Talking Iranian cinema with Les Cahiers’s former editor Jean-Michel Frodon

Last Updated: April 4, 2019By Tags: ,

Ever since his first outing there in the nineties Jean-Michel Frodon, one of France’s most distinguished film specialists and blogger for the French edition of Slate, traveled four more times to Iran, the country whose filmmakers gave us festival favorites like GABBEH, A TASTE OF CHERRY and CLOSE-UP. As your not-so-average tourist, at times, and as officially-summoned authority on cinema, at others, Frodon soaked up the lore and took in the sights, giving talks and trekking it to several major cities around the country. He took note of the strange-bedfellows dynamic that exists between the push for commercial and revolutionary-friendly movies by some and the wishes of others for producing artful, capacious cinema that has a fighting chance of making it into first-tier film festivals and movie theaters abroad.

Frodon also got to meet some alarmingly-eager film fans. In case you did not know Iranian cinephiles are competition-level nerds when it comes to film history and trivia.

During one afternoon between screenings at this year’s Cannes Festival I met with Frodon to discuss these trips and what he thought of NAHID, this year’s official selection entry for Iran in the non-competitive section.

IFD – Tell me about your trip in December and the talk you held at that time. Movie buffs, the public and industry people were there. Who else attended?
JMF- Yes, all of those, and film students, too. [Mohammad] Rasoulof was there. I also saw a number of people involved in the documentary filmmaking industry.

Although documentaries don’t cross borders as well as some feature films, there is a significant tradition of documentary filmmaking in Iran.
Yes. The most creative stuff in Iran today is happening in documentary filmmaking. Feature filmmaking has had a harder time existing.

“If independent cinema stands alone in a corner it’s in danger of extinction”

Let’s go back to the talk. What was the topic?
The importance of independence.

Independence of spirit, of action? Or independent cinema?
I gave a contradictory talk, arguing against the idea of independence. Independence is dangerous, I said. The word ‘independence’ tends to be used to insulate independent Iranian cinema and independent Iranian cinema does not gain anything from beating a retreat in a corner in the name of quality or the filmmaker’s ambitions, as compelling as those may be. On the contrary, I argued that it is more interesting to mix it all up.

Indie filmmakers can be very protective of their art, I suppose.
Well, cinema is a very impure thing, but people should play up those impurities. If independent cinema stands alone in a corner it’s in danger of extinction. There are many more benefits to be derived when filmmakers transgress the line between “commercial” and “independent” projects.

Did you participate in any noteworthy discussions afterwards?
Yes, there was a good debate after my talk. We exchanged a lot. Obviously the people who were there were very attached to the idea of independence while for me it was more interesting to disrupt this type of thinking. The position espoused by certain filmmakers in Iran today that, “we’re artists and we feel contempt towards others” is just wrong and does not do them any favors. Instead, they need to try and understand how this work and make it work for them.

You’re one of the few Western film critics to have traveled to Iran on several occasions. Can you recall your first trip for me?
I’ve traveled to Iran five times altogether. The first time was in 1995. The Locarno film festival had organized an Abbas Kiarostami homage that year as well as a retrospective of films made by Iranian women. I accompanied [then-programmer of the Locarno Film Festival] Marco Müller to Tehran. I was able to watch many Kiarostami films that had not been seen abroad, including all his short films. Farabi Foundation also organized screenings of several films.

Which institutions of Iran’s film establishment did you interact with during those stays ?
The first time I went to Iran I was hosted by Farabi foundation, a then-semi-independent film organization. I tend to say “then” because Farabi enjoyed relative autonomy until recently when it was merged with the Ministry of Culture. They had a stand at this year’s Cannes Festival but it is no longer the “Farabi” stand, it’s now under the ministry’s banner.

I also visited with officials from the Hozeh, which is directly linked to the Islamic movement. It’s the double-hierarchy of power, the way it was established ever since the revolution of 1979. Later on, the House of Cinema became the most important actor amid Iran’s institutions. It became a hub during the Green movement and got shut down as a result under Ahmadinejad. It reopened since.

I understand you’ve gone back to Iran on behalf of several different media organizations. You were part of the jury at the Fajr Festival, too?
I went back a few times as a journalist. In 1998 I was member of the jury at the Fajr Festival, yes. I traveled back to Iran once for Le Monde and also for Les Cahiers du Cinéma. This past December I traveled to Tehran mainly for pleasure, although the trip took on an academic nature after the House of Cinema invited me to participate in a talk.

I heard you also took a trip to the sacred city of Qom.
Yes. I was invited there by the clerics establishment to give a talk. I also traveled to Isfahan and Shiraz. Iran is an important country for cinema but it is sightseeing that allowed me to really discover the country outside of panel discussions and screening rooms.

Any take-aways from these multiple trips, some particularly memorable experiences?
During one of my trips I went on the set of GABBEH, by Mohsen Makhmalbaf. We stayed with nomads in the Shiraz region. What’s extraordinary is, when I go to Iran for one reason there are always other things happening which really enrich the experience.

Each time there were new facets that got added on. For example, when I was a member of the jury at the Fajr Festival I got interviewed by journalists from the Iranian media. The tables were turned, since I’m usually the one doing the interviewing. It was very instructive, the way they were asking the questions. It reflected how they saw a foreigner and how I saw and understood things in their eyes.

Also during the Fajr Festival that year I was asked to hold a conference on cinema. Once I got there I realized that the audience was exclusively made up of clerics, from your average mullah to hojatolleslams. They happened to be extremely knowledgeable. Clearly, this was a cultivated and modern group of people who were aware of the world we live in, albeit with a worldview that is different from mine, obviously. They asked me to reflect on my own worldview through cinema. Being given the opportunity to debate my viewpoint with people I’m not used to doing that with was an unusual experience.

Let’s fast-forward to the present. What were your observations concerning state versus private financing in Iran’s film industry?
State financing barely exists [this is not entirely correct. Films that glorify war and martyrdom in the context of the Iran-Iraq war like Nargess Abyar’s TRACK 143, for example, have received significant funds from Iran’s government, although the funds are funneled through private companies set up by the government –ed]. It’s mostly private financing that is put in place.

Private investors tend to invest in commercial films that will be more popular in Iran. Working conditions for people with original screenplays are harder today than they were at the end of the eighties and nineties.

Iran has a rich tradition of cinephilia. Any memorable encounters with the local movie buffs?
When on a trip to Iran a few years ago I was the editor-in-chief of Les Cahiers du Cinéma. I remember having a conversation with some young Iranians who were quite eager to know why, back in 1965, Jacques Rivette had replaced Eric Rohmer as head of the magazine! One can love cinema without knowing anything about these things, although these cinephiles knew the articles and were aware of what was taking place behind the scenes. Les Cahiers are known the world over even by people who haven’t read it. And yet, here are these young Iranians who actually read translated versions of the magazine and dove head-first into that [the magazine’s] culture.

Censorship is everywhere, it exists in France and the U.S. What is its influence on the newest Iranian cinema?
Censorship is a complicated subject. It exists everywhere, that is true. Iran is one of the most invasive countries and this places substantial limitations on filmmakers. The paradox that’s in full evidence is that some of the most compelling films in Iran’s history have been made under the most confining rules. This does not justify censorship but it proves the talent and the intelligence of the filmmakers who have found the means to make such films.

How do they do it?
They create child characters for their films, for example, going as far as making children-oriented films since you’ll feel less pressure from censors when creating child characters. And yet, this does not mean these films can’t raise important questions, complicated and risqué issues of love, feelings, etc.

And yet, clearly it’s harder to make a movie today in Iran compared to ten or fifteen years ago. Not because producers may not make as much money as before on the films, but because censors may just not allow the film to be made, or seen.

“1992-2002 marked a decade of great presence for Iranian cinema”

How healthy is Iranian cinema’s positioning today, among world cinema?
It has weakened, quite clearly, compared to what its position was like between 1992 and 2002, a decade of great presence for Iranian cinema. Things have been in decline ever since for different reasons, in spite of this extreme event that was A SEPARATION winning a Golden Bear and an Oscar and its enormous success in France. But that was an isolated event. I’m not even sure that that was Iranian cinema.

Are you serious?
Obviously, it was made by an Iranian filmmaker, but it’s not in line with my expectations for what Iranian cinema—that which can be diverse, obviously—is.

What’s behind this decline?
The main reason is the loss of interest from the state. They used to be more interested in cinema in the past. Today, you get the feeling there are no longer implicated.

Ida Panahandeh’s NAHID was shown at the last Cannes Festival and co-won the PROMISING FUTURE prize in the Un Certain Regard section along with Neeraj Ghaywan’s MASAAN. Any thoughts about this film and its director?
NAHID boasts a lot of qualities, superior visual framing and a great performance by Sareh Bayat. But the film suffers from the A SEPARATION syndrome.

I remember you qualified A SEPARATION as a “sleek made-for-TV film.”
Yes. There is that aspect of “sleek made-for-TV film” in which the filmmaker apparently feels the obligation to explain everything to the viewer.

Are you referring to NAHID?
No, to A SEPARATION. But there are traces of that in NAHID. The dialogues seem to be there only to explain, to accompany the viewer. The enormous success of A SEPARATION obviously has had a dangerous effect on other Iranian filmmakers.