In the darkly prophetic 1991 novel Mao II, Don DeLillo laments a writer’s increasingly shrinking impact in a world shaken to its core by the political violence of terrorists in the Middle East spilling over their borders and spreading elsewhere.
But 20 years later the novel’s most resonant line, “The future belongs to crowds,” took on a more startling, even optimistic spin as throngs of Egyptians, young and old, stormed Cairo’s Tahrir Square, demanding change in mostly peaceful demonstrations, which were largely organized on social networking sites like Facebook. In less than a month of sustained protests, the 30-year reign of Egypt’s President Hosni Mubarak came to an end. Hope for democracy proved to be contagious, as protests erupted in Yemen, Bahrain, Jordan and other flashpoints in the Middle East. Some dictators, like Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, struck back with force.
Before this year’s revolutionary fervor swept through the Middle East, the Iranian-themed films that screened at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival offered revealing glimpses behind the veil of life under Iran’s repressive regime of Islamic fundamentalism.
In their own ways, Iranian-American writer-director Maryam Keshavarz’s feature film debut, Circumstance, Iranian-born Saba Riazi’s short film, The Wind is Blowing on My Street, and Ali Samadi Ahadi’s documentary, The Green Wave, bring personal and cultural dispatches on the realities of Iranian life to striking effect. Simultaneously, this trio of very different films examines the quiet fault lines of discontent coursing through Iran’s cultural landscape.
“Artists are always on the pulse of a society, hopefully, before that society is conscious of what that is,” says the 34-year-old Keshavarz, who has explored the relationship between love and politics in both Circumstance and her 2004 doc, The Color of Love.
Winner of the Audience Award for dramatic feature at Sundance, Circumstance navigates the conflicted familial ties of a teenager experiencing a sexual awakening. The film’s tender lesbian love story plays out against the backdrop of Iran’s burgeoning underground club culture juxtaposed with the strict social mores espoused by the country’s Islamic fundamentalist powers that be.
Developed at both the Sundance Screenwriters and Directors Labs, Circumstance is populated by largely composite characters shaped from the New York-based moviemaker’s own large family in Iran. Filmed in Lebanon during a five-week shoot, the film’s true-to-life characters and their conflicts are grounded in a reality that Keshavarz has seen firsthand during her frequent visits to Iran since she was a child.
“That’s what art does,” says Keshavarz. “It reflects, examines or enlarges certain small things we take for granted. In both the U.S. and Iran, I’ve always been an outsider. I was fascinated by the whole system of how people would navigate the codes and how they get around restrictions to fulfill their dreams and ideas of personal freedom. The film is a love poem to young people who I know in Iran.”
Small aspects of ordinary life take center stage in Riazi’s short film, The Wind is Blowing on My Street, which was shot on location in Tehran. Seen from an insider’s perspective, Riazi’s film centers on a young woman who is accidently locked out of her home without her headscarf. In Iran, a woman can be arrested for not having her head covered, and this unspoken fear drives the film’s quiet tension. The writer-director infuses the story with a dry sense of humor as the woman (played by an unnamed Iranian actress whom the moviemaker cast through mutual friends on Facebook) smokes cigarettes with a sympathetic young man in her neighborhood.
“The idea of public space not being exactly safe, or of not feeling like you belong to it, is something that’s going on in Iran,” says Riazi. “It’s because of this feeling that you feel safer inside. Maybe that’s something that provoked the idea.”
As with Circumstance, the power of Riazi’s short comes from its attention to detail and the quiet nuances of the characters’ body language and gestures on the quiet, mostly empty street that serves as the film’s main location. This lovely short is Riazi’s intermediate film at New York University, where the 28-year-old is working toward her MFA in Film.
“This big shift is happening in the Middle East and it will definitely be reflected in the arts,” says Riazi.
Speaking out as an Iranian moviemaker has its risks. Last December, celebrated director Jafar Panahi (best known for such neorealist films as 1995’s The White Balloon and 2000’s The Circle) and moviemaker Mohammad Rasoulof were both sentenced to six years in prison by the Iranian government. As part of his sentence, Panahi was also banned from making films or traveling abroad for 20 years. Their only “crime” was working on a film about the unrest and protests triggered by Iran’s much-disputed 2009 presidential election. The authorities interpreted their efforts as propaganda “working against the ruling system,” according to the Associated Press.
“Look at the stature of Jafar Panahi,” says Iranian-born visual artist Shirin Neshat. “He’s gone from star to hero overnight because he’s entering the arena of politics, taking a position and refusing to be silent. It’s interesting to see how artists have become so central to cultures that don’t even support culture.”
Fortunately, Ali Samadi Ahadi’s The Green Wave wasn’t silenced. Following in the footsteps of Ari Folman’s 2008 animated documentary Waltz With Bashir, Ahadi’s film blends live-action footage shot with camcorders and cell phones during protests in Tehran with animated sequences that illustrate the tumultuous events following the failed 2009 election.
Skilled veteran artists like Neshat and the younger generation of moviemakers like Keshavarz continue to create bold visions with fresh points of view about Iran and the Middle East in general, a region with which Western audiences are largely unfamiliar. Issues of self-representation and subtle, sociopolitical discourse remain at the heart of the new wave of Iranian cinema.
Keshavarz knows firsthand how important it is for people of Middle Eastern descent to become active participants in the larger dialogue about how the Arab world is portrayed in the media. When the terrorist attacks of 9/11 shocked the world, triggering a backlash against Arabs, Keshavarz—who was pursuing a doctoral degree in Near Eastern Studies focused on Comparative Literature and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan—decided to pick up a movie camera and counter the media’s distorted view of Iranians.
“I decided media is the only way to the masses,” says Keshavarz. “So I left the academic white tower and got in the trenches.”
The result was the 2001 experimental short film Sanctuary, which Keshavarz describes as an expression of pure anger, underscored with bursts of surrealism. The 16mm film about an Iranian woman grappling with the aftermath of 9/11 won the Steve Tisch Fellowship, enabling Keshavarz to pursue her MFA in Film Direction at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. Circumstance is her thesis film.
There is no question that the most important and critically-acclaimed voice among Iranian women directors is New York-based Neshat, whose lyrical and deeply moving adaptation of Shahrnush Parsipur’s novel, Women Without Men, won the Silver Lion Award for Best Director at the 2009 Venice Film Festival.
“There are a lot of parallels between Egypt and Iran,” says Neshat, who traveled to Egypt just before the revolution to do research for her next film, a biopic of celebrated Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum.
“What happened in Tunisia unleashed that level of fear,” Neshat says. “My friend [Egyptian director] Yousry Nasrallah wrote, ‘Now the fear is broken and there is no way to put it back the way it was.’ The revolution came very organically and spontaneously without a lot of planning, while in Iran the opposition group has been working against the government for years now.”
Women Without Men, which screened at Sundance in 2010, looks back at the Iranian political coup of 1953 through the eyes of four women who find refuge in a mysterious garden. The film’s subtext of opposites in conflict, sexuality and politics also offers a critique on how that momentous turning point in Iranian history planted the seeds for future revolutions.
With its stunning visual palette and surrealist stratagems, Women Without Men is simultaneously a work of cinematic poetry and a call for political action aimed at the audience—and Iranians in particular—to make their voices heard. So it’s no surprise that Neshat dedicated her film “to the memory of those who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and democracy in Iran, from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to the Green Movement of 2009.”
“With [Women Without Men], I entered a place with a new audience,” says Neshat. “The power of cinema is that it can tap into popular culture in a way that the art world can’t. Now my work has more visibility; I’m part of the dialogue. Iranian moviemakers are really central to sociopolitical discussion.
“This is a very interesting time to be an Iranian filmmaker,” Neshat continues. “I think that the Iranian people are now depending on their filmmakers to tell their stories, to communicate and to inspire. We are going through a hard time with the oppression that exists under this government and we are feeling the need to be supportive of each other. Artists are another way of creating a sense of unity.” MM

Neil Kendricks is a San Diego-based artist, moviemaker and writer. He is also the film curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, and is currently in production on the feature-length documentary Comics Are Everywhere.