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Cross Cut: Iranian filmmakers seek artistic freedom

Directed by UCLA alumna Ana Lily Amirpour, “A Girl Walks Home At Night” had to work around Iran’s restrictions on filmmaking in order to produce the film. AmiPro’s movie will be screening at the Hammer Museum on Tuesday. (Courtesy of Kino Lorber)

By Eileen Li

Jan. 8, 2015 12:32 a.m.

In film editing, cross-cutting is the technique of cutting between actions occurring at the same time, but in different locations. In Los Angeles, the entertainment capital of the world, foreign cinema rarely takes the spotlight from the plethora of local releases. Columnist Eileen Li discovers foreign cinema screenings in the L.A. area each week, placing them in context of their native country.

Facing restricted freedom of expression, Iranian filmmakers have had to rack their brains.

“A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night,” a black-and-white film that wrapped up its limited run in November, benefitted from Iran’s strict filmmaking laws. It will be screening at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday as part of the Hammer Museum’s “The Contenders” series, weekly screenings of innovative 2014 films that are likely to receive nominations during awards season.

The protagonist is a reticent vampire played by UCLA alumna Sheila Vand. Known only as “the girl,” she stalks the streets of Iranian ghost town Bad City at night, ostensibly feeding only on men that are threats to women. The girl meets Arash (Arash Marandi), a small-time drug dealer with James Dean-style allure, who is ironically dressed up as Dracula for a costume party. For better or for worse, food becomes friend and a lonely vampire lets another being into her world.

In creating what is being billed as the first Iranian-vampire Western, UCLA alumna filmmaker Ana Lily Amirpour brings Iranian elements to a classic American genre. Shot in California, scripted in Farsi and comprising an Iranian expat cast from around the world, her film transcends any one nationality. The characters are plucked right out of a Western and placed in an Iranian backdrop.

The film’s innovative production model was a way of working around Iran’s restrictions on filmmaking. As an Iranian-American filmmaker, Amirpour would have had to obtain a filming permit to film in the country.

“Since I obviously can’t shoot in Iran, the solution became the invention of the entire film. … I created my own universe, and made the rules,” Amirpour wrote in her director’s statement.

A strong contender in 2015’s awards season, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” paves the way for innovative, multicultural cinema.

Domestic Iranian filmmakers, on the other hand, must both obtain a filming permit and face stringent content censorship. Restrictions include exclusion of almost all onscreen physical gestures of romantic love.

Like Amirpour, however, these filmmakers have found ways to work around the country’s filmmaking restrictions. Films that do so are usually infused with political messages.

One example, Bahman Ghobadi’s “No One Knows About Persian Cats,” was filmed in Tehran without a permit. An example of guerilla filmmaking, it was filmed in secret with lightweight, mobile Flycams. The musical drama received an Un Certain Regard award at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival, but is banned in Iran because of both its illegal production and controversial subject matter.

In Iran, performance of rock and other Western-inspired genres of music is banned. Musicians who perform this kind of music without a rarely issued permit risk imprisonment.

The story follows a Tehran-based indie rock couple who, after its release from prison following a public concert, form a band and aim to perform an underground concert. Simultaneously, they try to obtain illegal documents and travel to the UK, where they will be able to perform their music without reservation.

The subversive film uses music as a medium for dramatizing the country’s restrictions on culture and lifestyle. The fact that it was filmed illegally has given it additional international appeal.

Conversely, “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” seems to revel in its cultural freedom and features a liberal mix of tasteful tunes in both Farsi and English, including UK band White Lies’ “Death.”

“This is Not a Film,” a 2011 film available on Netflix, is a similar example. Also produced illegally and banned in Iran, the documentary was created by Jafar Panahi, an Iranian filmmaker, while on house arrest. Charged with propaganda against the Iranian government in 2010 after publically supporting the Iranian green movement protests against the then-President, he was sentenced to six years in prison and a twenty-year ban on all artistic activity.

In “This is Not a Film,” Panahi and his friend record the filmmaker on house arrest. He describes scenes from a film that he had wanted to, yet has become powerless to make. The documentary does not have a clear narrative structure but is critically acclaimed because of the secretive conditions under which it was made.

In his Variety magazine review, Peter Debruge calls the film a non-violent protest. Indeed, the film was smuggled to Cannes, where it was screened, in a USB drive hidden in a cake.

While “A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night” is less political in content, both Amirpour and domestic Iranian filmmakers such as Panahi and Ghobadi have made use of ambitious production models to create films that work around Iran’s restrictions on filmmaking, breaking new artistic ground.

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