August 15, 2006
Iran cinema booms as people crave romantic comedy
By Alireza Ronaghi
TEHRAN - 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 bank note.
Such art house 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 theaters," said Pouria Vali, a 21-year-old regular filmgoer 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 Iran.
"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.
INCREASED BOX-OFFICE SALES
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 theaters 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 genre.
"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 hard-liners 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 students.
"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 skipped an afternoon language class to watch the film.