Be Calm and Count to Seven — challenging generic concepts of New Iranian Cinema

by Brian Cagle

“In every Iranian home, if there are two books, they are the Qur’an and Haviz. But if there’s only one book, it’s Haviz,”

Ramtin Lavafipour, director of Be Calm and Count to Seven (2008), gave me this characteristically ambiguous yet ultimately revelatory response when I asked him for some insight into the mystery behind the lyrical and poetic approach that has become synonymous with New Iranian Cinema. For Lavafipour, some of the most well-known contemporary Iranian directors’ film techniques spring from the culture’s historic embrace of their most beloved poet, Haviz. But what about those other aspects that have become so characteristic of contemporary Iranian cinema, which have made these films a reliable mainstay of film festivals and art-houses across the globe now going on three decades? For, among critics, it is widely accepted that the current auteur tradition of New Iranian cinema shares an aesthetic approach, if not a genealogy, with the bright lights of the Neo-Realist movement, and as a result these Iranian directors have cultivated a worldwide audience that often brings such expectations to their films. It is in this way that New Iranian cinema, both by example of shared aesthetic strategies among its well-known directors, and the expectations of such by its critics and fans, has essentially positioned Iranian film as a genre, one which exists above and beyond its classification as a national cinema. And it is precisely these generic demands that Lavafipour’s film inhabits, exceeds and ultimately breaks free from. Thus Be Calm and Count to Seven potentially opens the door to both a post-national and a Post-New (or, if you prefer, New-New) Iranian cinema.


Perhaps no other national cinema in recent memory has become so distinguished, so carefully identifiable by shared aesthetic commonalities, than that of New Iranian cinema. These are the post-Revolutionary films considered as heirs to the Iranian New Wave of the late-60s/early-70s; this identification is the source both of the films’ attraction and of their continued success internationally (even while these films remain largely unseen back home). Marquee names like Kiarostami, Majidi, and Makhmalbaf (who are all three torchbearers of the original Iranian New Wave) have had critical and commercial successes over the last two decades of film festival and art-house screenings. As a consequence, in recent years many up-and-coming Iranian directors have continued to find a critical and commercial audience elsewhere. (And who could fault a filmgoer for first giving a film by Bahman Ghobadi a chance, based solely on the viewer’s own transcendent experience with Taste of Cherry?) In this sense, an Iranian film, particularly for the Western viewer (and especially the critic), no longer refers to a nation, cinematically-speaking, but to an artistic legacy and an aesthetic strategy, one in which the spatial, temporal, and narrative concerns are at once Not-Hollywood, Not-Western, and therefore defined in opposition to the dominant cinema in their overall approach.

One problem in this reverence for such tactics is that it is essentially tied to a Modernist, post-war European sensibility. Hence, when a tag of “Neo-neorealism” gets applied to New Iranian films, critical discourse attempts to graft such films onto the family tree of the mid-to-late-20th century European art-film tradition, rather than deal with these films as indigenous inheritors of their own specific cultural and artistic practices. That is, these are films from both a Muslim nation (particularly culturally, rather than spiritually, although where these overlap is admittedly hard to distinguish). They can even be considered as Persian films, from a culture steeped in 3,000 years of art and poetry that has historically extolled the virtues of the quotidian (and the “spiritual romanticism” of Hafiz), the very aspects for which New Iranian films are celebrated.

Another problem is with making a generic association of these films precisely with their difference from the dominant cinema is not only “tarrying with the negative” (Not-Hollywood, Not-Western), but is exemplary of a sort of inverted exoticism among Western critics and viewers. In this case, an old-fashioned orientalism emerges once again, this time within the warm, critical embrace of the film festival circuit. Writing on the success of Iranian films both at festivals and commercially, and of the inherent politics of difference (from the dominant cinema) upon which festivals thrive, Negar Mottahedeh suggests that exoticism, critical praise, and commercial success go hand-in-hand:

“… the selection of films for French, Italian, British, and North American festivals, while formally grounded in the argument of “aesthetic brilliance” is shaped as much by the products’ relation to (or borrowing from) known avant-garde and modernist film traditions as by the potential for commercial profit derived from the films’ attachment to a “national” context.”[1] [open endnotes in new window]

So, as the textual, thematic and aesthetic concerns that characterize these films have inadvertently “branded” them as distinctly and identifiably Iranian, this has to a greater or lesser degree been helpful for a number of up-and-coming Iranian directors, at least those whose work is considered close enough to the tradition of Italian neorealism, yet whose subject matter is located far enough away to “safely” be considered a national cinema.

But, to borrow a phrase from Samuel Beckett, “the danger lies in the neatness of identification.” Because how does a film like Be Calm And Count To Seven fit into this neat categorization of New Iranian cinema? Certainly this film, which in 2009 was awarded Rotterdam’s Golden Tiger, Villadolid’s Best Feature, Dubai’s Best Cinematography, along with numerous appearance on the festival circuit (yet still without distribution), in many ways fits the generic conventions of New Iranian Cinema. It is a breathtakingly beautiful, lyrical film, deftly blending documentary and fiction, which calls forth comparisons to Naderi’s The Runner, Majidi’s Children of Heaven, and even De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. But in the film’s adrenalized opening scenes, it also exhibits the aesthetic DNA of much more commercial films, such as those of Tom Twyker, Paul Greengrassand Alphonso Cuarón, and their works might never be characterized as art-cinema, not-dominant, or Not-Western films, per say. But these latter three filmmakers have all carved a niche for themselves within the dominant cinema through signature stylistic approaches (rapid cutting, visceral hand-held camerawork, etc.). Therefore, as the antithesis to the national, they would seem to have very little in common with the hermetic-yet-aesthetically-brilliant universe of New Iranian cinema. But what connects all these filmmakers is a common ground within the auteur tradition, albeit from radically different approaches, both aesthetically and culturally. And with Be Calm and Count to Seven, Lavafipour succeeds in reconciling these approaches, while calling into question the nascent genre-labeling expectations of New Iranian film in the process.


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