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What Kind of Cinema Is This? 

In Austria’s Wienale Festival after the screenings of Under the Olive Trees, The Abadanis and Zinat, a discussion was held with the presence of Werner Herzog, Kianoush Ayari, Zaven Ghoukasian and myself.

Being fond of the Iranian cinema, Herzog who also directed the panel, threw his first question as: “What kind of cinema is this?” “How do you explain this phenomenon?”  More so than others I was asked to comment.

I really wanted to frankly say I didn’t know but somehow managed to respond while wishing that I had remained with an ‘I don’t know answer’.

Ghoukasian and Ayari each also gave their own explanations in which I didn’t find any answers to the question.  Since then however, because of the awards that one of these filmmakers sometimes received in a reputable or non-reputable festival or an undeserving comment to a director or an occasional tribute the question would rise in my mind again and distract me in vain for some time.

The dwelling went on until just recently when the issue came up again and the odd question as to what kind of cinema this is.  Why don’t its films have narratives like before?  Why doesn’t it have characterization or famous actors like in the past?  And it seems that any passers-by have been cast to act.  Why is it not welcomed that much and in brief, what is this cinema?

Fortunately, I felt some answers were coming to light.  It began with the sentence that this cinema is not one with script-writers in closed rooms to tie and untie the knots in struggles to develop dialogues among the characters and create a screenplay at last to dictate to the director how to lead the story forward.

It seems as though this cinema refuses to be employed by the story and does not accept cliché.

Apparently, a cinema that does not subscribe to the power of narrative is an anti-story cinema.  This cinema in essence though, only separates itself from the conventional form of story telling.  It seeks a line of execution that allows the filmmaker, the so-called actors, places and real issues and all the elements in and behind the scene to earn their position in the film.  In this cinema many a time a scene in the story through the work of the director and actors explodes from within and evolves into not only a part but also often the whole screenplay or the film in its entirety (Salam Cinema).  For these reasons the director in this cinema does not have an iron breakdown or lacks one at all.  The imaginary line breaks.

He does not fear of any unpredicted events on the scene, rather he welcomes them.  At times he seems confused and unable to direct.  It is a cinema to which unlike the director’s wish all kinds of people from all walks of life find their way in and the director uses these primarily obtrusive people towards the development of the film.  It is a cinema in which faults and shortcomings are not obscured but penetrated into and employed for the piece (Close-up).  In one word according to the professional directors of this cinema the directors are amateur (my apologies).  This is exactly true.  They are absolutely right. That’s why the directors of this cinema don’t have the classic director’s chair.  The director’s chair is symbolic of the power and authority of the professional filmmaker over all elements in and behind the scene.  Such a mighty director does not even find his presence so necessary on the scene after breakdown because with full power he dictates how his first and last shots should be taken.  That authority, however, stops spontaneity of the work.  That is why about two decades ago the director in the Iranian new cinema smashed to ground the director’s chair and broke down the traditional authority.  In fact the director in our new cinema is a self-determined professional amateur, for, only through this path he reaches the style and structure he is after.  He constantly exits his professional mold to direct in an amateur way.  His professional experiment before anything aims to eliminate his traditional power and the screenplay’s self-interest and finally the actor’s traditional professional power.  In this cinema the freedom of action creates context, structure and aesthetic.  This freedom, however, is not anarchist but it seeks to arrive at new meanings, other people and expansion of the real world (followed by diversity of the world of cinematography) which is what the new Iranian cinema has drawn.

As soon as we take away the reciprocal and dynamic relationships between the makers of this cinema, the style and structure of its films disappear.  Take a look at the movies that are made parallel to this kind of cinema but lack this property.

Cliché, sex and action that are frequented in every one of the commercial movies are not the subjects of this cinema.  This cinema seeks to look everywhere and talk about what others fail to see.  Thus, willingly or not it supercedes the elements of commercial cinema without antagonizing the monetary aspects of it. The subjects in this cinema are all contemporary, real and social.  If a subject is not contemporary it certainly takes place in such society.  This cinema is neutral towards its most positive characters; therefore, it is not protagonist and can’t be propagandist.  The foundation (outlook) of this cinema is critical yet when it plunges into depths of poverty and tragedy it comes out hopeful (The Abadanis). 

Consequently, most of its films seemingly or not have happy endings.  Although auditors and producers have an influence in leading to happy endings but the result is the filmmakers’ hopefulness.  Thus, happy endings not as extra loads, are part of the structure and nature of the context.  This hope of course is not definite. It is a fragile hope that in reaching the purpose alternately makes warnings in the piece and invites constant effort.

I suppose hopes of this nature are characteristic of Iranian culture that existed in Persian poetry and are now present in the Iranian new cinema.  This cinema in form, content, meaning, production and audit are liberal.  It does not speak of freedom.  It acts upon freedom and is created in it and in the absence of open exchanges between the producer, auditor, director and actor it (probably) diminishes.

Interestingly, as much as this cinema needs freedom to take shape, it becomes a carrier of freedom after production because it changes understanding of the context.  It takes a different look at life and human relations.  It rids the viewer from his previous closed world and the perception that the world is as he sees it.

This cinema was formed by not only a couple but a group of filmmakers, not in a few years but it is almost 20 years old.  It reaches its qualitative existence not only in context but also in style and structure.  It has not been pre-meditated but it prevailed out of need.  These characteristics reveal that the Iranian new cinema is a cultural movement.  It seems that it is the only artistry responding to democracy, which is one of the Iranian people’s national demands at the present.  It is a demand rooted in two historical revolutions of the Constitutional in 1906 and the Islamic in 1979.  I do not believe our music, literature; painting, etc. have acquired such positions.  Without the cultural precedence, the historical revolutions and the ancient cinematic background that is now one hundred years old, this cinema was unlikely to emerge.

I greet the Iranian new cinema and the 100th anniversary of world cinema and by greetings to Werner Herzog from afar I’d like him to accept this very personal explanation of the Iranian new cinema instead of my last brief in Wienale hoping that he hears my mind’s inner voice yet whispering: “I still don’t really know what kind of cinema this is.”

 Ibrahim Mokhtari  

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