When Dariush Mehrjui’s The Orange Suit was screened at the 12th Osian’s-Cinefan Film Festival, the audience erupted in joy and gave the director a prolonged applause. The film’s subject – filth and trash dotting the streets and countryside in Iran - seemed to have elicited an immediate response in India. In an interview with this writer, Mehrjui said he was saddened and angered by the rubbish he saw all around him. “With all the rubbish being dumped in the beautiful forests of northern Iran, I found the stench so strong I couldn’t breathe.” But the mess, he says, is not just physical, not just a degradation of nature, of the environment and of earth’s beauty. It is as much a mental clutter. “By cleaning your surroundings, you are supporting a change in you.” Students in northern Iran have taken up the cause and picked up the broom.
But this story of a young man, a photographer, who follows his conscience, sweeps the streets and becomes a hero, has more to it than meets the eye. The very act of sweeping, says Mehrjui, is a Marxist idea. Sweep, sweep, sweep away the dirt and the bourgeoisie together with all the dirt that society has accumulated. “That,” Mehrjui believes, “is the advantage of art. It can be analysed from different angles, and multiple meanings can be drawn from it. It all depends on how the audience relates to it.”
For Mehrjui, films made on the basis on his conscience are his best films. To Stay Alive (Bemani, 2002) speaks of the tragic lives of women living in a conservative, patriarchal society. The director was appalled by the high rate of suicide by young women in eastern Iran. When he decided to travel there and find out for himself, he learned that some four hundred women killed themselves every year because they were unable to bear the hurt or shame flung at them by family and society. The script – “which was banned in that region” - emerged from this contact.
The subject of The Cycle (Dayereh Mina, 1978) was the mafia’s control and sale of contaminated blood. It was banned because the medical fraternity raised objections. The Postman (Postchi, 1970), Santoori (2007) and The School We Went To (Hayat-e Poshti Madrese-ye Adl-e Afag, 1980) have all been banned at different periods and for different lengths of time, and then released subsequently. “That’s the destiny of my films,” says Mehrjui. But when shown, they have had the desired effect. The problem of illicit blood trafficking was tackled; and two years after his trip to the eastern region, Mehrjui says he was told that “there had been a drastic fall in women’s suicide rates.” And now, following the release of The Orange Suit, some university students in northern Iran have taken up the cause and begun a clean-up.
Why the bans? In Mehrjui’s view, “when you produce a work of art that rises above the regular consciousness of the people or government, it is not understood. In such cases it is easier to ban it. If my cinema throws up new ideas, new ways of thinking, ‘they’ prefer to kill it. And then, the films are back on the circuit! It’s a black-and-white attitude.”
One of the founders of the Iranian New Wave way back in 1969, Mehrjui made his second film, The Cow, a milestone in Iranian cinema, because he was thoroughly put off by the vulgar stuff he saw in the run-of-the-mill films around him. The Cow, “embodied his rebellion” to what was prevalent. The film discarded the sex-and-violence trappings of commercial cinema and appealed directly to the audience. It was also influenced by Italian Neo-Realism and the French New Wave .
A many-splendoured and much-admired personality, and winner of some sixty national and international awards, his cinema gathers all the threads that define him. This voracious reader (he reads two or three novels a week) is also a musician, painter, philosopher, man of theatre, translator, novelist and short-story writer. “I encompass all these fields in my subconscious within a philosophical framework,” he says.
And censorship? “Well, it creates a force – to fight back, to allude, to navigate, to push towards poetry. Poetry has so many dimensions you cannot pinpoint to anything…”
Seventeen of Dariush Mehrjui’s films with English subtitles and good sound and visual quality can be viewed at Asian Pacific Films.