Tehran Tornado 

Iranian films are more popular than ever with art audiences looking for something new.

Iran has been on the American art-film map for about ten years, since Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf's work first started showing in US museums and film fests. And now -- with the films in the "New Iranian Cinema" miniseries at the Pacific Film Archive -- the second wave has officially arrived. Just in time. The more Iranian movies American foreign-film audiences see, the more they want to see. They're not just for Farsi speakers anymore.

Six of the eight new films playing the PFA January 14-19 are by young filmmakers with little or no exposure in the United States, and most of them display the customary Iranian combination of cool, refined visual style with barbed social commentary. The opening night double bill of Dariush Mehrjui's Bemani and Nasser Refaie's The Exam is a case in point, two movies on the dreadful plight of Iranian women. In The Exam, we drift through a crowd of young Tehran women assembled to take university entrance exams, and see how difficult a proposition that can be. And in the melodramatic triptych Bemani, its three provincial female subjects are beheaded, locked in a cellar, and driven mad, respectively, by their male tormentors. "These are women who have suffered violence for having broken the laws of Islam," observes PFA director Edith Kramer, who has been showing Iranian films since the late '80s. "A lot of films this past year have taken on the issue of women. It's Iranian filmmakers critiquing their own society."

The PFA typically draws a crowd of immigrant Farsi speakers and curious film buffs for its Iranian nights. "I love my Iranian-American audiences," says Kramer. "They're very, very sophisticated viewers. They bring a critical and social insight to what's being shown." Other museums and fests around the country have also relied on Iranian Americans to support the films, but the crossover is well under way, and now audiences are even hungry for earlier films from Iran. They do exist, says Kramer: "We've screened early, pre-revolutionary Iranian films. Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami didn't come out of a vacuum, you know."

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