With names like Abbas Kierostami, Jafar Panahi, Asghar Farhadi commonplace on the lips of film buffs, contemporary Iranian cinema has seen its share of groundbreaking works. They not only advance the medium in uniquely technical and narrative terms, but give alternative and eye-opening glimpses into the culture and politics of a country and people commonly stereotyped in western mass media through an aggravatingly narrow scope. The draconian religious and political strangleholds the country’s autocratic rulers place on their artists’ freedom to openly depict the various injustices that surround them on a daily basis is an upsetting state of affairs indeed. But the Iranian filmmakers’ ingenuity and creativity in finding ways around such restrictions, turning them into narrative and thematic devices instead of avoiding them—Jafar Panahi’s meta-satires This is Not a Film and Taxi Tehran, for example—has led to work both culturally specific and universally relatable.
In order to bring lesser-known examples of recent Iranian cinema to American film lovers, Iranian film studio Daricheh Cinema recently hosted the 1st New York Iranian Film Festival. Held between January 10th and 15th at NYC’s IFC Center, the festival connected 10 features with New York film buffs. There were some heavy hitters and classic works from renowned Iranian directors, such as Panahi’s recent Cannes hit, 3 Faces, and a retrospective screening of the 1979 Iranian New Wave classic, Tall Shadows of the Wind. At the end of the festival, Best Film was given to Sheeple, while Hendi & Hormoz went home with the Special Jury Award. Here is a look at five of the films featured at the 1st New York Iranian Film Festival.
Robert Altman’s The Player gets a gruesome and hilariously absurdist horror-comedy treatment in the form of writer-director Mani Haghighi’s film industry satire/serial killer hybrid of a twisted morality tale. A vicious killer is decapitating the most prominent Iranian film directors, leaving only their heads as evidence, and the number one grievance on narcissistic, pompous and abrasive director Hasan Kasmai’s (Hasan Majuni) mind is why he still is not the killer’s target. Is he not an important enough name in Iranian cinema to warrant his head being chopped off? First and foremost, Pig shows that Hollywood does not have a monopoly on a film industry that’s full of insecure, toxically self-serving, pretentious globs of unfiltered neuroses. The murder mystery is used as a clever back door into exposing Hasan and his entourage of stalkers, career fuck-ups, and all around creeps—“artists” who pretend to tell the stories of the common man, but are too enamored with themselves to care about anyone else—as monumental frauds. Just like The Player, Pig is a hell of a lot more interesting when it’s a full-on satire and steers away from actually deconstructing the murder plot. But even when that plot takes over a bit too much during the third act, Haghighi keeps things lively with a tongue-in-cheek surrealist touch. I didn’t know I needed a Farsi cover of AC/DC’s “Hell’s Bells” played on a neon tennis racket, but now I can’t imagine my life without it. Pig is perfect fodder for those who have an image of Iranian cinema as nothing more than melodramatic art-house borefests.
Director Bahman Farmanara got center stage in the festival with the screenings of three of his features, the aforementioned Tall Shadows of the Wind, his latest, Tale of the Sea, and this pleasant 2015 oddity. I Want To Dance, about a depressed writer (Reza Kianian) crashing through his writer’s block thanks to a mysterious upbeat tune literally playing inside his head, forcing him to break into joyous dancing at any random location and time, was bafflingly banned by the Iranian government until now. Sure, there’s the slight theme of how Iranian culture and politics crack down on genuine displays of joy in fears that it will result in “disruptive” behavior, but Farmanara’s delicate focus is on how people can take in their sorrow with some grace and humility, and perhaps come out the other hand with renewed perspective on life. The writer’s son (Mohammed Reza Golzar) and daughter-in-law (Behnaz Jafari) are also suffering from depression and struggle to keep it at bay in their own ways. Even though the writer’s bizarre condition drags him out of his funk, it also helps him become more aware of how different methods work for different people. It’s a bit languidly paced for a comedy, but I Want to Dance oozes with charm and humanity, especially during an impromptu old-Hollywood-meets-Iranian-folk musical number that’s sure to put a smile on everyone’s face.
With this delicate and non-judgmental drama centered on an underage couple, the 16-year-old Hormoz (Hamed Alipour) and his 13-year-old wife Hendi (Zohreh Eslami)—yes, you read those numbers right—director Abbas Amini successfully captures an even-handed, borderline neorealist tone with his second feature. A somber dissection of rural Iranian culture that expects children to fast track themselves into the harsh reality of adulthood without proper guidance and empathy, Hendi & Hormoz works best when the camera is the proverbial fly on the wall, flatly showing the audience Hormoz’s struggle to find employment and Hendi’s yearning to finish school despite everyone around her decrying the uselessness of her education since she’s now married and apparently doesn’t have much else to give to society. The third act unwisely relishes in some unnecessarily melodramatic moves in order to jerk some tears from the audience, but the gorgeous 2:35:1 aspect ratio cinematography, taking full advantage of empty spaces to accentuate the protagonists’ isolation, as well as vistas covered in crimson sand that permeates the town’s beaches, gets us through.
This energetic, “sly,” yet uneven political satire about a far-right Islamist political candidate (Hamed Behdad) being confused for a progressive, giving him the idea to corrupt the liberal party from the inside, is a confusing choice to bring to American film lovers who might not be privy to the ins and outs of Iranian political history. Director Kamal Tabrizi’s sometimes sketch comedy-level-broad protagonist is supposed to be a slight take on the rise of Iranian ex-president and colossal asswipe Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to power. I’m sure the Iranian audience who spent years on the Ahmadinejad spin machine had a lot of chuckles out of the various inside references, but I suspect that the general foreign audience might eventually be lost in the convoluted plot. The vaudeville-style, on-the-nose score, and some unwisely implemented slapstick also don’t help the film’s case. However, it gets one thing painfully right: The fact that a lot of politicians get into the game in order to satisfy personal insecurities and shortcomings, as opposed to a genuine need to better their society.
No, this isn’t a documentary on internet commenters who think they’re super-duper clever. Instead, writer/director Houman Seyyedi’s raw, harrowing, gut punch of a crime drama ruthlessly explores how a constant perpetuation of toxic masculinity through societal norms and religious dogma can turn into tragic violence when mixed with an explosive amount of male insecurity and tribal thinking. Navid Mohammadzadeh gives a hypnotically dedicated performance as Shahin, the few-falafels-short-of-a-picnic adopted brother of a drug kingpin (Farhad Aslani). Even though he’s completely lost without his brother, Shahin struggles to find his place within his brother’s criminal enterprise, a yearning that results in some horrific tragedy for the family, including an honor killing (one of the most viscerally upsetting sequences I’ve seen in a while, and I sat through the birth scene in Roma). Left to his own devices after his family is torn apart by arrests related to drugs and the honor killing, Shahin quickly circles the drain as he futilely tries to fulfill the role society has placed on him as a Muslim man, the top of the hierarchical food chain. Sheeple is full of anger and disdain for the uncompromising world its characters inhabit, while reflecting a surprising amount of empathy on its vastly imperfect characters. Even though the melancholic score sometimes undermines its in-your-face energy, Sheeple is bound to be a genre staple for Iran down the line.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a screenwriter, script coach and film critic. He lives near Portland, Ore., with his wife, daughter, and two King Charles Spaniels.