TASTE OF CHERRY

CULTURE & TOURISM | FOCUS: IRAN’S FILM INDUSTRY

Iran's film industry, with iconic directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi, has been well-received in artistic circles for some years. Is the industry changing in 2019?

Iranian actresses Sareh Bayat and Sarina Farhadi (R) of the film 'Jodaeiye Nadar Az Simin' ('Nadar and Simin, A Separation') pose with their Silver Bear award for Best Actress after the awards ceremony at the 61st Berlinale International Film Festival in Berlin February February 19, 2011. REUTERS/Johannes Eisele/Pool


Iran, a country that often makes the headlines for all the wrong reasons, is not readily associated with cinema by the broader global population.

But, the more avid film geeks among us may have stumbled upon a few Iranian films over the years.

Few non-Iranians, however, may know that Iran has a long-established film industry that goes back to the 1930s.

What sets Iran's film industry apart from those of other emerging economies is that Iranian cinema is mature enough to—for instance—regard film criticism as a perfectly legitimate profession and accommodate a large number of periodicals devoted to the film industry.

Each February sees Iran's very own annual film event: The Fajr Film Festival, whose Crystal Phoenixes have marked the peaks of many artistic careers over the years.

Having a thriving film industry is not unheard of in the—so called—developing world; Bollywood, after all, is almost synonymous with India, and Nigeria's film industry has turned quite a few heads in recent years.

Meanwhile, Turkey has become a superpower in the TV industry, with its epic series broadcast all over the world.

However, although Bollywood and Turkish drama industry are greater commercial successes, the Iranian film industry fancies itself as more artistic and elitist.

Admittedly, Iran's film industry produces its fair share of crowd pleasers, too.

But, there are always films such as A Separation (2011), The Salesman (2016), and Life and a Day (2016) which portray the human condition in a setting that is decidedly neither Western nor Eastern.

It was exactly this authentic—and at times brutal—portrayal of the human condition in a non-Hollywood style that popularized films such as “Where Is the Friend's Home?" by Abbas Kiarostami in the late 1980s.

Iranian actors' and directors' artistic bent has won them a couple of Golden and Silver Bears from Berlin and Palme d'Ors from Cannes, as well as a Golden Globe and two Oscars for best foreign language film, among other awards and recognitions.

At the same time, Iran's film industry can also be a money-spinner, at least locally if not internationally. Over the years, Iranian bestsellers have managed to draw 1-1.5 million of viewers to the big screen, which is no small feat.

The alarming news, however, is that the people's taste may be changing. Films that Massoud Farassati, one of the most controversial and prominent film critics in the country, describes as “vulgar and offensive to the senses," have gained more and more ground in recent years.

These films that Farassati—a devotee of the Golden Age of cinema and a supreme admirer of Hitchcock—is talking about are often “farcical" stories of improbable love affairs—which are increasingly set in locations outside of Iran.

Salaam Mumbai (2016), for instance, was shot in India, while Los Angeles-Tehran (2018) is set in California, where the largest Iranian diaspora in the world is based.

While until a decade ago sober films with spiritual overtones such as Hamoun (1989) or the Glass Agency (1998) were popular with viewers, now escapist musicals and romantic comedies are increasingly topping the box office in Iran, giving the arty producers a run for their money.

The silver lining may be that commercially successful productions are at least keeping the industry alive, so that elitist films can still be produced from time to time.

In the grander scheme of things, the two faces of Iranian cinema may be a representation of the two extremes of the Iranian mindset which have evolved over the centuries: the solemn, philosophical aspect, which is observable in works like the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and a happy-go-lucky humorous side. The latter is emerging as dominant in recent years.