This is fascinating — a writer for the Iranian Times is complaining about the praise Iranian film gets from Western critics: "I find the uncritical attention given to Iranian cinema by the Western press patronizing and the adoration showered upon it by Iranians living outside of Iran uncritically patriotic." This when Hollywood is cranking out movies so bad that reviewers must be invented to provide quotes for some movies — as if Jeff Craig of "60 Second Preview" wasn’t good enough. A backlash to Iranian film I could understand, but a backlash to praise of Iranian film? Films like Children of Heaven and The Day I Became a Woman are praised for a reason — they’re just good movies. The accusation that the Western press is patronizing seems like it would be true if, say, flaws in Iranian film were glossed over because we should cheer on those plucky Iranians for even having the gumption to make a movie at all. (This attitude does come up now and again in film reviews, but I’ve seen no evidence of it being a universal attitude towards Iranian film; with very little effort, I was able to find a critical review of Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry.)
The second accusation is that Iranian cinema is treated as a monolithic entity. But there are a fair number of Iranian directors coming to Western attention from what isn’t historically known as a cinematic hotspot; of course people are going to treat them as a unified artistic movement. When Ozu, Kurosawa, and Mizoguchi came into prominence in Europe and America, they were treated as representing a somehow-coherent Japanese filmic movement. That’s still a valid way to examine them in relation to each other and Western cinema, even if not, I think, the best way. (Note that I’m saying "Western cinema," as though Mike Leigh had anything to do with Luc Besson other than continent of origin.)
The final complaint is that Iranian films are judged by what appears in the film festivals of America. I lived for two years in Berkeley. The San Francisco Bay Area is probably the second- or third-best place in America to see foreign films. I volunteered at a fine rep theater that showed everything from Fellini to Sembene to foreign films I’ve never heard of before or since. And I can still count the number of Iranian films I’ve seen on my fingers. Critics who like Iranian film presumably have seen more, but until bad Iranian movies start showing up in quantity, Iranian cinema is going to be judged by the best and brightest.
And finally, most Iranian film that I’ve seen has had some unifying artistic elements. It’s almost always a realist portrayal of lower-class Iranian life, although often shot and told in a manner that suggests it’s some sort of parable (see The Apple, say, or The White Balloon). The conflicts and struggles and triumphs tend to be small, human-scale — this film festival guide features a movie with the following description:
Qasem prefers football to homework, and when he hears that the national team is to play in Tehran, he is determined to play hookey and go. By robbing his parents, swindling his schoolmates, and selling off his own team’s gear, he manages a ticket and travelling expenses. However, the grand trip doesn’t quite turn out as planned, to Qasem’s chagrin.
It sounds like nothing, not a story at all. But I bet it’s really good. There may be some sort of expatriate bitterness coming from the Iranian Times writer — I don’t know a thing about the publication or its feelings toward Iran — but as for me, I trust Iranian cinema. I trust the weird frame-breaking of The Mirror. I trust the triptych of thematically linked films about the constraints of Iranian womanhood that make up The Day I Became a Woman. I trust them not to cheat me, not to loop me into emotional involvement with the characters through fraud, not to give me a hollow payoff that was calculated to the decimal point. Trust has to be earned. These movies have earned it.
There’s a Gresham’s Law to movies; the bad will eventually drive out the good, because bad movies — cheating movies — are easier to make. A wave of critical adulation is going to lead to shoddier Iranian movies making appearances in the U.S. And it will be a shame when I have to retract the trust, because movies that deserve it are a treasure, no matter where they come from.