Persian Cat: An Iranian expatriate stays in time with independent films from his country Bahman Maghsoudlou, a resource for Iranian films in New York
New York-based, Iranian-born Bahman Maghsoudlou says “Iranian cinema today is ill.” And he should know. Maghsoudlou was a published film critic by age 15, a film magazine editor and documentary producer for Iranian TV who attended medical school, got a Ph.D. in film studies at Columbia and published the first history of Iranian films, all before the 1979 Iranian revolution. He makes his mission as film doctor treating the Iranian film industry by supporting individual artistry that fuels Iranian filmmaking any way he can.
Distribution is the primary obstacle to Iranian film’s health, Maghsoudlou says. Before the revolution, Iran had a population of 30 million and 480 movie theaters. Today, with 60 million people and 273 theaters, attendance is down as the video market booms. “People want to watch the big Hollywood hits, which the government won’t allow, but are available on the black market,” Maghsoudlou says. The government also insists that filmmakers in Iran work around strict rules and Islamic codes; sex and violence are forbidden onscreen. Even husbands and wives cannot touch. “This regulation has forced filmmakers to work around the laws,” Maghsoudlou says. Ironically, the result has been creative payoff. Iranian directors who must stick to simplistic themes and commit to moral values “find a lyrical, poetic quality to empower their films.”
That poetry of cinema, born out of necessity but tangible and evocative of the country’s culture nonetheless, is the key to the emergence of Iranian cinema in the international marketplace if it can be nurtured to thrive and grow, he says. America’s recent appetite for Iranian cinema is evidence that the restrictions are also paying off critically and financially.
Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh grossed more than $1 million when New Yorker Film released it in the United States in 1997. In 1996, October Films released Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon, which won a Golden Camera at Cannes. Zeitgeist made impressive sales on Abbas Kia-Rostami’s Taste of Cherry, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997, as did Miramax with Majid Majidi’s Oscar-nominated The Children Of Heaven. “These films are made for less than $200,000 in Iran,” explains Maghsoudlou, “which makes their profit margins all the more impressive. They also offer western viewers a change from the banal violence and explicit sex that makes so many American film.”
Maghsoudlou’s base of operations is his International Film and Video Center in Manhattan, where he carries 15,000 titles from around the world. He says he’s constantly approached by Iranian filmmakers who want him to produce their work, and he’s looking at several possibilities now. His short film Ahmad Shamlou, Master Poet of Liberty is on the festival circuit and he is in pre-production on The Last Train, a film based on the last months of Leo Tolstoy’s life. He has completed production on Surviving Paradise, about second-generation Iranian youth in contemporary Los Angeles, and is soon to shoot Blue Saxophone, a psychological thriller about a Vietnam veteran jazz player. Maghsoudlou works “with many eggs in one basket,” he says. “If one doesn’t hatch, another will.”
The Hollywood Reporter, August 1999