Think of it as the “floral fallacy” — the Western critic‘s irresistible urge to describe the beautiful, personal movies that have been emerging from Iran as fragile yet stubborn flowers, forcing their way up into the sunlight through hairline cracks in the rigid social pavement. Flowers as surreally vivid, perhaps, as the ones in Moshen Makhmalbaf’s delirious nature fantasy Gabbeh. But on the evidence of Jamsheed Akrami‘s documentary Friendly Persuasion: Iranian Cinema After the Revolution, that seductive, sentimental image just won’t wash. For one thing, many of these pictures, from Abbas Kiarostami‘s Cannes prize winner Taste of Cherry to the crowd-pleasing neo-realist films about children (Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, Majid Majidi‘s Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven), were made under the auspices of Minister of Culture Mohammed Khatami, the West-friendlier mullah who has since become the nation’s president. So while these moviemakers certainly have to tread carefully, they can‘t be seen simply as spontaneous cultural rebels in the midst of tyranny. Their relationship with the fundamentalist regime and its social agenda is more ambiguous than that.
Akrami interviewed a dozen filmmakers for Friendly Persuasion, which is the opening-night presentation in the new series at the UCLA Film and Television Archive, “New Iranian Films: Rediscoveries and the Diaspora.” All the artists seem to be acutely aware of the complexity of their situation, and their responses vary widely. Makhmalbaf seems to feel stalled and frustrated, on the verge of packing it in. Kiarostami, the psycho-minimalist, is determined to forge ahead, content for the time being to keep on cultivating the same small slice of closely observed terrain.
For better or worse, suggests Kiarostami, this is a cinema that exists in its present form not in spite of, but because of the restrictions it has to circumvent. Iran’s infamous social laws that dictate, for instance, that women may only appear in public with their heads completely covered, have produced some notably awkward, stilted film sequences — like women crawling into bed with their chador still firmly in place. But the craftiest of the New Iranians, tip-toeing around subjects that can‘t be authentically depicted, have managed to produce works of refinement and painstaking detail. Their most distinctive films are less like wildflowers blooming free than cinematic bonsai trees, extravagantly stunted.
Kiarostami proposes in Friendly Persuasion that overt official censorship isn’t the worst of it. Repression begins at home, he says, and social restrictions are even more insidious when they have become internalized. This is essentially the theme of Ali Reza Davudnezhad‘s Sweet Agony (“Masaeb-e Shirin”), a story of blocked teenage desire. When two love-struck youngsters begin casting inappropriate longing glances at each other, their older female relatives emerge as the front-line enforcers of conformity. (The age-old question “What will the neighbors say?” carries a lot of weight in a closed society. Think of China during the Cultural Revolution, or even America in the ’50s.) Because the censorship code prohibits all images of physical contact between men and women, the movie is by Western standards weirdly reticent. But it nevertheless seems to have struck a nerve in Iran, and it was a huge hit there last year.
Sweet Agony isn‘t as elegant or as subtle as the recent Iranian films that have been embraced in the West; it has the improvisational messiness of cinema verite. But in another sense, it represents an advance over those quieter, more circumspect films because it manages, slyly, to hint at the social realities it is not permitted to depict overtly. Even to a cultural outsider, the larger social question implicit in the film seems clear: How does a tightly controlled society deal with insurgent, purely personal impulses? If the popular success of this film means that respect for individual autonomy is re-emerging in Iran, as liberal forces seem to be moving toward victory in upcoming elections, perhaps our sentimental image of the tender flower splitting the concrete of repression is acceptable after all.