Asian Heritage Month in Canada provides an opportunity for Canadians to acknowledge and appreciate the rich cultural heritages and stories of migration that Asian Canadians have brought to Canada throughout decades. As an Iranian from Southwest Asia, Asian Heritage Month would be incomplete without the mention of Iranian cinema.
With the ongoing success of recent films such as Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (2015), Hossein Rajabian’s Sky Reaches the Earth (2015) and Amir-Hossein Saghafi’s The Man Who Became a Horse (2015), Iranian movies continue to shine in international cinemas. Despite restrictions, many critics rank Iran as having the world’s most significant national cinema in terms of artistic importance and social depth (see Bert Cardullo’s comprehensive book In Search of Cinema: Writings on International Film Art).
Here are my top-three, very famous MUST SEE Iranian films that distinguish themselves from other works through their simple narratives devoted to real social problems, non-professional child actors, and a focus on the portrayal of blurred line between fiction and reality, a quality borrowed from Italy’s post-Second World War neorealism:
1. Bashu, the Little Stranger (Bahram Beizai, 1986)
Made during Iran-Iraq war of 1980 to 1988, The Little Stranger narrates the story of a young Khuzestani boy, Bashu (Adnan Afravian) and a courageous peasant woman, Naï (Susan Taslimi) who tries to coax out Bashu’s fear of war trauma.
A lost refugee trying to find a new life and identity, Bashu observes his parents’ death when a bomb obliterates his father and turns his veiled mother into a burning torch in front of him. Escaping on a cargo truck to the North, the rest of his journey revolves around his struggles in an estranged land, dealing with language barriers, differences between Northern and Southern Iranian dialects, and his darker skin color that renders him as a little unknown stranger in the infinitely green lands of rice fields in the North.
Underneath the harsh realities of life and war, the director’s main focus shifts towards the delicate growth of a mother-son, native-stranger relationship between Bashu and Naï, a free-spirited, real mother-earth who stands against the collective rural norms single-handedly in a village full of gossips and hatred. She sings along with birds, works incessantly on the fields, takes good care of her children, and undoubtedly is the strong (and very beautiful) female heroine of Beizai’s film, challenging the limitations of gender representation in Iranian cinema.
The contrasting imagery between Bashu’s calm tensions and the war’s sudden explosions, his silent inner strains in comparison to the peaceful sceneries of Northern landscapes leave the viewers in awe. Beizai manages to sustain extended scenes without the benefit of dialogue and thus renders images as signs. No wonder this amazing tale of suffering was voted “the best Iranian film of all time” in 1999.
2. Where is the Friend’s Home? (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987)
Unlike Bashu, the protagonist of Kiarostami’s masterpiece suffers not from engines of war but is victimized by the grind of poverty and the reality of life in Iran’s dispersed rural areas. The plot is very simple: Ahmed is a little boy trying to exchange notebooks with a schoolmate. The director evokes the social reality, and traditional beliefs of the village as Ahmed spends his whole day wandering through the ruined alleys and asking for an address from careless grownups.
It is precisely through this simple plot and primary focus on a child that Kiarostami could depict complicated critical matters without getting censored. In other words, the politics of the time required the filmmakers to explore sociopolitical issues through symbolic scenes and indirect communication.
The film holds few surprises but with the use of long takes; it allows his audience to meditate on each scene with deep insight. Where is the Friend’s Home requires a fine eye for detail, and carries a great deal of lessons about modesty, true friendship, kindness, and life in poverty.
Ahmed’s journey is a spiritual one.
3. The Mirror (Jafar Panahi, 1997)
And last but not least, my all time favorite performance is that of Mina Mohammad-Khani in Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror. Similar to the two other films, Panahi uses children as his artistic subject as a cinematic strategy to avoid censorship while revealing the meaning of everyday life in Tehran’s populated streets.
The plot concerns the efforts of a little girl to get home and her (spiritual) journey through the dangerous roadways of Tehran. When Mina’s mother does not show up at her school for unknown reasons, she decides to find her way back home alone. She goes around in circles just like Ahmed. Tehran’s streets are like a labyrinth, full of mystery, danger, surprise, plus heavy air pollution.
Mina is simply lost, she crosses and recrosses a crowded thoroughfare, attempts to call home from a phone booth, takes opposite directions, heads in wrong ways, encounters with the daily conversations of middle-aged women at the back in the women’s section of the bus, and through a sweet plot twist the camera itself ends up searching for Mina for real.
Panahi poses deep questions about the blurring line between fiction and document. His lengthy shots of Tehran reminds me of one of my good friend’s comments about the reality of life in Tehran’s streets: “we are alive only by our mothers’ prayers.”