Where to Aim, When to Shoot

Film as a weapon in a time of war: Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival coverage.

Kirill Galetski is a freelance film critic based in Moscow.

 

The Windfall Will Carry Us

The sudden blessing of digital video bodes well for Iranian cinema

by Mohammad Atebbai

When former Iranian Minister of Culture Seyyed Mohammad Khatami was nominated for the presidency in the winter of 1997, Iranian artists strongly supported him; some filmmakers even took part in his campaign. Khatami was an intellectual clergyman who had spent a couple of years at the Islamic Center of Hamburg; during his ministry, he had changed the culture of the nation, not least by paving the way for the revival of the Iranian film industry. In 1991 he resigned as minister of culture, bowing to pressure from conservatives, and left the scene to the right-leaning ministers who wished to see art as a tool of the state. Iranian artists in general and filmmakers in particular experienced some of their darkest years in the 1990s. Yet the presence of Khatami as a presidential candidate was a shot of encouragement for the Iranian film industry, a reason for hope.

Iranians designated May 23, 1997--the day Khatami was elected as the fifth president of Iran--as a day of victory. When President Khatami took power in August 1997, and chose Dr. Ataollah Mohajerani as the minister of culture, all those in the various fields of art looked forward to the coming period as a cause for celebration. Dr. Mohajerani appointed Seifollah Daad--a filmmaker who was leading the Iranian film guilds against the former conservative ministers of culture--as his deputy in film affairs. Imagining that their dreams might finally be coming true, film professionals supported Daad--and the new policies of the ministry proved their assumptions.

The deputy minister lifted bans on several key Iranian films, and eliminated the requirement for script approval that was always a hindrance to adventurous directors. Nevertheless, among the 350 feature films produced between 1998 and 2002, most were cheap melodramas dealing with superficial love stories. (Meanwhile, of those 350 films, more than 100--some of which are by directors who have been widely acclaimed at film festivals around the world--have yet to play in Iran because of the scarcity of public cinemas.) Dr. Mohajerani was eventually forced to resign, and was replaced by Ahmad Masjed-Jamei, who has always been considered a conservative official in the Ministry of Culture. Seifollad Daad followed his boss by leaving the ministry, and Mohammad-Hassan Pezeshk began to run the film industry. The presence of new authorities hardly improved the health of the Iranian film industry, as more and more aspects of filmmaking came under the control of the state.

Yet at the same time, the digital revolution reached Iran, which gave an immediate boost to filmmakers, young ones in particular. (A full 30 percent of films submitted to this year's Fajr Film Festival were by first- and second-time directors.) Even some veteran directors such as Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry, The Wind Will Carry Us) began to proclaim digital cinema as the perfect solution to problems of low-quality film stock and high rental rates for film equipment. In fact, Kiarostami, who shot his most recent pair of films, ABC Africa and Ten, on digital, announced his belief that he had wasted the first three decades of his career making films on celluloid.

Representing the new wave of Iranian cinema that doesn't require state support, Kiarostami's Ten is one of the five Iranian films selected for the Minneapolis/St. Paul festival. (It screens at the Riverview Theater on Sunday, April 6 at 5:00 p.m.) Two of the others are by women directors: Under the Skin of the City (Riverview, Monday, April 14 at 7:30 p.m.) is the latest socially committed work by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (whose documentary Our Times recently screened as part of Walker Art Center's "Women With Vision" series); and Women's Prison (Walker, Thursday, April 17 at 8:00 p.m.; and Oak Street, Saturday, April 19 at 5:00 p.m.), by first-time director Manijeh Hekmat, was banned for nearly a year, but later turned into one of the Iranian box-office hits of 2002. Bahman Ghobadi's follow-up to A Time for Drunken Horses, Marooned in Iraq (Riverview, Tuesday, April 15 at 7:00 p.m.), met with a chilly response from Iranian audiences, but has been warmly received by Ghobadi fans throughout the world. Finally, veteran filmmaker Kianoosh Ayyari reaffirms his talent and intelligence with Iranian Spread (Bell Auditorium, Saturday, April 12 at 5:00 p.m.; and Oak Street, Tuesday, April 15 at 5:00 p.m.), a multilayered and touching film that analyzes Iranian society in different parts of the country.

Less than two months ago, the Iranian minister of culture appointed a new deputy of film affairs, Mohammad-Mehsi Heidarian, who has spent the bulk of his career as a high-ranking official in Iranian TV. Since the Iranian Ministry of Culture is run by reformists, and Iranian TV is run by conservatives, film professionals in Iran have considered this appointment as part of an attempt at reconciliation between the nation's two political parties--and as a harbinger of an uncertain future. The new deputy minister has already faced some serious challenges such as authorizing screening permits of some so-called "problematic" films during the Iranian New Year's holidays (which began March 20), and the recent arrest of four Iranian film critics whose crimes are not at all clear. Above all, the deputy minister is entrusted with establishing the new policies of Iranian cinema, which are announced at the beginning of each year. We who love film in Iran are hoping for the best.

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