Over the past 16 years the UCLA Film and Television Archive has presented an eclectic selection of the best new film and video works from Iran and the Iranian Diaspora. From the very beginning in 1990, the annual Celebration of Iranian Cinema has been one of the most eagerly anticipated festivals presented by the Archive, with packed houses nightly.
The series opened with Mohammad Rasoulof’s breathtaking Iron Island, about a group of impoverished families living aboard a rusting ship anchored in the Persian Gulf. Other highlights included two films about Tehran after dark: Ali Mosaffa’s haunting and enigmatic Portrait of a Lady Far Away, about a man (played by Homayoun Ershadi) who is taken on a wild ride through nocturnal Tehran by a mysterious woman, and actress Niki Karimi’s brave directorial debut One Night, about the wanderings of a young woman alone in the city. Also screened were We Are All Fine, directed by Bijan Mirbagheri, A Piece of Bread by Kamal Tabrizi, and Wake Up, Arezoo! by Kianoush Ayari, the latter bringing the unfathomable dimensions of the earthquake that struck the ancient city of Bam in 2003 to an immediate and shocking human level. Finally, the closing night feature was Iran’s official submission to the Academy for the Foreign Film Oscar, So Close, So Far, directed by Riza Mirkarimi.
The first screening of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema in 1990 was a pioneering initiative co-sponsored by the Center for Near Eastern Studies and curated by alumnus Hamid Naficy. On the occasion of the festival’s sixteenth anniversary, the Center asked several friends and acquaintances to comment on films in the 2006 festival which appear to have provoked a critical response among many.
“Iron Island (Jazireh ahani) is a refreshing addition to a long list of remarkable Iranian films,” said Hassan Hussain, Islamic Studies doctoral student. “The film is ripe with allegories comparing the community of dispossessed living on a sinking ship under the firm yet protective rule of 'Captain' Nemat to the fragility and uncertain future of the Iranian state and society. However, in addition to the layers of meaning and social commentary, I also enjoyed the setting and characters of the film. Most likely shot near Bandar Abbas, Jazireh ahani depicts the cultural dynamism of the Gulf by using Arab Iranian characters speaking a mixture of Persian and Arabic often found along the southern coast of Iran. I have to admit that it was also nice to see an Iranian movie tackling issues of economic and social constraints on personal freedom without overwhelming and heart-wrenching despair and misery.”
Filmmaker and UCLA alum Erik Friedl found We Are All Fine (Ma hameh khoubim) to be “a searing self-portrait of present-day Iran, brilliantly presented in microcosmic form through the all-seeing eye of the commonplace video camera. The eldest son, Jamshid, who has apparently been out of the country some six years, has requested a video portrait of his family. In the hands of the younger son, the video camera proves to be the catalyst that gets members of this impossibly dysfunctional family talking for the first time—an ingeniously simple device on the part of the screenwriter. I also found very effective the intercutting of the more ‘objective’ 35 mm footage with the gritty, smeary video images of each family member baring his or her soul. There was finally so much emotional bloodletting that I wasn’t surprised when the matriarch of this unraveling household—read: the governing mullahs—decided to pull the plug and demand a take-two: ‘We are all fine’.”
“Ali Mosaffa’s Portrait of a Lady Far Away (Sima-ye zani dar doordast) explores the themes of loneliness, people’s unwillingness to take risks, and the struggles with commitment in a relationship—issues applicable to any society, not just Iran,” said Islamic Studies doctoral student Eric Bordenkircher. “The main character, Ahmed, receives a message on his answering machine from an anonymous female claiming to be on the verge of committing suicide. Although he does not initially respond to the phone call, his concern and/or curiosity lead him on a journey to locate the woman. Throughout his journey, one observes glimpses of Tehran’s nightlife, but more prominently, the shortcomings of Ahmed. Portrayed in a rather dark, unconventional manner, the imagery was effective at first, but as the movie progressed it came to hamper the storyline, making it difficult to comprehend and increasingly muddled and confusing.”
Holly Shissler from the University of Chicago, who was visiting UCLA during 2005-06 as a Balzan Fellow, said that One Night (Yek shab) reminded her of Jim Jarmusch's 1991 film Night on Earth in the way that it used the conceit of random car rides through the city and the conversations that take place to comment on the condition of the larger society. "In Night on Earth, taxis provide the venue, while in One Night, a young woman hitchhiker serves as the pretext for a variety of male drivers to reveal themselves. A striking feature is that although the young woman is the constant in the film and its nominal protagonist, and although every man who offers her a ride has something to say about women and the relations between the sexes, one felt that there was almost no real female presence in the film. The protagonist remains largely silent, and the drivers monologue about their relations with women without ever seeming to have any sense of the existence of women as independent from their own needs and imaginings. My initial reaction to the film was that it was long and somewhat rambling, but over time I have found it haunting.”
Having seen Kamal Tabrizi's first feature film a few years ago—the satire titled The Lizard (Marmoolak)—UCLA alumna Afsaneh Matin, Program Director at Miller Children’s Hospital, went to see A Piece of Bread (Yek teke nan) with much anticipation. “The movie takes the audience on a journey to the site of a ‘miracle’ in a small town in Iran. Locals from nearby villages rush to the site, each hoping to have a wish granted. On this journey we also meet a naive and seemingly meditative young recruit from a remote and unknown place who loses himself in the beauty of nature and repeatedly finds himself in situations not short of small miracles that are lost to the busy eyes of the locals. In the end, we find that he has unknowingly been at the center of the ‘miracle’ all along. A Piece of Bread is a poetic and visually beautiful movie. However, I wish Tabrizi had allowed his audience to make up their own minds about the reputed miracles and the interrelation of spirituality and religion or the real and the imaginary,” she concluded.
Another UCLA alumna, sociologist Elham Gheytanchi of Santa Monica College, saw A Piece of Bread as a moral tale: "It invites a critical assessment of religious fervor and favors a more inward, genuine and essential relationship with God without intermediaries.”
Robert Bianchi from the University of Chicago and Iliya Harik from Indiana University were on campus for a CNES workshop and coincidentally attended the last film in the series, So Far, So Close (Kheili dour, kheili nazdik). “It’s a double love story between father and son and between man and God,“ said Bianchi. “The father-doctor couldn’t care less about God, but when he learns that he’s losing his son to a disease that he cannot cure, he begins a desperate journey to find the boy and become the father he never was. The son taunts his atheist father, leading him on a chase through the desert and speaking only indirectly via his girlfriend’s disembodied and scolding cell-phone voice. The last-minute effort to play the father role invites disaster when a sandstorm buries the doctor alive in his Mercedes-turned-coffin. As his oxygen runs out, he replays home videos of the boy on his camcorder and in his mind. In the end, it is the immortal son who saves the dying father in a terrifying conclusion that makes the departing audience check their own breathing and values.”
“Here’s my take on the film,” said Iliya Harik. “There are a lot of things to praise about it including the acting. What concerns me most are minor matters, as films go. First, it was relentless, with no comic relief. At the height of the tension, when the doctor was at the desert hostel, the budding romance could have offered that chance, but then it was totally sacrificed for the religious mission, when the girl was shocked by his disbelief and turned away from him: ‘It seems the doctor is in need of help himself, not his son,’ a trite and harsh response not befitting those sweet lips from which it was uttered. But maybe that was the price the producer had to pay the censor under an austere religious regime. In some way, the bargain was not that bad for a person who wanted to present an atheistic position. After all, an unbeliever was portrayed as being as human as anybody else, sacrificing himself to save his son, and finally not struck down by an awesome god. In fact, he was saved by his son, about whose faith we know nothing. Not a bad turn for an unrepentant atheist!”
Mimi Brody and FTA colleague David Pendleton have co-curated the series for the past three years. In Winter 2007, the festival moves to the Hammer Museum in the heart of Westwood. Said Brody, ”We look forward to presenting many more festivals in the years to come."
Published: Monday, September 25, 2006
© 2014. The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved.