June 23, 2009

ALREADY A LIBERAL SOCIETY:

Iran’s Tensions, Foreshadowed in Its Cinema (A. O. SCOTT, 6/20/09, NY Times)

The flowering of Iranian cinema in the 1990s was itself evidence of a cultural and political thaw, a tentative premonition of the current demand for change. As minister of culture and Islamic guidance from 1989 to 1992, Mohammed Khatami encouraged the expansion of film production, and his election to the presidency in 1997 (in an unexpected landslide) came less than a week after Mr. Kiarostami shared the Palme d’Or in Cannes for “Taste of Cherry.”

As nearly contemporaneous news events — and in retrospect today — those two victories symbolized the possibility of a relatively liberal and cosmopolitan Iran, or at least the partial ascendance of more outward-looking and conciliatory forces within Iranian society. The reality turned out to be much more ambiguous, as Mr. Khatami’s tenure in office was marked more by the frustration of reformist aspirations than by their fulfillment.

But in the eight years between his election and that of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iranian cinema, with and without official sanction, continued to fructify. Younger filmmakers like Jafar Panahi, a protégé of Mr. Kiarostami’s, and Mr. Makhmalbaf’s daughter Samira came to prominence with work that was often more directly critical of Iranian social conditions than that of their precursors. The emphasis shifted from the countryside to the city, from children to women, war veterans, refugees and the poor, and formal self-consciousness was balanced by an increasingly uncompromising sense of realism.

No national cinema is easily summarized, and movies are always an imperfect window on the world. But to watch, say, “The Apple” (1998), Ms. Makhmalbaf’s first film; “The Circle” (2000), “Crimson Gold” (2003) and “Offside” (2006) by Mr. Panahi; the more tenderly sentimental films of Majid Majidi (including “The Color of Paradise” and “Baran”); and Bahman Ghobadi’s tough, poetic films about Kurdistan — and this is a very partial list — is to encounter images and stories that add depth and meaning to the raw videos and tweets of recent weeks. You see class divisions, the cruelty of the state, the oppression of women and their ways of resisting it, traditions of generosity and hospitality, and above all a passion for argument.

Posted by Orrin Judd at June 23, 2009 11:55 AM
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