No matter the state of relations between American and Iranian leadership, it is in the interest of film lovers the world over to keep a keen eye on the multi-layered world of Iranian cinema, celebrated annually by the Festival of Films from Iran at the Museum of Fine Arts. From aboveboard releases to underground projects that were smuggled out of the country on a flash drive, slice-of-life dramas to subversive commentary, the work of established pros to first-time directors, the extent to which Iranian artists and audiences are flocking to film as a means of expression is fascinating for its prevalence, and useful for developing a three-dimensional view of life, philosophy, and politics as seen by Iranians themselves.
For the uninitiated, experiencing an entirely new cinematic style can be a lot to take in, so we’ve organized this year’s slate into two categories: those made in Iran with full knowledge and support from the authorities, and those made subversively or under conditions of questionable legality.
On the domestic front, be sure to catch What’s the Time in Your World?, a meditation on accepting that the changing reality of your hometown will never live up to your gilded memories, featuring familiar face Leila Hatami, known to international audiences as the star of A Separation, the first Iranian film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Bending the Rules follows a young musical group whose members have the opportunity to embark on an international tour yet also face obstacles from their once-revolutionary parents.
Most unique in this category is Fish & Cat, a movie experience that you will never see coming. Partially inspired by a true story, Shahram Mokri’s film follows the collision of urban students attending a kite-flying competition and their temporary neighbors, a strange pair of restaurant owners who may or may not serve human flesh. Shot in a single take, Fish & Cat plays with familiar horror conventions with a satisfyingly grim sense of humor and no small amount of suspense. A must-see.
The semi-legal, underground selections bend toward docudrama and documentary, covering subjects likely unfamiliar to Western audiences. Stop-Over, which follows the ordeals faced by migrants all over the Mediterranean and Europe, good people who must put their faith in smugglers and hope for the best. Iranian is a social experiment in which atheist Mehran Tamadon, who was born and raised in Iran but lives in France, lived in a house with conservative clerics supportive of the Iranian regime. The documentary follows the ensuing debates on how to arrive at and construct the ideal society.
Of note on the subversive side is New York Times favorite Fifi Howls from Happiness, a documentary that tells the unique story of once-celebrated artist Bahman Mohassess, an openly gay man whose work was omnipresent before the 1979 revolution. Finally, there is the headline-making Cannes favorite Manuscripts Don’t Burn by renowned dissident filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, who crafted this fact-based tale completely clandestinely. Manuscripts explores a fictionalized version of the infamous “chain killings”, which saw over 80 writers and intellectuals murdered by mysterious, possibly government, organizations.
Though the thaw in relations between the US and Iran is promising, it alone cannot create understanding between the two worlds. Iranians are making enormous, often risky, efforts to tell us their story in film. We owe it to them, the world, and ourselves to appreciate their labor and their artistry.