As part of our preparation for the film series “10 Days of Iranian Cinema”, we asked curator Afsun Moshiry for an interview. We talked about the challenges of planning an Iranian film series, the current status of Iranian cinema and the curator’s idea of the two sections: “Displaced Realities” and “Fight or Flight”.

Afsun Moshiry © Darius Ramazani

Dear Afsun Moshiry, what are the challenges of planning a film series like “10 Days of Iranian Cinema”?

Finding suitable copies, especially of films that have been lying on dusty shelves for over forty years, is a challenge. It takes a huge effort to restore films. Curators and programmers rely on the work of archivists and rights holders. It is very difficult to find these films for purposes of research, but less difficult, in many cases, than securing the complicated permissions to exhibit them. As film archives grow and more rarities are recovered, there needs to be a healthy conversation between filmmakers, archives and right holders.

What is the state of Iranian cinema? What trends can you make out?

In the 1960s, there was a strong awakening of Iranian cinema, nourished by a deep sympathy for the humanism of Italian neorealism. The intercultural dialogue has never stopped – the influence of protagonists in the Iranian New Wave, like Sohrab Shahid Saless and Bahram Beyzai, can still be seen today. But after the revolution in 1979, it became politically necessary to communicate stories of ordinary people less directly. Filmmakers turned to symbolism and allegory – recalling earlier traditions of Iranian literature and poetry. So the identity of Iranian cinema can be taken as a fusion of these two aesthetics.

Today these traditions have been pushed further by movements such as Dogma 95 – more radical interpretations of classical humanist principles – as well as the pursuit of a new language of images with influences from conceptual art. We see experiments with duration and narrative structure, as well as engagement with contemporary architecture and playful utopian thinking.

It is a challenging period for independent cinema. Commercial productions and films supported by the government get the lion’s share of financial support, while support for independent productions is declining steadily. Often, films are self-financed and hope to reach film festivals abroad as a pathway forward. The philanthropic culture that exists to support independent filmmakers in other parts of the world does also not yet exist in Iran.

Filmstill: “Shouting at the Wind” © Siavash Jamali, Ata Mehrad

The feature film series is called “Displaced Realities”. What can you say about the programme?

In the last two years, I experienced Iran in a troubled phase. I would meet taxi drivers who are trained engineers. Often, people have been forced to abandon the field they were educated in. Tehran is expanding rapidly and it is becoming an unpleasant place to live. Heavy pollution and failing infrastructure are two simple examples. Looking at the period before and after the islamic revolution (1978-1979) is critical to understanding Irans current problems. 

The programme begins with Sohrab Shahid Saless’ “A Simple Event” (1974, before the revolution). The film focuses on a father–son relationship. The hopeless feeling of the boy toward his controlling and unsympathetic father, and an ill mother, reflects the dissatisfaction of that time and troubled gender relations. Saless was not a fan of the Shah regime, and there was a movement of writers like Sadegh Hedayat, Gholam Hossein Saedi and Bozorg Alavi who chose to emigrate because of the censorship under the Shah. After the revolution in 1979, the gap between the regime and society became even more complex. The next title in the programme is Bahram Beyzai’s “Bashu, the Little Stranger” (1989). This film presents a society fracturing under the pressure of a war that lasted over ten years. Rakhsan Banietemad’s “The May Lady” (1999), set after the war, approaches the challenge of living in a shattered and still restricted environment, with modest dreams of a simple, liberated life. The programme ends in the future with a dystopian fantasy by Shahram Mokri in “Invasion” (2017), which reflects a new shadow of hopelessness. “Displaced Realities” is intended to provide snapshots of phases in history, connected by their shared relation to a consistent social unease.

The short film programme “Fight or Flight” is a collection of films created by filmmakers from a younger generation. What kinds of lived realities do we come across in their films? And what does ‚fight or flight‘ mean for them?

Here too, we start before the revolution. Saless’ film “Black and White” (1972) shows two boys fighting over a ball. They call on their fathers to settle the dispute. The fathers fight and call the police, who use force to reach a resolution. The problematic relationship with authority is a persistent theme. “Falgoosh” (2012) shows historical footage from the revolution of people involved in looting and burning cinemas. These failures have left people pessimistic about revolution, but equally pessimistic about their present situation. People feel unable to improve society through legal means and direct participation. For many Iranians, the choice then becomes a narrow one – to stay and resist in despair, or leave and start a new life.
The topic of emigration is often handled in short films of young filmmakers. In a country that is constantly under economic pressure, the first ones to leave are typically the well-educated and financially secured. This weakens society and minimises its capacity to strengthen itself over a longer period. “Fight or Flight” is an insight into how some Iranians are thinking about the dilemma of staying or leaving.

Thank you, Afsun Moshiry.

Trailer: “10 Days of Iranian Cinema” © Berliner Festspiele

The film series “10 Days of Iranian Cinema” is available as part of our online programme “Berliner Festspiele on Demand” from 12 June, 14:00 – 21 June 2020, 13:59.