Abbas Kiarostami was philosophical about the whole mess. U.S. officials had just denied the world-renowned filmmaker -- and "axis of evil" Iranian citizen -- a visa to attend last fall's New York Film Festival. "I certainly do not deserve an entry visa any more than the aged mother hoping to visit her children in the U.S., perhaps for the last time in her life," he responded in a letter to the festival director. "[A]s a privileged person with access to the means of public expression and media, I feel profoundly responsible for the tragic state of the world."
Iranian Kurdish filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi was less understanding. Just one month after the Kiarostami fiasco, Ghobadi was refused entrance to the United States, where he was to receive an award at the Chicago Film Festival. The director forwarded his prize to the White House in protest.
The situation plays like something out of an Iranian art film -- all thwarted journeys, missed connections, poetic resignation and Sisyphean resistance. It's also a true story, something Iranian directors are increasingly drawing inspiration from these days. Although the country's filmmakers have long toyed with the line between fiction and reality, their 2003 offerings feel more like documentaries than feature films, turning a keen eye on the second-class status of women, the plight of Kurds after the Gulf War and the frustrations of waiting for reform under Iran's turbaned religious leaders.
The irony of the visa refusals was especially sharp considering that Kiarostami's Ten, Ghobadi's Marooned in Iraq and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's Under the Skin of the City deliver the very criticisms one might think the U.S. administration would be eager to hear -- particularly from an Iranian people whose struggle for democracy our president claims to support. But absurd adversity is familiar to Iran's directors, who also routinely cope with the cut scenes, script wrangling and even jail time that can result from their government's censorship policies.
Perhaps these daunting obstacles have helped charge Iran's films with the urgency that can turn movies into testament -- bearing witness on Iranian life, but also on the universal struggles against family dissolution, the shattering consequences of war. With the half-mad, half-idealistic persistence of their characters, Iranian filmmakers seem to insist they can brook all of it -- the political oppression of their homeland, the hostile policies of the United States, the bristling years of acrimony between our two countries -- with nothing but a scroll of moving pictures.
Iranian films were political long before they became the darlings of the Western film-festival circuit. Beginning in 1969, the dark-hued movies of the "Iranian new wave" documented the terrors of the U.S.-backed shah regime -- until the 1979 Islamic Revolution dealt the "un-Islamic" industry a severe blow by purging directors and shuttering countless theaters. Luckily the setback was only temporary. In 1983, Minster of Culture and Islamic Guidance Mohammad Khatami (now Iran's president) and a group of filmmakers were allowed to kick-start the film sector. Hampered as they were by censorship rules -- women characters must wear Islamic dress even in their homes, actors of the opposite sex who aren't married in real life can't touch each other -- many filmmakers focused on children, depicting them with a tenderness that drew comparisons to films produced by the Italian neorealists or Indian great Satyajit Ray.
By the mid-1990s, a Brechtian sensibility had seized Iranian cinema: Directors were breaking the frame by appearing in their own films, making movies within movies and using nonactors in autobiographical roles. Mohsen Makhmalbaf drew inspiration from his own past -- as a teenage activist, he had knifed a policeman in a fit of revolutionary fervor. The resulting A Moment of Innocence is mind-boggling, a pseudo-documentary about the filming of a "movie" based on the attack. Both he and his former victim (who showed up at a casting call for another Makhmalbaf film) star -- a director and an "assistant director" of sorts who script and cast a re-creation of their earlier life-altering encounter.
Underneath the children-driven and self-reflexive films still beats a fiercely political heart, though. The White Balloon, for example, written by Kiarostami and directed by Jafar Panahi, follows the indefatigably whiny 7-year-old Razieh (played by Aida Mohammadkhani, with lungs like bagpipes) on her quest to find a fat goldfish for New Year's. It seems a simple enough tale, but it hints at darker things such as child abuse and the plight of Iran's numerous Afghan refugees: Razieh's brother riles their father and later shows up with a bruised face; an Afghan teen has nowhere to go on the holiday. In Innocence, the now-reformist Makhmalbaf seems to be making a statement about the ruinous result of combining revolutionary ends with bloody means. While rehearsing the crucial knifing scene of his "movie" reenactment, he bellows at the quavery teen playing the young "Makhmalbaf," "You say you want to make the world better? Then you have to stab. Stab!"
All that said, this year's Ten, Marooned in Iraq and Under the Skin of the City have upped the political ante. Khatami has brought Iranians more social freedoms -- and directors more artistic license -- but the promise of substantive reform has gone sour, with skyrocketing unemployment and inflation rates spreading a societal disillusionment also reflected in film. Hall-of-mirrors techniques suggest the futility of the medium; the movie children who haven't been packed off to bed now either harangue their parents or fall into trouble. There's no moppet cuteness here, especially not in Kiarostami's Ten, where a furious little boy named Amin (Amin Maher) calls his mother a "stupid cow" for divorcing his father, remarrying and spending too much time on her career. He's all pint-sized rage and gesticulating paws, mouthing words more apt for a hard-line mullah on a particularly dyspeptic day.
After he and his mother (Mania Akbari) careen through Tehran in her car, both screaming all the way, Amin's huffing exit ends the opening sequence. His elegant mother will have nine more auto-bound conversations -- a few more with her son before moving on to her sister, a devout old woman, a cackling prostitute and a young woman dreaming of marriage.
At first glance, it seems as though Kiarostami has attempted to map out the female experience of living under Iranian patriarchy. His actors certainly cover many of the flash points -- discriminatory divorce laws, faith, abortion, sex without love, and the line between a woman's self-fulfillment and selfishness, as Amin calls it. But the movie is also grounded in one woman's life. A road trip into her psyche, the film depicts the funny, boring and revelatory moments of the everyday, which save it from any didactic posturing.
Ghobadi's film is a more conventional road movie than Ten, but it covers as much political ground. Marooned in Iraq traces the quest of aging Iranian Kurdish musician Mirza (Shahab Ebrahimi) as he tries to find the wife who left him years ago. As he and his two irascible sons travel toward an Iraqi Kurdistan -- which is devastated by Saddam Hussein's retaliatory post-Gulf War gassings and bombings -- they bellow so loudly at each other the subtitles should be in ALL CAPS. The slapstick comedy softens us up for the inevitable darkness, and when it comes, the sight of mass graves and keening women -- filmed in Iraqi Kurdistan, without permission -- takes full, horrifying effect.
As with Kiarostami's Ten, the audience gets a bit of a lecture with its movie popcorn. But again, the characters are so convincing that the lesson goes down with surprising ease. Feminist documentarian Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's feature film, Under the Skin of the City, substitutes working-class Tehran for Kurdistan but keeps the same formula: social critique fueled with humor and sympathetic characters. Our heroine is Tuba (Golab Adineh), a fierce matriarch fighting to protect her family and neighbors from a roster of social ills, including domestic abuse, teen prostitution and homelessness.
Even with an overstuffed feel and the occasional creaky plot machinations of melodrama, Under the Skin of the City truly gets under the viewer's skin. After watching this somehow familiar family bicker, put ketchup on pizza and do laundry, we become inextricably involved, try to push its members into a better life by dint of crossed fingers and silent admonishments. And when the tragic denouement comes, we can only watch with despair -- and a grim admiration for Tuba's strength.
Yes, strength. Bani-Etemad ends her film on a defiant note, as do Ghobadi and Kiarostami, who affirms his characters' resilience, their rituals of everyday life. Ghobadi closes Marooned with a lone figure carrying a precious burden over a snarl of barbed wire, soldiering past hostile borders and nearly insurmountable odds -- an image reminiscent of the struggle of Iranian directors, whose artistic urgency pushes them to forge onward, regardless of censorship or visa denials.
And Bani-Etemad's Tuba? She becomes the incarnation of a political awakening. Bani-Etemad frames the movie with scenes of a documentary film crew interviewing Tuba on upcoming parliamentary elections. In the opening sequence, Tuba answers the crew's questions with nervous, vague platitudes. At film's end, the team interviews her again, but Tuba has been transformed by her ordeal -- she delivers a fiery, eloquent speech about her shattered family. But the video team has technical difficulties and fails to record her impassioned words. She cries out in response, "I wish somebody would film what's going on right in here!" stabbing at her heart. "Who do you show these films to, anyway?"
Lucky for Tuba that Bani-Etemad and her colleagues have devoted themselves to producing just that kind of work -- films that have made political injustice fiercely personal, that not only offer unforgettable truths about life in Iran but also illuminate lives thousands of miles away. And there Tuba has her answer: If we stop standing in their way, Iranian directors will show their films to the whole world.