August 10, 2006

Iran cinema booms as people crave smiles over style

By Alireza Ronaghi

TEHRAN (Reuters) - International audiences have come to
know Iranian cinema as a lyrical but slow-paced genre where
horses slog through snowy Kurdish mountain passes and children
spend two hours looking for a lost banknote.

Such arthouse films may win plaudits at festivals like
Cannes, but they are not the sort of movies that break box
office records in Tehran.

This summer's top film in the Islamic Republic was
"Ceasefire," a saccharine comedy in which two sexy newly-weds
get so competitive with each other that they have to consult a
psychologist to avoid divorce.

"People who spend money and time coming to movies prefer to
have fun and leave ... smiling instead of solving philosophical
problems in dark theatres," said Pouria Vali, a 21-year-old
regular film-goer who has seen "Ceasefire" twice.

The film took more than $1 million at the box office
between May and July. Cinema tickets cost about a dollar in

"Most people like comedies because they do not have much to
laugh about these days," said Navid Etminan, a 25-year-old
student queuing up to watch the film.

"Artistic movies can reach out to foreign audiences, but
not to ordinary people," he said.


The success of "Ceasefire" comes as Iranian cinemas enjoy a
boom, fueled largely by a greater number of home-grown romantic
comedies which have lured people back to the big screen.

Movie theatres took in more than $2 million between March
and May this year, up 100 percent on the same period in 2005,
state cinema authority Farabi said.

"The stories are far better in this year's films and that
is the right way to get people onside," said Akbar Nabavi,
cinema critic and documentary producer.

Romantic comedies fill a vacuum; people want to be amused
but Hollywood's offerings often do not fit the bill in Iran,
where censorship has been a constant factor since the 1979
revolution and even before.

State-imposed cultural restrictions mean many foreign films
are heavily edited to meet the country's strict Islamic codes,
or sometimes banned.

And although people can watch blockbuster comedies from the
United States and elsewhere on pirated DVDs, many cannot
understand them as they are not subtitled or dubbed.

There is also little appetite for home-grown films by such
acclaimed figures as Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi -- among
directors who have won praise abroad for using innuendo and
metaphor, much like Eastern European directors who found ways
to navigate the strictures of communist systems.

"People had got fed up with stupid political games and they
showed their lack of interest by turning their backs on movies
as symbols of the political trends," said Nabavi.

With 130 Iranian films looking for a screening each year,
cinema managers tend to prefer crowd-pleasing comedies over
harrowing tales of broken families.


While romantic comedies may be thriving, other genres are
losing fans in a country with just 256 cinemas, 80 in Tehran.

During the 1980-1988 war with Iraq, Iranian cinema
audiences were fed a heavy diet of war movies as directors had
easy access to helicopters and tanks on the front-lines.

But Kamal Tabrizi, a pioneering comedy director who used to
make war films, said Iran could no longer compete in this

"Making a war movie or an action film has become harder and
more expensive day by day in Iran, and the Iranian films cannot
compete with their blockbuster American rivals," Tabrizi said.

"People have easy access to the new Hollywood movies and
compare Iranian films to those. And they find the Iranian
products weakly crafted," he said.

Iranian war epic "Duel," the most expensive Iranian film,
failed to make a big impression at the box office when it was
released in 2004.

Tabrizi's most notorious film was "The Lizard," a box
office hit about a thief who escapes from prison by dressing up
as a cleric. Ironically, the crook then becomes very popular as
a preacher. Cinemas eventually pulled the film after religious
hardliners called for it to be banned.

Iran's horror scene has also failed to take off, with
little appetite for "Girls' Dormitory," a bloody tale with
supernatural overtones about a killer preying on female

"A weak Iranian horror movie can only make people laugh,"
Tabrizi said.

So, for now Iranian cinema will continue to grow on the
back of innocent romances.

"I have come to watch the cute superstars in "Ceasefire"
and laugh a bit, and I think that is pretty much what everybody
wants from a movie," said Tina, a 17-year-old student who
bunked off an afternoon language class to watch the film.