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Kiarostami, the director of (2002), is the reason that Iranian cinema is currently upheld—by critics in France and America and elsewhere around the world—as the greatest since the French New Wave brought us Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Eric Rohmer.And yet, to many people within his own country, Kiarostami, as one Iranian film critic said to me, is considered “a crime against the cinema of the world.” I’ve arrived in Tehran at an auspicious time for filmgoers—February marks the beginning of the annual Fajr Film Festival, which includes multiple competitions (the national and international competitions as well as those for documentaries, shorts, Asian cinema, and “spiritual films”), plus retrospectives and screenings of classic films.
The last time he was arrested, in the early 1990s, the Islamic Republic confiscated a truckload of tins of film.
Mahmoud estimates three thousand canisters of film were lost; fortunately, Ali had many others hidden elsewhere.
But rather than pay to ship the bulky prints back to the US, the studios allowed the film stock to be destroyed in front of witnesses.
(The preferred means of destruction was to take an ax to the reels.) Ali, who worked as a projectionist, substituted worthless copies of easily accessible Iranian films for the Hollywood pictures, then secreted away cans holding the more valuable films by United, Paramount, Disney, etc.
Here on the streets of Tehran, I buy copies of many of the contenders for $1.50—. He invites us inside what seems less a home than a storage space—posters stacked against the wall of a cramped sitting room, lobby cards piled in a cluttered kitchen, bags and bags of film canisters arranged haphazardly in the hallway.
Ali’s bedroom is a crumbling crawl space lined with metal shelves.
“Here look: ten thousand dollars.” Over the years, Ali has come to serve as a valuable resource for the film communities in Tehran, and as such, occupies a strange place both above and below the government’s radar.
He tells me of the day in the early 1970s when he met director William Wyler, who had come to Iran for a screening of his film The Tehran branch of Paramount couldn’t get its hands on a copy of the film in time, and someone thought to contact Ali. He continues to provide rare films for Iranian film students and scholars, and his screenings are reminiscent of the ones with which Langlois inspired the French New Wave.
The image of Shrek appears everywhere throughout Tehran: painted on the walls of DVD and electronics shops, featured in an elaborate mural in the children’s play area of the food court at the Jaam-e Jam mall.
Once, from a car, I passed a five-foot-tall Shrek mannequin on the sidewalk; like his fellow pedestrians, he wore a surgical face mask to protect him from the smog.