With the world's attention fixed on the Middle East right now, many Americans are playing catch-up as they scramble to learn more about Islamic culture. Turning to movies from Middle Eastern countries is both one of the most dangerous and the most useful things they can do. Movies are never an accurate and complete depiction of any culture. (Would you want audiences overseas holding up "The Wedding Planner" as a textbook on the way average Americans live?) At the same time, movies are part of the shorthand people around the world use to shed light on their own everyday experiences.
The vast majority of the movies made in the Middle East that Americans get to see come from Iran, a country that despite (or possibly because of?) its strict censorship rules has had a renaissance of sorts over the past 30 years, particularly since the 1979 Islamic revolution. Many American filmgoers are at least familiar with the name Abbas Kiarostami, one of the elder statesmen of the Iranian "new wave." But he's just one of a number of directors whose work is increasingly finding its way to the U.S. Some of those younger filmmakers include Jafar Panahi ("The Circle") and Majid Majidi ("Children of Heaven," "The Color of Paradise"), whose new film "Baran" plays the New York Film Festival on Oct. 9 and 10, but is likely to get a relatively extensive nationwide release (for an Iranian film, that is) thanks to its distribution deal with Miramax.
"Baran" isn't a political movie but a love story; at times it's almost a romantic comedy. But its very accessibility -- it's gorgeously shot and never ploddingly earnest -- could make it the first Iranian film to be widely seen by American audiences who aren't necessarily hardcore art-house denizens. Moreover, it reflects some of the political realities in the Middle East that many Americans are just now becoming aware of. For example, an introductory note at the beginning of "Baran" explains that Iran hosts the largest number of Afghan refugees of any Middle Eastern country.
The tension, as well as the uneasy friendliness, between those refugees and Iranians is the net on which Majidi (who also wrote the screenplay) embroiders the finer points of his story. Latif (Hossein Abedini) is a handsome, lazy, essentially good-natured Iranian teenager whose job is to serve tea and food to the Afghan workers on the construction site run by his boss, Memar (Mohammad Amir Naji). Memar hires Afghan workers at much lower rates than he pays Iranians, but he's not supposed to be hiring them at all; when the inspector comes to his factory, the call goes out for all the Afghans to hide. If Memar is caught employing them without authorization, he could be fined so heavily that he'd have to let them all go.
Latif is resentful of the Aghan workers on the site. With his teenage self-absorption, he's convinced he works harder, for less money, than they do. He believes this is unfair because he's Iranian. (His job consists of making tea and bringing it around on trays, while the other workers, many of them in their late 50s, haul bags of cement on their backs.) His attitude changes when he meets a young Afghan woman (Zahra Bahrami), whom, for various reasons, he is unable to court. He goes out of his way to do kind things for her family, ultimately making a sacrifice that threatens his status in his own country -- all for a woman who, when she feels his gaze upon her, is instinctually compelled to throw her burqa over her face to make sure her modesty isn't compromised. It's clear, however, that no mere piece of cloth has the power to dampen the sexual charge between them.
Majidi has a delicate touch and an extraordinary visual sense: "Baran," although it takes place mostly on a dusty construction site employing impoverished workers, and in refugee enclaves that are far from luxurious, has a rich, lavish look. Majidi uses sunlight, a completely free resource if you can time your filmmaking around it, as a dazzling special effect; he's one of the most visually gifted young directors I've come across in recent years.
In fact, "Baran" looks so good, and tells a story that's so universally appealing, that I suspect some American aficionados of Iranian cinema will carp that it's too "Westernized." The more important point, though, is that it shows us a slice of life that's very different from our own and yet instantly recognizable. If that's always been the point of world cinema, now is a good time to be reminded of it.