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The Past: The Latest in Iranian New Wave Cinema

Copyright Keyvan Tabari 2014. All Rights Reserved.

The information contained in this article may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or otherwise  distributed without the prior written authorization of Keyvan Tabari.



abstract: The New Wave Iranian Cinema is a subject of multi-dimensional interest. It has been the paramount channel of artistic expression for a people under uncommon cultural repression. Paradoxically, it has thrived in the stressful negotiations for openings as the opposition. Garnering international acclaims for its excellence it has become, ironically,  a singular positive face of the Islamic Republic of Iran in much of  the world. By that feat it has touched a significant multitude of Iranian elite who had been forced into exile with lingering affection for their land of origin. Its most recent  product,  Asghar Farhadi’s film The Past, is taking one step further, dealing directly with the existential anxiety of Iranians in diaspora. This it does tangentially as it also compels a review of all that has gone in the maturing evolution of Iran’s New Wave Cinema.



I go to movies to be entertained, like most people. There might be some exceptions. For example, one sees documentaries primarily to learn. The Past [1], the latest movie by the Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, clearly does not fall in such exceptional categories. At most he intended it to be an “art-film,” hoping to provoke thoughts beyond the passing pleasures of entertainment. Because it lacks such tools for amusing as songs and dance, The Past relies on storytelling to entertain. Its director, Farhadi, has won widespread acclaims as a master of the art of storytelling with his previous movie, A Separation (Jodai-e Nader az Simin) [2], which won the Oscar for the Best Foreign Film in 2012.


That was only one of the 100 prizes bestowed on A Separation, by Farhadi’s own count. Not surprisingly, film critics’ expectations were high for the work that followed it.  The Past did not quite meet those expectations. Farhadi believes that this was because the time of releasing between the two films was short:  the critics, having established a deep emotional contact with A Separation, were not ready to make a connection with The Past. He hopes that as the time passes critics will come to like The Past more. Farhadi hopes that you would stop and reflect a few moments after seeing the film. For him that would be a sign that you are appreciating it.  In other words, beyond entertainment, he aims at provoking thoughts about the messages of the film.


Farhadi has earned the right to make that request if being named one of the 100 Most Influential People in the world by Time magazine in 2012 is worth something. Farhadi dislikes “preachy” directors who give you “all the answers.” His role is to “create questions.” He wants you as audience to “participate.” Critics tell us that Farhadi’s storytelling is distinct because it is filled with symbols. As in the case of the Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni’s legendary film L’Avventura, we need to connect images with themes in Farhadi’s works. Critics have also maintained that, before The Past, Farhadi’s symbols were all comments on a certain culture: they could be best understood in the context of contemporary Iran. Indeed, the singular merit of A Separation to many Western observers was in its success for bringing into focus the Iranian society. Farhadi had no quarrel with that assessment. He called the occasion of the Oscar award as “a very good opportunity to think of the people of my country, the country I grew up in, the country where I learned my stories – a great people [3].” Farhadi has written the script of all the 6 movies he has made since 2003, all of which he has also directed. Like A Separation, all of his four prior films were about stories of Iranians which took place in Iran; they were about Iranians living there; they were made in Iran and exclusively with Iranian actors and crews.


 New Wave Iranian Cinema


Farhadi has emerged from a group of filmmakers whose works are called the Iranian New Wave Cinema. They have attracted considerable global attention in the last quarter of century, since the French film critics “discovered” one of them, Abbas Kiarostami, in 1990. Soon, the prestigious Parisian film journal Cahiers due cinema was devoting many pages to discussing Kiarostami’s films –by now it has published 53 articles about him! Even before Kiarostami, the works of other New Wave Iranian filmmakers had come to the attention of other European critics. Sohrab Shahid Saless and Parviz Kimiavi won the Silver Bear Award for directors at The Berlin International Film Festival, respectively for Still Life (Tabiat-e bijan) [4] in 1974 and The Garden of Stones (Bagh-e sangi)[5] in 1976. Almost a decade earlier, in 1965, Hajir Darioush’s Face 75 (Chehreh 75) was a prizewinner at the same festival.


Darioush’s 1964 film, Serpent’s Skin (Jeld-e mar), is usually credited with having started the New Wave Iranian Cinema. Three other films, The Cow (Gav) [6] directed by Darioush Mehrjui, Caesar (Qeysar) [7] by  Masoud Kimiai and Tranquility in the Presence of Others (Aramesh dar hozur-e deegaran) [8] by Nasser Taqvai, all released in 1969, consolidated the New Wave Cinema as a significant cultural and intellectual trend in Iran. The label was in imitation of the French La Nouvelle Vague, but the number of Iranian filmmakers involved clearly was a “wave” and the phenomenon was definitely “new” when compared with the previous films produced in Iran. Movies made in that country before the New Wave did not appeal to the educated classes.  They were referred to in derogatory terms, especially filmfarsi (Persian film) connoting that they were originally made in Persian language to distinguish them from the preferred Western movies which were dubbed into Persian.  (The history of filmmaking in Iran dates back to long before filmfarsi  when the court photographer made a film at the Shah’s order in 1900, only five years after the birth of cinema in the West; the first movie theater in Iran was opened in 1905 [9].)

Filmfarsi, also known by the more derogatory name abgooshti (Meat-soupy), which took form in the 1950s, has continued to be the commercially more successful genre in Iran with a larger audience. Abgooshti films are still by far the bigger group of films produced in Iran.  Of about 130 films made annually in that country only a handful fall in the New Wave group.  The rest are formulaic films, mostly consisting of family comedies and romantic melodramas with happy endings. The over-abundance of sex and violence has been replaced since the 1979 Islamic Revolution with some violence and religious motifs.


Popular stars have been vital to filmfarsi. The actor Mohammad Ali Fardin,, for example, was a major force in the commercial success of many such movies. The movies he starred in before the Islamic Revolution depicted too much scantily-dressed women and alcohol for the new regime which banned them. Fardin was able to perform only in one more film, The Imperiled (Barzakhiha) [10], in 1982.That war movie was about a group of the Islamic regime’s political prisoners who, having escaped and on the run, were caught in the ongoing war with Iraq. They ended up valiantly defending an Iranian border town.  The regime’s authorities disliked their favorable portrayal in the film and that contributed to ending Fradin’s career. Yet his enduring popularity was such that his funeral 21 years later was attended by 20,000 fans.


In stark contrast with the New Wave movies, filmfarsi’s directors were not widely known. The three who are noteworthy as transitional figures before the New Wave were Samuel Khachikian who attempted to imitate Alfred Hitchcock, Siamak Yassami who followed the style of Indian films and Ismail Kooshan who was famous more as a producer since he began making movies in his own studios, Mitra Film and later Pars Film. For years those were the only studios with a backlot in Iran


The emergence of the New Wave Iranian Cinema was commensurate with significant changes taking place in Iranian society. By the 1960s, substantially increased oil revenues resulting from the nationalization of the oil industry (in 1951) brought a new era of prosperity; the consolidation of power in the hands of the Shah (after the coup of 1953) produced a period of political stability; the return of many Iranian youth who had finished their studies in Europe and the United States increased the pool of westernized audiences for modern cultural experiences; works by new writers such as  Jamal Al-Ahmad, Forugh Farrokhzad, Ibrahim Golestan  and Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi flourished. These writers became eager participants in the development of the New Wave Cinema, in contrast to the past when literary figures, like other intellectuals, had dismissed filmfarsi as “not serious [11].” Sa’edi wrote the script for The Cow, Golestan  and Farrokhzad both made notable films, respectively, The Ghost Valley’s Treasure Mysteries (Asrar-e ganj-e darre-ye Jenni) [12] and The House is Black (Khaneh syah ast) [13].




Iranian New Wave filmmakers have acknowledged the influence of the French New Wave filmmakers such as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut, and Italian neo-realist directors, especially Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and Vitorrio De Sica. Of the Americans, Alfred Hitchcock and Billy Wilder are sometimes included in that list. Even Mehrjui who studied at the University of California, Los Angeles’ Department of Cinema, only credits the French filmmaker Jean Renoir as the sole teacher there who taught him anything worthwhile. Mehrjui also adds the Indian filmmaker Satyajit Ray as having influenced him. Other Iranian directors have paid homage to a few directors from other foreign countries, notably the Japanese Akira Kuroswa, Swedish Ingmar Bergman and Polish Krzysztof Kieslowski.


Notwithstanding those foreign influences, the Iranian New Wave has produced films that are distinct. For one thing, they are not copies of foreign films; they are different in both subject and form. To foreign observers they add something that is uniquely Iranian, “a humanistic aesthetic language,” rooted in a culture steeped in poetry, blurring the boundaries between reality and fiction. Iranian film critics, similarly, have noted “poetic realism” as well as “surrealism” in these films [14].


The early New Wave Iranian directors might have been westernized and modern but they were also kept in check by the call for authenticity by such influential writers of the time as Jamal Al-Ahmad who raged against “Westoxification (Gharbzadegi)” in his widely talked-about 1962 book by the same name.  Al-Ahmad’s quest for authenticity led him to proto-Islamism. In the critic Hamid Dabashi’s words, in Iran Islamism “has been a form of ideological resistance to the colonial extension of … Technological Modernity [15].” That Al-Ahmad borrowed the term gharbzadegi from a concept often discussed by a well-known Tehran University professor, Ahmad Fardid, indicated that his book represented a cultural force that was widespread and potent.  Indeed, when some New Wave filmmakers were suspected of seeking “financial” rewards and a “greater audience,” as in the years just before the Islamic Revolution, they would be accused of becoming like Western filmmakers, abandoning their lofty “intellectual’ goals.


In contemporary Iran being intellectual has generally required also being in political opposition.  Filmmakers both before and after the 1979 Islamic Revolution had to avoid the appearance of their films being identified as supporting the government’s line while, on the other hand, complying with its censorship requirements. These dual, conflicting restrictions severely limited the subjects the filmmakers could choose for their films and also how open their message could be.


In the years immediately after the Revolution, the strictures aimed at the Islamization of the Cinema stifled the New Wave. Detailed regulations specifically banned films that questioned, altered or negated “monotheism and submission to God and his laws, the role of Revelation in creation and in law, and the continuity of religious leadership.” An elaborate machinery of censorship was set up to implement these strictures, but the ensuing self-censorship ended up doing most of the work in this area as well in the prohibition against depicting  women in sensual or romantic relationship .  Directors have not engaged in the most fundamental political issues such as the structure of power and coercion [16]; even few clerics are seen in their films [17].


Censorship was gradually modified and relaxed. Much credit is given to Mohammad Khatami both as the Minister of Culture and later, President from 1997 for 8 years. He led the reformist segment of the Islamic regime. With his advocacy of open cultural policies, he had the active support of almost all of Iran’s New Wave cinematic community [18]. They exploited the division in the regime in what had become their continuous haggling with it for greater freedom. Their stronger position was exemplified by the joining to their ranks of the former Islamist filmmakers such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf who had evolved and matured by 1990 when he made A Time to Love (Nobat-e asheqi).  He was now a comrade-in-arms with the New Wave filmmakers of the Shah’s era whom he had been “savagely attacking” not so long ago [19].


The struggle, of course, continues. The case of Jafar Panahi is well-known as he has attracted the attention of human rights organizations as well as international filmmakers.  Panahi’s 1995 film, The White Balloon (Badkonak-e sefid) [20], was the first Iranian film to win a major award, the Camera d’Or, at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival. He followed it with three other films which garnered awards in other international film festivals, The Mirror (Ayneh) [21] in 1997 (Locarno), The Circle (Dayereh) [22] in 2000 (Venice), and Offside [23] in 2006 (Berlin). Panahi’s 2003 film Crimson Gold (Talay-e sorkh) [24] was not allowed distribution in Iran because it was deemed too “dark.”  Panahi’s problems with the Iranian government over the content of his films persisted and, after he supported the 2009 political opposition Green Movement in Iran, he was arrested and sentenced to six years in prison and a 20 year ban on directing movies or writing screenplays. Panahi has defied the ban while awaiting the result of his appeal and made a video diary, This Is Not a Film (In film nist) in 2011 [25], and a feature film, Closed Curtain (Pardeh) in 2013 [26] which won the Best Script award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Another Iranian filmmaker suffering from his association with the 2009 Green Movement, Mohsen Makhmalbaf has been in exile in London where he has not made any more films.


Even the films which Panahi has produced all have tame subjects. Their general focus has been the hardship of the impoverished, the women and the children in Iran. The subversive messages that the government may see in them are conveyed by indirect methods rather than explicitly. Indeed, the constrictions that all Iranian New Wave filmmakers face have forced upon them an oblique method which some foreign critics have taken as a “poetic” tone and language.


The world of Iranian New Wave Film is strikingly confining. In addition to the limits on subject and method as well as inadequate domestic audience, it lacks money.  Directors often finance their works themselves; they receive little if any meaningful government support. Their operation is therefore on a shoestring. Paradoxically, these conditions have become the source of virtue. Denied breadth in subjects, the Iranian New Wave filmmakers have explored the depth. Self-financing has provided the individual independence which is essential for originality. Their small circle has enabled the New Wave directors to learn from each other. Panahi worked as an assistant director for Abbas Kiarostami who would later write the script for Panahi’s The White Balloon and Crimson Gold. Kiarostami has acknowledged learning from films by Sohrab Shahid Sales, Kimiavi and Mehrjui. His own 1990 film, Close Up (Nema-ye nazdik) [27] is homage to yet another fellow filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.


Abbas Kiarostami


Enriched as Kiarostami has been by such tentacles of connections to other Iranian New Wave directors, he deserves his reputation as second to none for his own innovations. He is known for making films with almost no budget, amateur actors and improvised script which he does not write down.  His hallmark is the exploration of the movie’s ability to reconstruct reality.  He searches for “simple reality” hidden behind “apparent” reality. By refusing to recognize distinction between “fact” and “fiction,” Kiarostami traffics in indeterminability. This meditation on ambiguities confounds some critics who have labeled Kiarostami’s work as simplistic, moralistic and verging on didactic.


In his 2008 film Shirin [28], Kiarostami stretched the limits of his experimentation. The movie consists of the close-ups of 100 actresses viewing a film based on the Persian Romance, Khosrow va Shirin by the 12th century poet Nizami Ganjavi.  Kiarostami’s goal was to investigate the relationship between the spectators’ reaction to image and sound.  All the actresses were Iranian except one, the French star Juliette Binoche. She and Kiarostami had become friends in the 1990s and they had already agreed to make a separate film featuring Binoche. That project, began in 2007, was finally released in 2010 as the movie Certified Copy [29].


In several ways this was a radically new venture for Kiarostami. Unlike all his previous films which were made in Persian, in Iran, with Iranian actors and crew and with stories about Iranians, Certified Copy was mainly in French, shot in Tuscany with non-Iranian actors. It had no Iranian character or Persian dialogue. With the exception of Kiarostami’s son, Bahman as film editor, the crew included no Iranian. At the time, Kiarostami called Certified Copy “the simplest film for me to work on… because I was working with a professional team both in front of and behind the camera.”  Iranian filmmakers had come a long way from the pioneering days when they had to be multifunctional, undertaking almost all tasks from photography to editing themselves. In the 1960s with help from the United States Information Service, the Iranian Ministry of Culture provided training for thousands of Iranians in various aspects of film production. Some of those were still active [30], but the skills available were clearly not on par with advanced foreign film making centers.


Kiarostami has also noted that for once he felt free to express whatever he wanted in Certified Copy [31]. Some critics in the West applauded it as “a universal film.”  Yetthat movie was an extended discussion of a familiar Kiarostami subject:  there is no “true reality” in life, just as in “art” where everything original is a copy of another form. Kiarostami even retained his penchant for amateur actors: the main male character in the movie is played by an opera singer in his first film role. Finally, Kiarostami continued to be circumspect in the use of his “new” freedom of expression. Remaining “apolitical,” he left it to Binoche, in her acceptance speech of the award of the Best Actress for her role in Certified Copy at the Cannes Festival, to bring to the attention of the world that Kiarostami’s friend, director Jafar Panahi who was to sit in that very Festival’s jury was held back as a political prisoner in Iran. Kiarostami himself, at the press conference in Cannes, only said that the arrest of Panahi was “an attack on art.” Even this was a rare indiscretion. Kiarostami had always taken a covert path to deal with political problems in Iran, saying that personal problems such as the dynamics of a married couple which he treated in his movies could reveal the wider social malaise.


Kiarostami followed Certified Copy with another film in 2012, Like Someone in Love [32], a Japanese movie. As in France, where Kiarostami had been lionized by Jean-Luc Godard, in Japan he had as a fan no less a personage than director Akira Kurosawa who had gone on the record to declare Kiarostami as the finest living filmmaker. Like Someone in Love which was a French-Japanese production shared the Certified Copy’s distinction of having nothing to do with Iran and Iranians. Indeed, Kiarostami has not made any film about Iran or Iranians since 2008. He has only collaborated as a “co-writer” with an Iranian director, Adel Yaraghi, in the latter’s 2012 film, Meeting Leila (Ashnaee ba Leila), made in Iran and with Iranian cast and crew. Kiarostami has largely limited himself to conducting workshops for aspiring young filmmakers in Tehran.


Kiarostami’s decision to make films outside of Iran has been interpreted as a gesture of his frustration toward the constraints he faces at home. In late May of 2013, he would tell Western journalists that the situation in Iran had “never been this dark.”  He was not eager to make films in Iran, he explained, because “at the moment art in general has been intertwined with politics … more than it is necessary.”  He continued to refuse to make overt public statement about his political views after his sole indiscretion at Cannes in 2010.  He would say that his overseas ventures were because of his desire simply to “explore new experiences.” Kiarostami would now disclose, however, that in the two foreign movies he had made he faced “more constraints.”  His major problem was having to communicate his views to the foreign casts and crews through interpreters. It was a “nightmare…like you’re in a dream and your communication with the outside world has been turned off [33].”


Ideally, Kiarostami has concedes, he would like to return to making pictures in Iran again because “I have plenty of stories particular to Tehran that really cannot be made anywhere else.”  He has added, “It is natural for me to work directly in Farsi, with an Iranian crew.” For now, “that’s not possible,” and therefore, instead, “the world is my workshop.” Kiarostami consoles himself with the story of a friend who is a doctor. “He worked in Iran and now he’s in Paris. He does x-rays. Once I told him, ‘We do the same thing. You take x-rays and I take inner photographs.’  In x-rays there is no nationality [34].”


Good as Kiarostami’s x-rays may be, the subjects they focus on seem to have lost their appeal for foreign viewers. In Certified Copy Abbas Kiarostami tells the story of a woman and a man who over a long day together are variously tourist and guide, stranger and confidante, and wife and husband.  In Like Someone in Love, he essentially repeats this theme of multiple mistaken identities, with characters each telling a version of their own story while seeing only as much as they choose about others. Kiarostami’s skill “in making the profound appear lightweight” again impresses some critics. But when Like Someone in Love premiered the audience appeared dismayed; the reviews reflected irk and exasperation. It has been noted that Kiarostami’s acclaimed earlier films were also full of elusive meanings, but his non-Iranian films were now described as different because they seemed overtly concerned with notions of fakery, with lies that become true. One critic guessed that they reflected “the director’s own experience as a stranger in strange lands.” When Kiarostami was asked about this impact of “his life in exile,” he admitted: “Well maybe…. [o]n an unconscious level [35].”


Passing of the Torch?


While Certified Copy won the 2012 Best Actress Award in Cannes for Juliette Binoche, Kiarostami has not been awarded any international film prizes since winning the Golden Palm in Cannes in 1997.  Indeed, since then he has only received “Lifelong Achievement” awards, notably the UNESCO Federico Fellini Gold Medal in 1997. In Iran, Kiarostami’s mantle has been taken up by other directors. Two of them are, indeed, his former assistant directors. One, Hassan Yektapanah, has won international prizes for his feature films, Djomeh at Cannes in 2000, and Story Undone (Dastan-e natamam) at Locarno in 2004. The other, Bahman Ghobadi, has won international prizes (variously, at Cannes, Berlin, Chicago, San Sebastian) for each one of his five feature films made between 2000 and 2009: A Time for Drunken Horses (Zamani baray-e masti  asbha) [36],  Marooned in Iraq (Gomgashtegi dar araq) [37], Turtles Can Fly (Lakposhthâ ham parvaz mikonand) [38] , Half Moon (Kurdish: Nîwe mang) [39] and No One Knows About Persian Cats (Kasi az gorbehay-e irani khabar nadareh) [40]. Two other Iranian directors also have won international prizes: Mohsen Amiryoussefi in 2004 for his film Bitter Dream (Khab-e talkh) at Cannes, and Samira Makhmalbaf for her 2000 film Blackboard (Takht-e siah)at Cannes and her 2003 film At Five in the Afternoon (Panj-e asr) [41] also at Cannes.


Samira Makhmalbaf who began making films with her father, Mohsen, owes much to the tradition of Iranian New Wave films. Her two mentioned movies, however, were not in Persian; Blackboard was in Kurdish and At Five in the Afternoon was in Dari (Afghani version of Persian). Neither was filmed in Iran. Blackboard was shot near Halabtcheh, Iraq, on the border of Iranian Kurdistan, and At Five in the Afternoon in Afghanistan. Makhmalbaf also shot her next film, the 2007 Two-Legged Horse (Asb-e dopa) [42], in Afghanistan, although its story was about Iran, because she could not get Iran’s permission to film there. That film remains her last work. Further on the fringes of the world of Iranian cinema are two other women directors who have won international prizes. The French-Iranian Marjane Satrapi won the Jury Prize at the2007 Cannes Film Festival for her animated film Persepolis [43], an autobiographical story of a young girl as she comes of age against the backdrop of the Iranian Revolution. Shirin Neshat, who lives and works in New York, won the 2009 Venice Film Festival Silver Lion for best director in her Women Without Men [44] based on a Persian novel.


Asghar Farhadi


The importance of international recognition for Iranian directors cannot be exaggerated. Selection by a jury of world experts is considered far more objective and valuable in certifying their accomplishment than winning in the local festivals, such as the annual Fajr Film Festival held in Iran. International accolade also generates the much coveted audiences beyond the borders. Among them, the significant number of the Iranians now in exile are special. They have responded enthusiastically. The acclaimed cinema has been the rare positive press about Iran in their new communities. The government in Iran could not have remained indifferent. The filmmaker’s success abroad counters the regime’s urge to control him. Finally, the promise of a market for Iranian films has encouraged foreign financing. As early as 1996, Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s film Gabbeh was a beneficiary of such investment.  This kind of assistance is crucial in an industry where sales often cannot meet the costs [45].


For the last five years only one Iranian Director, Asghar Farhadi, has been winning International prizes. By that measure he is the dominant figure in the Iran’s New Wave Cinema. His awards from international film Festivals began with his first film Dancing in the Dust (Raqs dar ghobar)[46] in 2003 (Moscow and Pusan) and continued with every one of his other five films since: The Beautiful City (Shahr-e ziba) in 2004 (Warsaw, Split and India), Fireworks Wednesday (Chaharshanbe suri) [47] in 2006 (Chicago) About Elly (Darbare-ye elli) [48] in 2009 ( Berlin)  and  A Separation in 2012  (the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film,  the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film,  and nomination for the Best Original Screenplay Academy Award- the first non-English film in five years to achieve this distinction).


Farhadi’s last movie, The Past, released in 2013, has won prizes at several international film festivals (Cannes Ecumenical Jury, U..S. National Board of Review and Palm Springs International Film Festival) It was selected as the Iranian entry for the Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, but it was not nominated. It was, however, nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globe Awards. This was the third time that Iran had selected a film by Farhadi for entry in Hollywood’s Academy Award competition (after About Elly, and A Separation). Iran has also honored Farhadi at the Fajr Festival by awarding him the award for Best Director three times (for Fireworks Wednesday, About Elly and A Separation) and for best film for Dancing in the Dust. Finally, National Society of Iranian Film Critics in 2009 voted About Elly the 4th greatest Iranian movie of all time.


Selection for Oscar nomination has been a sign of special recognition for film directors in Iran. That country has submitted 17 films for Oscar consideration, one in 1977 before the Revolution and the rest since 1994 by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Aside from A Separation, only one other Iranian film has received an Oscar nomination, Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (Bachehay-e aseman) [49]. Kiarostami did not achieve that distinction. Yet he is the only one who has otherwise achieved such international recognition, as well as stature in Iran, that Farhadi needs to be measured against him.


Comparing Farhadi and Kiarostami


When Kiarostami made his first feature film, The Traveler (Mosafer) [50] in 1974, Farhadi was only 2 years old. He made his own first film thirty years later. While Kiarostami’s long career still continues, Farhadi may represent the future of Iran’s New Wave Cinema. His roots in that movement are reflected in the similarities between his works and Kiarostami’s. Both have been filmmakers of low budget movies which are often overlong and sometimes feel lethargic. They allow information to creep in rather than trying to force it all upon us.  They aim at the depth of characterization, and by deferring to actors’ role in this effort they achieve substantial contribution from subtle performances. Both have been independent of government’s financial support, but forced to be within its bounds. There is no sex, nudity or alcohol in their movies. They avoid reference to public issues and institutions that would provoke Iranian authorities.  Like Kiarostami, Farhadi declines to make public statements about his political views following his own rare misstep at an international award ceremony in 2010, when he expressed support for Iranian opposition filmmakers Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi. After the government consequently banned him from making films, Farhadi apologized, maintaining that he had been misperceived, in order to have the ban lifted.


While sharing much in common, Farhadi and Kiarostami are also very different.  Kiarostami has been interested in exploring the limits of film as a work of art. In that he is on the edge of modernity in experimenting with the form. Farhadi, on the other hand, is traditional as he is a storyteller. His narratives are complex, formally dense and gripping. Kiarostami makes up the script as he films; he does not write the details in advance. Farhadi is the opposite: “When I write a script, I write it completely and with a lot of details [51].” While Kiarostami is more interested in projecting the different reality behind the stories, Farhadi concentrates on developing the intricate ways his characters relate to one another.  He makes sure to incorporate the point of view of every character. He shows genuine compassion for the individuals concerned. He remains non-judgmental.


Kiarostami’s recent films show his preoccupation with verisimilitude; how, for example, an original work of art is not the true one even though it is closer to it than the fake. Farhadi is also preoccupied with a related issue:  the subjectivity and contingency of telling the truth. In his treatment, however, Farhadi looks to psychology, sociology and, indeed, history. He goes beyond Kiarostami’s philosophical speculations. Farhadi deems the inquiry practical as it is globally relevant. Ultimately, his characters lie because they are motivated by serious fear. He posits that as a universal truth, true for the French (in The Past) as for the Persians (in A Separation and About Elly).


The Past


Yet it is probably Persian history that compels Farhadi”s attention to this subject. Justified lying under duress (taqiyyeh) has a long history in Iran where telling the truth often has not been the best option, especially under often hostile oppressive governments.  In this and also other ways, Farhadi has not abandoned his distinct Iranian coloration even in his foreign film. Unlike Kiarostami, he uses several Iranian actors in The Past. One who plays the role of the main male character has a line which could well be Farhadi’s own declaration. In Persian, the character half-jokingly admonishes his just divorced French wife, who is eating a popular Persian dish he has made with a fork rather than spoon: “You don’t eat qormeh zabzi with fork!”  With this sensibility in mind, Farhadi has said that his movies are about Iran and Iranians. Indeed, he describes The Past as “a story of a man [from Iran] who travels to another country.”  He adds: “And the distance between this man and his family is important. It is important that they are far apart.” It is for that reason mainly, Farhadi says, that he has made the movie in Paris, not in Iran [52].


In The Past Farhadi explores a subject enormously important to a select group of his Iranian audience, the existential problem of living in another country. As he sees it, the problems of diaspora are “not just geographic but a great deal more, especially if forced.” He explains the connection of the people in diaspora with their past:  “In exile a part of them … is entangled with the past and the place they have left. Some could reconcile with the new place and leave the past behind but a group cannot. This group is undecided, suspended between the past and present.” That is the pivotal dilemma of Ahmad, the main male character of the film.After having left Paris to live in Iran, he has returned on a short visit to complete his divorce with his wife. Instead, he finds himself quickly embroiled not only in her problems but also in her children’s problems. Ahmad’s Persian friend in Paris warns him, in Persian, “If you hesitate you will be drowned!” He advises him, in English: “Cut, cut!” He explains why, in Persian: “You were not a man for here.  From the first day what did I tell you? Either this side or that side. It is not possible to have one of your feet on this side of the stream and another foot on the other side of the stream. At one point the stream widens.”


Among prominent Iranian critics of their country’s New Wave Cinema – such as Hamid Dabashi in the U.S., and Mohammad Tahminejad, Jamal Omid, Masud Mehrabi, and Hamid Reza Sadr in Iran- Hamid Naficy stands out with his impressive scholarly output. His four volume A Social History of Iranian Cinema is the most exhaustive study of the subject to date. In it, he undertakes the full exploration of Iran’s “national cinema” which, based on academic film theory, he defines as a complex mixture of several “key characteristics or formations: sociopolitical, industrial, cultural, ideological, spectatorial, textual and authorial [53].” In contrast to the New Wave, which might be called the mainstream contemporary Iranian national cinema, stands what Naficy has called “an accented cinema of exile and diaspora… both a cinema of exile and a cinema in exile…. Accented films are in dialogue with the home and host societies … whose desires, aspirations, and fears they express [54].” Naficy has counted over 300 such “accented films” produced by Iranian in exile in the first two decades after the Revolution. Alas, they have been “unrecognized and unappreciated [55].” Indeed, films produced by Iranian New Wave directors in exile have not fared much better; works by Amir Naderi in Japan, Susan Taslimi in Sweden and Shahid Sales in Germany have not become widely known [56]. What Farhadi has chosen is to stay rooted at home but comment on the conditions abroad. In this different formulation (from both national and exilic cinemas), he has found a way to look sympathetically at the Iranians in exile. Heretofore, in most films produced in Iran they were seen as outsiders [57].


In Farhadi’s view “Assimilation is possible depending on your age. If your personality is formed and your memories of the past make it difficult … leads to indecision: both attached to where they came from and the attraction of the new place.” Farhadi himself finds France familiar. He picked it as the site for The Past because “it was where I traveled most often during these years. Outside of Iran, my largest audiences have been in France, and this made me close to them. .. I didn’t feel like a stranger in Paris. The rhythm of life in Paris is very close to that of Tehran [58].” Paris has attracted several other Iranian New Wave directors – far more than any other foreign city.  In 1981 Darioush Mehrjui took refuge there and spent several years before returning to Iran. His work in that period was limited to producing a documentary about the poet Arthur Rimbaud for French TV. His fellow New Wave Director Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi died in Paris in 1985 due to depression and related alcoholism. Hajir Darioush committed suicide in Paris in 1995. Farrokh Ghaffari, whose 1964 film The Night of the Hunchback (Shab-e ghuzi) was deemed by Darioush to be the first Iranian New Wave movies, died in Paris in 2006. The Paris that was home to these Iranian exiles was hardly the glamorous City of Light. More likely, their environment was similar to the drab working-class, immigrant-filled Paris suburb which Farhadi shows in The Past. The inhabitants were of the types that the characters in the film portray. They are on the margin of the main society. They make a living as clerks and small shopkeepers. Their anxiety which is under dissection by Farhadi is palpably the same. Their fear is primarily the loss of the one on whom they depend emotionally.


What Farhadi says about them is applicable to many people from diverse lands who are in diaspora. In that sense it is universal. The context for his discussion is vintage Farhadi. As in several of his previous films, The Past focuses on domestic stories that transcend nationality. Like Ingmar Bergman, whose influence he has acknowledged, Farhadi too mines family dysfunction and tension in unhappy marriages.  At his estranged wife’s request, Ahmad returns from Iran to Paris to finalize his divorce with Marie who wants to marry Samir. Marie’s daughters from a previous marriage, Lucie and Lea, and Samir’s son, Fouad, live with them. Celine, Samir’s wife has been in coma following an attempted suicide. Lucie, who does not like Samir, believes that she has triggered Celine’s action. Marie wants Ahmad to help her handle the rebellious teenager Lucie.


Filmmaker’s Mission


Farhadi says he does not want to “become a political spokesman…  But whenever possible, in my films if I can allow people to understand each other and for cultures to come together, I would do that.” He believes “We do much with nationality. There are differences but deeper, emotions of all are similar.” He illustrates: “In The Past a woman [is] dying: at first glance, Ahmad might seem not concerned, but when you see the story, you see a connection. So everything [that] happens affects us and we all have a share and responsibility.” Farhadi follows up by this statement about divisions caused by emphasis on “nationality” and national interest: “This ‘national interest’ is the first thing politicians consider. This justifies the sacrifice of the people in other places.”


Kiarostami celebrated the “freedom” he was going to enjoy in making movies abroad. Farhadi does not see greater or less freedom abroad:  “I want the stories to determine … where I work. I might have a story tomorrow that happens in Iran, and I will definitely make it in Iran.” More broadly, he has said: “Ideal freedom does not exist anywhere. Even in free countries they have a greater ‘illusion’ that they have freedom. Illusion of complete freedom is dangerous.”  On his “Oscar experience from A Separation,” Farhadi says “It caused my audience to grow around the world and… it put me in touch with my audience and I could hear their opinions… I came to believe that people… all over the world… are very … similar to one another.” He was pleased to see that his film was “relatable to a lot of people that were far from the Iranian culture [59].”


French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard has said that one of his “life’s disappointments” was his failure “to force the Oscar people to reward Kiarostami instead of Kieslowski [60].” The Polish filmmaker, Krzysztof Kieslowski awed Hollywood with his movies The Three Colors Trilogy (1993–1994); the Three Colors: Red won him the Oscar nomination for the Best Director in 1995. Farhadi mentions Kieslowski as among the handful that influenced him greatly [61].  It is striking to see how closely Farhadi sees his mission as a filmmaker to what Kieslowski said in the 1990s: “[I]f there is anything worthwhile doing for the sake of culture, then it is touching on subject matters and situations which link people, and not those that divide people…. Feelings are what link people together, because the word ‘love’ has the same meaning for everybody. Or ‘fear’, or ‘suffering’…. That’s why I tell about these things, because in all other things I immediately find division [62].”




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