Catfight? Or time for a new direction in Iranian cinema?

By Rasmus Christian Elling.

Saturday, when I got back from watching Bahman Ghobadi’s new movie ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’, I was excited, almost in a trance, and felt I had seen the best Iranian movie in years. Actually, last time I had this feeling was when I saw ‘The Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine’ by Bahman Farmanara, some eight years ago.

I’m no film critic or cinema expert, but in my world, ‘Persian Cats’ is nothing but a masterpiece. In a style reminiscent of Fatih Akin’s  ‘Crossing the Bridge,’ Ghobadi introduces us to the Iranian underground music scene while telling a gripping tale of two young Iranian talents who wish to go abroad, where they can express themselves freely as indie rock musicians. They are trying to assemble a band to do one last illegal show and raise funds for a tour in Europe. During their quest to find musical soul mates and get the visa- and passport-problems solved in Tehran’s underworld, we see and hear some of the best in modern Iranian music: beautiful soul and blues in underground studios, pounding hip hop beats on construction sites in the asphalt jungle of Tehran, thrashing death metal in a cow house and much more. The musical journey is interwoven with a visual journey of extremely beautiful pictures, cutting up Tehran’s urban sprawl music video style.

‘No One Knows About Persian Cats,’ which won the Jury’s Special Prize at 2009 Cannes Film Festival, shows an Iranian music scene that – not unlike Iranian cinema itself – has grown in its inhospitable environment of repression and censorship into something wild and beautiful. Something uniquely Iranian. The fearless, passionate actors on this scene are not blindly imitating the West, they are not an Iranian MTV generation. They represent an authentic declaration of love towards music across borders and boundaries, and a drive towards defining what it means to be Iranian in the 21st Century. Among its many fascinating characters, we meet Hichkas – hands down, Iran’s best rapper and my personal favorite. In contrast to the protagonists and their dreams of khârej (outside of Iran), Hichkas makes a patriotic assertion of love to the fatherland, and he rejects an invitation to go abroad. We have rock musicians who quote Persian poetry and take equal inspiration from Western rock and Iranian traditional music. The scene is homegrown, 100% Iranian and 100% underground.

That said, ‘Persian Cats’ – like so many other films – also represents a utopia: the idea, so thoroughly cultivated and romanticized by Western journalists, exile-Iranian memoir writers and fans of Tehran’s cosmopolitan youth. This is the sometimes-exaggerated dream of a wild, secular and democratic generation waiting to burst through the cement walls of Islamic theocracy and conservatism. Surely, this idea, unless balanced with a view from ‘the other side of the story’, is a fantasy based on a false dichotomy. It is a projection of ‘our’ hopes and dreams for Iran on a canvas that is, in reality, much more nuanced and complex than a battle between modernity vs. tradition and freedom vs. religion and art vs. censorship. All young Iranians do not share the perspective presented in ‘Persian Cats’: not all are driven by the exact same passions we see in the protagonists and not all share their views on the sublime greatness of indie rock and hip hop. Not all speak, dress and act as they do.

Nonetheless, there is enough evidence to state firmly that since the late 1990s, the Iranian underground scene has exploded. It has taken over the space in Iranian popular culture once occupied by the exile-Iranian music scene in Tehrangeles, California, with its torrent of mindless pop. Statistics also speak their clear language about brain drain, and anyone who has traveled or lived in Iran will probably agree that many young Iranians do dream of going abroad, of being able to speak up and of not fearing the authorities. This is why ‘Persian Cats’, while being part fantasy, is also part reality. It is a fictitious documentary, ‘based on a true story’, and starring many of the people who actually live this life every day. This is not a one-eyed Western glance at our heroes in the Gucci Generation. It is a reflection on a profound cultural movement. An evolution much more powerful than Mousavi, Khatami and Karroubi’s ‘reformist wave’.

‘Persian Cats’ differ greatly from other ‘festival-type’ Iranian movies in its format, language and goal. While there is an underlying, sad story of despair and desperation, well known to fans of Iranian cinema, literature and poetry, ‘Persian Cats’ differ by being… well… funny. There is humor, there is the speed-talking streetwise figure of Nader, the lovable remnant of pre-revolutionary gangster flicks in Hajj David and the fast-paced motorcycle trips through Tehran. All together, it is an experience that is miles away from, say, Abbas Kiarostami’s slow-paced, lo-fi rural realism – and even from Kiarostami’s recent attempt at upbeat urban social critique, ‘Ten‘.

So is that why Abbas Kiarostami hates ‘Persian Cats’? We may soon find out, because today Bahman Ghobadi released a shocking open letter to the Grand Man of Iranian New Wave Cinema on the net. The ruckus allegedly started when Kiarostami gave Ghobadi a scathing critique after a screening of ‘Persian Cats’ in Abu Dhabi a couple of weeks ago. Iranian media quoted Kiarostami saying ‘If Bahman Ghobadi thinks there are better circumstances for creating movies outside of Iran, I congratulate him. But for me, personally, I don’t believe in leaving Iran. The place I can sleep comfortably is my home’. He added that he had never seen anything good from those Iranians who left the country and that he would always want to create movies in his homeland and in his mother tongue. However, he might also have said much more than that, at least to Ghobadi himself, at least according to Ghobadi. Indeed, Ghobadi’s letter that surfaced today is, well, very harsh.

In it, Ghobadi states that he has always had great respect and much love for Kiarostami, and that before this, he wouldn’t even had dared to write Kiarostami a letter; but that, now, he is forced to respond:

‘It all started that damned night. The night when you grabbed my arm and pulled me aside and told me you didn’t like my movie. I wasn’t angry, but surprised. You didn’t see the movie for the first time in Abu Dhabi, but in my own home several months before. And you said you liked it’, Ghobadi begins. At the Abu Dhabi screening, however, Kiarostami instead lambasted not just Ghobadi, but also Ja‘far Panahi (Kiarostami’s former assistant director and winner of several prizes) in phrases Ghobadi had never expected from the Grand Old Man: ‘You accused me, and other filmmakers who have heard the voice of the people in the underground, in the closets, homes, streets and backstreets of our city, of lying in our films’ … ‘My dear and respected Master! I, and all film-lovers, respect your opinion on cinema. But that does not mean that we can allow you, in the manner of dictators, to tell everybody in the art world what to do, or to judge any film that is not silent, voiceless and unrelated to the troubles in society, like your own works, as worthless’.

Ghobadi continues to state that Kiarostami does not have the right to accuse and criticize filmmakers like Ghobadi for the ‘social responsibility’ they express in their films. He argues that Kiarostami’s criticism is a way for the Grand Old Man to justify his own ‘silence and conservatism’ vis-à-vis the acute problems in Iranian society: ‘In all these years, you have created films without the slightest influence from politics and society, which of course, is your right and your choice. Silence is also your right, even though if you were to open your mouth and criticize the rulers’ oppression and the chaotic conditions in society, you would still enjoy much more safety than the rest of us … The United Nations [would] stand by you. Nonetheless, as I said, staying silent is your right. What is not your right is to utter words that will become headlines in Iranian pro-government newspapers, [words that] make the regime happy. How can you allow yourself, with nasty words, to mock filmmakers who try to support the oppressed people, and worse, to state, in the language of religious dictators, what is forbidden? What has happened since we must hear these words, which we used only to hear from state officials [working with] cinema and from journalists at Kayhan, from you?’.

‘What is forbidden’ – nahi az monkar – is part of a Quranic quote used as an Islamist slogan by the Iranian state to forbid certain behavior and culture, and Kayhan is the vicious mouth-piece of Ayatollah Khamene‘i that is used to brand opposition politicians, intellectuals and artists as foreign agents, spies and sell-outs. That should give you an idea of how severe this counterattack sounds when read in its original Persian.

‘Earlier, you have stated that Iran is the best place in the world for making films’, continues Ghobadi. ‘Maybe for filmmakers such as yourself and for the kind of films that you make. But you are perfectly aware that filmmakers who are concerned with an independent and intellectual cinema, and who are concerned with Iran and Iranian society today, are suffering under military base-like conditions in the film industry. How can you claim that a country that enforces the strictest censorship on film is the best place for filmmaking in the world? In a situation where our filmmakers, one after the other, is forbidden to leave the country, and in which some of them, such as Ja‘far Panahi, lose their opportunity to partake in major, international projects due to [these restrictions], how can you – instead of defending and supporting them – reproach them for not making their films in Iran, which is, according to you, the best place to do so in the world?’

Ghobadi asks Kiarostami if he was joking? And if not, why he himself is making his next movie in Tuscany, Italy? And then Ghobadi retorts to the question of his leaving Iran: ‘I have never left the country by my own will and wish. They threw me out of my country. They closed all doors to filmmaking before me. Despite all these problems, and while you were preparing your new film in Italy, I created my last film in the heart of Tehran’.

Ghobadi indicates that Kiarostami has blamed him for making young Iranians want to leave Iran with ‘Persian Cats’, and then he returns to Kiarostami’s statement about sleeping comfortably at home: ‘How can you sleep peacefully when the whole world knows what is happening to Iran’s young people every day? How can you sleep calmly when the people of Iran can not; when they live in fear of a dark future for their children? Do you even know how it is to make a film in fear and terror and without a permit? Do you know how it is to be imprisoned due to your film’s success in Cannes, or interrogation due to things you said abroad? I have experienced all this on my own body, and that is why I cannot sleep comfortably at night like you. That is why the Iranian society is more important than film to me today. In order to help my compatriots who live in pain and injustice, I am even ready to leave the film industry and do my service to them’.

The part of the letter that really caught my attention (which has to do with my own research) was the following, in which Ghobadi relates to Kiarostami’s earlier statement about creating movies in his one’s ‘own country’ and in one’s own ‘mother tongue’. Ghobadi writes: ‘They have never forced you to silence because of your being Kurdish and your being a Sunni Muslim. But in that same country, which is also my country, they have never allowed me to make a movie in my own mother tongue [which is Kurdish], and one of their reasons for stopping my films was exactly that. Like you, I too want to make films in my own country and in my mother tongue. I am also in love with my country and my home. But all this has been taken away from me because I wouldn’t stay silent. And you have all this, paid for by not speaking up and by staying silent.’

Ghobadi finishes the letter: ‘Dear Mr. Kiarostami! In these sensitive and crucial days, whether you want it or not, whether it is right or not, the only criterion for dignity, honor and pride is to follow the people and not to follow those who oppose the people. With your statements, you have forbidden us to protest and to support the [Iranian] people at [international film] festivals, or to create films about social and political problems. The people will not forget the silence of artists. The people is the best judge of history.’

Harsh words, indeed. So is this a ‘beef’ in the industry – a catfight between two huge egos? Or is it indicative of a paradigm shift in Iranian new wave cinema? I believe it is a combination of both. Parts of Ghobadi’s letter is somewhat embarrassing, and having personally met Kiarostami and seen his films (including Ten, which certainly is not the clean, conservative and pro-regime material Ghobadi wants you to believe Kiarostami represents), I cannot help feeling that it is too much and too harsh. Of course, we do not know exactly what Kiarostami said to Ghobadi on that ‘damned night’ in Abu Dhabi. But calling Kiarostami a representative of the same stuff we read in Kayhan seems a little bit too over the edge. Blaming Kiarostami for not speaking out against the violence and repression in Iran lately is maybe not the right way to use your energy.

However, Ghobadi may also have some salient points in his implicit criticism of the Kiarostami-esque cinema: it does seem at times to lack balls. One problem is that the type of cinema Kiarostami creates, or used to create (and that Ghobadi, Panahi and several others, for that matter, have until recently created) were for many years the only type of cinema we in the West saw of Iran. A lot of exile Iranians became fed up when all we saw from their homeland were simple villagers, innocent children and handicapped people, refugees in barren mountains or desolate wastelands, never ending panoramic shots of rural landscapes and poetic meditations on ‘small things in life’. I’ve been at practically every screening of Iranian films in Denmark for the last ten years, and there were always a couple of Iranians who would get up and leave the cinema a few minutes into the films. ‘Why do they always portray Iran like this?’ would be the question. Film experts, on the other hand, would celebrate this type of cinema as unique and would tell us how the glance of an actor in a particular shot was actually a profound criticism of society, how a girls movement in another shot indicated intercourse, that Iranian film had developed its own secret language of criticism despite and because of censorship, and so on. It is my impression that many ‘ordinary’ Iranians – that is, non-film experts – really didn’t care. They wanted to see and feel the daily struggles and dramas of the homeland, and not the underacted contemplative art house stuff that so excited Western film critics.

With movies like Panahi’s 2000 ‘The Circle’, Rakhsan Bani-Etemad’s 2001 ‘Under the Skin of the City’ or Dariush Mehrjui’s 2007 ‘Santuri’ – and, as mentioned, Kiarostami’s 2002 ‘Ten’ – Iranian new wave artists of the first generation have take off the gloves, even several years before Ghobadi. Indeed, Iranian cinema has a long tradition of social critique. However, second-generation artists like Ghobadi – whose fiancée, the journalist Roxana Saberi were imprisoned on charges of espionage during this summer’s unrest in Iran – have now not only taken off the glove, but also grabbed a club, and started to hit back. He may expect others to follow suit and live up to their obligation as socially aware, critical intellectuals – like filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, touring the world as a Dalai Lama-like representative of The Green Movement or like the singer and composer Mohammad-Reza Shajarian, who has told Iranian state media not to use his music anymore after the 2009 state violence against the opposition. Or Ghobadi may expect people such as Kiarostami at least not to criticize him when he hits back at the Islamic Republic.

So, is Ghobadi right in lashing back at the Grand Old Man, so publicly and so fiercely? I’m not sure. But it is certainly a debate that will help shape the future of Iranian cinema. Now go watch ‘Nobody Knows About Persian Cats’. I love that movie!

14 Responses to Catfight? Or time for a new direction in Iranian cinema?

  1. I would never compare ghobadi with Kiarostami. Kiarostami is at the level of Godard, Fellini and Bergman.
    Godard himself once claimed that film begins with Griffith and ends with Kiarostami. one doesnt have to agree with that but the only thing ive learned so far is that when kiarostami speaks, he is usually right. Im going to see cats soon and will give this another thought.

    Kiarostami shows a real iran and thats why iranians leave the cinemas some iranians cant watch the truth. but if you see his “the report”, ” ten” and “close up” (his greateset masterpiece in my opinion) youll see that its not only village movies he does. Iranians have many complexes one has always been the villages. I think they would love if the villages disapeared. The reason that these are the films that are exported is because of their better quality, ive seen lots of shite from iran. movies trying to be urban, mostly hollywood ripoffs and simply put cliches and in short garbage.There is a documentary with omid djalili as presenter about iranian film which is excellent. The most revealing part of this is how the state has exported movies they know the west will like. These films has been exported and sent to festivals like Cannes and Venice to win. The regime has done a great job even though the censoring should be discussed.
    But if you ask me, most iranians who come to see these movies in cinemas hope to see a film with women without hejab and showing an iran which is a modern society with modern cars and etc-. They dont expect an artsy movie, really. They come just because its iranian. And for the most part, we are still a villages society and in addition a backward society. What kiarostami has always shown is the truth, his truth that in my opinion is a general one. he is brilliant because he has found an expression that is iranian but also without clishes something that one cannot always say about the exotic ghobadi

    In recent time Kiarostami has shown that he (unlike ghobadi who makes more or less classical move and so far about kurds running around in the mountains ) is so far the only director who has made avant garde movies that centers like pompidou will show. His work has become better and better over time and less and less “typical post revolutionary iranian”.

    The only thing we can criticise kiarostami for is being too good. he is so huge that some say he takes too much space, something that also is the case with Ingmar bergman in sweden and fellini. Even though both are dead!

  2. This also reminds me of how bergman was critizised. He too did not follow the “time”, he did not make a movie about the 68 uprisings, he did not a film about vietnam war or the rolling stones like godard did. Now, at least in my opinion we have understood that Bergman and tarkovsky were right and more clever than gordard (even though Godard is among top five and at least as good as bergman).
    Film is best when it transcends time and the current situation, this is something we have learned from these two and now Kiarostami. Kiarostami once said that cencorship is like rocks in river, we just flow around, by it it and the rock is gone. the cencorship will be gone one day but the films will stay.

  3. Thanks for your comments, Armin, some of which I agree with completely, some of which I don’t agree with (including the one with the regime doing a good job (despite your caveat), the one with most of ‘real’ Iran being villages and the one about Kiarostami’s movies being free of cliches).

    I hope you don’t see my piece as a comparison or match between Ghobadi and Kiarostami. That would be like comparing apples and pears. I like both directors and I find the criticism of both interesting.

    There should be room for both kinds of movies: those that transcend time and those made as reflections on particular historical epochs, including contemporary times. I think you can agree that Iran is undergoing some heavy developments right now. The question is, do artists automatically have a responsibility?

    I hope you’ll go watch ‘Persian Cats’ and give us your review! (and that you will see it without the Kiarostami-critique in mind;-)

  4. BTW, I love ‘Close Up’ as well. Damn good movie! I wish all my Kiarostami movies weren’t in VHS so I could watch them again in these DVD days…

  5. Kiarostami is a great artist and a great human being!!!

  6. Kiarostami does not need to make headlines…his movies are proof but ghobadi loves the press and journalists and writing letters and to make a fuss in the press to gain more fame…Kiarostami needs not to even answer Ghobadi!

  7. @ nona/ sara: I agree with you!

    BTW: Here is a related news piece on the ‘political responsibility’ discussion:

    http://www.google.com/hostednews/ap/article/ALeqM5iVxTz371a7cTn_cdlH1uhYL6Qd_AD9BVCO780

  8. Rasmus, did you translate Ghobadi’s letter yourself or there’s a translation somewhere? Thank you

  9. @ André: This is my own translation. I haven’t seen the letter in English.

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  11. Interesting read, interesting points. Cinema eventually is a subjective medium ie a film is created by its maker from his point of view. The “Reality” you write about won’t be represented as it’s happening in the real world and as it’s perceived by ones being on the scene. Cinema is the representation of pieces and parts of reality put together by an individual. A directors tries to make his own “Truth” by representing that partial reality. And we perceive our own truth which is not necessarily always the same as the director’s. In this view Kiarostami’s films are not the “General Truth” about Iran and Ghobadi’s kids are not the representation of all the other youth in Iran.

  12. It always makes me happy to see that the discussions around iranian cinema is growing. but, I wish that you had seen some other new Iranain films of the last year which would have given you a better clue to where the new Iranian cinema is leading to: My Tehran For Sale, Bassiji, Tehroun, Not an Illusion, and Firekeeper. these are the new Iranian talents that are passing through the older style Iranian cinema with new filmic language and sense. Interestingly, Ghobadi has literally copied Tehran for Sale and Not an Illusion into the making of his film: some actors, most ideas and locations, the cinematography and motifs are all stolen from other younger (and female !) directors who cannot turn to anyone or organisation to defend their artistic rights….this is another side of the underground world and cinema, that a more famous underground steals and bullies the younger outlaws!!! and very few people notice or care because simply most critics these days go for the fame of the filmmaker not the truth!
    good luck

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