“In the total darkness, poetry is still there, and it is there for you.” – Abbas Kiarostami
Although it is generally noted that the Iranian New Wave Cinema was at its peak after the Iranian revolution of 1979 when Shah Mohammad Reza was replaced by an Islamic republic under the Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian New Wave actually began almost two decades before the revolution. Films of this period moved away from the industrially produced works and began to resemble social documentaries which investigated the cultural problems that the population faced on a daily basis.
This movement is usually broken down into three distinct waves, with the Second Wave being the most internationally recognised. Iranian New Wave Cinema is often compared to Italian neorealism but many critics have already pointed out that the films had their own characteristic aesthetic styles. The special cinematic language championed by the Iranian New Wave examines the nature of the cinematic medium itself, blurring the lines between the fiction of feature films and the reality of documentary filmmaking.
One of the leading figures of the Second New Wave, Abbas Kiarostami once said, “Each movie has an ID or birth certificate of its own. A movie is about human beings, about humanity. All the different nations in the world, despite their differences of appearance and religion and language and way of life, still have one thing in common, and that is what’s inside of all of us. If we X-rayed the insides of different human beings, we wouldn’t be able to tell from those X-rays what the person’s language or background or race is.
“Our blood circulates exactly the same way, our nervous system and our eyes work the same way, we laugh and cry the same way, we feel pain the same way. The teeth we have in our mouths—no matter what our nationality or background is—ache exactly the same way. If we want to divide cinema and the subjects of cinema, the way to do it is to talk about pain and about happiness. These are common among all countries.”
As a part of our weekly spotlight on world cinema, we take a look at some of the definitive works from the Iranian New Wave in order to understand the unique artistic sensibilities of this important movement in the history of cinema.
10 essential films from the Iranian New Wave:
Pre-cursors to Iranian New Wave cinema
The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad – 1962)
Only 22 minutes long, The House is Black is set in a leper colony in the north of Iran and tries to search for the beauty of creation in a neglected society where ugliness has become a health condition. It splices the harrowing footage with Farrokhzad’s narration of quotes from the Old Testament, the Koran and her own poetry. While filming the short piece, she became attached to a child of two lepers, whom she later adopted.
In an interview with Bernardo Bertolucci, Farrokhzad said, “An intellectual is one who, besides trying for the external development of life, tries for the spiritual advancement, for the improvement of the moral issues. And he looks at these issues, thinks about them and solves them for himself. More than those who perform a series of…technical or economical actions.”
Brick and Mirror (Ebrahim Golestan – 1964)
Often considered to be the first modern masterpiece of Iranian Cinema, Ebrahim Golestan’s poetic feature film tells the story of a taxi driver who finds a baby child in the back seat of his cab one night after he gives a ride to a young lady. He and his girlfriend try to decide what to do with this unwanted child as the film establishes what the word “human” means in a changed world.
Influenced by Michelangelo Antonioni’s works and other European films of the 1950s and 1960s, Golestan uses the modernist flourishes to present a metaphysical investigation of ethical dilemmas. It uses specific patterns of silence and dialogue to transcend the realm of words and reach the heights of cinematic poetry.
The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui – 1969)
Based on Gholam-Hossein Saedi’s own play and novel, The Cow is often cited by critics as the first film of the Iranian New Wave. A highly symbolic work, it examines the rural impoverishment under the rule of the Shah through an allegorical story about a man from a small Iranian village who loves his cow more than anything else. When it mysteriously dies, he starts identifying with the cow and believes that it lives on inside him.
Over the years, The Cow has been lauded for its explorations of Marxist theories of social alienation. It satirises the economical exploitation of nature and the superstitious nature of the rural population and it does all of this and more just by presenting a deceptively simple story about a man and his cow.
Qeysar (Masoud Kimiai – 1969)
Masoud Kimiai’s 1969 crime drama created a new trend of broody noir films in Iranian Cinema which played with the subject of family honour and revenge. Transitioning between cinema verité and the stylistic preferences of spaghetti westerns, Qeysar stars Iranian Clint Eastwood Behrouz Vossoughi who sets out to avenge the disparaged honour of his sister.
Kimiai reflected, “My views on cinema in those days were completely different from the common understanding of cinema in Iran. Still, when I finished making Qeysar, I couldn’t imagine the effect it would have on society. When it comes to people or critics’ reaction to a work, nothing can be anticipated.
“The truth is that no conscious, pre-planned movement would ever work in cinema — some spontaneity is always needed. But it is true that I couldn’t see myself as a part of the Iranian cinema of that period. Things were ready for me.”
Still Life (Sohrab Shahid Saless – 1974)
This 1974 drama is a minimalistic look at the fundamentally isolated nature of our existence through the lens of an ageing crossing guard who has worked at a desolate train station for more than three decades. It questions the monotony of our lives, destroying the binaries of the cinematic and the real. The film was entered into the 24th Berlin International Film Festival, where it won the Silver Bear.
“In Still Life, women are women-objects that are used when they’re there and whose absence has no importance,” the filmmaker said. “This refers to a certain tradition in our country and elsewhere which assigns women a reproductive role. She has no other choice.”
Close-Up (Abbas Kiarostami – 1990)
Arguably the greatest filmmaker of the Iranian New Wave, Abbas Kiarostami masterfully blurs the distinctions between fiction and non-fiction, between fantasy and reality in his postmodern docudrama, Close-Up. Profoundly meta-fictional in nature, Kiaorostami examines the performative roles all of us play with the precision of a surgeon and the delicate touch of a poet.
Based on true events, Kiarostami emphasises on the ‘creation’ part of a reconstruction that features the tragic story of an unemployed aspiring filmmaker, Hossein Sabzian. Close-Up is a beautiful yet unsettling cinematic psychoanalysis of an ordinary man.
The director explained, “In this type of cinema, whether working with actors or non-actors, as much as you do direct them, if you allow yourself to be directed by them, then the end result will be much more pleasing. The real and individual strengths of the actors is allowed to be expressed and is something that does affect the audience very deeply.”
A Moment of Innocence (Mohsen Makhmalbaf – 1996)
One of the most brilliant films on this list as well as the history of Iranian cinema, A Moment of Innocence is a semi-autobiographical account of the filmmaker’s own experiences as a seventeen-year-old rebel who stabbed a policeman at a protest rally and was arrested. Two decades later, Makhmalbaf tries to recreate the events on cinema. It is a beautiful narrative experiment which deconstructs what cinema means without any of the smug arrogance that is usually associated with such deconstructions.
Makhmalbaf said, “After the revolution, I went to the cinema and I realised that cinema is a better tool for changing society. After prison and the revolution, I was amazed [to find] that we had a problem in our culture.
“It’s not only in politics—we changed our king, we changed the system, but we were not able to change our culture. So I thought it would be better if I changed my position from politics to art, and towards changing people’s minds through art and the camera.”
Children of Heaven (Majid Majidi – 1997)
Majid Majidi’s 1997 drama has been compared to Vittorio de Sica’s 1948 masterpiece Bicycle Thieves and for good reason. It tells the story of two siblings, Ali and Zahra, who set out on a funny and heartwarming adventure after Ali accidentally loses his sister’s shoes. The film was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film but ultimately lost to Roberto Benigni’s Life is Beautiful.
Majidi explained why he prefers to observe the world from the perspective of children.”The world of children, is the world of purity and sincerity… they believe whatever you tell them.” He also added, “Children’s innocence will have an impact on adults, and that’s what I always want to express.”
A Time for Drunken Horses (Bahman Ghobadi – 2000)
A co-winner of the Caméra d’Or award at the Cannes Film Festival, this extraordinary drama was filmed in the director’s native village with brilliant non-professionals. It follows a family of five who are forced to survive on their own in a Kurdish village on the border of Iran after their father dies, depicting their daily struggles.
Ghobadi said, “My movie is for the Kurdish people. There is about 30 million Kurdish people spread out by wars over the years to Iran, Iraq, Turkey and Syria, although they originated in Iran. Only about 10-20,000 are involved with the fighting in Kurdistan.
“I’m not taking sides about the war between the people. I don’t like politics. That’s why I’m not a political filmmaker. I only want to make movies about my people, the reality of the Kurdish people, which is not about the wars, but a more positive truth.”
A Separation (Asghar Farhadi – 2011)
The most recent example of Iranian New wave sensibilities on this list, Asghar Farhadi’s psychologically complex household drama explores the social implications of the institution of marriage through the conflicts which a middle-class couple faces. Mahmood Kalari’s intimate cinematography and the ethical nuances of the narrative make it a remarkable descendant of the Iranian New Wave.
A Separation was the first Iranian film to win the Golden Bear. It won the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Film and it earned an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Screenplay, the first non-English film in five years to achieve this.
Farhadi commented, “This kind of film allows the audience to discover by himself/herself – I see that as a modern art; an art in which the artist doesn’t look at its audience from a superior level and it does not impose its viewpoint on the viewer.
“If you give an answer to your viewer, your film will simply finish in the movie theatre. But when you pose questions, your film actually begins after people watch it. In fact, your film will continue inside the viewer. The important thing is to think and give the viewer the opportunity to think. In Iran, more than anything else at the moment we need the audience to think.”