IRAN: Blackboards (تخته سیاه, 2000)

What Isn’t Shown: Defining Iranian New Wave Cinema

by Haley Komer

Iranian film has long been celebrated on the international circuit, especially by film festivals. At the start of the 20th century, Iranian film was in the midst of a cinematic movement that has solidified the excellence of Iranian directors and film. Known as Iranian New Wave, it began in 1969 with The Cow, but has continued through the contemporary age unlike these other movements. These films continue to sweep across international film circuits and are adored by many international audiences. This movement has been likened to and influenced by especially the New Wave film movements of Western Europe, specifically Italian Neorealism and French New Wave.

In the essay, a single film that captures the essence of the New Wave movement of the respective country is seen. Both stemming from the aftermath of World War II, the two European films are part of the New Wave movement that contributed to the foundation of film as an art form. Bicycle Thieves (1948) represents the sorrow and realism of Italy as it tells the story of a man struggling to provide for his family and his spiral to desperation and sorrow after his bicycle that he desperately needs is stolen. This film illustrates one of the first “new wave” film movements. Italian Neorealism stemmed from an Italy in an economic and social depression that is reflected in the rubble landscape that paints the scene for films in this movement and the story that has such sad stories and themes.

The second film 400 Blows (1959) is a staple in French cinema as it is internationally known as one of the feature films of French New Wave. 400 Blows tells the story of a young, mischievous boy and the circumstances that lead to his false identity of being troubled and a delinquent. Drawing heavily from Italian Neorealism, Truffaut translates the themes of realism onto the French screen. The story is more whimsical but has a more promising ending than in Bicycle Thieves. However, there is clear similarity between this film and Italian Neorealism. In both these films, there is a central musical theme used throughout that is part of the emotional journey the characters face, whereas the Iranian New wave film does not rely on music.

Samira Makhmalfbaf’s Blackboards (2000) is a prime example of Iranian New Wave cinema. The story focuses on two teachers on the Iran-Iraq border struggling to find student to teach. One ends up traveling with a group of young boys smuggling contraband, while the other marries a Kurdish woman she and her displaced people struggle to find their homeland. The film itself focuses on the reality and realism of problems in Iran through the use of non-professional actors, on location sound and lighting, which is incredibly similar to Italian Neorealism and French New Wave. One unique difference that shows this film begins to diverge from Western New Wave is the various restrictions the film has because it is directed by a woman. From these restrictions, the influence on censorship on Iranian film. Censorship in Iran has caused filmmakers find unique was to show certain aspects of Iranian life.

Evidently there is something to be said about what is not present in the film. All films do not show the events that lead to the poor and bleak landscapes that permeates throughout each film. In both Bicycle Thieves and  400 Blows, however, the film explicitly shows the events that lead the characters to make poor decisions and how terrible their lives are, whereas Blackboards does not. Blackboards makes no effort to show through images why the characters are in distress or why they have ended up where they are. The reason for the rubble and poor environment is stated in Blackboards, just never shown. In some cases, it can be heard through gunshots or helicopters. In this sense, Blackboards does not focus on the causes of visual experience of the film, it uses the characters  Comparatively, French New Wave and Italian Neorealism never state the reason for the poor conditions but focus on the visual landscape that is present throughout each film to explain the issues.

But where does this western influence come from in Iranian film? The movement itself began in 1969 as western influences After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, the new government was quick to exclude the West from Iranian development. This forced Iranian filmmakers to redefine what cinema was so Iranian audiences could understand (Tapper 129). As Iranian culture changed, so did the filmmaking process and aesthetic, and very uniquely this New Wave movement has lasted into the contemporary age, as seen with Makhmalbaf’s film. It should be noted that Makhmalbaf’s father Mosen Makhmalbaf is also an established Iranian New wave filmmaker. This piece is meant to show how this separation from western audiences has evolved Iranian cinema to be unique from Italian Neorealism and French New Wave by focusing on what cannot be shown from strict censorship laws. While the influence is present in many aspects, there is still a unique aesthetic, landscape, and intention that defines Iranian New Wave film.

Without this western influence, Iranian New Wave is still unique and not simply a copycat of the previous western influence that many international audiences compare it to. With all this taken into account, it implores the viewer, how does the effect of hiding the reason for pain and suffering change the message of the film? What is Iranian New Wave asking the viewer to focus on compared to Italian Neorealism and French New Wave?

Work Cited

Tapper, Richard. “Screening Iran: The Cinema as National Forum.” Global Dialogue, vol. 3, no. 2-3, 2001, pp. 120-131

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