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Reviewed by:
  • Reform Cinema in Iran: Film and Political Change in the Islamic Republic by Blake Atwood
  • Jean-Baptiste De Vaulx
Blake Atwood, Reform Cinema in Iran: Film and Political Change in the Islamic Republic. Columbia University Press, 2016. Paperback. $30. 280 pages.

The cinema of post-revolution Iran confounded expectations when it made its international breakthrough on the festival circuit in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Few were expecting Iran, maligned by the western media as a repressive Islamic republic, to export such a major national cinema infused with humanism, poetic neorealism and narrative playfulness. This perceived discrepancy between Iran's domestic politics and artistic output has inspired much critical discourse, including works by Hamed Naficy, Negar Mottahedeh and Saeed Zeydabadi-Nejad, that have situated Iranian cinema's renaissance following the Islamic Revolution of 1979 and the Iran-Iraq War (1980-88).

Blake Atwood's contribution adds to this pre-existing literature by moving beyond the label 'post-revolution' and calling for a new chapter to be opened in the historicization of Iranian cinema: 'reform cinema'. Proposing to examine "what happens to the relationship between revolution and cinema once the revolutionary dust settled" (4), Atwood, sees a transitional moment coming with the reform movement represented by the presidency of Mohammed Khatami (1997-2004). Khatami, long known as a supporter of the arts, was welcomed with expectations of a more tolerant political atmosphere and cultural scene. Now, with enough distance to look back at this phase, Atwood provides a wide-ranging justification for the term 'reform cinema,' across chronologically ordered chapters, not by suggesting a catch-all definition but rather by analyzing the many ways in which Iranian cinema and visual culture were shaped and influenced by Khatami's policies and discourse of reform.

The first chapter situates the genesis of reform cinema during Khatami's tenure as Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, where he increasingly came to support filmmakers against attacks from conservatives. Through a case study drawing on political speeches, religious sermons and newspaper editorials, Atwood compellingly argues that this typified the development of Khatami's personal views from compliance with post-revolution dogma to an anti-absolutist mindset. Contemporaneously, films drawing from traditions of Persian mysticism, notably Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Time of Love (1990) and Dariush Mehrjui's Hamun (1989), ushered in a cinema that was "less dogmatic and more open to multiple possibilities" (55). Thus, a mysticism-inflected poetics of reform cinema marked a new approach, embracing a relativistic worldview which matched not only Khatami's own engagement at the time but also a tendency among Iran's intellectuals best exemplified by the philosopher Abdolkarim Soroush.

Chapter 2 moves forward to Khatami's presidency, offering textual analysis of two films by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (Under the Skin of the City (2000) and Our Times (2002)) to show how cinema directly responded to the reformist movement and its thwarted promises. Khatami's discourse evoked abstract notions such as 'civil society', 'rule of law', and 'religious democracy', symptomatic of his attempts to achieve reform from the top down. Yet the focus of Bani-Etemad's films on housing problems in Tehran and patriarchal oppression suggest a failure of Khatami's reform to create genuine change on the ground. This disillusionment demonstrates the different types of relationship between the reform movement and cinema—first partnership, later a form of disavowal—while it also introduces one of the book's recurring themes: the cyclical nature of modern Iranian history between waves of hopeful revolution and ineffective reform. [End Page 108]

The third chapter, 'Video Democracies', illuminates how "the convergence of video and cinema contributed to the discourse of reform in Iran" (115). The rise of home video and digital cameras democratized the way films were seen and made in Iran, coinciding with the hope for political democratization represented by the reform movement. Atwood offers new readings of the already much discussed films by Abbas Kiarostami, Taste of Cherry (1997) and Ten (2002), positing them as examples of the use of digital video reflecting the Khatami era. Furthermore, an examination of Bahman Farmanara's Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine (2000), a film in direct dialogue with Iran's...


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pp. 108-109
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