Films That Explain Modern Iran

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Anahit Behrooz

Iranian filmmakers are confronted by enormous obstacles. All movies are subjected to intense scrutiny by the Ministry of Culture to insure they adhere to strict cultural, moral, and religious codes. Despite restrictions, the directors of the Iranian New Wave have made many powerful movies that test the limits of control.

About Elly (2009)

On the surface, Asghar Farhadi’s About Elly is a psychological drama depicting the dynamics among several university friends who travel to the Caspian Sea for a three-day vacation. On a deeper level, it’s a complex examination of Iranian middle-class life. It poses provocative questions about group interactions, moral choices, and above all, the culture of secrecy and dishonesty engendered by a tightly-wound and closely-monitored society.

Bashu, the Little Stranger (1989)

Bahram Beyzaie is well-known for engaging with and subverting traditional Persian art and culture in order to question Iran‘s current socio-political landscape. 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. It tells the story of a young boy who, orphaned during the Iran-Iraq War, slowly begins to find his place in a family that accepts him as one of its own.

Children of Heaven (1997)

Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven was the first Iranian film to be nominated for the Best Foreign Language film Oscar. It tells the story of little Ali, who loses his sister Zahra’s shoes. Knowing their family is poor, the siblings try to conceal the loss of the shoes until they can get them back. Their ploys include sharing Ali’s shoes between classes and competing in a race for a new pair of sneakers. This is a touching and uplifting movie about compassion and familial bonds.

No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009)

Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats was co-written by the journalist Roxana Saberi, who was accused of espionage and imprisoned in Iran in 2009. It’s about two young musicians who break the law by trying to set up an underground rock band in Tehran. The movie is a stirring attack on the regime’s censoring of the arts, as well as a celebration of a generation of young people determined to fight for creative freedom.

Offside (2006)

Women have long been banned from attending soccer matches in Iran. Jafar Panahi’s Offside depicts the events that unfold when a girl disguises herself to attend a World Cup qualifying game and winds up in a holding pen with other female fans. Their passion for soccer is contrasted with their guards’ disinterest in their jobs. Most of them don’t care if the women see the match or not. The film raises questions about the real reasons for oppression of this kind. Unsurprisingly, it was banned in Iran.

Santouri (2007)

Santouri harrowingly depicts a talented musician’s descent into heroin addiction. Director Dariush Mehrjui juxtaposes the violence and misery of santour player Ali’s addiction with flashbacks to his once happy marriage and initial forays into playing his instrument (a kind of dulcimer). “Playing the santour” is Iranian slang for injecting heroin.


A Separation (2011)

A Separation is a devastating drama about a married couple faced with an impossible dilemma: whether to move abroad to give their daughter a good education or to stay at home to care for the husband’s ailing father. Asghar Farhadi’s film, one of the most successful ever made in Iran, investigates issues of religion, gender, and class, and exposes the growing cracks in a society that values the wealthy male voice above all others. It became the first Iranian film to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language film and was also nominated for the Best Original Screenplay Oscar.

This Is Not a Film (2011)

Long considered a thorn in the side of Iran‘s authoritarian regime, Jafar Panahi – the director of such acclaimed films as The White Balloon, The Mirror, Crimson Gold, and Offside – was arrested and sentenced to a six-year prison sentence in 2010. He was also banned from making films for 20 years. His response was to document his life under house arrest in This Is Not a film, which was smuggled out of the country in a USB drive buried in a cake. A defiant celebration of his unstoppable creative drive, it was screened at the Cannes film Festival.

Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987)

A deceptively simple tale about the quest of a little boy to return his friend’s notebook, Where Is the Friend’s Home was directed by Abbad Kiarostami. It celebrates acts of everyday heroism, the kindness and innocence of children, and the communal spirit in rural areas. It was performed mostly by non-professionals. Kiaroastami’s death in 2016 was a profound loss for Iranian cinema.

‘Where is the Friend’s Home’

The White Balloon (1995)

Combining the talents of two of Iran‘s greatest contemporary filmmakers, Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, The White Balloon depicts a little girl’s endearing and comic attempts to secure a brand new goldfish for her family’s celebration of Eid Nowrouz. The story is told entirely through the young protagonist’s eyes and explores her developing perception of the world as she deals with various mishaps and encounters snake charmers, shopkeepers, and others.
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