In recent years, more and more Iranian films have found distribution in America. Not only does this exchange result in welcome exposure to another culture, but it has introduced Americans to many talented Iranian directors, including Abbas Kiarostami (Taste Of Cherry), Mohsen Makhmalbaf (Gabbeh), and Majid Majidi (The Father). Like the minds behind other great film movements, such as Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave, these filmmakers have more in common than just their nationality. Majidi's latest movie Children Of Heaven, like the work of many of his contemporaries, captures poverty and politics through the eyes of children, inspiring many people to compare it to the classic The Bicycle Thief, or even fellow Iranian director Jafar Sassani's recent The White Balloon. The reason for this focus on children is practical as well as artistic: By aiming their movies at younger audiences, Iranian directors are all but assured of financing through the government's Center for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The Onion recently spoke to Majidi (via a translator) about his film, the freedoms of a filmmaker in Iran, and the uneasy relationship between his country and the U.S.
The Onion: Politically, has it become easier to make films in Iran in recent years than it may have been in the past?
Majid Majidi: One of the key changes was the election of the new president, President Khatami. He used to be the Minister of Culture and Guidance, and he played a vital role in developing Iranian cinema and internationalizing it. Now that he's become president, he's paying the same sort of attention to cinema. That's what's made us hopeful that there will be even more international success for Iranian films, and that there will be a new generation of Iranian filmmakers whose talents will bloom in the future.
O: Very few Iranian films make it to America, for many different reasons. How much is out there that Americans may not know about because we don't have access to it?
MM: Your assessment is quite correct that you may not have a complete picture of the real Iranian cinema here. In our country, we make anywhere from 70 to 80 movies a year, and I would say that 40 to 50 of them are the kind of movies that you would call "neutral." Neutral in the sense that they don't do anything for you; they just produce cheap thrills and entertainment, similar to a lot of Hollywood films that are just like fast food. They're there for fast consumption and don't really impact the audience one way or another. They're only made to make money. But we have about 20 to 30 filmmakers, directors, and they are responsible for the prestige and success of Iranian cinema as enjoyed outside of Iran. These directors, every year they make about 10 to 15 good, decent movies, and these are the movies that tend to go outside of Iran to foreign audiences. But the kind of arenas that those movies end up in are mostly film festivals or film clubs. Rarely do they penetrate into the real film market. I truly believe that the ultimate success is when you make the breakthrough to the real film market and become part of mainstream film, internationally. It's nice to have limited exposure, but that's not how you make it.
O: Do you think this cultural exchange has helped Americans better understand what Iran is about, as opposed to what the American government has said it's like?
MM: The Iranian president, President Khatami, made a speech at the U.N. last year and suggested that the year 2001 should be designated as the year for a dialogue between the [U.S. and Iran]. I clearly believe that art is the best language for civilizations, as opposed to politics. The language of politics, and politics itself, has always created wedges between people and enhanced differences between people. But the cultural and artistic language of our civilization has always acted the other way: It has always brought people together. Also, politics always produces transitory results. There may be big changes, but the changes don't always last for a long time, whereas the impact produced through art and culture is a big one that will last much longer. Basically, culture and art are based on common characteristics between people. No matter what country or culture you're from, you always believe in friendship, you always believe in human values, and you always believe in peace. These are the basic values that everybody believes in, and we can demonstrate those values and have them permeate through cultural and artistic manifestations.
O: Because every nation has poverty, why was it so controversial in Iran to display poverty in Children Of Heaven?
MM: A lot of the problem was that the audience for the film was supposed to be children, and the Institute's mission is to produce works of art that generate positive results, that impact children in positive ways. So the concern was that poverty, by its nature, is not something that should be celebrated. But my point was that I'm not just showing poverty for the sake of poverty. It's not a big deal to just put your camera somewhere and record an instance of poverty. That was never my intention. I was trying to use poverty as a dramatic device in the film. I was just using it to get to something else. I explained that the kind of poverty I show in the film is very dignified. You may not see that in the script, but there are so many elements at work, such as acting, photography, and music—symbolic touches that may not be in the script but will be part of the finished film. It just so happened that I was right, and the film was very successful in Iran. It broke box-office records and won several top awards in our equivalent of the Academy Awards. The producers had thought that there was no market for a script like this, and when the film was made, it revealed that, yes, there was a market for it.