A weary warrior of Iran

Times Staff Writer

As the moon faded in the midmorning sky, girls in black chadors sledded on snow-dusted mountains. Down in the valley, beyond their laughter, a somberness settled over Bahman Farmanara, the Iranian filmmaker whose characters struggle with emptiness and depression in a society ruled by religious fundamentalism.

Farmanara yawned. He was long-faced and groggy. Battling again with government censors over his latest work, the tale of a depraved gynecologist who runs over an angel with a car, the 60-year-old director had slept little the preceding night. Instead, he'd watched "Nurse Betty," a movie in which Renee Zellweger's character endures an uninspired life by melting into soap operas.

"It was a silly thing," he said. "A way to escape.... Some films are like Prozac, some like Valium."

Whatever buzz "Nurse Betty" conjured wore off quickly, and soon Farmanara, in a mood as reflective and contemplative as his films, was speaking of the troubled balance between artistic integrity and censorship.

For nearly six months, he has been attempting to convince Iran's religious leaders that his film, "A House Built on Water," does not threaten the values of the Islamic state.

The movie's protagonist, however, may raise a few clerical eyebrows. He is Dr. Reza Sephidbakhat, who performs abortions and "restores the virginity" of promiscuous Muslim women before they marry. He drinks too much, sleeps with prostitutes and has a heroin smuggler for a son. To round it all out, there's that head-on crash into the angel.

"The guy's in a moral freefall," said Farmanara.

The internationally acclaimed director is accustomed to having his work banned in his native land. Throughout the 1990s, the 10 scripts he delivered to the government review board were all rejected. His 1978 production, "Tall Shadows in the Wind," had the misfortune of being banned twice: first by Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi and then during the Islamic revolution that swept the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to power.

But Farmanara kept writing stories that examined the quiet yet devastating human toll exacted by the corruption and squelched freedoms of modern-day Iran. When the censors relented in 2000, he marked a triumph with "Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine," a black-humored tale about a filmmaker -- played by Farmanara -- obsessed with making a documentary about his own funeral. The movie veers close to autobiography. It received worldwide praise and won eight awards, including best film and director, at Iran's Fajr Film Festival.

"I made a joke that the rapidity of the censors' approval was because the 'Smell of Camphor' was about my death," said Farmanara, sitting in his living room in a blue chair near big windows showcasing a spine of snowy mountains rising less than a mile beyond.

Farmanara, who received a film degree from USC and spent more than a decade living in the U.S. and Canada, reminisced over movie scenes as a servant clattered teacups in the kitchen. He is especially fond of the playful, poetic dialogue in films such as "All About Eve" and "Rear Window." When he was a boy, Farmanara watched Hollywood movies with his family once a week. He'd buy a few snips of celluloid from the projectionist and, with a flashlight and magnifying glass, illuminate them on his wall at home.

He views life, he once said, as a succession of frames.

Movies enchant him still. After one of his brothers had a heart attack, Farmanara returned in 1990 from Canada, where he was distributing films, to help another brother run a textile factory with 200 employees. He churned out fabrics and plot lines, sparring often with the censors and attempting to regain the stature he'd earned in the 1970s with such films as "Prince Ehtejab."

Today, with the success of "Smell of Camphor," Farmanara has gained a kind of wisdom from the battles he and other Iranian filmmakers face as their final edits endure one more test before they are permitted an audience. But he also seemed weary from fighting so much -- at least as he spoke on this recent morning.

"I consider foreign praise to be the cream on the cake," he said. "But my cake is the Iranian audience. No matter how much praise I get from the foreign press, I'm still unfulfilled. I didn't make it for the French or Italian critics. I made it for the Iranians."

Sometimes he fixates, unable to move beyond the fate of a film bottled up by censors.

"It clouds what you're doing in the present. It's like postpartum depression," he said. "If you don't watch it, it can consume you forever.... When you're not allowed to work, it's a form of dying for the artist. 'The Smell of Camphor' is not about death, but about living a futile life. That's more torturous than death.

Criticism on many fronts

"A House Built on Water," which was released internationally last year and is still awaiting approval in Iran, has been criticized by a number of sides. Leftists claim the saga of the drunken gynecologist is laden with religious overtones. Religious conservatives say its bleak nature is objectionable to Islamic tenets. The film, said Farmanara, is a metaphor for the despair felt by a young generation saddled with scant economic opportunity and limited freedom.

"At the opening, the doctor's driving drunk with a prostitute," he said. "He hits something. It's a 4-year-old girl, a winged angel. She touches his hand. It burns, so he leaves her on the side of the road and we go into his moral decline. He's surrounded by bad. He loses his son, who is arrested for smuggling heroin, and one of his young patients has AIDS and wants her virginity restored before she marries her fiance.

"The doctor says to his patient, 'I thought my generation was bad, but you guys are really bad.' But she tells him, 'We have no hope. We have nothing. We are a generation with homes built on the water.' "

Farmanara has reedited the film to make it more palatable to the censors. For example, the doctor tells one of his frequently pregnant patients and her husband that the government's decree to form a 20-million-man army "was not directed at you alone." That reference was re-dubbed because the decree was made by Khomeini, who even 13 years after his death looms beyond artistic interpretation.

Outside, the sun slanted through the patio trellis; a cat darted through the snow. Someone mentioned Sept. 11, and Farmanara, who understands the idiosyncrasies of the U.S. nearly as well as he does those of his homeland, left the censors for a moment and spoke of politics and war and the chasms separating cultures.

While living in the U.S., he was struck by the nation's freedoms and civil rights. But, he said, those principles are under attack as many Muslims, including Iranians, are questioned and fingerprinted by authorities as potential terrorists.

"As long as President Bush thinks his grandson -- I know he doesn't have one -- is more important, because he's an American, than my grandson, then we have a problem," he said. "That is the tone you're hearing from the Bush administration.... Islam has replaced communism as the great enemy of the open society. And that's ridiculous.

"Living in Iran at the age I am right now, I know we need to talk to one another. Dialogue is so important. We need to clear the air. Guns don't make any sense. Anything I do has to be from the understanding that we're all in this ship together and we've just got to relate on the human level. It's beyond me to understand the reemergence of Nazism in Germany and the things we saw in Yugoslavia. So, any film I make in the future won't be along the lines of 'Rocky VI' or 'Rocky VII.' "

But, he said, his focus will not be epic. His stories will stay small; the sometimes dark, sometimes surreal morality tales moving amid the cities and villages of Iran.

"In order to be international in scope," Farmanara said, "you really have to be very national. So I'd rather take the note from my country and play it in a way other cultures can understand it. That's the beauty of film."

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