Iranian directors offer portraits of Muslim life
In ”Secret Ballot” — on my short list of favorites from this year’s Toronto film festival — a nameless young woman traipses around a sparsely populated countryside encouraging her fellow citizens to vote. It’s a civic right and duty, she explains, and her mission is to make it easy: Chauffeured by a skeptical soldier in a banged-up open army vehicle, she brings the voting booth — actually, a simple white box with a narrow slot in the lid — right to the voter. In the course of one hot election day, this anonymous agent of democracy meets fishermen, farmers, laborers, a busload of women and children, and a lone man running in a desolate landscape that wouldn’t be out of place as a stage set for ”Waiting for Godot.” The style of ”Secret Ballot” is spare and warm, with crinkles of humor tucked into the corners of each scene. The relationship between the woman polling agent and the burly man assigned to aid her ripens before our eyes, even though very little happens between them. Our understanding of the world in which this unspecified election is taking place deepens with each passing potential voter.
As it happens, the election is taking place in Iran, the polling agent is wearing the billowing, head-to-toe chador of a devout Muslim woman, and Babak Payami, who won the best director award for ”Secret Ballot” earlier this month at the Venice film festival, is yet another in the extraordinary concentration of Iranian filmmakers making some of the world’s best movies these days. And I can’t think of a more crucial time to embrace the artistry of Muslim filmmakers, who regularly turn artistic constrictions into cinematic assets — and in so doing, eloquently convey the true spirit of Islam.
While celebrated director Abbas Kiarostami casts his eye to the horizons in taciturn spiritual masterpieces like ”Taste of Cherry” and ”The Wind Will Carry Us,” fellow Iranian filmmakers are applying what has become a kind of national aesthetic — compassionate, understated, landscape-oriented, and often cast with nonprofessionals innocent of theatrical artifice or a desire for stardom — to even more controversial political and sexual issues. Jafar Panahi bravely took his cameras to the streets of Tehran to export a message — banned at home — about the confining lives of capital-city women in his powerful, spherically constructed drama ”The Circle.” Marziyeh Meshkini — a member of the prolific Makhmalbaf family of filmmakers — dramatized actual and metaphorical moments of femininity with sisterly intimacy in ”The Day I Became a Woman.” Fellow feminist Tahmineh Milani was recently jailed for supporting counterrevolutionaries in her latest movie, ”The Hidden Half.” Bahman Ghobadi depicted Kurdish hardship in his tough and aching drama ”A Time For Drunken Horses.” ”Baran,” which also screened in Toronto, looks at the struggles of Afghani immigrants trying to scratch out a subsistence living in Iran — the same working-class population likely to suffer in the event of military action. (Director Majid Majidi’s gentle, award-winning previous film, ”The Color of Paradise,” made $1.8 million in the U.S., a record for Iranian exports.)
For years, world-class directors from Iran have been producing work of the very highest artistic achievement, and now suddenly these movies also feel like potentially precious instruments of international diplomacy. As long as these filmmakers continue finding ways to reveal the authentic humanity of their Muslim subjects, and are embraced by audiences of all faiths around the world, then the destructive minority who would rather annihilate than create will never have the final cut.