With "A Separation" the reigning Oscar foreign-language winner, Iranian film has perhaps never been more in the global spotlight. And yet with Iran's artists continuing to face free-speech issues, some of its leading directors have never been less willing to make movies there.
"A Separation" director Asghar Farhadi is taking his next production to Paris, where for the first time he will use Europe, not Iran, as his backdrop, in a movie that has him casting French actors such as Marion Cottilard.
Now Abbas Kiarostami, the eminence grise of Iranian cinema, says he too is in no hurry to resume working in his home country. After setting and shooting his last two films far outside the Middle East -- in Italy and Japan -- Kiarostami told 24 Frames the new film he is working on will also be shot and set in a place other than Iran and will feature non-Iranian actors.
"All Iranians have grown up with [free-speech] restrictions," he said in a candid interview with 24 Frames explaining his choice. "But when rules are written, we'd find a way to work around it. You can cope. What's really perverse now is the unsaid and irrational rules that every [government] person creates. I don't want to deal with that."
Kiarostami, 71, has been setting films in Iran for nearly four decades, before and after the country's 1979 revolution, and even during the regime of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. He won the Palme d’Or in 1997 ("Taste of Cherry") and a Venice special jury prize in 1999 ("The Wind Will Carry Us"). For many Westerners, he has become one of the few ways to understand everyday life in Tehran, where foreign media coverage is severely restricted.
But he said his new film, which he is still writing and declined to offer further details about, will follow the pattern of his last two movies and take place elsewhere. He said he might consider making another Iran-set movie at some point in the future, but it is not something he is planning.
The director's most recent effort, "Like Someone In Love," was well received at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival, where it was picked up for U.S. distribution by Sundance Selects. The movie features Kiarostami's slow-burn takes and the subtle shifting of power between characters throughout the course of a scene.
But those looking for a window into Iran will be disappointed -- the film is set in Japan and tells of the relationship between an elderly professor, a call girl and the girl's boyfriend. It follows his 2010 effort, "Certified Copy," which was about a relationship between a French woman and a British man and was set in Tuscany. (We explore how a host of Iranian directors are handling the question of free speech in a recent Sunday Calendar article, which you can read here.)
Asked if there are ways to touch on Iran-specific issues even when making movies in another country -- perhaps by depicting Iranian emigres to other places, such as Los Angeles -- Kiarostami said he had little desire to attempt that either.
"We [Iranians] live in such a bitter situation, and I don't want to make films that are dark and bitter," he said. "It would do too much harm to myself. I don't want to live with darkness and bitterness for six months or a year."
Kiarostami, who continues to reside in Iran, described a situation that remains in flux for many artists. His son, a documentary filmmaker, recently found that his passport had been suspended for a year. When he inquired why, he was told that it was for "a serious crime" but that he wouldn't be given further information, Kiarostami said. The elder Kiarostami said he pushed his son to appeal, but his son is standing pat, afraid the suspension could be extended if he challenged it.
Kiarostami said he does believe other directors can pick up the mantle, noting that even his longtime fellow filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who is officially under a 20-year ban for his attempt to chronicle democracy protests, still managed to make a movie last year (the meta documentary "This Is Not a Film").
"There are talented artists who will find a way," Kiarostami said. "The Panahi case is interesting -- he was able to make a film last year and send it to Cannes." (Though it should be noted that Panahi had to put the movie on a USB drive and smuggle it out of the country hidden inside a cake.)
Kiarostami said he hoped other filmmakers continued making movies in Iran -- particularly younger directors, who he said have more of a stomach for the capricious rules and the effort required to circumvent them.
But he isn't optimistic about those rules changing, in large part because he doesn't feel any changes are forthcoming to the political situation from which the restrictions stem. "The petrol is keeping the country imprisoned," he said, offering a thought popular with many Iran-based democracy advocates.
He added, "The day we run out of petrol is the day Iran will be free."
-- Steven Zeitchik
Photo: Abbas Kiarostami at the Cannes Film Festival last week. Credit: Anne-Christine Poujoulat / AFP/Getty Images