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The ABCs of I for Iran: 5 Questions for Brad Deane & Amir Soltani

Perhaps the best starting point for experiencing I for Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema by its Creators, which starts March 5th at 6:30 p.m. at the TIFF Bell Lightbox is the program’s opening night. Roya Akbari presents Only Image Remains, which is actually an ironic title. She created the essential short film describing her work in Abbas Kiarostami’s seminal film Ten, but her role was actually prevented by a stuck lens cap, and therefore no image remains.

From there, it is imperative to watch the two shorts that follow, Kamral Shirdel’s multi-perspective The Night it Rained, which prefigures Kiarostami’s style, and the fantastical and yet fitting ending of P for Pelican, directed by Parviz Kimiyami. The three shorts offer up an idea of what is to come in I for Iran.

To learn more about how to approach I for Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema by its Creators, we reached out to Amir Soltani, Toronto film critic, and contributor to The Film Experience and Movie Mezzanine. Soltani also writes at co-hosts a podcast at Hello Cinema about Iranian film. We spoke as well to Brad Deane, Senior Programmer at TIFF Cinematheque, and the programmer of the retrospective. Deane was helpful in identifying some hidden gems in the program, and highlighting A Simple Event, which will be screening March 14th at 6 p.m.

What does Iranian cinema offer that no other cinema can?

Soltani: The definition of what constitutes Iranian cinema can be quite nebulous and vast, but throughout different eras, genres, movements and locales – due to sociopolitical reasons, there is a substantial amount of “Iranian” cinema produced by the diasporic population outside of Iran – some of the dominant features that define Iranian cinema include its intimate relationship with Persian poetry, a strong tradition of dissident film-making, allegorical expressions of politics, and a fascination with the medium of cinema itself, which has yielded a significant number of films by several directors that blur boundaries between fiction and documentary cinemas, including Abbas Kiaorstami, Sohrab Shahid Saless and Parviz Kimiavi.

The biggest impact of Iranian cinema shining a light on Iranian society after the Islamic revolution, in ways that people in North America and Europe did not expect. The image projected of Iran by delicate, artful films that entered festivals in the 1990s was at stark contrast with the images shown in mainstream media outside of Iran, and cinema went a long way in challenging misconceptions about Iranian people.

What is the significance of the Iranian New Wave?

Soltani: At the time the Iranian New Wave began to take shape, with films directed by Hajir Dariush, Forough Farrokhzad, Farrokh Ghaffary, Ebrahim Golestan and Dariush Mehrjui, cinema was dominated by films known as Filmfarsi. These films were filled with character types such as tough guys and dancers/prostitutes, convoluted plots and low production values. Cinema’s status in Iran as an art form, its growing respectability in the face of religious opposition and its international recognition owes a lot to the first New Wave.

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What are some hidden gems that an audience will discover at I for Iran?

Brad Deane: This series is full of discoveries, largely because these films are so difficult to see on the big screen. However, the one filmmaker that really stands out for me is Sohrab Shahid Saless. The films of Saless show us how the poetically captured details of quotidian life can render beautiful humanist portraits that are just as enthralling as the conventions of traditional narrative cinema. His films loom large over Iranian cinema that has followed, influencing everyone from Amir Naderi to Abbas Kiarostami.

Can you speak to the importance of style for Abbas Kiarostami, and for Jafar Panahi, winner of the Golden Bear at Berlinale 2015?

Soltani: Kiarostami is not the first filmmaker to cross the documentary/narrative boundary and complicate it within the same film. In this series at TIFF, Mr. Haji the Movie Actor (the 1933 film is one of the only remaining Iranian silent films), The Garden of Stones, P Like Pelican and The Night It Rained all play similar formal games.

Although Panahi’s control of cinema’s different modes of production gained political significance with This Is Not a Film, he manifested his interest in formal challenges years earlier – possibly under the influence of Kiarostami, to whom he served as assistant director – in films like The Mirror. It is only in his three latest films that his superb command of the medium and his willingness to test the limits of its possibilities has been utilized to circumvent the imposed ban on his filmmaking, thus positioning his camera as a weapon.

Asghar Farhadi is often accused of being melodramatic. But do you think that melodrama is perhaps a subtle rebuke to films that seem to be outright challenges to authority?

Soltani: Having interviewed Mr. Farhadi several times, I believe he would be the first person to object to the politicization of his films. Although his films inarguably have strong social messages, I don’t believe they’re intended as challenges to authority at all. Because a majority of arthouse Iranian films that are exhibited at festivals around the world have political themes, Farhadi’s work is inevitably viewed through the same prism, but not all Iranian films are intended as political statements. Farhadi’s cinema is refreshing for non-Iranians because his plot-heavy, wordy melodramas are very different types of films from directors like Kiarostami and Bahman Ghobadi. There are other Iranian filmmakers who, like Farhadi, have bridged the gap between arthouse and mainstream powerfully with (melo)dramatic works. Dariush Mehrjui’s divorce film Hamoun is one such example.

I for Iran runs from March 5th to April 4th, with director Amir Naderi in attendance for three of the films and critics and scholars in attendance for others. Hamoun, Dariush Mehrjui’s incisive, ironic and finally dreamlike study of middle-class Iranian life will be introduced by Amir Soltani on March 28th at 3:45 p.m. For more information, go to http://www.tiff.net/winter2015-cinematheque/i-for-iran-a-history-of-iranian-cinema-by-its-creators