The circumstances that Iranian film makers are forced to contend with are notoriously difficult: all films are subject to intense scrutiny from the Ministry of Culture and must adhere to strict cultural, moral and religious codes. Despite this, Iranian film has became a tour de force of world cinema, featuring numerous films which navigate the limits and pose challenging questions about the country’s culture and society. Here we list the top 10 Iranian films that offer insight into contemporary Iranian life.
On the surface, Ashgar Farhadi’s ‘About Elly’ is a typical psychological drama, depicting the group dynamics among several university friends who take a three day vacation together to the Caspian Sea. On a deeper level, however, ‘About Elly’ is a suspenseful, complex exploration into the middle-class society of Iran, provoking challenging questions about social interaction, moral choices, and above all, the culture of secrecy and dishonesty, which can emerge within a tightly-wound and closely-monitored society. Farhadi masterfully combines piercing social commentary with a carefully crafted, almost Hitchcockian cinematic tension, creating a film which stays with the viewer long after the credits end.
Bashu, the Little Stranger
Bahram Beyzaie is well known for engaging with and subverting traditional Persian art and culture in order to question the socio-political landscape of his time. Perhaps his most famous film, ‘Bashu, the Little Stranger’ deviates from this system of turning to the past, but nevertheless maintains Beyzaie’s practice of fiercely confronting contemporary social issues. Set against the devastating backdrop of the Iran-Iraq war, ‘Bashu, the Little Stranger’ is a fascinating and touching portrayal of the realities of Iran’s multi-ethnic society. The protagonist Bashu is an orphan who has escaped the bombing that killed his parents and finds himself in a north Iranian village where his Arabic language and dark skin is constantly mocked and despised. Bashu breaks past these boundaries, however, and slowly begins to find his place in a family that accepts him as one of their own.
Children of Heaven
‘Children of Heaven’ was the first Iranian film to be nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Critically acclaimed, the film tells the story of a little boy Ali who loses his sister Zahra’s shoes. Knowing their family is poor, the siblings devise plans to disguise the loss of the shoes until they can get them back, including sharing Ali’s shoes between classes and competing in a race for a new pair of sneakers. Heart-warming and charming, ‘Children of Heaven’ nevertheless does not shy away from exploring difficult ideas of poverty and disappointment, from the mother’s arguments with the landlord to the father’s struggles for work. At its heart, however, lies a touching and uplifting message about compassion and the bonds between families.
No One Knows About Persian Cats
‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ is a film built on structures of oppression. Co-written by journalist Roxana Saberi, who was imprisoned in Iran in 2009 under accusations of espionage, the film tells the tale of two young musicians who attempt to navigate the Iranian authorities in order to set up an illegal underground rock band in Tehran and afterwards flee the country. The duo’s journey through the city and their encounters with various underground artists provide a fresh, contemporary snapshot of life in Iran’s capital, and the reality of Iran’s youth culture. ‘No One Knows About Persian Cats’ impressively taps into the cultural zeitgeist of its time, acting as both a passionate, powerfully stirring attack on the regime’s control of artistic output, and a depiction of a new generation fighting for creative freedom.
Another exploration of the dangers of oppressing cultural liberties, ‘Offside’ depicts the events that unfold when a young woman attempts to attend a football match in an Iranian stadium: an activity banned for all women by the Iranian authorities. Caught by the stadium guards, the girl is placed in a holding pen on the stadium roof along with several other women who had tried to sneak in. The passion and fervor of the women for the sport is contrasted with their guards’ disinterest in their job, most not actually caring if the women attend the match or not. The film raises provocative questions over the real grounds for and impact of cultural oppression, and was ironically banned in Iran.
‘Santouri’ is the devastating tale of a talented musician’s descent into heroin addiction, strikingly juxtaposing the violence and misery of his addiction with flashbacks to his happy marriage and initial love of music and creativity. The film is a multi-layered reflection of contemporary Persian society: exploring its roots in traditional arts and culture, as depicted by the playing of the traditional santour; the frustration of the artist when cultural production is tightly controlled; and the tragedy of the growing drugs scene in modern day Iran. The very title of the film is a striking indictment of the impact of artistic oppression; in Persian, ‘playing the santour’ refers to both the instrument and is slang for injecting heroin.
Perhaps one of the most successful Iranian films ever made, ‘A Separation’ was the first Iranian film to win an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film and was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Screenplay— a highly unusual occurrence for a non-English-speaking film. The story centers on a modern, bourgeois couple on the brink of divorce and their encounter with a highly religious, poor couple. Tense and deeply emotional, ‘A Separation’ investigates issues of religion, gender and class, and exposes the growing cracks in a society which values the wealthy male voice above all others.
This Is Not a Film
‘This Is Not a Film’ is a documentary film made by the acclaimed Jafar Panahi, director of such films as ‘The White Balloon,’ ‘Mirror’ and ‘Offside.’ In 2010, after years of tension with the Iranian government and Ministry of Culture, Panahi was arrested and sentenced to a six-year prison sentence and 20-year ban on filmmaking. While appealing the judgement, Panahi was placed under house arrest, where, bored and frustrated, he used a digital camcorder and iPhone to record several days in his life: chatting with neighbors, discussing his court case, and reading extracts from future films he had planned. Produced under almost impossible conditions – the final film was sneaked out of the country in a USB drive inside a birthday cake to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival – The Is Not a Film is a defiant celebration of the unstoppable power of creativity.
Where Is the Friend’s Home?
‘Where Is the Friend’s Home’ is a deceptively simple tale about a little boy who realizes he has taken his friend’s notebook. Knowing his friend might be expelled if he does not complete his homework, the boy sets out to find his friend’s home and return the book. Directed by the famed Abbad Kiarostami, one of the leading directors of the Iranian New Wave, the film demonstrates the concept of heroism in every day life, the kindness and innocence of childhood, and the sense of community and care, which lies in rural areas. Filmed primarily using non-actors, ‘Where Is the Friend’s Home’ retains a sense of realism and honesty integral to depicting the little boy’s quest of conscience.
The White Balloon
Combining the talents of two of Iran’s greatest contemporary filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, ‘The White Balloon’ portrays a little girl’s endearing and comic attempts to secure a brand new goldfish for her family’s celebration of Eid Nowrouz. The film acts as a quasi-coming-of-age story; it is told entirely through the young protagonist’s eyes, and explores her emerging and developing perception of the world as she encounters strangers, snake charmers, shop keepers and various mishaps in her attempt to buy her new goldfish, allowing the audience to experience a uniquely fresh, adventurous, and at times suspenseful journey into childhood.