The UCLA Film and Television Archive's annual series on Iranian cinema is already underway, but there is still plenty to see. Year in, year out the series highlights the breadth of what is produced under extraordinary circumstances where filmmakers could be jailed for their work or officially banned from filmmaking.
"Every national cinema is going to have its ups and downs from year to year, from decade to decade, but there is always something interesting happening in Iranian cinema," said UCLA programmer Paul Malcolm.
For the record, 7 p.m. May 8, 2015: An earlier version of this post misspelled Kamran Heidari's last name as Heidar. It also referred to the film "Tales" as "Tale."
"Filmmakers in Iran have a specific set of challenges that they have to face," added Malcolm. "It's always remarkable to me how many good films there are each year coming out of Iran given the larger context in which they have to work."
Friday night will see a screening a Sepideh Farsi's "Red Rose," a drama set against the backdrop of the 2009 Green Revolution. A young woman (Mina Kavani) seeks refuge from the chaos in the streets in the apartment of a stranger (Vassilis Koukalani), setting the two of them toward a passionate affair.
The film grapples with generational conflict and whether it is possible to live a life apart from political unrest just outside your door. Farsi lives in Paris, and shot the film in Greece, and it features scenes far more sexually explicit than could ever be produced within Iran.
"The emphasis was on two things in the story, the riots outside and the love story inside," Farsi said during a recent phone interview. "That is precisely what is going on in Iran, in the sense that behind the doors people live something and outside they live something else.
"What was interesting for us was to show this contrast between the outside life and the inside life," Farsi said. "Especially in that moment of protest and uprising, the violence and chaos outside affects people's most intimate aspects of life. So it made sense to limit the fictional parts of the story to the space of the apartment and make it much more tense."
The UCLA series kicked off with a screening of Rakhshan Banietemad's "Tales," which will screen again May 16. Long considered among Iran's leading female filmmakers, Banietemad has, like many filmmakers in Iran, moved between documentary and fiction projects. "Tales," which won a screenplay prize at last year's Venice Film Festival, marks her first fiction film in a number of years.
"The type of fiction film that I like is one which gets so close to reality that it blurs the distinction between documentary and fiction," Banietemad said via email.
"For me the most important point is the impact the film makes by being close to reality," Banietemad also said. "If the viewers can make a connection with the characters, then the impact of the film is deeper and more lasting. In every film I am searching for and experiencing more effective ways of achieving this aim."
Also screened as part of the series was Kamran Heidari's debut documentary, a charming look at an amateur filmmaker who makes films driven by pure passion. "My name is Negahdar Jamali and I Make Westerns" -- the title is a play on the famous quote by American filmmaker John Ford-- is a far cry from the politically charged dramas many audiences might more readily associate with Iranian filmmaking.
"Truly cinema is our common language," said Heidari in an email. "Our only hope and expectancy as filmmakers is to be able to tell the untold stories of our people, happy stories and sad ones, to the people of the world, away from any political and commercial fanfare. To show the human side of Iran."
Though filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi or Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi may more readily be the faces of contemporary Iranian filmmaking, the UCLA series shows the breadth of filmmaking within the country. And while many of the films grapple with contemporary political realities, that is not all they are about. Many of the films find a balance between larger issues and more personal concerns.
"I would have made a documentary about the Green Movement if its only purpose was to make a political comment," said Farsi. "But it was a film above all. So the fictional elements were very important. The background is the Green Movement, but I think it's really the juxtaposition which makes the film special, both of them next to each other. It's not one or the other."
"UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema." Through May 16. Screenings at the Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90024.
For more information, visit www.cinema.ucla.edu