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Festival puts Iran centre screen

It's wrong, I know, to corral a country's film output into neat decades, but sometimes it acts as a useful shortcut to expressing what I love about a certain time and place on the big screen.

The Cow tells of a farmer's plunge into madness after his animal's death
The Cow tells of a farmer's plunge into madness after his animal's death

Germany in the 1920s, Italy in the 1960s, America in the 1970s… that much is expected from any film fanatic. But when it comes to the 1990s, I'd break from the main pack and champion films from Iran.

Of all the geographically-defined decades that glow brightest on my world cinema map, this was the one I experienced in the moment, not by being steered towards established classics from the past but by discovering new works as they were made and entered into distribution. I can still remember seeing Through The Olive Trees at its Cannes Film Festival premiere in 1994, and the sense of deep delight I felt at the long, final, static shot of a young man, far in the distance, getting a reply from the woman he has courted in vain for the duration of the film.

Through The Olive Trees was my introduction to the work of Abbas Kiarostami; Kiarostami was my introduction to the cinema of Iran. As his work became more formalised as a philosophical art-house fare, I warmed to films that had a more fable-like surface, often featuring children in the foreground: films such as The White Balloon, The Apple and The Colour Of Paradise.

I gladly followed Iranian cinema into the 21st century but have not kept up with developments of late. Also, I remain relatively ignorant of Iran's earlier film output, notably that prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. This year, the Edinburgh International Film Festival goes some way towards putting me right on both accounts. The Focus On Iran strand showcases new work while Interrupted Revolution: Iranian Cinema 1962 To 1978 selects important titles from the past.

"The films from before the Revolution are real revelations, discoveries and highlights," says Mark Cousins, filmmaker and former EIFF artistic director. "Of course there were lots of cheesy and even sleazy films made and shown in Iran in the 1960s and 1970s, but these are rightly forgotten. The films that the EIFF is showing are the gems. They reveal the plurality and modernity of the best films from that period."

One of the titles in the programme, The Cow, made in 1969, is regarded as the seminal work of the period. It tells of a farmer's descent into madness when his sole cow dies, and the despairing effect this has on his village neighbours. Its director is Dariush Mehrjui who, at the age of 74, is still working and has his latest film, Apparition (a loose adaptation of Ibsen's Ghosts), screening as part of the Focus On Iran.

Also in the same strand is Mark Cousins's latest, Life May Be - a cinematic essay-style correspondence between the Belfast-born filmmaker and Tehran-born director and artist Mania Akbari. Cousins has previously made a few documentary films about Iranian cinema in the country itself.

"I found that filming in Iran is freer than almost anywhere in the world," he insists. "In many countries, the shooting schedule is so strictly adhered to that it almost imprisons the film and inhibits spontaneity. In Iran, you have an idea, someone makes some phone calls, and suddenly it is happening. Maybe that's why the films feel so alive, so like jazz."

Statements like this go against most Westerners' preconceptions about Iran. The Iranian films screening this month in Edinburgh can only erase those preconceptions further.

The Cow, Filmhouse, today, 4pm; Apparition, Filmhouse, today, 6.10pm and Tuesday, 6.10pm; Life May Be, Cineworld, tomorrow, 8.20pm. For other Iranian films screening as part of the EIFF, see www.edfilmfest.org.uk

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