Though Iran is in the throes of a deep economic crisis, battered by hard-line politics and a mismanaged pandemic, it’a shaping up to be a great year for Iranian cinema.
Paradoxically, Iran’s cinematic landscape is bursting with powerful, fresh films likely to make an international splash just as talks between Tehran and world powers continue to be deadlocked on reviving the nuclear deal that could lift the country’s crippling sanctions that block exports.
This filmmaking fervor is reflected in the fact that Iranian pics have scored two Cannes competition berths, plus one in the Cannes Critics’ Week, which marks Iran’s first presence in this section dedicated to first and second works in almost two decades.
“What everybody is so pleased about is that Cannes, fortunately, is now representing the young generation of Iranian filmmakers,” said international distributor Mohammad Attebai, who heads Tehran-based company Iranian Independents.
Finally, after a decade of just the usual suspects — those being Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulov — “at last they are selecting other [Iranian] filmmakers,” said Attebai, who is a former Venice fest consultant.
Case in point is “Holy Spider,” by Iran-born, Denmark-based Ali Abbasi, who was the toast of Cannes in 2018 with his genre-defying “Border,” which won the top prize in Un Certain Regard.
Based on a real Iranian crime case, “Holy Spider,” which premieres in the Cannes competition on Sunday, is about a family man named Saeed who becomes a serial killer as he embarks on his own religious quest — to “cleanse” the holy Iranian city of Mashhad of street prostitutes.
Abbasi said he was drawn to the material after the serial killer was caught, court proceedings began and “suddenly, some people started cheering this guy as a hero.”
“Some part of the [Iranian] conservative media was cheering. And that’s when it started getting interesting for me. I was like: ‘why is it that anyone thinks he’s a hero?,’” he said.
Though “Holy Spider” is an Iranian film, it wasn’t shot in Iran, since Iranian authorities refused to give Abbasi a permit to film it in the country.
“So I said to myself that what I would gain instead of getting the authenticity of Mashhad would be that I would actually be able to depict the story’s real material,” says the director, who shot the film in Jordan.
He points out that “Holy Spider” is in part a thematic story, and the theme is very obvious: misogyny. “Dramatically, when you go and kill women, that’s misogyny in its purest form,” he noted. Abbasi also hopes it “will be one of the few movies about Iran with a relatively realistic view of society.”
Societal changes, especially as they pertain to women, are at the core of the second Iranian film in the Cannes competition, “Leila’s Brothers,” a female empowerment drama set against the backdrop of a family crushed by debts linked to international economic sanctions.
“People’s hardships are due in part to the Western sanctions, but also rooted in the Iranian government,” said “Leila’s Brothers” director Saeed Roustaee, who notes that since the new Iranian government headed by hard-liner Ebrahim Raisi took office last August, it’s become more difficult for filmmakers for get production permits and local authorities “impose more censorship than before.”
Now Roustaee hopes “Leila’s Brothers,” which does not yet have a screening permit in Iran, will be able to unspool there without any cuts. “I prefer foregoing this film’s screening altogether [than] to submit to censoring,” he says.
But how is such a cinematic outburst possible amid all these hardships?
Attebai said there are currently 260 feature films in various stages of production in Iran, most of them completed. Of these, 95% are privately produced.
Due to Iran’s economic problems, budgets are shrinking, as is state support, noted Attebai, who points out that “due to all the economic problems and corruption there is a bigger gap between rich people and poor people” in Iran, where the middle class is vanishing.
“The rich people are getting richer and [producing] cinema is quite appealing for them; they want to make a name for themselves,” he said.
And the makers of most of the pics being produced in Iran dream of launching from international film festivals.
There are at least 10 films by up and coming Iranian filmmakers, including Ahmad Bahrami (“The Wasteland”) and Vahid Jalilvand (“No Date, No Signature”), now in the running to get into Locarno, Venice and San Sebastian.
While the directors are not all newcomers, they represent an emerging breakaway Iranian wave.
“Thanks to social media and satellite TV in my country, big changes have occurred in the past 20 years,” said Ali Behrad, whose first feature, “Imagine,” starring Leila Hatami (“A Separation”), is in the Cannes Critics’ Week.
“Many people think that young directors follow in the footsteps of older ones. But I think the new generation is starting from its own cinema,” he added. “We have no connection with the previous generation. We’ve learned filmmaking from a broader world.”