It's almost all poetry

Iranian directors have to pull out all the stops

By Frank Provoost

Lecturer Asghar Seyed-Gohrab has compiled a book on the cinema of his native country, Iran. He wants to convey that beautiful films have been produced both before and after the revolution – despite, or perhaps because of, all the censorship.

Watch out: spoiler alert!

An almost deserted village in Iran has only one cow. The owner is over the moon with the animal; it’s practically all he owns. Gradually, he starts to identify with the creature and when the cow eventually dies, he can’t take it. In fact, by that time, he is not talking to anyone anymore and he has started to eat hay. He has, as it were, become the cow.

Asghar Seyed-Gohrab loathes giving the plot away, but if you want to describe the poetic beauty of Gāv (The Cow, 1969), you have to. Besides, there is far more to an Iranian film than just the story. There’s the technique: look at the unique camera angles, or how well the protagonists act; the literature: pay attention to the number of references to Persian poems. If you can see it, it’s almost all is poetry. And don’t forget history: Gāv actually proves that wonderful films were produced before the revolution as well.

Of course, all the interest in, and praise for, Iranian cinema is great – directors win plenty of awards and earlier this year, it was the focus of the International Film Festival Rotterdam. But why are people only interested in the period after the revolution when so many good films were produced before then too?

Admittedly, Seyed-Gohrab is in actual fact the senior lecturer of Persian literature and Islamic mysticism but he still converted the Lipsius lecture hall into a cinema in the evening. For Studium Generale he alternatingly showed films from before the revolution and after it, with a half-hour preview and a discussion to follow. Wonderful – he still misses it. To his surprise, a hundred and fifty people turned up straight away, which led to a symposium, which in turn led to the compilation that was published recently: Conflict and Development in Iranian film.

The book discusses just about every aspect of a century of cinematography, logically including, war, martyrdom and religion, but sexuality, poverty, drug addiction, prostitution, etc. too – not to mention censorship. Because that’s the first thing that springs to mind when Iran is mentioned. And there was censorship before the revolution too. Gāv was banned immediately after the first showing: the shots of a desolate village and unemployed farmers – the results of land reforms and a policy that enticed villagers to the cities – did not please the Shah. In the end, the film was smuggled to Italy and it was heaped with awards at the film festivals of Venice and Chicago, only to become a hit in Iran after all. And that is what happened with many films.

It is interesting to see how directors have to pull out all the stops to avoid censor. It explains, for instance, why women and children are often the main characters. But thinking up tricks opens up a whole range of possibilities, including commenting on the position of clerics.

Marmoulak (The Lizard, 2004) is about a thief who ends up in hospital after a fight in prison. To his disgust, he is forced to share a room with a mullah. Not all clerics are as bad as you think, this one claims, as soon as he sees the criminal’s look of hatred. Indeed, the mullah helps him, taking a bath and leaving his long robes and turban on the bed so that the thief can put them on and escape. But once outside, the thief realises how trying the life of a cleric is. When he tries to get a cab, not a single driver will pull over for him – brilliant, isn’t it?Seyed-Gohrab’s first film must have been Hasan kachal (Hasan the Bald, 1970). He can still remember that it was about a bathhouse and some genies – obviously out of bottles – who pestered the bathers. Looking back, he thinks it must have been a very bad B-movie. But he was five, and it was the first time he had ever been inside a cinema, so it was great.

Back then, Iran was a totally different place. Once when he was seven, he was in a taxi driving through Teheran with his grandfather when they passed a building with a huge picture of a nude woman. Just her back, mind you, but even so. In those days, in the seventies, that was possible. Cafés still had dancers. Nudity was not a taboo in Iran. He can remember that in the taxi his grandfather, a pious man, put his hands out to cover his grandson’s eyes.

But then came the revolution. In 1979, fanatically religious Islamic insurgents deposed the Shah. They thought that films were a corruptive influence of the immoral West and destroyed two thirds of all the cinemas, even if there were people inside. More than four hundred cinema-goers were burned alive when militant Muslims set fire to Cinema Rex in Abadan. It was horrific.

About that time, his father fled to the Netherlands; his mother and younger brother followed three years later. The only one of the family left in Iran, Seyed-Gohrab looked after the nut wholesale business for another three years but when he was called up to fight against Iraq, he too fled. However much he would like to return, he has never been back. It is too risky, particularly under the current regime. And to be honest, he doesn’t have much hope of things improving any time soon.

After the revolution, a totally different kind of cinema developed. Especially the position of women portrayed in it is fascinating and the reason why he discusses the triptych Roozi ke zan shodam (The Day I Became a Woman, 2000), the first film by female director Marziyeh Meshkini. The first part is about a girl who is told, a few hours before her ninth birthday, that she mustn’t play with boys anymore and she must wear a headscarf. But we were allowed to play yesterday, her friend exclaims, dumbfounded, why can’t we play today? But the age of nine is the age a woman may marry, according to zealotic clergy. Seyed-Gohrab can remember the same happening in his street: all of a sudden, everything had to be secret and he could only play with female friends if he met them clandestinely.

In the second part, a married woman takes part in a bike race. As she races along the tarmac, her husband – galloping alongside her through the dust on a horse – tries to persuade her to come home. In the last part, the symbolism is even more beautiful: an old spinster decides to buy a trousseau and lays it out on the beach until the sea gradually washes it away. The film is everything at once: a tribute to the strength of women, but it is also a comment on the lack of solidarity. After all, it is the young girl’s grandmother who insists that she observes tradition.

The film, when he saw it for the first time, brought tears to his eyes. And yet it is odd, because when he discusses it with friends in Iran, they are always surprised. They say: but it isn’t that special! Much worse happens here!

And Asghar Seyed-Gohrab has to admit that they are right.

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It's almost all poetry

Lecturer Asghar Seyed-Gohrab has compiled a book on the cinema of his native country …