society (the hospital, the street, the home). In fact, in the dim jail cell, the women are actually afforded some freedom from the prying eyes that control their behaviour the rest of the time.
Panahi is one of several high-profile Iranian directors working in close conjunction with one another. He began his film career as the assistant to Iran’s biggest director, Abbas Kiarostami, who also wrote the script for his award-winning debut, The White Balloon (1995).
Do Iranian films support the Iranian revolution or subvert it? Does the enthusiastic global reception by cinephiles and critics come as a response to the films, or to what is seen as a critical commentary on the politics of the Iranian state? What’s clear is that a certain combination of state funding and state censorship has combined to produce a school of film-making that explores the contemporary situation of life in Iran. At the same time, it also challenges viewers to think about both how the world and the cinema might be different.