Who can believe that some time ago - to be precise in the late 1980s - in Tehran people stood for hour in 2-kilometer long queues to get in theatres and watch an Andrei Tarkovsky film!
It was two or three years after Tarkovsky’s death that his films found their way to post-revolution post-war Iran; a country that had closed its door to anything “western” for more than a decade. The International Fajr Film Festival, which was anything but international, held a retrospective of Russian master’s work and people in unbearable cold and hazy winter of Tehran waited for hours in the streets to watch Stalker or Solaris. Since then, right or wrong, these films became a definition of cinema, a yardstick for intellectualism and film knowledge. It was also around the same time and maybe a direct cause of knowing the pulse of the new generation that Babak Ahmadi wrote a book on Tarkovsky (published by Film Publications, same organization that I’ve worked with for past 8 years). In a country that people are not very amicable with reading, the book sold out and soon went for a second edition. But how and why?
After the revolution, revolutionaries started to get worried about cinema and its dangerous and uncontrollable influence on younger generations, so they closed down the whole business. They only gave a small chance to the remains of some pre-revolution directors like Mehrjoie, Kimiaie and Kiarostami and of course, a new generation of revolutionary filmmakers like Makhmalbaf and Majidi. During that time screening foreign film became almost obsolete and national TV turned into a dumping ground for the third rate eastern European and Korean films. And hopefully among so many other things, we also became deprived of watching foreign films!
When Tarkovsky films screened for the first time in Iran, actually they were first encounters with the western culture, after a long decade of silence. His films were chosen simply because of the absence of sexual contents, the clear presence of religious themes and most important of all, being “so slow” (I believe this was their last shot -- to make people tired of foreign films and give this idea that any feckless Iranian feature looks like a first rate action bravura in comparison to those art films!)
Whatever the intentions of festival organizers were, it turned Tarkovsky into an idol for many filmgoers and later, by showing his films in national TV, he found his way in Iranian small cities, too. It was so successful that next year they brought Sergei Parajanov films, and the year after that, a retrospective of Theo Angelopoulos was in demand.
All these stormy events and endless debates, caused by some of the most slowest films created ever, seems like a very long time ago. In recent years, if somebody walks in the Fjar FF theatres, especially if it's last year's festival, he or she won't see anything but completely empty seats. People of Iran have changed, for good. And it's an example of how film festivals are bound up with the overall feeling of a nation. Now, naturally, that aura has gone. There is an acces to other films and the last Film Monthly's critics poll for best films of all time is a witness to my claim. Families in Iran, along with any part of the world, have access to many kind of films, even if they are too busy with American serials (“Sex and the city,” “Lost” and “24” are a sensation here) and a 24-hour sitcom TV channel (that belongs to Rupert Murdoch) shows dubbed version of all kind of popular American, Turkish and Korean serials for Iranian audience plus countless TV channels that broadcast from Los Angeles and central Europe in Farsi.
* * *
In this new situation, my last week’s revisiting of some Tarkovsky films was a chance to rediscover his powerful imagery that now seems more effective than his thematic approaches, and enjoying pure pictorial trait of his films. Now more consciously I can face his profligacy in Ivan’s Childhood and his pompous characters in Sacrifice, and forgive these faults for the utter beauty of Andrei Rublev, Solaris and passages from Stalker.
But still he’s more than a director to most of Iranians; to some people he is a towering figure in art films, and to some other a symbol of pretentiousness and bore. He has experienced a cult status here, unknown in any other country, maybe even in his homeland.