Why Iranian film fans are flocking to comedies
In a country renowned for serious cinema, one genre now dominates at the box office
Iranian cinema is celebrated around the world, from the 1960s Persian new wave to the poetic minimalism of the late Abbas Kiarostami and the social realism of Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-winning A Separation. But as the country suffers the chill of economic hardship and the pressure of looming sanctions over the nuclear deal, film-goers are embracing a new genre to lift the national mood: comedy.
Attracted by relatively affordable ticket prices, particularly for modern cinemas in new shopping centres across the country, Iranians are flocking to cinemas in record numbers and the industry is in rude health.
One comedy, Millipede, has broken box-office records and taken nearly £6.5m since its release in the summer. Directed by Abolhassan Davoudi, it tells the story of an amputee criminal who finds a doctor at a war veteran’s hospital who wants to marry a wounded former soldier.
Mani Haghighi, whose comedy Pig was nominated for the top prize at the Iran Cinema Celebration in Tehran this month, said difficult times, from US sanctions to domestic political turmoil and falling living standards, were encouraging people to go to the cinema. “The reason why people are flocking to watch comedies is because they’re so depressed,” he said, comparing contemporary Iran to depression-era America and the golden age of the Hollywood screwball comedy.
“The mood is sombre in general,” he said. “We have the danger of sanctions looming, but there’s also internal political tension. All these are converging and making people a little disconcerted.”
It was now becoming almost impossible to find funding for films that were not comedies, he said. Comedic movies were “a trend that has worked … Producers have realised this is some kind of jackpot”.
The filmmaker’s own first foray into the genre was the romantic comedy 50 Kilos of Sour Cherries in 2016. Pig is somewhat darker – as a serial killer murders a series of Iranian directors, one blacklisted filmmaker wants to know why nobody has come for him yet.
Key to the comedies’ success has been a boom in the building of shopping centres. “All of them have these newly built cinemas in them,” Haghighi said. “They’re clean, they’re up to date technologically. Now all kinds of people go to the cinema.” Tickets in Iran range from 80,000 rials (£1.45) to 150,000 rials.
The reign of the comedies is a departure for a filmmaking tradition known internationally for directors such as Kiarostami and Farhadi, and not everyone is pleased.
Film critic Bahman Abdollahi said he was concerned that the success of comedies was resulting in other genres being sidelined. “I don’t call this a good phenomenon, because in cinema we need all sentiments, we need happiness, sorrow, fear, horror,” he said. “Only a few producers are active. The majority of Iran’s cinema community have no work to do.”
Filmmakers in all genres face the challenge of getting their work past the Islamic Republic’s censors. While those who vet scripts are marginally more liberal than in the past, Haghighi said there had been an increase in censorship via distribution. He said Pig had only been given screening times at 9am and 11am.
According to the director of the Iranian House of Cinema, which organised this month’s festival, 43 films made over the last year have not been allowed to be screened. But those giving speeches in Tehran were unafraid to take on the establishment. Vahid Jalilvand, who won best film for the drama No Date, No Signature, castigated the authorities for ignoring social issues highlighted by films. Hamed Behdad, the winner of best actor, called for the release of Niloufar Bayani and other environmental activists held on spying charges.
Keyvan Kasirian, a prominent critic who attended the ceremony, said it was no surprise that more people were going to the cinema and opting for comedy. “Maybe it’s a need to forget everything for two hours,” he said.
‘The reason why people are now watching comedies is because they’re so depressed’
Mani Haghighi, director
Leila Hatami, star of the film Pig, on the red carpet at the Berlin film festival last February. Amir Mehdi Jouleh and Reza Attaran in Abolhassan Davoudi’s new comedy, Millipede.