This was apparently written in 2002, but I can no longer recall the circumstances or occasion for my writing it. — J.R.
During my only visit so far to Iran — as a member of the jury of the Fajr film festival in Tehran last year —- I was asked the same question repeatedly by many of the Iranians I met: “Why do you Americans [or westerners] like Iranian films so much?” And more often than not, this was followed by a second question: “Is it because they show so many poor people, which is the image of Iran that Americans [or westerners] prefer to have?” Given that many of the most valued and validated Iranian art films shown abroad are either banned or ignored on their home turf, it seemed like an understandable source of curiosity, made even more striking by the oft-reported fact that the films seen most often by most Iranians are unsubtitled, pirated videos of brand new American commercial features.
With these circumstances in mind, my usual response to their question was something like, “It’s true that Iranian art movies tend to show too many poor people. But American commercial movies tend to show too many rich people, and if you think they provide an accurate picture of the way we live, then you’re just as mistaken as we are.” And I couldn’t help but reflect further that part of what has made Iran a movie-mad country in recent years, with about a dozen film magazines coming out regularly, is that cinema provides one of the only routes to upward class mobility available in that society.