Iran's Most Wanted: Filmmakers
Jason Silverman  02.06.04 WiredNews magazine

It's the most low-tech filmmaking imaginable. Director Ali Matini's films have no crane or tracking shots. The cameraman rides piggyback on the shoulders of a crew member or bumps along on a donkey. The cast consists of nonprofessional actors, some of whom pay Matini for the privilege of stepping before the camera.
Matini edits the movie while lying on his back, holding strips of 8-mm film that an assistant illuminates with a bare light bulb. Each splice uses a carefully snipped piece of Scotch tape. When finished, the film is projected on a sheet taped to the wall of a house for Matini's neighbors to see.
Welcome to Iranian underground cinema. Matini, who works 60-hour weeks at a brick factory, spends weekends and holidays making movies. Each film is totally handcrafted. And each is completely illegal.
The Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, or REDCAT, a theater inside Los Angeles' new Walt Disney Hall, is screening a series of films from Iran's hidden cinema. The REDCAT is dedicated to showing cutting-edge works. The program includes Trial, by Iranian journalist and filmmaker Moslem Mansouri, which documents one of Matini's film productions.
In Trial, Matini's artistic pretensions seem comic -- he awards himself a best director prize at a wrap party -- but his intentions are profound. Matini is determined to use his 18 films and 110 novels to share the kind of information he believes the Iranian government suppresses.
It's perilous work. Matini faces imprisonment each time he takes out his camera or distributes a hand-bound book. Mansouri, who entered the United States under political asylum in 1999, estimated that Matini and as many as 200 villagers -- Matini's cast, crew and supporters -- have been jailed at one time or another for their filmmaking.
"The regime's response is very aggressive to any expression of this sort," said Mansouri, himself a former prisoner.
Since the Iranian revolution in 1979, the country's only sanctioned filmmaking has come about through government agencies. Within this system, world-renowned filmmakers including Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf have built an artful, innovative stream of movies. In terms of aesthetics, Iranian cinema has been an unqualified success.
But Mansouri indicated that these state-sponsored filmmakers do not have the freedom to explore the important issues facing Iranians. Underground filmmakers like Matini, on the other hand, strive to tackle, head-on, Iran's societal ills.
More and more may be doing just that, using consumer cameras and editing systems. Among the filmmakers represented in the REDCAT show are Mahnaz Afzali, a well-known actress, who shot her film, The Ladies, in a public restroom in a Tehran park, capturing the stories of prostitutes, runaways and other refugees from Iranian society…
…It seems a miracle that these films are being shot, let alone completed and sent overseas. But as more filmmakers hit the streets with digital camcorders in their backpacks, the Iranian government may have a harder time cracking down.



"With the advent of digital modes of recording, a lot of the things we thought we knew about repressive regimes and modes of censorship of cinema are not true anymore," said Berenice Reynaud, who with Shohreh Shashani and Caroline Masse curated REDCAT's Iranian program. "With a pocket digital camera you can record professional images, and you can have an editing system at home, so you don't need a permit. And you can walk outside of the country and present these images in the world."
That seems to be happening more often. Mansouri smuggled eight of his unfinished films out of Iran, and has heard other stories of friends escaping with provocative footage.
Iran isn't the first repressive country to have an underground, revolutionary cinema. In the 1970s, groups of radical filmmakers were embedded in the opposition parties in countries throughout South America. Today, China has a vibrant illegal filmmaking culture.
These underground films always have been difficult to exhibit -- you won't find them in theaters or on TV in their countries of origin. Matini's films have not been seen outside his neighboring villages. However, low-cost video decks are helping get banned movies out into the world.
"These films have never had distribution and so could not be seen, and they haven't grown to the same strength as the official cinema," said Mansouri. "But the distribution and viewing of these underground films have increased a great deal. As soon as anyone gets their hands on something that can be considered a banned film they make copies and pass them on."

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Friday, February 06, 2004

Iran behind the lens

Since everyone else is doing such a great job of rounding up Iran news today, I'm going to take a detour from the election coverage.
I came across a Wired article about underground filmmakers in Iran. These courageous people face imprisonment for some of the ideas they explore on film, and their determination to reach people is remarkable.

And in the modern world it's much harder for a government to suppress ideas:
These underground films always have been difficult to exhibit -- you won't find them in theatres or on TV in their countries of origin. [Director Ali] Mantini's films have not been seen outside his neighbouring villages. However, low-cost video decks are helping get banned movies out into the world.

"These films have never had distribution and so could not be seen, and they haven't grown to the same strength as the official cinema," said [exiled journalist and filmmaker Moslem] Mansouri. "But the distribution and viewing of these underground films have increased a great deal. As soon as anyone gets their hands on something that can be considered a banned film they make copies and pass them on."
Just one more way the mullahs' grip on Iranian society is slipping.