Between reality and fiction
Iranian documentary cinema
By Persheng Vaziri
August 27, 2003
Iranian cinema has made its name in the world with the poetic simplicity
that marks the work of filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami. Shot entirely
on location, his films have used non-actors to tell stories drawn
from real events. Kiarostami's great work Close Up (1990)
follows the true story of a man drawn by temptations of fame to
impersonate the renowned Iranian director, Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
by critics around the world as one of the best films in recent
history, Close Up crosses the border between the fictional and
the real. Real people play themselves -- even Makhmalbaf appears
in this reflective re-enactment that reveals a simple man's
dream of being loved.
Iran's long history of repression has blurred the
line in artistic production between reality and fiction: true and
stories, fact and myth are easily interchangeable to fit circumstances
and appease authorities. The landmark documentary The Night
When It Rained (1973), by veteran filmmaker Kamran Shirdel, makes us
suspect that reality cannot be grasped. Shirdel investigates a
news story of a young boy who heroically saves a train from near
Upon closer observation, witnesses give contradictory
versions of event, and the truth remains elusive. Each person involved
in the incident tells the version befitting his position in the
hierarchy of power in Iran in the time of the Shah, when pomp and
self-aggrandizement were the norm. In the end, the contradictions
make us doubt if the boy ever saved the train, or even if there
was a train at all, holding up a mirror to the absurdity of official
Until recently, Iranian documentary filmmaking had
stagnated under the Islamic government. Officials regarded the
recording of "reality," especially
anything dealing with social issues, with suspicion. During the
initial period of revolutionary zeal and then the war with Iraq,
social and cultural critique was effectively suppressed. Government
organizations like the cinema office of the Ministry of Culture,
which has been supportive of feature films, did not support documentary
The conservative management of the state-owned
television networks only funds documentaries that serve the state's
conservative political interests, such as retrospectives on the
Iran-Iraq war and a few benign series on the rural cultures of
Documentaries on political or social subjects relevant
to contemporary Iranian society were almost completely absent.
on this state of affairs, veteran filmmaker Ebrahim Mokhtari paraphrased
a South American colleague: "We are a society without a family
Since 1999, the trend toward marginalizing documentaries
has slowly been reversed. 2001 was a banner year for small, independently
produced documentary films tackling various social issues and
everyday life -- everything from Afghanistan to women and youth
Documentaries partly benefited from the same guarded
political opening that has enabled Iranian feature films to become
in recent years. Under the leadership of President Mohammad Khatami
and his reformist cabinet, namely the courageous Minister of
Culture Attaollah Mohajerani (since resigned), the strictures on
of expression have loosened.
It is much easier today to obtain
production permits and to find limited screening facilities
for documentary films. Economically, the digital revolution has
high-quality, low-cost filming and editing widely accessible,
especially to younger filmmakers who otherwise would face difficulties.
But lack of funding and sufficient exhibition space
are still major problems for documentary filmmakers. The 136-member
Society of Iranian Documentary Filmmakers, now [five-years old],
to negotiate for more rights and aid from the government, which
reactivated an office of documentary cinema. The office promises
a budget for production and archiving of documentary films.
The newer Association of Documentary Film Producers
has formed to
address independent productions. They organize a popular weekly
of documentaries in an attractively designed art house. In
the last couple of years, several festivals have started exhibiting
independent documentary films.
Some, like the annual Kish
Documentary Festival on the island of Kish, headed by director
and the Forough Film Festival of women's films, are independently
run. Iranian documentaries are now widely exhibited in
festivals around the world.
Shirdel said that in 2002 record numbers of films
were submitted to the Kish Festival. First or second efforts by
accounted for the majority of the submissions. In 2002 at Kish,
prizes went to Orod Attaian's film Parnian, a sensitive film
about a man who grapples with his wife's illness and to Tabaki,
by Bahman Kiarostami (son of the famous filmmaker), a humorous
look at religious serenaders in mourning rituals who help bring
tears to the eyes of the devout.
Another film that has recently
attracted much attention is Rakhshan Bani Etemad's Roozegare
Ma (Our Age) on the June 2001 presidential elections. The
film focuses on one of several ordinary women who tried to run
(none qualified to appear on the ballot), seeking to learn what
made these women aim for such an unattainable goal.
protagonist is a tragic character, a poor, single mother who,
herself for office, desperately struggles to locate housing
for herself and her child. Our Age painfully illuminates
her difficult circumstances and her lofty dreams, despite it all.
The Forough Festival of women's films, in its third
year, attracted entries from numerous women filmmakers. First prize
to Mona Zahed's film about her trip to Afghanistan after
September 11 to inquire into the condition of women.
As documentaries flourish, even conservative Iranian
television has begun to broadcast a weekly series dedicated to
cinema and its filmmakers, produced by a Society of Iranian Documentary
Filmmakers member. This series could lead to wider public education
and demand for documentaries.
There has also been a breakthrough
in public exhibition: Our Age will be one of the first documentary
films in Iran to be transferred from video to film and run
in a local theater. Abbas Kiarostami's video documentary about
AIDS, ABC Africa, set in Uganda, has just ended a limited showing
in an art house.
Buoyed by the
international success of Iranian cinema, availability of digital
cameras and a reformist government, documentary
are following the path of the Iranian journalists who in the last
five years led the resurgence of discussion of social and political
issues in newspapers.
Even if the conservative branches of the
government did shut down many of these papers, the spirit of
free expression is still strong in Iran. Now documentary filmmakers
are taking up their cameras like pens, observing and recording
the world around them, and testing the limits of what is allowed.
these gains, controversial films in today's Iran still encounter
the censor. Nasser Saffarian's first documentary,
The Green Cold, about Forough Farrokhzad, the legendary, forward-thinking
iconoclast woman poet who died in the 1960s, proved to have tremendous
box office appeal in its first festival screenings.
Forough was a woman with an adventurous lifestyle and a love
life that offended conservative criteria for the "decent" Muslim
woman, her story is controversial subject matter. The Green
Cold has not enjoyed a run in theaters. The Ministry of Culture's
Rating Office banned the film for some time, but now the videotapes
are widely distributed.
In Iran's continuous struggle between what conservative clergy
want to allow and what the public desires to disseminate and to
express, documentary films are the latest tool used by artists
and journalists to expand the limits of free expression.
Persheng Vaziri is a documentary filmmaker
who resides in Tehran and New York. Her last film is "Women Like
Us". This article was first
printed in Middle East Report (Winter 2003).
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