Whether it was intended or not, this year’s Persian Film Festival* now on in Sydney (until September 1) is very well timed. In Iran, a national election that marks the end of the Ahmedinejad era has returned a nominally more liberal President in Hassan Rouhani. At the same time, the Persian/Iranian film scene is exploding world wide with both high quality fiction and documentary features scoring fans in film festivals and cinemas around the globe. It wasn’t too well timed for Iranian film expert Professor Hamid Naficy though, who was in the country just before the festival started and inexplicably perhaps was not part of it. Just as well T2T tracked him down for a phone chat.
Naficy has just published a four-part history of Iranian film – A Social History of Iranian Cinema – and his knowledge of the scene, despite being ensconced in academia in the US, is second to none. And, he says of the new regime, “There should be hope. There are positive noises being made on public discourse and a language of reconciliation and openness.”
That may be easy to say, as the bar is currently set pretty low. All film directors in Iran have to gain permission to start filming. As such, the pitch has to be approved, even before an iota of dust is raised on set. Naficy says these obstacles have been reduced recently to the extent that top directors – which doesn’t necessarily mean those who are the most government-friendly – don’t need that sign-off.
Either way, it’s a difficult environment for doco makers. But, argues Naficy, directors have become brilliant at circumventing the censors. The best known example of this is Jafar Panahi’s 2011 doco feature This Is Not A Film, which details and satirises the censorship the culture in which the director became unwittingly embroiled. He smuggled his film out of the country on a flash drive and it emerged at Cannes where it was screened.
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But, regime change in this context is not entirely to the benefit of film makers. “Censorship can motivate film-makers”, says Naficy. Citing examples from the eastern bloc, he recalls “once the wall fell, and directors could make the films about anything, many didn’t know what to make them about.”
Having an easy enemy, it seems, can be good for artistic integrity.
Counter-intuitively, and in keeping with Naficy’s argument that censorship can encourage greater creativity, Iranian directors of all kinds are churning out copy. He points to a slew of underground docos that don’t have official permission and which are shown behind closed doors, often in private viewings. There are also a number of student films, particularly highlighting the burgeoning contemporary music scene in Iran, which fall into a similar unofficial category.
Despite the fact that, according to Naficy, Iranian films suffer somewhat from language and cultural gaps and don’t feature as much in international festivals as perhaps they should, many are being made with the express intention of reaching beyond Iran’s borders. And, many offer a good reflection of the country and its context.
And, he concludes, Iranian docos are as good a means as any of striking a bead on a country many in the West see as elusive and veiled, a cross between scary and confusing, as anything. So, maybe watching some choice docos might be more effective than reading The Economist to get a take on an influential and interesting country and its people.
I asked Professor Naficy for the best Iranian docos to gain the best insights into the country and its situation, issues and characters and its march, hopefully, to a more open future.
Here is his “Top 5” in no particular order:
- Seven Blind Women Film-Makers (excerpt)
- The Night it Rained (1967) (film is available on YouTube)
- This is not a Film (2012) (details)
- Article 61 (2005) (details)
- Nose Iranian Style (details)
TRAILER FOR THIS IS NOT A FILM
* Two docos were included in the festival and screened on the weekend. They were the feature film Kahrizak, Four Views (Kahrizak Chahr Negar) and the short, Tehran, the 25th Hour.