Monday, June 9, 2014

Cinemadoosti: Documenting Iran

My short essay written as the introduction to the Open City Docs' retrospective of Iranian cinephile documentaries. The screenings will take place between June 17-22 , 2014, in various venues in London. On Saturday 21 June we are hosting a special event called Celluloid Underground, which will be chaired by me. All this is dedicated to Mahnaz Mohammadi.

For more than half a century the Iranian documentary movement has been synonymous with a cinema of boldness and revisionism, which reflects a spirit of cultural resistance in the most unexpected ways. Iranian documentary film today differentiates itself from that of the pre-revolutionary period, in employing a diversity of styles – something quite unique in the history of Iranian cinema. One can detect an almost systematic depiction of minorities and marginal figures, and the geographical focus is shifted away from Tehran to other cities and cultures across the country. Even more striking is the strong presence of women filmmakers in a male dominated industry.

Contemporary Iranian documentary filmmaking reveals a widespread urge among artists for establishing dialogues within Iranian society. The work becomes a personal diary for the filmmakers, and their dark confession room. Within a traditional society whose cinema stammers every time it comes to addressing the private world, the new documentary movement is brutally honest and open.

There is a clear determination throughout these films to reconstruct the distorted image of Iran frequently held by those outside of the country; although no compromises are made with regard to the darker aspects of life in Iran – the suppression, the censorship and the contradictions. Even those documentary films drawn from the Iranian diaspora are emotionally torn between a passion for life and the cinema, and a melancholic contemplation on migration, exile and solitude. In spite of their mixed, sometime conflicting emotional registers, these films are stylistically as consistent as a Persian rug.

This brilliant, yet deprived area of film culture is still relatively unknown inside Iran. Iranian state television, the only source of audiovisual broadcasting within the country, refuses to show documentary films by the new generation and cinemas are only booked to screen popular fictional films. Despite these obstacles, the movement is far from being defeated or weakened. The existence of documentary film in Iran is vital. It is one of the last means by which a meaningful order can be given to the fragmented images of the country scattered across virtual communities, mobile phones and kept within old family albums. The Iranian documentarian today is able to combine disparate, historical media to create a highly personal narrative, and at the same time project questions and feelings that are part of the collective unconscious of Iran in the 21st century.

Iranian documentary filmmaking offers much-needed, alternative images of Iran and reveals continual artistic innovation where there is still a resistance to certain forms of personal expression. Recalling the words by which Robert Schumann once described the music of Franz Liszt, one gains a clear understanding from the artists represented in this programme, that filmmaking for them today “is no longer a question of this or that style [but] the pure expression of a bold nature determined to conquer fate not with dangerous weapons but by peaceful means of art.”

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