Five years ago the notion of an Iranian cinema meant nothing to most Americans. Prejudiced by coverage of the Islamic revolution, they may have assumed Iranians were only allowed to produce propaganda. Yet since the release of Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon in 1995, that’s been changing. Now Iranian movies are regarded as vital and exciting–in 1997 Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry shared the Palme d’Or at Cannes, and last year Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven was nominated for an Academy Award. Both The White Balloon and Children of Heaven focus on the problems of ordinary children, and this may have fostered a new misconception that most Iranian films were simple neorealist exercises avoiding complex adult situations. But these films represent only a small fraction of the country’s output.

A child is at the center of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s new feature, The Silence, which will be screened this weekend at the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute. But radical shifts in subject matter have marked the career of this extraordinary filmmaker. 1989’s The Cyclist details the exploitation of an Afghan refugee, while 1996’s A Moment of Innocence reconstructs an traumatic incident from Makhmalbaf’s youth–he stabbed a policeman and was sentenced to jail for several years during the shah’s regime.

Iran has produced lots of films dealing with mythology, family conflict, and the Iran-Iraq war. A strange hybrid of documentary and fiction can be found in films like Kiarostami’s Close-up (which tells the true story of a man who posed as Makhmalbaf). Now that Americans are actually going to see these movies, U.S. film distributors are fighting for the rights.

Few have done more to catalyze this enthusiasm than Alissa Simon, associate director of programming at the Film Center. Ten years ago she helped inaugurate the annual Festival of Films From Iran, an event that now not only ranks as the center’s most popular series but stands as the only one of its kind in the U.S. “Iranians in other parts of the country are so jealous,” Simon says.

There’s a lot to be jealous about. Every October the Film Center screens ten Iranian features, most of which are U.S. premieres. Over the years, Iran’s most important filmmakers–including Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf, and Dariush Mehrjui–have appeared at the festival’s screenings. With Simon’s help, Facets Multimedia has released a dozen key Iranian works on video, with more planned, and venues around the country try to piggyback the festival’s offerings by borrowing its features. Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, an Iranian film professor who teaches at Columbia College, has helped with programming and making contacts in the Iranian community here. “Now there’s an organization called Friends of the Festival, which is made up of local Iranian people who are very interested in film,” explains Simon. “They raise money and make it possible for us to bring in directors and actors.”

That’s no small feat, considering that the U.S. has no diplomatic ties to Iran. “There’s no Iranian consulate here, so to get a visa Iranians have to go to another country outside of Iran where there’s a U.S. consulate, but they need to get a visa to get into that country,” says Simon. “We have this lovely letter from the mayor saying ‘Welcome to Chicago, we hope you have a nice experience and make new friends,’ but the first thing that happens to them when they get off the plane is that they’re fingerprinted. It’s totally sad and humiliating.” Last year guests were spared this experience, but the policy remains in place.

Since 1994 Simon has regularly attended the annual Fajr film festival in Tehran. The first year she was the only American there. “Every night I had nightmares that my scarf was going to blow off and I would be arrested,” she says. “I was overwhelmed by hospitality, and every year I’ve gone I’ve become more comfortable.” This year she even went jogging, though she had to keep her hair covered and run in a long coat.

This year the festival will present the U.S. premiere of Mehrjui’s long-banned The Lady as well as a screening of The Color of Paradise, the new film by Majidi, who will be present to discuss his work. One notable absence is Kiarostami’s latest, The Wind Will Carry Us, which Simon says was too difficult to get before its planned release. The festival starts Saturday and will screen at least two films every Saturday and Sunday through October.

In addition to the festival, on October 17 and 30 the Film Center will present Friendly Persuasion, a fascinating and informative documentary about Iranian cinema. And on October 31 the Reader’s Jonathan Rosenbaum and Chicago Tribune critic Michael Wilmington will discuss the difference between North American and Iranian film criticism with two of Iran’s most prominent critics, Noushabeh Amiri and Houshang Golmakani. For more info check out the Section Two film listings or call the Film Center at 312-443-3737. –Peter Margasak

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.