Elliot Grove at Raindance asked me to say a few words about Iranian films, following the distribution of a petition protesting the imprisonment of film makers in Iran. I have felt for some years that the best films I have seen have come from Iran. Why the authorities deem these film makers a threat seems bizarre. It’s like the UK coalition locking up Mike Leigh. Yet in this paranoid and dangerous political situation, Iranian film makers seem to shine.
The films feel urgent, authentic, truly compelling- all the things we seem to have chucked out with the bathwater in the west as we go on persuading ourselves that there are answers, formulas and knitting patterns to making a great movie. There are not. Nothing compares to pure passion and the genuine need to tell a story. Here are a few films to check out-
1989: Kiarostami’s CLOSE UP. Based upon a true event- a man pretends to be the film maker Mohsen Makhmalbaf and persuades an unsuspecting family to star in his next film. This film is quite extraordinary, not least because the people it actually happened to, and the con man himself, star in Kiarostami’s film playing themselves. The film is layered and strangely humorous in the way it captures the perverseness of human behaviour.
Samira Makhmalbaf, daughter of Mohsen, was only eighteen in 1998 when she made THE APPLE. Economically shot, it tells the story of two twin girls locked up in their home since birth. Again, a true story played by the people to whom this disturbing story happened.
Samira again in 2002- BLACKBOARDS. Itinerant teachers, economic migrants, traverse the mountains with blackboards on their heads hoping to find someone who will pay them to teach, all this with incoming gunfire from helicopters. Films like this startle you into realizing how other people have to live, what is required for them just to survive.
When I came out of Bahman Ghobadi’s A TIME FOR DRUNKEN HORSES I really was stunned and said- “I’ve just seen cinema. I feel I haven’t seen cinema for years and now I have again.” Shot in 2000 on the border between Iran and Iraq, it tells the harrowing story of a boy’s increasingly desperate attempts to find money to pay for his young brother’s medical treatment. If this is social realism, it is not the British kind, so susceptible to moralizing and over inflation. This film is brutally honest and caught me by the throat from start to finish. The mainly young actors were not professional and drawn from the people and area depicted in the film. I will never forget the pack horses being fed whisky by the smugglers to get them over the mountain, the austere and dangerous border terrain the boy will finally have to cross.
Back to Samira Makhmalbaf in 2008 and her brilliant TWO LEGGED HORSE. Shot in Afghanistan, the story concerns a legless boy whose father looks for someone to carry him around. The opening scene blew me away. The father is on an empty stretch of waste ground and calls out that he is looking for a good boy, a clean boy, and he will pay $1 a day… the entire landscape erupts as boys leap out of holes and surround the father, clamoring for work. There follows one of the most compelling relationships I have seen in a film as the large, simple boy knuckles down to endless humiliations as he carries the arrogant legless boy around like… a horse. There was a moment in this film where I literally could not quite believe I was seeing what I was seeing- when the legless boy physically pursues his slave down the street. The film is so cruel, so pitiless and, at other moments so tender. You have to see it!