04 March 2004

Iranian Films Warmly Received in American Theaters

Wave of Persian cinema educates American audiences about Iran

By Kathryn Schmidt
Washington File Special Correspondent

Washington -- When the award-winning Iranian film, "Crimson Gold" premiered in Washington, D.C. last month, the scene was familiar: a crowd of stylish Americans lined up at a modern theater to view an exciting crime thriller. What was not so run-of-the-mill was the film itself. Based on true events, with the dialogue Farsi with English subtitles, the film is educating Americans about Iranian society and universal urban alienation and inequality.

Directed by the well-known Iranian Director Jafar Panahi, and written by Director Abbas Kiarostami, "Crimson Gold" is part of the growing trend of Iranian films making their way into American theaters. "Crimson Gold" is the story of Hussein, a pizza deliveryman who is driven to a shocking act of violence after suffering one humiliation after another in his thankless job delivering pizzas to Tehran's richest neighborhoods.

Panahi and Kiarostami created the film after learning of a horrible crime that took place in Tehran when a man robbing a jewelry store got trapped by a security system, and killed the store's manager and then himself. Panahi says he "became obsessed with the story" asking himself, "what could push a person to such an extreme?" His obsession turned into a screenplay, tracing the incidents leading up to the horrific scene, and discovering how and why such a desperate thing could occur.

Hussein, the main character in "Crimson Gold," is played by Hussein Emadeddin, a real-life pizza deliveryman who suffers from schizophrenia. Panahi says he prefers to use a non-professional cast in his films, because he believes "the use of known actors kills believability" in his kind of filmmaking. Panahi uses Hussein's job as a delivery driver to move inside houses and behind closed doors to reveal places rarely seen by western audiences.

The film, opening with the scene grisly murder-suicide of the jewelry store manager and Hussein, retraces Hussein's steps leading up to this act of desperation. What follows is a series of encounters Hussein has with people as he delivers his pizzas. Each encounter humiliates Hussein to the point at the end when he is so defeated he is driven to violence.

Panahi says he hopes that the film will underscore the ever-widening gap between the rich and the poor not only in Iran, but universally. "Inequality exists in every country in the world. But a certain point can be reached ... there is no middle class anymore, because of wrong political decisions or economical problems ... That causes violence and aggravation. And the various people who are struggling with the problem react differently." In the case of Hussein, the desperation drove him to murder and suicide.

Director Panahi explains that as a social filmmaker "he responds to whatever is happening in ... social life." He says, "Because the Iranian government is based on religion, any relationship between boys and girls -- if they are not married, if they're dancing together at a party -- is a crime." A scene in Crimson Gold illustrates this fact so that viewers will know about the types of injustices happening every day in Iran.

On a larger scale, "Crimson Gold" allows Westerners to see a different Iran from the one they see on the news. The audience is ushered into Tehran's tony neighborhoods and the wealthiest of homes -- in direct contrast to the familiar fist-shaking protesters seen on American news. Panahi says exposure to both extremes, the poor downtrodden life of Hussein juxtaposed with the lavish homes he visits on his deliveries, is there to emphasize the two class extremes. The wealthy characters in the film do not "even compare to the really wealthy people in Iran," he says.

A Cannes film festival award winner, "Crimson Gold" is only one of many Iranian films garnering attention in the United States recently. In the past few years several films have received awards at independent film festivals, and have developed a considerable following in mainstream America.

Some movie critics credit Panahi's "White Balloon," a 1996 comedy about a little girl trying to buy a goldfish, as being the springboard for interest in Iranian films. Within the next year Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry," a dark film about a man contemplating suicide, received an award at the Cannes Film Festival. By 1998, Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven" became the first Iranian movie to be nominated for an Oscar (for best foreign language film). Today, Iranian films are regular attractions on the U.S. art house, film festival and museum circuits.

Surprisingly, American interest in films from Iran is much greater than films from other foreign countries. Americans seem to have embraced these films because they portray Iranians as real people with families, hopes and dreams. These films also convey the challenges the Iranian society faces today as its people yearn for freedom, yet live under a repressive regime. This conflict is not often addressed in mainstream media.

The political implications of Iranian films are across-the-board. Americans viewing a provocative film like "Crimson Gold" for the first time have to wonder how such a film is developed under such tight government scrutiny. Ironically, Ayatollah Khomeini is partly responsible for it. In 1979, upon his return to Iran, the Ayatollah gave his blessing for the continuation of cinema in Iran. Meanwhile, hard-line Islamists were fighting for the abolition of Iranian cinema by burning theaters across the country.

In response to hard-liners, and as a result of Khomeini's benign vision for Iranian cinema, in the early ‘80s progressives in the government launched a plan to revive the film industry and support moviemakers in making artistically worthy films for the whole world to see. The result was a surge in interesting and artistically worthwhile films still flourishing today.

In recent years, several Iranian films are making their way around the United States. In fall, 2002 director Kiarostami debuted his film, "Ten" at the New York Film Festival, and last year "Marooned in Iraq" (originally titled "Songs From My Homeland") joined the art house circuit. "Women's Prison" made its debut at a festival in San Francisco and at the Tribeca Film Festival in New York.

While these Iranian films are touring the United States and wooing new fans at every turn, they have met with very different fates in their home country of Iran. Those films that have the most dubious prospects in Iran, paradoxically have the most success in the United States. Directors in recent years have begun to address Iran's social problems such as prostitution, prejudice, drug abuse, and discrimination against women in films, which have difficulty in gaining the approval of Iranian censors. Those same films are the award-winners in the United States.

As director Panahi explains, we "never say what is wrong or right [in a film] ... we just show the problems. And it is up to the audience to decide what's wrong or right." He does not take into account what censors may or may not like.

"When I want to make a movie, I'll do anything it takes. And that's not what government officials like. And the pleasure is much greater," he said.

For American audiences the pleasure is theirs.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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