By the time this essay is published, the current confrontation with Iran may well have escalated even further. But as of this writing there is one troubling development among many that stands out: the report that hundreds of Iranian-Americans were detained, some for ten hours, at the United States-Canada border. This news is emblematic of what is sure to come, if past conflicts are any guide: the demonization of “the enemy.”
This latest news is heartbreaking, particularly from the vantage point of my years as programming director for both the Savoy Theater and the Green Mountain Film Festival. I have seen and presented many Iranian films over the years, and as a fellow film instructor commented to me long ago, “It’s hard to drop bombs on people when you see how they eat breakfast.” Breakfast here stands in for all the quotidian things that give us a glimpse of Iranian life and the richness of Persian culture. Through Iranian film, I have gotten to know a generous, proud people, devoted to their families amid daily struggles — in other words, not very different from how Americans like to perceive themselves.
Though theocrats have enacted strict rules on what can and can’t be shown, filmmakers have found ways to tell their stories in imaginative and sometimes elliptical ways. This has resulted in some of the most touching films of the past thirty years. Filmmakers like Jafar Panahi (“The White Balloon”) and Majid Majidi (“Children of Heaven”) have put children at the center of the stories, affording us a window into family life and the sacrifices parents make for education. Asghar Farhadi, who won an Oscar for his film “A Separation” showed us that Iranian families, too, deal with painful divorce and elderly parents with dementia; his “Fireworks Wednesday” presents the rural/urban divide as common to Iran as to our own landscape.
Other very talented writers and directors have developed their own particular creative styles. The challenging and philosophically inclined films of Abbas Kiorastami introduced many Americans to Iranian cinema, while the intense films of Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian Kurd, are set in the breathtaking and severe northern mountains. Moshen Makhmalbaf’s “Gabbeh” was an enchanting folk tale, with a narrator stepping out of a Persian carpet. Marjane Satrapi’s animated version of her graphic novel “Persepolis” depicted one rebellious young woman’s life under the repression of the Shah’s autocratic rule and then that of the mullahs. The films of Dariush Mehrjui (“Leila”) and Alireza Raisian (“The Deserted Station”) have poignantly dealt with the position of Iranian women in a patriarchal society.
Feminism was decidedly at the center of “Offside,” by Jafar Panahi, who used Iran’s ban on women attending soccer games to tell the story of two young women who masquerade as males to attend a crucial match. Panahi was subsequently arrested and detained for his outspoken views in 2010, and forbidden to make films for twenty years. Showing both craft and craftiness, Panahi has since made three films shot on video, two in the confines of his apartment, and one in a taxi.
Panahi’s words at his sentencing hearing display the sense of national pride that now, with recent events, resonate:
“I declare once again that I am an Iranian, I am staying in my country and I like to work in my own country. I love my country, I have paid a price for this love too, and I am willing to pay again if necessary. I have yet another declaration to add to the first one. As shown in my films, I declare that I believe in the right of ‘the other’ to be different, I believe in mutual understanding and respect, as well as in tolerance; the tolerance that forbid me from judgment and hatred.”
It is painful to realize that artists like Panahi and his fellow filmmakers, who have struggled mightily against the Iranian theocracy, will now become “our enemy.”
Films — like painting, music and other manifestations of culture — are a strong corrective to the national myopia that prevents our current president from grasping, as Paul Krugman phrased it the other day, “the fact that other countries are real.” How much death and destruction will we soon witness as Jafar Panahi’s ideal of “mutual understanding and respect” goes up in smoke?
Rick Winston is the former owner of the Savoy Theater in Montpelier. He is also a film historian. He lives in Adamant.