Indeed, back in Iran, that struggle between free expression and restrictive norms is on display in Madsen’s “Sepideh," where even something as benign as stargazing is a quiet act of rebellion. "Those who've learned to cook, what have they become?" is a seemingly harmless teenage ambivalence that, when uttered by its main character in a charged context, becomes a statement of political defiance.
"Sepideh is not a revolutionary in the streets of Tehran, but in a way that takes more guts, because she's altering perspectives from the inside," Madsen said by phone from Denmark.
To make the movie, which took four years to shoot, permits were carefully secured and the camera unobtrusively placed, as a girl quietly pushes back at societal expectation. Still, Madsen said there were moments where the intelligence agencies followed her and the production to make sure the film stayed away from explicitly political subjects. (Incidentally, shooting movies in Iran, where Panahi remains under a ban and direct critiques are generally verboten, is tricky, which in a way further motivates Iranian-Americans to tell their stories.)
These movies are coming about, say experts, as part of an important groundswell.
“My intuition tells me that, like Romania in the middle of the last decade and Chile over the last four or five years, this is a bona fide wave,” said John Nein, a senior programmer at the Sundance Film Festival. “It’s still in the early stages. But you have a generation that has a lot to say. Something very exciting is brewing."
That’s amplified by the fact that, unlike the surge in other countries, Iran has a strong diaspora that allows for a widening range of potential stories--and in the number of people able to tell them. Some in film circles have even taken to dubbing a "Tehrangeles New Wave" and say it began unofficially at Sundance 2011 with "Circumstance," Maryam Keshavarz's movie about homosexuality in Iran. These new films also come just two years after an Iranian film won the foreign-language Oscar for the first time, Asghar Farhadi's "A Separation." (Needless to say, the depictions are different from the Persian-themed cable-reality show "Shahs of Sunset” and its outsized personalities.)
Amirpour wonders if this generation of filmmakers is taking the push from Type A immigrant Iranian parents -- who she says "usually want us to become doctors and lawyers and anything that's more stable than what they came from" -- and turning it into something more artistic.
Like a lot of culture that starts at the margins, the Sundance Film Festival can be a barometer for a larger movement. With its abundance of liberal, internationally focused young female creators, the Iranian wave seems to be expressing just that.
But these filmmakers are hardly eat-your-vegetables social activists. Most of these new tales are using more fun lenses, like romantic comedy or genre mash--which, their authors say, is just fine by them.
"I think we're all tired of these stories that just say how hard it is to be Iranian,” Aklhavan said. “Let's show the problems. But let's also have some fun."