When filmmaker Amir Naderi left Iran, a country where free speech was a dodgy proposition and political oppression was at its zenith, in 1988, he never realised that many others like him will follow suit choosing to live in exile in foreign lands to further their art.
Like filmmakers Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Sohrab Shahid Sales and Bahram Beizai, actor Susan Taslimi, caricaturist Mana Neyestani, writer Susan Pari, publisher Bahman Amini and several others. Unlike those in the neighbouring countries who leave for better prospects abroad, the Iranians sought refuge as they found themselves in active opposition to a regime which was intolerant of their views.
Eighteen years since he moved to New York and with acclaimed movies like Vegas, Manhattan by Numbers, Sound Barrier and Cut to his credit, the 71-year-old film auteur will be bestowed the Jaeger-LeCoultre Glory at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival. The earlier recipients of the award include Takeshi Kitano, Abbas Kiarostami, Agnès Varda, Sylvester Stallone, Mani Ratnam, Al Pacino, Spike Lee, Ettore Scola, James Franco, and Brian De Palma.
His 11 films including Harmonica, Waiting and Water Wind Dust, made while in Iran, revolve around the themes of uprooting and social exclusion, from which the most vulnerable elements of society suffer. Feted by the international film festivals, Waiting (1975) received the Golden Plaque in the Virgin Island Film Festival, Water Wind Dust (1980) received the Grand Prix at Nantes Film Festival while the Rome Film Festival bestowed him the Roberto Rossellini Critics’ Prize for Sound Barrier (2005).
In Naderi’s films, one may not witness the friction over the subordinate status of women, the Islamic regime’s repressiveness and the social and economic scars left by Iran’s eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s which are among the recurrent themes in contemporary Iranian film, poetry and art. However according to film scholar Alla Gadassik, Naderi’s films are like “locating one’s home in the world”.
Interestingly, Naderi’s Cut takes movie love to a radical and brutally physical apocalyptic end. Shot entirely in Japan, it’s about a frustrated cinephile who offers his body as a source of income, becoming a human punching bag for packs of sadistic goons in the same dingy bathroom where his brother was killed.
Surviving under exceedingly difficult circumstances and almost non-existent resources, Naderi, whose The Runner (1984), considered as one of his seminal work and which brought him worldwide critical recognition, continues to make films in the urban settings of his exiled homeland and has even supported works of a new generation of film directors such as Andrei Severny’s Condition (2011), Naghmeh Shirkhan’s Hamsayeh (2010) and Ry Russo-Young’s Orphans (2007) by producing their films.
Unwilling to be dragged by the melancholy of an émigré, Nadir adopts a new avatar in his American films. He prefers to be a raconteur of tiny stories happening in big cities. For example, Manhattan by Numbers (1993) is the story of an unemployed writer desperately looking for someone to borrow money from in order to avoid being evicted. In Sound Barrier (2005), he used the child’s point of view to exorcise the pain caused by his departure. At the same time, he perseveres to look for an answer that would allow him to take his art forward; and Vegas: Based on a True Story (2008) describes the moral crumbling of American culture in which, a working-class family, intoxicated by their dream of prospering, end up destroying their environment.
His new film Monte, which premieres at Venice International Film Festival, is shot on location in Italy in the mountains of the Alto Adige and Friuli regions. Set in 1350, it tells the dramatic story of a man who makes every attempt to bring the sunlight into his village, where his family is barely able to survive because of the prevailing darkness. Despite all suggestions to move away for a better life, the protagonist Agostino insists his family’s fate lay between the peaks, and decides to challenge the ancient mountain’s immensity and power.
In times when cinema has become synonymous to entertainment, Naderi remarks: “Filmmaking is under pressure everywhere. For example, in Iran there is political pressure, but in Japan you cannot find money for making movies. You cannot find a place to show them. There are various kinds of pressure — not just political. Making movies today is like hell everywhere.”