Varied and powerful, 2021's Iranian films entrance a growing French audience

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  • Asghar Farhadi
    Iranian screenwriter and film director

A rich variety of Iranian films in the past year have captured the attention of French audiences eager for a glimpse inside a largely inaccessible society. The strength of these offerings, combined with the relatively low cost of their production, has led to a Golden Age of Iranian cinema in France.

In a breathtaking chase through the maze-like backstreets of Tehran, a police officer hunts down a crack dealer, who ends up in a concrete mixer. Such is the climax of Saeed Roustayi’s “The Law of Tehran”, a movie characterised by the frenetic dialogue of its unstoppably loquacious characters and the most popular of a wave of Iranian films to have captivated French cinephiles during the past year – with more than 150,000 tickets sold since its release in July.

This kind of success in French cinemas for an Iranian film would have been “unimaginable 20 years ago”, said Asal Bagheri, an expert on Iranian cinema at Cergy Paris University.

“The Law of Tehran” is far from the only Iranian film to have made a splash recently. Others include “The Pardon”, about a widow in her 30s trying to uncover the truth about her husband’s execution for a crime he did not commit; “There Is No Evil”, relating four different narratives about the death penalty; and “A Hero”, about a man imprisoned for being unable to repay a financial debt and desperately trying to get out.

“These films exhibit a certain social realism; they’re very down to earth in their portrayals of beleaguered individuals in a society caught between the demands of tradition and modernity,” Bagheri said. “And French people are very curious about what daily life in Iran looks like; the media doesn’t really show this aspect, while it’s difficult to travel to Iran at present.”

This realist style is hardly a new development in Iranian cinema – but for a long while film festivals and international distributors took little interest.

“In the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the film world didn’t want to hear about Iran,” Bagheri explained. “People thought the Islamic Republic wouldn’t survive the [1980-88] Iraq-Iran War and that Iranian cinema from that era wouldn’t last long.”

But the Iranian theocracy endured the brutal conflict with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq – while Iranian cinema continued to flourish. Then Abbas Kiarostami came along and grabbed the attention of foreign cinephiles with his delicate portraits of quotidian life – notably his 1987 to 1994 “Koker” trilogy.

“Kiarostami’s style was refined, poetic – exploring personal and philosophical issues of universal resonance that have nothing to do with geopolitical struggles,” Baheri said. “Foreign distributors took an interest in his work because they wanted films that don’t feature Kalishnikovs; they wanted a kind of cinema that portrayed a very different Iran from the one we’d see on the news.”

Superstar Asghar Farhadi

But while Kiarostami enjoyed enthusiastic critical acclaim – capped with a Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival for the haunting “Taste of Cherry”, about a middle-aged man searching in a drab Tehran suburb for someone who can bury him after he commits suicide – his distinctly quiet arthouse style failed to reach a mass audience in the West.

It took the emergence of Asghar Farhadi – the director of this year’s hit “A Hero” – for Iranian cinema to achieve popular success in France. His 2011 movie “A Separation”, about the fallout of a middle-class couple in Tehran splitting up, made waves in France and the Anglophone world – winning the following year’s Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

“Iranian films have had a strong presence in international film festivals from that point on,” Bagheri noted. “You can see the rest of the world taking an interest in the Iran that lies behind the headlines, the Iran that Farhadi puts on the big screen: A country racked by its own contradictions, yes – but also a modern, young, dynamic place.”

Consequently, the marketing of Iranian cinema has changed over the past decade. “Bigger independent companies have entered the arena,” Bagheri observed. Many Iranian firms are now co-produced by foreign firms such as the French company Français Memento, which partly managed the production of Farhadi’s "The Past" in 2013. More recently, the celebrated director was supposed to come to France for post-production work on "A Hero" – but, alas, the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted his plans.

A growing number of Iranian filmmakers are looking abroad for production partners. Firstly, because Iran’s profound economic crisis complicates investment in local film projects. Secondly, because a foreign co-producer “boosts your chance of having your film released at an international festival, while allowing you to escape the censorship that troubles Iranian cinema”, Bagheri said.

French companies also benefit from the rise of Iranian films, as their rights are relatively inexpensive on the international market.

“We’ve come a long way,” Bagheri said, recalling a time when Iranian filmmakers were only paid if the movie made a profit. “The international cinema community has long been aware that Iranian cinema is a tremendous reservoir of talent. And the low value of Iran’s currency means its films are cheap to make – while we know they do well among international audiences.”

Other observers decry what they see as the commercialisation of Iran’s cinema and filmmakers, who find themselves in the spotlight, forced to take on the role of representatives of the Iranian people.

However, seeking international audiences and acclaim has not diminished the authenticity of Iranian cinema, Bagheri argued, despite a few “touristic” elements here and there aimed at foreign viewers.

The films currently screened in France represent just a tiny proportion of a huge number of films produced in Iran. Nearly 200 films were produced in 2019 before the pandemic struck, Bagheri estimated. “Many interesting films don’t get enough attention,” she pointed out.

So it seems the phenomenal rise of Iranian cinema in France could go even further.

This article was translated from the original in French.

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