My friend Mike Hertenstein has outdone himself and written a wonderful review of Dariush Mahrjui’s landmark Iranian film The Cow (1969) as part of his coverage of the Chicago International Film Festival, and to commemorate the film’s release this week on DVD:
“An awareness of at least two sides to every story is a hallmark for Mehrjui ó even a burden; as a director schooled in the West, Mehrjui has been especially attuned to both sides of the old conflict between city and country, clearly overlaid for him with the contrast between Iran and the West. His career after The Cow seems both driven and affected by the multiple worlds he has tried to occupy. Mehrjui tried to continue working under the Shah’s schizoid policy of support and banning, then bounced himself between the West and Iran as his nation swerved violently into Islamic Revolution. It is said that a viewing of The Cow converted the Ayatollah Khomeini from a traditional Muslim resistance to cinema to a believer in the “educational” possibilities of film; it took further convincing before the clerics were to allow film directors to go back to being artists and not propagandists. But by the mid-1980s, the way was opened for the first blossoming of the New Iranian Cinema. The pressing need to navigate the Islamic Production Code had actually helped create a national cinema that took the film world by surprise, and even by storm.”
You can read the full article, here.
Like Andrei Tarkovsky and so many other filmmakers working in countries with censorial governments (or distribution industries), Mehrjui’s story illustrates why the international film community and its various festivals are so crucial in spreading depictions of reality, supporting the artists, and calling for social renewal. Although Tarkovsky had a notoriously difficult time making films and getting them distributed in Russia, his international prestige allowed him a greater degree of liberty than, say, a filmmaker like Sergei Paradjanov, who was sent to a hard labor gulag in Siberia for several years. (Where he would have stayed indefinitely had the international film community not loudly petitioned for his release.) Other Soviet-era filmmaker fared even worse.
Similarly, many films deemed “non-commercial” in the US for their political or artistic challenges have benefitted enormously from international acclaim. From a whole slew of international “art house” films to an American film like Fahrenheit 9/11, many movies have been distributed in the US almost purely on account of their international notoriety.
The beauty of international prestige is how dissident filmmakers become both a source of pride and a target of vitriol for their governments. The more such a filmmaker is suppressed, the more famous he or she simply becomes.
Incidentally, this is one of of the reasons why I was so thoroughly underwhelmed with Zhang Yimou’s Hero (and skipped The House of Flying Daggers at TIFF), because I was truly disheartened to see such a fine, dissident filmmaker, who had spent years throughout the ’80s fighting to make socially-challenging dramas in China and establishing his artistic independence, reverting to a piece of dialogue-light, escapist eye-candy extolling the virtues of the state. The embattled director of Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and To Live wouldn’t have approved.