The Political Dialectics of Contemporary Iranian Cinema

Iranian culture and society holds a rich history tracing all the way back to 550 B.C. and the beginning of the once-mighty Persian Empire, one of the largest in human history. Its vast rule expanded from the Mediterranean Sea in the west to India in the east, a dynasty that promoted revolutionary social reform and the first declaration of human rights of its kind. The cultural landscape of ancient Iran was profound in its artistic endeavors, serving as a cornerstone for poetry, philosophy, literature, painting, calligraphy, music, craftwork, and architecture.

However, Iranian culture has endured transformative influences from a violent history of conquering powers that aimed to influence and distort existing values and beliefs. Language and tradition was inevitably infused with these external influences, but internal resistance remained at the core of Iranian consciousness. This mentality of resistance has taken root in the people of Iran, and has manifested itself throughout multiple periods of political turmoil and regime change, most notably during Iran’s 20th century revolutionary conflicts against U.S. imperialism.

In 1953, the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, in collaboration with British intelligence, conducted a military coup d’etat that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddeq after he declared that he would nationalize Iranian oil. This would have severely threatened Western economic interests due to the global reliance on Middle Eastern oil exports, thus prompting the U.S. to intervene and install a pro-Western monarchy that would rule until a major revolution just two decades later.

The Iranian monarchy did what it was intended to do, protect Western interests and quell nationalist uprisings that would threaten the existing power dynamic, until popular unrest again aided by U.S. forces led to the collapse of the monarchy in 1979 and the establishment of an Islamic republic. As a dialectic pushback to this new oppressive regime, resistance began to take shape as a recurring motif throughout Iranian art, particularly in the cinematic realm.

Zara Knox of REORIENT Magazine illuminates, “Iranian cinema has long served as a mirror, reflecting a nation that has absorbed foreign influences, defied restrictions, and expressed hope for its future, all the while proudly drawing upon its own ideologies and deeply-rooted tradition of storytelling”. Contemporary Iranian film has gained prestigious acclaim by film critics worldwide, boasting over a dozen Academy Award nominations in various categories and two Best Foreign Language Film victories, with even greater praise achieved in international festivals. Directors such as Massoud Kimiai, Asghar Farhadi, and Jafar Panahi helped foster the Iranian New Wave, emphasizing a new way of thinking that diverged from the bourgeois consumerist culture surrounding film entertainment before it embarked on its revolutionary twist.

Iranian films explored more provocative themes that challenged the political status quo and portrayed brutally realistic depictions of everyday life in the outskirts of the main capital city where people often lived differently. In Kamran Shirdel’s 1963 film Tehran Payetakht-e Iran Ast (Tehran is the Capital of Iran), he aims to “reveal the disparity between Iran’s celebrated wealth and its deprived reality”. The narrative strings throughout Iranian post-revolutionary cinema reflected economic hardships and massive inequality, the dichotomy of religion doctrine being used as a political tool, the longstanding spiritual and physical turmoil of war, breaking conformity with historical gender norms, and fighting government censorship that permeated every aspect of society. There was a renewed focus on social realism, contextualizing the lives of ordinary Iranians under the regime and expanding the ideological boundaries of an often misunderstood and misrepresented nation through the lens of Western mass media.

“For Americans who want to look beyond the reductive image of Iran presented by the US media, Iran’s cinema offers an alternative that is fascinating, even astonishing, for its artistic sophistication and passionate humanism.”

– Godfrey Chesire, In Search of Cinema: Writings on International Film Art

Political turmoil is often able to cultivate revolutionary artistic movements. Out of hardships and struggle, a creative movement toward freedom of expression and dissent is birthed. With Iran as a case study, years of imperialist Western intervention and oppression triggered a cinematic spring that swelled to groundbreaking proportions. Farhadi, an Iranian director who won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film twice for A Separation (2011) and The Salesman (2016), exemplifies precisely the subdued social tensions and ideological struggles in the face of a fundamentalist regime that continues to shy away from the realities of its time.

Today, with the onslaught of sanctions imposed on Iranian trade by the U.S. to the executive order that once established an unconstitutional travel ban on cherry-picked Muslim-majority countries, juxtaposed against our dangerous alliances with Iranian adversaries Saudi Arabia and Israel, the Iranian economy is in major turmoil. The ordinary people, citizens living about their daily lives, are the ones suffering the most from U.S. foreign policy. One can only expect to see a hyper-energized field of creative expression from here on out, magnified in its streak of revolutionary persistence, rooted in a deep anger towards a government that silences dissent and punishes nonconformity.

As an Iranian-born immigrant to these United States, my heart will always be with my ancestral homeland and the unrelenting hope for a better future for the Iranian people.

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