A Taste of Kiarostami

By McGavin, Patrick Z. | The Nation, October 6, 1997 | Go to article overview

A Taste of Kiarostami


McGavin, Patrick Z., The Nation


This decade's most significant films have been made in China and Iran. While in the fifties and sixties, Eastern bloc countries such as Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia produced directors who brilliantly used allegory and parable to document their rigid political and social disfranchisement, with political freedom these national cinemas have suffered from increasing cultural insignificance. In the eighties and nineties, Asian cinema filled the vacuum with ground-breaking directors from China (Zhang Yimou, Chen Kaige, Tian Zhuangzhuang), Taiwan (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang) and Hong Kong (Wong Kar-Wai, Tsui Hark, Stanley Kwan) who opened up new possibilities of style and content and enlarged our perceptions about their cultures. They have energized the look, feel and texture of international cinema and dominated top prizes awarded at leading film festivals. In the process they have paid a considerable price for their independence and daring.

The problem is especially acute in China, where the leading "Fifth Generation" (post-Cultural Revolution directors Zhang, Chen and Tian) have had several of their films banned outright. In Hong Kong the film industry is In a collective panic, a palpable unease about the creative consequences of Chinese rule and the feared loss of independence and control.

Iranian filmmakers, however, are quietly ecstatic about the election in May of President Mohammed Khatami, who received about 70 percent of the nearly 25 million ballots cast. Khatami's post-election comments supporting tolerance and the easing of government censorship, his plea for a diversity of attitudes and his promise to create a government "countering superstition and fanaticism" have gained wide support within Iran's intellectual communities.

Khatami wielded considerable power as the director of the Ministry of Culture from 1983 to 1993, the period when Iran emerged as a leading film power. During his tenure, relaxed government restrictions and funding of the intensely personal and highly charged films of directors Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and pioneering women such as Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Pouran Derakhshandeh galvanized the industry. Khatami was ultimately ousted for his liberal agenda.

By the time of Khatami's dismissal, Iranian cinema had already penetrated foreign consciousness. In 1992 the Toronto International Film Festival programmed the first extensive overview of postrevolutionary Iranian filmmaking. Three years later Kiarostami's Through the Olive Trees was the first Iranian feature distributed in the United States. Jafar Panahi's 1995 The White Balloon (written by Kiarostami) was named the best foreign film of the year by the National Society of Film Critics. In the past two years Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf have received separate retrospectives in Boston, Chicago, Washington, New York and other North American cities.

A former revolutionary who spent five years in prison under the Shah (the subject of his excellent film A Moment of Innocence), Makhmalbaf is the most radical and complicated director in Iran. His lyrical and transcendent Gabbeh (1996) received excellent reviews upon its summer release. More so than any other Iranian filmmaker, he typifies the maddening, even perverse, vicissitudes Iranian directors must work through; four of his films have been banned outright. In contrast, Kiarostami, who comes from a privileged background, had never, until recently, dealt with such government interference. Indeed, his prominence outside Iran has given him a relatively exalted position and autonomy at home.

The watershed moment for Iranian cinema occurred at the fiftieth Cannes Film Festival in May, where The Taste of Cherry, Kiarostami's superb and demanding film about a man contemplating suicide, shared (with Japanese director Shohei Imamura's Unagi) the prestigious Palme d'Or for best film. The Cannes triumph completed a surreal two-year odyssey of suppression, concealment and near-destruction. …

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