Why Ira­nian film fans are flock­ing to come­dies

In a coun­try renowned for se­ri­ous cin­ema, one genre now dom­i­nates at the box of­fice

The Observer - - World - Saeed Ka­mali De­hghan Iran Correspondent

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

Getty

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.

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