It all started with The Cow, a 1969 classic about a man and his beloved animal. Credited by many as the start of the New-Wave of Iranian cinema, The Cow explored Iranian culture and its relationship with the west. Though not as recognized as the Italian Neorealist movement or the French New-Wave, the films that followed The Cow took influence from both, and led to some remarkable examples of filmmaking that would in turn have a massive effect on world cinema. The definitive style of the movement came about through two major influences, the first being a political one.
The revolution of 1979 saw a massive change in the political behavior of the country. The burning of cinemas represented a detachment from the west; film itself was seen as a form of treason. Though eventually films made their way back into the public, censorship was immense. Any film with a political, religious, or social theme was banned from public cinemas. Iranian films were transformed from the mindless sex comedies of the Shah’s era to the mindless propaganda of the Islamic Revolution. Despite this, a few notable movies snuck their way out; none of which had the impact of Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home. Winning several prizes locally and numerous awards at European film festivals, it told the simple story of a boy’s struggle to return his classmate’s notebook to him. The film was masterfully crafted, with beautiful photography, and incredible performances from non-professional actors. Most importantly however, the film revealed the true effects of the censorships. Kiarostami’s film had nothing to do with politics or religion; instead it dealt with more profound subjects, making the censorships seem irrelevant. In the years that followed, the world witnessed an explosion in Iranian cinema. Masters of the art were making exciting films that spoke about love, life, death, identity, childhood, friendship and so on.
The second important factor affecting the style of the Iranian New-Wave was budget. Iran had just finished an eight-year war with Iraq, and was in bad shape. Food, water and medical supplies were the top concern of the country, leaving filmmakers with little to no budget for their films. Films were usually shot with a single, hand-held camera, used natural lighting, minimalist scores, and simple story structures. These limitations eventually led to the realism that would visually define the movement. Many films were also shot as mockumentaries or films within films. Mohsen Makhmalbaf was one of the key directors of this style, creating films such as: Salaam Cinema, a documentary about actors auditioning for a fake movie, and A Moment of Innocence, an autobiographical film about a director making an autobiographical film about a his confrontation with a police officer. The minimal budgets of these films gave them a very natural composition, usually thinning the line between film and documentary. This drew audiences deeper into the drama, and emphasized the main statement of the film, which was often summarized by a single powerful picture in the film.
Incredibly, the realism that rose out of low budgets and minimal sets is now gaining huge popularity in the west. Films such District 9 were made in such a way to resemble a documentary. This technique once again made the hypothetical situation seem much more authentic and genuine. Though more extreme, The Blair Witch Project used similar methods, selling the film as a documentary, which resulted in its immense success and cultural influence. Many other films employed these natural filming methods to grasp the audience’s attention and bring them deeper into the drama. Films such as Babel, Children of Men, Being John Malkovich and The Bourne Ultimatum are a few examples.
The visual and conceptual effects of the movement can defiantly be seen in modern western cinema, as Iranian films continue to accumulate high praise at film festivals around the planet. Perhaps the most intriguing part of this movement is that it still lives on. Directors such as Asghar Farhadi (A Separation), Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Kandahar), and many others continue to create vibrant films that dig deeper into the human psyche and tell beautiful stories. There is no doubt that we continue to live in one of the most exciting times in cinema, not just in the west but around the world. We therefore need to witness these beautiful moving pictures that continue to affect world cinema, but more importantly continue to teach us valuable lessons about the human condition. By Amir Karimi