Director Bahman Ghobadi says that making movies in Iran is "mental torture." Asghar Farhadi, whose "A Separation" was the first Iranian movie to win the Oscar for best foreign language film, calls Iran's censorship of films "unpredictable, inscrutable, and unregulated." They are among the dozen filmmakers interviewed in Jamsheed Akrami's enlightening documentary, "A Cinema of Discontent," one of the entries in the 20th annual Festival of Films From Iran, which runs Jan. 17-26 at the Museum of Fine Arts.
With a wealth of film clips and interviews, the documentary takes the viewer on a journey through several decades of mainstream Iranian cinema. Like all of life in that country, it is governed by often contrary religious doctrine. For instance, as narrator Sara Nodjoumi explains, Iranian women are not required to wear head scarves in their homes. Yet, in movies, strict censorship dictates that women can never be shown without head scarves — even in bed or in the shower, evidenced by an amusing cavalcade of clips. Also prohibited onscreen are depictions of women singing or dancing and physical contact between men and women — but violent acts such as face-slapping are allowed.
Like directors who worked in post-code Hollywood, filmmakers in Iran rely on creative methods to get around the censors. In a clip from one of Ghobadi's films, he suggestively shoots his lovers' moving feet from underneath a truck. Dariush Mehrjui says that in order to deal with the prohibitions "you have to censor yourself, or go around it, or invent some other scenes." Bahman Farmanara explains that his 2005 film, "A Little Kiss," was the first movie in Iran to have the word "kiss" in its title — but only because it referred to the kiss of death. " 'Kiss' as death is acceptable, as far as the censorship board is concerned," he says. "But 'Kiss' as a kiss? God forbid."
"A Cinema of Discontent" (screening Jan. 24 and 25) provides context for all of the films in the festival, but none more pointedly than the opening-night feature, "Closed Curtain." This is another defiant film from Jafar Panahi, the acclaimed director who is officially banned from filmmaking by Iranian officials until 2030. Like Panahi's "This Is Not a Film," the sort-of-sequel "Closed Curtain" (Jan. 17 and 18) is a seemingly autobiographical study of a screenwriter (Kambuzia Partovi, who co-directed the film) hiding in a vacant beachfront house with his illegal dog, because dogs are considered "unclean" under Islamic law. Shot within the confines of the house, the paranoia escalates as two strangers intrude, claiming to be on the run from authorities. Then, abruptly, Panahi himself appears, giving the film another enigmatic layer of reality as fiction, or the opposite. Either way, "Closed Curtain" underscores Panahi's ongoing fight to keep his artistry alive.
The Festival of Films From Iran is programmed by Carter Long, curator of film at Boston's MFA, along with Marian Luntz, curator of film and video at the MFA Houston, and Tom Vick, curator of film at the Freer and Sackler Galleries of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
"One interesting trend in the films we've selected this year is a turn toward the oneiric and absurd," says Long, citing "Closed Curtain" and Mohammad Shirvani's "Fat Shaker" (Jan. 22 and 24) as examples of films that "operate with a dreamlike logic and imagery."
"Fat Shaker" is an unsettling, cryptic film about a morbidly obese, abusive, alcoholic father (Levon Haftvan), his deaf son (Navid Mohammadzadeh) who cares for him, and a woman photographer (Maryam Palizban) whose interest in the pair provides fleeting hope that she'll intervene in their dysfunction. Shot in documentary style, with many close-ups and disjointed imagery, "Fat Shaker" is bizarre, but personal enough to demand attention.
Other highlights of this year's festival include Majid Barzegar's "Parviz" (Jan. 19), about a 50-year-old man who is forced to leave his childhood home and, unable to adjust to life on his own, becomes increasingly deranged. Or there's Hossein Shahabi's "The Bright Day" (Jan. 25 and 26), which focuses on a kindergarten teacher who tries to help a student's father when he's accused of a crime. Both are further examples of Iranian filmmakers working in an "unpredictable, inscrutable, and unregulated" system, insisting that their voices be heard.
For a complete schedule go to www.mfa.org.
Loren King can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.