The Iranian New Wave: 50 years of uncompromising cinema

By Kiyan Agadjani 18 May 2021

The Iranian New Wave has now produced films for just over half a century, making it one of the longest lasting movements in cinema history. But who are the directors that shaped the New Wave? And who are the filmmakers taking it into the next century?

With the recent announcement that Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi will be returning to Iran for his new film A Hero, after having set and shot his last drama Everybody Knows (2018) in Spain, many are expecting a return to form. But what defines a “return to form” when talking about the Iranian New Wave? Since its birth in the pre-revolutionary late 1960ies Iran, the filmmakers of the New Wave have sought to find poetry in everyday life, to intellectually challenge the audience and to express a desire for social change through allegory and subtext. There is a famous saying that the enemy of art is the absence of limitation, which especially holds true for the cinema of Iran at the turn of the century, where political censorship and artistic limitations have created a breeding ground for a cinema of subtlety and ambiguity. With half a century worth of films, the Iranian New Wave lends itself particularly well for a retrospective on its origins and developments - and ultimately a look ahead.

The First Wave: how Mehrjui’s The Cow redefined Iranian cinema

Until the early 1960s, Iranian cinema mostly consisted of popular films, which were produced cheaply and in large quantities for a very broad audience. These films, often referred to as filmfarsi, were melodramas and musicals with often raunchy content, that generally lacked artistic aspirations and carefully steered away from any meaningful political or societal commentary. Yet, towards the end of the 1960s a group of filmmakers, inspired not only by Italian Neorealism but a desire to make “serious” films worthy of being discussed politically, culturally and artistically, broke the mould. This first wave of new Iranian films was spearheaded by the likes of Massoud Kimyayee, Naser Taqvaie and Dariush Mehrjui. Bringing in elements of realism and a distinctly literary approach to filmmaking, these films not only challenged the cinema landscape of Iran, but also raised the expectations and standards of audiences.

Often considered the first Iranian New Wave film, Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969), although funded by the Shah of Iran, was later banned from international distribution because of its realistic and perhaps unflattering portrayal of rural Iran. Set in a small and impoverished village, The Cow tells the story of the middle-aged villager Masht Hassan (Ezzatolah Entezami) whose most treasured possession and companion is a cow – the only cow in the village. After Masht is forced to leave the village for a few days, his cow is found dead in his barn. Fearing his anger, the village people convince him that the cow has run away. Not being able to cope with the loss of his companion, we follow Masht’s slow descent into insanity which culminates in him being convinced that he is a cow. The film opens with a daring black and white negative image depicting two vague silhouettes which merge into and away from each other, ultimately revealing a man and his cow walking towards the camera. Not wasting a second, Mehrjui not only establishes a distinct visual style, but also the film’s psychological themes of social estrangement inspired by Marx’s theory of alienation. Masht’s economical and emotional dependency of the cow causes his mental downfall and is symptomatic of a capitalist society in which workers are estranged from the products of their own labour. Frequently switching the point of view from Masht to the villagers, Mehrjui creates a slice of life of rural Iran that implicitly exposes a neglected and abandoned part of society that suffers from its own poverty, superstition and paranoia. Mehrjui infuses his otherwise realistic and honest depiction of rural life in Iran with an absurdist premise that works effectively as an allegory that comments on the political and societal landscape of Iran as a whole.

With a sense of distinct artistic intent and an urgent, albeit disguised, political message, The Cow is perhaps the furthest away from the popular filmfarsi as it can possibly be. Demonstrating refreshing cinematic sensibilities and undeniably engrossing storytelling capabilities, The Cow stirred up the cinema of Iran like no film before it.

About revolutions, cherries and golden palms: Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry and international acclaim

Towards the end of the 1970s, major shifts in the political landscape of Iran culminated in the Revolution of 1979. The Shah was forced into exile, Ayatollah Khomeini took over his reign and converted Iran from a monarchy to a fundamentalist Islamic state. Initially, the new heads of state had nothing but suspicion for the cinema of the “Shah-era”, burning down many cinemas and stopping productions. Yet once the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988) was devastating the nation, the authorities needed filmmakers to document the state of the country and started to change their stance on national cinema. This marked the start of a second wave of new Iranian cinema, as the following years witnessed a boom in film production. Major directors to come out of this time are Amir Naderi (The Runner, 1985), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (The Cyclist, 1989) and crucially Abbas Kiarostami (Where Is the Friend’s Home?, 1987) who would catapult Iranian cinema to the world stage.

While Kiarostami’s Koker trilogy (a series of films all set in the northern Iranian village of Koker) already witnessed major critical acclaim, it was his 1997 drama Taste of Cherry that garnered him and Iran their first palme d’or at the Cannes Film Festival and consequently reinforced Iran’s prestige in world cinema. Kiarostami’s minimalist and broodingly philosophical drama follows Mr. Badii (Homayoun Ershadi), a middle-aged man who drives through and around Tehran, looking for someone he can pay handsomely to discreetly do a job for him. Soon enough it is revealed that he is planning to commit suicide and is in need of someone to bury him once he has done so. The film is structured around a series of car rides with a Kurdish soldier, an Afghan student and finally an Azeri taxidermist and their thoughts on and objections to his self-destructive plan. Making use of a repeated side angle shot towards Badii in the driver’s seat, Kiarostami creates a sphere of intimacy between Badii and the viewer, yet very purposefully refuses to ever reveal the reasons behind his depression and suicidal intentions. The passengers each give their own moral, religious or philosophical reasonings as to why he should not end his life, any of which might be reasonable to the viewer but leave Badii himself unimpressed. In a pivotal moment he recognizes the difference between intellectually understanding someone’s suffering and actually suffering. The subjectivity of pain and depression is what renders it difficult to truly understand.

While Kiarostami undoubtedly takes his time with the plot developments and may alienate some viewers with the lack of an empathetic backstory for the protagonist, he tells a highly affecting tale about life and death, enhanced by camera work that cleverly juxtaposes close and intimate moments with the sweeping landscapes of Tehran’s backyard.

The result is a thought-provoking meditation on empathy and suffering that lives from the audience’s mental contribution to what is depicted on-screen.

Into the 21st century: Farhadi’s About Elly and a cinema of defiant subtlety

At the turn of the century, a third wave of new Iranian cinema was well under its way. While popular, apolitical cinema was still prevalent, continuous state-imposed censorship made it difficult for socially engaged filmmakers to produce their work. Any screenplay that is to be made needs to go through multiple steps of authorisation by the Ministry of Culture and has to follow a set of restrictions. These include, among others, a ban on unflattering portrayals of Islam, critical perspectives on political or social issues, and particular (modest) ways women can be shown on-screen. Coming back to the effect of limitations on filmmaking, one can imagine the next logical step for Iranian cinema to take. A new generation of filmmakers such as Parviz Shahbazi, Bahman Ghobadi and Asghar Farhadi continued to tell their stories under a veil of controlled ambiguity and creative subtlety and as a result told suspenseful and elusive stories that once again draw from the viewer’s ability to read between the lines.

Asghar Farhadi’s mystery drama About Elly (2009) already eloquently demonstrated the third wave’s defiant subtlety, even before his international triumph with A Separation (2011) a few years later. The story takes us to the Caspian seaside, where 3 married couples, their children and a newly divorced man have decided to spend their weekend trip. The young kindergarten teacher Elly (Taraneh Alidoosti) is invited to come along. Yet after a rather expositional first act, where the characters of the ensemble cast are introduced and their relationships explored, things go downhill very quickly. The sudden disappearance of Elly at the beach sets off an avalanche of panic, mistrust and accusations that turns the joyful reunion into a desperate investigation. Did Elly drown? Did she run away? Soon Sepideh (Golshifteh Farahani), one of the married women and protagonist of sorts, finds herself in a crossfire of accusations. Having been the one to invite Elly to the trip, an overwhelming sense of guilt clouds her assessment of the situation. With a premise quite reminiscent of Antonioni’s L’Avventura (1960), Farhadi launches the audience into an unexpected mystery that lives from its outstanding performances. As so often, Farhadi works with long and intimate takes that give the performers room to breathe and as a result create a feeling of authenticity. Moments of silence are rhythmically interrupted by explosions of emotion. In a standout scene, the group of friends rush into the ocean to save a child from drowning, which is skilfully heightened by kinetic, disoriented and visceral camera work.

Though, beneath what seems to be a simple, but engaging mystery, lies substantial social commentary. Traditional concepts of marriage, the societal roles of men and women as well as many religious values, though only implicitly, play a guiding role in the group’s interactions. Farhadi very consciously alludes to a growing disparity between the classical, patriarchal Islamic traditions and a liberal modernism that has accompanied the younger generations. About Elly eloquently frames the ideological struggles of the Iranian middle-class within a mystery narrative, that not only sidesteps censorship, but also tells a thoroughly compelling narrative.

A dance with censorship and prosecution: The case of Jafar Panahi

While filmmakers like Asghar Farhadi express themselves through the exploration of grey areas and often took an implicit approach to social and political criticism, Panahi has always been very vocal about his political activism. In 2007, Hamid Dabashi, professor of Iranian Studies at Columbia University writes: “Panahi does not do as he is told – in fact he has made a successful career in not doing as he is told.” Often using elements of documentary and pseudo-documentary as well as non-professional actors, Panahi is interested in portraying the less-fortunate people of Iran – women, children and the impoverished. After an initial series internationally award-winning of films, such as The Mirror (1997), The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006), Panahi had to increasingly deal with prosecution, which finally led to his arrest in March of 2010. Accused of creating propaganda against the government, Panahi was sentenced to 6 years of prison and a 20-year ban on filmmaking. Rather unsurprisingly, Panahi continued making films illegally. This is not a film (2011), for instance, was stored onto a USB drive, hidden inside a cake and smuggled to Cannes Film Festival.

Panahi’s latest film as of now is Taxi (or Taxi Tehran) (2015), for which he won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival. Instead of shooting in his private apartment like he did with his previous under-ban films, Panahi boldly takes to the busy streets of Tehran. Pretending to be a taxi driver in a car rigged with 3 cameras, Panahi films himself ferrying all kinds of passengers, striking the one or other revealing conversation in the process. The first encounter is with a man who calls for the hanging of tyre thieves and a lady who objects to yet another reason to execute Iranian citizens. Shortly after Panahi meets a DVD bootlegger, who prides himself of supplying Iran with films they otherwise wouldn’t have access to; indeed, bootleggers have a crucial role in the distribution of most films in Iran because of censorship and bans. In a pivotal moment, Panahi picks up his niece Hana from school who wants to become a filmmaker herself, but was told by her teacher to avoid “sordid realism” (siahnamayi), which encompasses any documentation that may shine a bad light on Iran. And of course, shortly after, she engages in sordid realism by accidently filming a young boy stealing money lost by a bridegroom. Working with non-actors, often playing as themselves, leading to moments of uncanny authenticity, Panahi continues to blur the line between fiction and documentary in a way that challenges the viewer’s perceptions of truth and make-believe, censorship and freedom of speech. With a sense of genuine interest and humility, Panahi interacts with the many faces of urban Tehran and effectively creates a cross section of Iranian society that reaches from a human rights lawyer talking about hunger strike to two superstitious old women trying to save a pair of goldfish.

Panahi’s latest film might not be ground-breaking in its conception and execution, but courageously demonstrates the lengths Iranian filmmakers are willing to go to portray an honest and authentic image of modern-day Iran. In perhaps the most hopeful moment of recent Iranian cinema, human rights lawyer Nasrin Stoudeh extends a rose directly to the audience, thanking “the people of cinema for their goodwill”.

Iranian cinema of today - A look ahead

Looking at today’s landscape, one might be led to believe that the golden days of Iranian cinema at the turn of the century are over. Panahi is met with severe limitations in his filmmaking, the Makhmalbafs have gone into exile, and the untimely passing of the late Kiarostami has left its very own mark too. New filmmakers coming out of the Iranian

diaspora, such as Marjane Satrapi (Persepolis, 2007) or Ana Lily Amirpour (A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, 2014) are finding their voices outside of Iran, to great success. And yet, while Farhadi’s return to Iran with A Hero will undoubtedly attract international attention, a new generation of Iranian filmmakers such as Saeed Roustayi (Just 6.5, 2019) or Shahram Mokri (Careless Crime, 2020) will follow the footsteps of the New Wave in their very own way. If the past 50 years of silently poetic, inherently humanist and defiantly creative cinema are anything to go by, Iranian cinema might just prevail for another 50.

Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry as well as a selection of Iranian New Wave films are currently available to stream on the Criterion Channel and on MUBI.