Reframing Iranian Cinema

The co-curator of an Iranian cinema season at the Barbican in London introduces a different way of speaking about the country's films.
Elhum Shakerifar

This text, generously provided by curator Elhum Shakerifar, is adapted from the introduction to a zine co-edited by Faye Harvey and published on occasion of "Poetry in Motion: Contemporary Iranian Cinema," running April 3–24, 2019 at the Barbican in London. Mitra Farahani's Fifi Howls from Happiness is showing April 8 - May 7, 2019 on MUBI in many countries around the world.

A few years ago, I attended the Tokyo International Film Festival, where a handful of Iranian films received their World Premieres. The first one I attended was by a debut director. His film told the story of a musician whose life ended suddenly, abruptly, whilst he was still in his youth. It was an unfettered reflection on the greater, unanswerable questions in life.

When the Q&A began, the first question was about a scene in which the young musician had visited a man to borrow an instrument. This man was portrayed as overweight, pictured at home on a large couch, surrounded by action film memorabilia. The question honed in on him – was this scene a commentary on Iran’s relationship with America?  

On stage, alongside the festival curator, sat the director, his two producers and composer. The director answered in Persian; his words were translated into Japanese for the audience. He said that he wanted to give a prelude to his answer, which was that he had no ill feeling towards America. That Iranians generally have no ill feelings towards America. That he has no ill feelings towards Japan. That people in Iran don’t have hatred towards others around the world. Then he went on to explain that he has simply made a film about life, death and art. The man was not a commentary on anything per se. That it was simply a film about a young artist, who had died before his talent had been shared with the world. 

I didn’t realise that I was weeping (apparently, audibly) at this response until my Japanese friend told me off for making such a big deal about some poor guy’s question. What is he to know?, she hissed. This is just how he read the film.

There were layers to my sadness – the first was actually awe, at the beauty of the director’s language. He expressed himself with such grace and dignity, that to hear him using such elegant language to dispel all possible iterations of hate paradigms left me full of sorrow. Beyond this was sadness that his very first meeting with an audience was reduced to this same narrative of political posturing, so dominant that it crushes all other understandings of Iran in its wake…

Last October, Ali Jaberansari’s laser-sharp dark comedy Tehran: City of Love received its World Premiere at the London Film Festival – where it was so popular that it quickly sold out even the two additional screenings it was given. I hosted all of the films’ Q&As and was positively unnerved by the singular audience focus on censorship: Will this be censored? How do you think it will be censored? What will you do about it? How will you alter the film? The fact that full audiences – who had laughed and loved the film – were more engaged in a possibility of censorship than in the film, and who, by focusing on this, were essentially limiting any meaningful discussion relating to it, was astonishing to me. By the third Q&A, I told Ali that I would effectively censor any questions on the topic of censorship. I’m glad to report that the result was: a brilliant half hour of questions about the film, its characters, how they had been developed, how the world of the film had been created. It was satisfying, sating. But why is it so hard to achieve?  

A Dragon Arrives!

At the 2018 Berlinale Press Conference for his most recent film, Pig, Mani Haghighi (whose fantastic A Dragon Arrives! opens this season) addressed these questions: “I can’t tell you how extremely annoying it is to be asked political questions all the time… we’ve made a piece of art. Good or bad. And we would like to discuss how we’ve done that, and what it means to you. Let’s not forget that art is supposed to be some kind of universal language to overcome the barriers that separate us… Every interview I do, it’s about – what do the reformers think of you? What do the hardliners think of you? Have you been censored? Have you not been censored? How do you deal with censorship? Fine. How many times do you need to hear this? Yes, there’s censorship in Iran. Yes, it’s difficult to live with it. And yes, we’re dealing with it, in different ways, depending on the political climate. But there is so much more to discuss. And let me ask you a question: why do you think Iranian films are supposed to be some sort of tour guide of Iran, for you? We’re not here presenting our country and telling you, come – look how victimized we are… come and help us... It’s sickening, and tiring. It’s tiresome.” 

On the point of censorship, I understand that freedom of expression is of particular importance to many people – it is to me too. If you feel strongly on the subject, I would urge you to consider looking into the work of the British Board of Film Classification (formerly Censorship), which regularly decides on what can and can’t be seen in the UK. British filmmakers could do with some of well meaning zeal to dismantle the outdated conservatism of an institution made to reflect the general public’s best interests.

It would be reductive to question whether the wit, humour and even the metaphors of the films in this season have taken shape because of censorship or in spite of it. In short, consider this season a PROVOCATION. We have brought together a wonderful selection of filmmakers and would love to reflect on their art. I have always thought that if anything was to be a cited as a key to Iranian cinema, the obvious answer would be poetry, because of its privileged place in Persian culture, hearts and minds. Hence this season’s framing. 

My personal love of the written word was fully indulged during my university years, when I studied Persian language and literature. Though today I work predominantly with moving image, poetry finds its way into the frame in myriad ways. I have also been a bridge translator of poetry, from Persian to English, working with wonderful poets Azita Ghahreman and Maura Dooley over many years – and through this work, have often reflected on the act of translation. In the introduction to Negative of a Group Photograph (2018, Bloodaxe Books), I wrote “The Persian language is expressive, sometimes overwhelmingly so, prone to extremes of emotion, words often loaded with meaning. On the other hand, the English language tends to be descriptive, informative. It is a language of exactitude, whilst Persian is surely a language of in between. Yet to convey a sense of ambivalence in an English translation could be misread, or confuse – might bring into question the translation, rather than to indicate the vastness of variables in the original. There is no easy transition from one to the other.”

As curators, we are also acting as bridges. My co-curator Faye Harvey and I have created a zine to accompany the season, which will be given to ticket holders, in order to further reflect on the films we’re presenting in the season, but also to find playful ways to bring poetry and cinema into play more literally. For instance, Braving The Waves by Mina Keshavarz stood out in part for the narration of its central character, Roghiyeh, which carries us through the film. In attempt to bring to an English language audience closer to the wonderful imagery and lyricism, we commissioned original poetry from three outstanding poets – Amy Key, Martha Sprackland and Will Harris – providing them with literal translations of the narration, from which they have each written new work.  

Poetry is the frame of our season but like all things – there is no rule as to how it manifests. For some filmmakers, poetry is one of the many things carried in the baggage of a lifetime and becomes a tenet buried deep in the structural fabric of their films. The season will also be the space of some unexpected detours – including into the world of painting, through the work of Hana Louise Shahnavaz, who sources and mixes her own paint, and who has travelled extensively throughout Iran in search of colour like the searing red of Hormoz island, which is explored in both Hendi and Hormoz, and Janbal. It is also the subject of Mitra Farahani’s Fifi Howls From Happiness through the frame of veteran painter, Bahman Mohassess, who, at the end of his life, questions art and the value of his work… whimsically remembering his career and his friendships, including with the poet Nima Youshij who he quotes throughout the film. Framing it all is the season’s striking poster, designed by Tehran based graphic designer Homa Delvaray. Naturally (and unprompted, I should add) she responded to the brief by drawing from poetry – using both formal and conceptual elements of contemporary Iranian poetry.   

Positioning cinema as a unique space for discovery and discussion, we hope that this season – a commission of the Bagri Foundation – will be the opportunity to experience work by a new generation of Iranian filmmakers, and to delve into the layers that make up their work. Iranian culture is imbued by rich, diverse traditions and by a love of storytelling, which has marked Iranian cinema more distinctly than is ever celebrated. By framing a diverse selection of new voices through the evergreen language poetry, we invite reflection and nuance, as well as a celebration of storytelling in its many guises through the zine, and the live elements accompanying screenings. In Persian poet Sohrab Sepehri’s (1928 – 1980) prescient words, we invite you to “wash [your] eyes, and see things differently”.

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Ali JaberansariMani HaghighiMina KeshavarzMitra Farahani
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