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30 Essential Iranian Films to Watch in Honor of Nowruz (Persian New Year)!

23 March 2015 3:18 PM, PDT | Sydney's Buzz | See recent Sydney's Buzz news »

In the political discourse, when a country addresses another, whether in positive or negative terms, such statements often fail to differentiate between said country’s government and its people, between the government’s policies and the people’s unheard sentiment towards these.

While useful in the theoretical realm in which politics take place, these generalizations create a distorted image of the foreign nation fed by assumptions and dangerously insensitive stereotypes.  It’s much easier for rulers to justify their actions if the adversary is made out to look like an irredeemable villain. Sensationalism and ignorance are weapons far more destructive than missiles, because once the smoke dissipates hatred remains.

On that note, it should be clear that the Iranian people are not the Iranian government. Their rich cultural history is not reflected in the actions of those in power, but in the prevailing elegance and allure of their artwork. Remarkable poets, musicians, painters, and, what we are mostly concerned with here, filmmakers.

The history of Iranian cinema is vast and has survived the many transitions and troubling periods the country has experienced. Even more impressive is the fact that as masterfully as Iranian filmmakers and actors understand the medium, they have never watered down their individuality for the sake of mainstream international success. Instead, they’ve managed to create their unique cinematic language that aligns with their idiosyncrasies and that is not silenced despite the hardships they face, but finds a way around censorship or defies it altogether.

Certainly not a definitive list, the following collection of films aims to be an introduction to the compelling and diverse voices within this captivating national cinema and to encourage you to seek out other films in the future. There are films here that are concerned with rural and working class lifestyles, others that focus on the traditions of ethnic minorities, those that deal with the modern middle class, and also several works denouncing the country’s political situation and the oppression that comes with it.

There are also some films that are note worthy even if they don’t easily fit within the parameters of what an Iranian film is.

Special Mentions:

-Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour and her outstanding Farsi-language debut “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” a visually striking vampire story set in a fictional Iranian town.

-American filmmaker Till Schauder and his documentary “The Iran Job,” which follows Kevin Sheppard, an American professional basketball player in Iran, and uses his experience to build cultural bridges between the two countries.

-Farhadi’s “The Past,” which though is not precisely an Iranian story, continues to show the director’s specific talent for greatly written, puzzling narratives both in his home country and abroad.

-Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud's “Chicken with Plums,” a gorgeously whimsical and darkly comedic love story set in pre-revolutionary Tehran starring Mathieu Amalric.

Lastly, in honor of Nowruz or Persian New Year, which is a peaceful celebration of renewal and rebirth that takes place from March 20-24 in Iran and Iranian communities around the world, let’s remember the deeply moving and wise words that Asghar Farhadi gifted us during his acceptance speech on Oscar night a few years back. No one could have said it better than him.

“At this time many Iranians all over the world are watching us, and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award, or a film, or a filmmaker, but because at a time in which talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, a people that respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment. Thank you so much.” –Director Asghar Farhadi after winning the Best Foreign Language Film Academy Award for “A Separation” on February 26, 2012

1. "About Elly" (2009)

Dir. Asghar Farhadi

In Farhadi's tense psychological drama a casual trip to the sea evolves into a subtly plotted mystery. The director's depiction of the Iranian middle class in such a fascinatingly unexpected story connected with both local and international audiences earning him awards at home and abroad, among them Berlin's Silver Bear.

*The Cinema Guild will release the film theatrically on April 17, 2015

2. "Baran" (2001)

Dir. Majid Majidi

Taking a look at the diverse ethnic groups that coexist in Iran, the film follows a love story between a man and a young Afghan woman who must pretend to be a man in order to work. Eliciting truly naturalistic performance from his cast Majidi gives voice to his almost silent protagonist, a woman caught up in a system designed by men.

*Available on Netflix Instant Watch

3. "Children of Heaven" (1997)

Dir. Majid Majidi

Iran's first ever Academy Award nominated film is also Majidi's most renowned work. Innocence permeates this sweet story about two siblings from a working class family trying to find a pair of missing shoes. Their adventure delivers valuable life lessons that are at once heartwarming and profound. Unquestionably a classic.  

*Available on Netflix Instant Watch and on DVD from Lionsgate

4. "Closed Curtain" (2013)

Dir. Jafar Panahi & Kambuzia Partovi

In this enigmatic observation on repression and surveillance an anonymous screenwriter, played by co-director Kambuzia Partovi, hides with his dog in a secluded location. Eventually, as other surprising characters appear, the film becomes a complex dance between reality and fabrication. Both filmmakers had their passports confiscated by the Iranian government due to the  subversive content of the film.

*Available on Amazon Instant Video

5. "Close-Up" (1990)

Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

In one of the greatest examples of reality and fiction blending in almost seamless ways, Abbas Kiarostami's masterwork poses complex questions about identity. When a film buff impersonates his favorite director, who happens to Mohsen Makhmalbaf , a series of events unravel as he plans his next, fake, film. Surreally enough the film is based on a true story and stars the actual people involved. It's all brilliantly meta. 

*Available on Blu-ray & DVD from Criterion

6. "The Color of Paradise" (1999)

Dir. Majid Majidi

Though rejected by his father, a young blind boy rejoices in nature’s beauty and tries to understand the meaning of his struggles with the help of a mentor with the same condition. Showcasing Iran’s visually stunning rural landscapes and delicately embedding with philosophical concerns, Majidi’s poetic film delivers wisdom in wondrously unassuming ways.  

*Available on DVD from Sony Pictures Classics

7. "The Cow" (1969)

Dir. Dariush Mehrjui

Considered a turning point in the nation’s cinematic history, this black-and-white work revolves around a man’s devotion for his cow and how its disappearance drives him into madness. While seemingly simple in its conception, Mehrjui manages to compellingly highlight the country’s traditional lifestyles.  

*Available on DVD from First Run Features

8. "Fireworks Wednesday" (2006)

Dir. Asghar Farhadi

Intimate conflicts in the Iranian middle class are Farhadi’s expertise and this domestic drama, set fittingly during the celebrations prior to the Persian New Year, is no exception. When a soon-to-be bride in need of money for her wedding gets a job cleaning a family’s house, their secrets begin to unravel through their interaction and confrontations.

*Available on DVD from Facets

9. "Gabbeh" (1996)

Dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Taking its name from a type of Persian carpet, this stunningly evocative fable is adorned with mysticism and magical realist elements that shine through its colorful visual palette.  Gabbeh, a young nomadic woman who is likely the incarnation of one of these traditional rugs, falls in love with horseman, but her community follows beliefs that hinder her desire.

*Available on DVD from New Yorker Video

10. "The Green Wave" (2010)

Dir. Ali Samadi Ahadi

Told through striking animated sequences, interviews and footage from the protests, this documentary constructs a bold portrait of the 2009 Green Movement following Ahmadinejad’s reelection. The regime's strong grip over its citizens is exposed, but the spirit of the Iranian people demanding change is even stronger.

*Available on DVD from Strand Releasing

11. "Hamoun" (1990)

Dir. Dariush Mehrjui

Underscored by subdued comedy and poignant dream sequences, Mehrjui’s visionary drama centers on the decaying relationship between Hamoun, a businessman with hopes of becoming a writer, and his wife Mahshid, a painter. Insanity takes over him when she decides to divorce him because of his angry outbursts. A series of drastic occurrences ensue.  

*Available on DVD from First Run Features

12. "Kandahar" (2001)

Dir. Mohsen Makhmalbaf

Despite being set in Afghanistan, this Iranian production is a powerful achievement that unveils the unjust treatment of women, not only under the Taliban’s control, but also in the entire region. Nafas, an Afghan women living in Canada, decides to return to her homeland to find her depressed sister. Through this dangerous journey she discovers much more about life in the war-torn country than she expected.

*Available on DVD from New Yorker Video

13. "Leila" (1997)

Dir. Dariush Mehrjui

Starting famous Iranian actress Leila Hatami in one her earliest roles as a married woman unable to have children, this conjugal drama explores the role of women within Iranian society. Leila’s husband, Reza (played by “The Past” star Ali Mosaffa), loves her, but his mother wants him to get another wife that can give him a son. The title character is divided between her happiness and what others think is best for her marriage.

*Available on DVD from First Run Features

14. "Manuscripts Don't Burn" (2013)

Dir. Mohammad Rasoulof

Rasoulof’s brave and searing political statement was shot illegally going against the20-year-ban from filmmaking imposed on him by the Iranian government. It denounces the terrifying lack of freedom of expression via the thrilling story a pair of writers risking it all to protect an incendiary manuscript that authorities are eager to destroy.

*Available on Netflix Instant Watch and on DVD from Kino Lorber

15. "Marooned in Iraq" (2002)

Dir. Bahman Ghobadi

Highlighting the rich Kurdish culture, both in Iran and Iraq, Ghobadi’s film is set in the aftermath of the ravaging Gulf War. Marooned is an elderly man who must travel across the mountainous landscape that divides the two countries to find his ex-wife. While portraying the horrors of war in an affecting manner, the film is also a life-affirming work that finds hope in the most surprising places.

*Available on DVD from Wellspring

16. "My Tehran for Sale"

Dir. Granaz Moussavi

Devastating and current, this debut feature from renowned poet turned filmmaker Granaz Moussavi is a hard-hitting critique on the blatant criminalization of artists in Iran. An actress banned from her profession questions whether she should remain in the country or flee. Getting to safety means leaving everything she knows behind. There are no easy options for her.

*Available on DVD from Global Lens

17. "No One Knows About Persian Cats" (2009)

Dir. Bahman Ghobadi

Music as the banner of freedom is the focus of Ghobadi’s film about the underground rock scene in Tehran. Secular music is essentially forbidden, and playing in public is considered a criminal act punished with prison. Crafted between reality and fiction, this quasi-documentary takes a look at a group of young musicians desperate to express themselves through their art.

*Available on DVD from Mpi Home Video

18. "Offside" (2006)

Dir. Jafar Panahi

Attending sporting events is prohibited for women in Iran, but that doesn’t stop many of them who go as far as to dress like men to get in. Panahi’s touching and insightful film takes place during the 2006 World Cup Qualifying match between Iran and Bahrain, and follows several girls who despite being excluded cheer for their team as joyfully as any fan would.

*Available on DVD from Sony  Pictures Classics

19. "Persepolis" (2007)

Dir. Marjane Satrapi & Vincent Paronnaud

Nominated for the Best Animated Feature Oscar, this French-language marvel is based on Satrapi’s autobiographical graphic novel by the same name. With eye-popping hand-drawn animation, the film revisits the director’s childhood and teenage years in Iran during the events leading up to the Islamic Revolution. It’s a love letter to the bittersweet memories of the Iran Satrapi knew.

*Available on Blu-ray & DVD from Sony  Pictures Classics

20. "A Separation" (2011)

Dir. Asghar Farhadi

Dealing with a marriage in turmoil facing the country's peculiar judicial system, Farhadi’s masterpiece is the most acclaimed film in the history of Iranian cinema and earned the country's first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It was also nominated for Best Original Screenplay for its enthralling thriller-like narrative that grips the audience until its unnerving conclusion. A must see! 

*Available on Blu-ray & DVD from Sony  Pictures Classics

21. "The Song of Sparrows" (2008)

Dir. Majid Majidi

When Karim (played by Berlin’s Silver Bear Winner Reza Naji), an ostrich farm worker, is forced to find a new job in the city to pay for his daughter’s hearing aid, Iran’s rural and urban realms collide. Thanks to the captivating grace that characterizes Majidi’s films, poverty and misfortune are observed here not with pity but with an optimistic and undefeated perspective.

*Available on DVD from E1 Entertainment

22." Taste of Cherry" (1997)

Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

This quiet and minimalist meditation on death and the simple joys of its antithesis is the first and only Iranian film to have won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes. Kiarostami follows a man who has decided to commit suicide and is looking for someone to help him achieve this. However, those he recruits along the way come with their own views on the meaning of our existence and attempt to persuade him to reconsider.   

*Available on DVD from Criterion

23. "Ten" (2002)

Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

A female cabbie drives through the streets of Tehran picking up an array of characters that via their casual conversations shine a light on the Iranian society’s expectations of women. Constructed of ten individual scenes in which the only constant is the driver, this heavily improvised and peculiarly shot cinematic experiment is a work of fiction embedded with truth in every frame.

*Available on DVD from Zeitgeist Films

24. "This is Not a Film" (2011)

Dir. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb & Jafar Panahi

In an effort to tell his story despite being banned from filmmaking and under house arrest, filmmaker Jafar Panahi takes his frustration and ingeniously turns it into a courageous visual statement. Whether is shooting video with his cell phone or blocking an imaginary scene in his living room, his passion for storytelling is resilient even when confronting such suffocating censorship.

*Available on Netflix Instant Watch and on DVD from Palisades Tartan

25. "A Time for Drunken Horses" (2000)

Dir. Bahman Ghobadi

With the snow-covered Zagros Mountains as backdrop, Ghobadi’s debut feature tells the story of Ayoub, a young Kurdish boy who must provide for his siblings after their mother’s death. Added to the already difficult circumstances, his handicapped brother desperately needs a surgery. This pushes the heroic kid to persevere against all odds in the hostile environment.

*Available on Netflix Instant Watch and on DVD from Kino Lorber

26. "Turtles Can Fly" (2004)

Dir. Bahman Ghobadi

Commanding a cast made almost entirely of children Ghobadi sets his film in an Iraqi Kurdish refugee camp just before the American occupation of 2003. Making a living by clearing the hazardous minefields that surround them, a group of orphan children create a small community to survive. The atrocities of war are ever-present, but like in most of the director’s works, the triumph of the human spirit is at the film's core.

*Available on Amazon Instant Video

27. "The White Balloon" (1995)

Dir. Jafar Panahi

Written by Kiarostami and directed by Panahi this is another film set during the important Persian New Year celebrations. It centers on a little girl trying to convince her parents to buy her a goldfish and who gets in a couple mishaps along the way. With utmost innocence, the seemingly simple premise manages to be a charming delight that showcases family values and ancient virtues with a nice dose of humor. It’s an uplifting gem.

*Sadly the film is not curently availble in any format in the U.S. Hopefully Criterion or another distributor will fix this soon.

28. "The White Meadows" (2009)

Dir. Mohammad Rasoulof

While ethereal, almost otherworldly imagery achieved by cinematographer Ebrahim Ghafori is reason enough to see this film, Rasoulof’s poetic storytelling elevates it to even greater intellectual heights. By using a barren coastal land and its inhabitant as a metaphor for the intolerance and injustice that many of his compatriots -creative people in particular - confront everyday, the filmmaker denounces these evils through melancholic beauty.

*Available on DVD from Global Lens

29. "The Willow Tree" (2005)

Dir. Majid Majidi

A writer, who had been blinded in an accident as a child, regains his vision as a middle aged adult only to be challenged by a world that has become foreign to him. At first, his miraculous new situation appears to be an answer to a prayer, but Majidi soon shows us how vision can become a curse in this spiritual drama about fate and regret. Exquisitely shot and sporting visceral performances, the film is both heart-rending and though provoking.

*Available on DVD from New Yorker Films

30. "The Wind Will Carry Us" (1999)

Dir. Abbas Kiarostami

Taking the audience on a trip to an untainted region of Iran where tradition hasn’t yet been disrupted by modernity, the acclaimed director crafted another unforgettable experience. Sublimely executed, the film joins four journalists pretending to be engineers as they document the funerary rituals of the local Kurdish people. More than learning about them as researchers, their interactions force them to engage on a much more human level.

*Availble on Blu-ray and DVD from Cohen Media Group »

- Carlos Aguilar

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