Iranian film scholar Jamsheed Akrami’s U.S. docu “Friendly Persuasion” offers an informative if rather plainly assembled overview of the national cinema that’s unexpectedly won the admiration of international critics, programmers and arthouse patrons in recent years. Aimed toward those with some foreknowledge of subject — there’s no 101-level introduction here to the country’s political or religious circumstances, nor do the best Iranian films convey much in excerpt — vid-shot effort will be most apt for fest slots, and as a nonfiction addition to broadcast/rep house feature retrospectives.
After an initial slew of representative clips (letterboxed, but in variable condition), pic launches into an episodic, point-by-point discussion of various issues relevant to Iranian cinema: Its frequent emphasis on stories about children; the creative solutions forced by strict content guidelines (no intersex physical contact can be shown, and women must be veiled at all times); differences between features’ receptions abroad and at home; the government’s morality-based ratings system.
Brief mention is made of more propagandistic and/or commercial features, but focus seldom strays from the “artistic” features that have played widely in the West (and are occasionally criticized domestically as concessions to Western arthouse tastes).
One major reason Iranian cinema has flourished is that very few foreign films are allowed to be shown theatrically (though there’s a sizable black market in often poor-quality vidcassettes), so Hollywood features haven’t overwhelmed local competition as they have in most other developing nations.
Talking-head interviews are primarily with directors, some of whom (such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf) chafe at the government’s heavy industry control, while others (notably leading light Abbas Kiarosami) suggest the strictures have helped keep a national cinema reflective of national (as opposed to Hollywood) values and themes.
New York Film Festival topper Richard Pena voices typical, admiring Western opinions re: this “more serious and worthy” filmmaking, though pic might have included other non-Iranian commentators, as well as input from government and religious spokesmen.
Low-budget docu will play best on TV; tech aspects are mediocre, pacing and point-by-point structure unimaginative. Film clips won’t do much for neophyte viewers, as the more artistic Iranian features hinge on quiet, character-revealing moments that carry little weight when taken out of context.