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The Top 10 Iranian Movies to Netflix This Weekend

And what controversial cinematic history can explain about the country.

Many Western cinemaphiles were first introduced to Iranian movies in 1997 after director and screenwriter Abbas Kiarostami took home the well-deserved Palme d'Or for his film Taste of Cherry. And yet Iranian film has had a long and lively history -- one that began well before Taste of Cherry and has often been fraught with political and social controversy. As the world holds its collective breath awaiting the results of the Iranian election and all its implications, here is a list of 10 films that have stirred the country's politics over the years.

1. The Cow (Gaav), Dariush Mehrjui, 1969

One of the first, if not the first, of Iran's New Wave films, this picture had an enormous influence on Iranian cinema, pushing several generations of filmmakers to focus on serious social issues.Perhaps not the most entertaining movie, The Cow, a psychological drama, portrays a poor villager who is so upset by the loss of his cow that he begins to think he is the cow, eating hay and living in the barn. The shah banned The Cow for depicting the country as poor and backward, but it is rumored that Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini respected the film so much that it was the reason he did not ban movies outright in 1979.

2. Caesar (Qaysar), Masoud Kimiai, 1969

Caesar is one of the first to develop what is perhaps my favorite Iranian film archetype, the Iranian antihero.Starring Iran's version of Clint Eastwood, Behrooz Vosooghi, Caesar tells the story of a man who, after coming home to find that his sister has been raped, avenges her honor by going to kill the guilty parties. This film signaled a turn to increased depictions of violence in Iranian cinema in the 1970s and appealed to a whole generation of young Iranians who liked the idea of vigilante justice. It was these same kids who overthrew the shah, many sporting the Caesar hairdo.

3. The Deer (Gavaznha), Masoud Kimiai, 1975

The Deer also stars Vosooghi, a poor man who takes on the authorities. This time, the protagonist is an opium addict running from the police. The original film ends with a spectacular shootout, but the censored version shown in Iran in 1975 ends on themes of surrender. In fact, The Deer was the film playing at Cinema Rex in 1978 when its doors were locked and set on fire, killing the 500 patrons trapped inside -- an event that marked a major turning point in the revolt against the shah.

4. The Imperiled (Barzakhiha), Iraj Ghaderi, 1982

One of the earlier Iran-Iraq War films, The Imperiled follows a small group of antirevolutionaries accidentally freed by the opening of the shah's prisons in 1980. During their escape to the Iraqi border, this group -- a former SAVAK agent, a capitalist, and a murderer -- get caught up in the war, valiantly defending an Iranian border town. Iranian film connoisseurs might consider The Imperiled an odd, if not obscure, top-10 pick.But though The Imperiled was never banned, authorities disliked the movie so much that it essentially ended the careers of its stars -- Malik Motii, Ali Fardin, and Said Rad (all icons from the '60s and '70s). The controversy surrounding the film eventually led to the resignation of the minister of culture and Islamic guidance, who was succeeded by Mohammad Khatami, who later became president. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a godfather of sorts in contemporary Iranian cinema, hated The Imperiled so much he claims it was the reason he started making movies.

5. Bashu, The Little Stranger (Bashu, Gharibeh-ye Kuchek), Bahram Beizai, 1986

This is by far one of the best Iran-Iraq War films, distinguished by director Beizai's treatment of taboo subjects. A cry against a war that eventually killed more than a million Iranians, it was banned by the authorities. The film was also controversial for taking on ethnic disparities and racism in Iranian society by depicting a dark-skinned child from southern Iran trying to fit in among the white northerners. Equally daring at the time, it highlights a strong female character, typical of Beizai's films but rare for 1980s Iranian cinema. The drama centers on a child named Bashu who, after his family and village are destroyed by the Iraqi Army, escapes to a farm run by a woman and her two children. The woman (who becomes Bashu's adoptive mother) is left to fend for herself and her children in a difficult environment.

6. Gabbeh, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, 1995

I love Makhmalbaf. In addition to being a controversial character -- a reputation he's earned -- he makes fascinating films.Gabbeh is a triumph in part merely because of its rich hues (the film's subtitle is aptly named, Life Is Color.) Makhmalbaf shows off his daring by challenging the often unspoken rules against depicting bright colors in film, while simultaneously pushing the gender envelope. The film follows the story of a young woman who wishes to marry a mysterious horseman, but when her dreams are delayed she lives out her fantasy in the carpet she is weaving.

7. The Snowman (Adam-e Barfi), Davoud Mirbagheri, 1997

This movie was a smash hit in Iran when it was released.It was actually made in 1994, but remained banned until Khatami came to power in 1997. The prominent themes of cross-dressing and the desire to travel to America were both forbidden enough to incite quite a brouhaha. Groups of young, ultraconservative militants attacked some of the theaters showing the film, but oddly, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei weighed in to say he wasn't opposed to it. Even though The Snowman had circulated heavily on the black market before its 1997 release, it eventually became Iran's highest-grossing film at the time.

8. The Hidden Half (Nimeh-ye Panhan), Tahmineh Milani, 2001

Dozens of excellent women directors made their mark after the revolution, and Milani is one of my favorites.The Hidden Half follows the story of a woman who aims to convince her husband, a judge, to show mercy to a woman sentenced to death.She does this by divulging her own revolutionary activities as a member of a communist group in the 1970s. Milani faced serious legal charges after the movie's release for its depiction of the early years of the revolution, apparently even facing a death sentence.Milani has directed a number of other excellent gender-conscious films since The Hidden Half. Unfortunately, her most recent film, Cease-Fire, was an uninspiring romantic comedy about a couple heading toward divorce (Think The Break-Up without Jennifer Aniston).

9. The Lizard (Marmulak), Kamal Tabrizi, 2003

One of the funniest movies to come out of Iran in the past 30 years, The Lizard is about an imprisoned thief who escapes by donning clerical garb.As a cleric, he is hilariously mistreated -- taxis refuse to pick him up and a young boy pretends to receive his blessing as he picks his pocket.The film was such a pop-culture sensation that young Iranians began referring to clerics on the street as lizards.The Lizard was never officially banned, but it was pulled from theaters after several of the country's ruling clergy protested. Interesting side note: Director Tabrizi went on to produce some of the campaign videos for Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani's presidential bid in 2005.

10. Santouri, The Music Man, Dariush Mehrjui, 2007

Although soul-crushingly depressing, this newest feature by Iranian film veteran Mehrjui is a rare examination of a major social ill plaguing Iran -- drug abuse. The tale of a talented and popular musician whose life falls apart due to his addiction to heroin, the movie even ventures into gritty shantytowns and the haunts of homeless drug addicts. Santouri was banned from public theaters in Iran after an initial screening, but is now available on DVD. Rumor has it the authorities considered the main character's battle with drugs a veiled reference to Khamenei's own purported youthful dabbling in opium.


The List

The List: Five Disease Outbreaks That Are Worse Than Swine Flu

Swine flu has infected 1,500 people worldwide and killed around 30, almost all in Mexico. But it is far from the world's most serious disease outbreak. Here are five you probably won't see on the evening news.




What is it? An acute diarrheal infection that can lead to death from dehydration or severe kidney failure. Unlike other diarrheal diseases, it is often deadly in both children and adults.

Where is it? Worried about a pandemic? Cholera has been a global scourge since 1961. The disease is endemic in many parts of Africa, Southern Asia, and Latin America. New infections jumped 96 percent in 2006. The growing severity of the disease is likely due to overpopulation in areas without sufficient sanitation.

Current outbreak: In what the World Health Organization described as the worst case scenario, a cholera outbreak that began in August 2008 has infected more than 96,000 people in Zimbabwe, resulting in over 4,200 deaths. The country's lack of water and sewer infrastructure has exacerbated the problem, not to mention the fact that many Zimbabwean doctors are refusing to work for Zimbabwe's virtually worthless currency. In recent months, the number of new reported cases has declined, but the WHO warns that a return of the disease is likely in August.



What is it? An infection of the fluid around the spinal cord and brain. Severe cases of bacterial meningitis can result in brain damage or death if not treated quickly.


Where is it? Outbreaks of meningitis appear frequently in the northern Sahel region of sub-Saharan Africa, known to researchers as the meningitis belt. The latest outbreak has been particularly severe in Nigeria, Niger, and Chad.

Current outbreak: Since the beginning of 2009, a meningitis outbreak has killed more than 1,900 people in the three countries -- 1,500 in Nigeria alone. More than 56,000 cases have been reported in the worst outbreak of the disease since 1996, when at least 25,000 people died. In Chad, where meningitis drugs are difficult to find, one in 10 people infected with the disease dies. It is thought that an unusually cold climate has made the outbreak worse than normal this year. In response, NGO Mdecins Sans Frontieres has launched its largest-ever vaccination campaign for any disease. The group has already vaccinated 5.4 million people and plans to vaccinate another 1.7 million.

China Photos/Getty Images


What is it? A disease affecting the human immune system, making individuals more susceptible to deadly infections. AIDS has killed 25 million people around the world since 1981.

Where is it? 33 million people around the world are currently living with the AIDS virus, 22 million of them in sub-Saharan Africa. New drugs make it possible to dramatically extend the length and quality of life of AIDS patients, but in developing countries, less than a third of those in immediate need of treatment receive the drugs.

Current outbreak: China has attracted international attention for the draconian measures it has taken to prevent a swine flu outbreak, but it has been less quick to react to the AIDS epidemic that killed 7,000 people throughout the country in the first nine months of 2008 alone. AIDS quietly became the deadliest infectious disease in the country last year, beating out tuberculosis. China's numbers are still relatively smaller relative to world totals, but their rise has been meteoric. Three years ago, fewer than 8,000 people had ever died of AIDS in China. Efforts to get accurate reporting on the epidemic is difficult in the country because of the stigma attached to the disease -- nearly half of Chinese say they would never eat with an HIV-positive person -- and because local officials intentionally underreport numbers in order to stay out of trouble with Beijing.




What is it? A severe viral disease in humans and primates that causes fever, muscle pain, diarrhea, vomiting, and in some cases internal bleeding and skin rash. Ebola has a very high fatality rate, up to 90 percent in some outbreaks, and has appeared sporadically since 1976. The disease tends to infect healthcare workers or family members who bury the dead.

Where is it? So far, outbreaks of the most deadly form of Ebola, the Zaire strain, have only appeared in central Africa, where unsterile hospital conditions make the transmission of the virus through personal contact or bodily fluids more likely. Congo, Uganda, and Sudan have suffered the worst outbreaks. The non-fatal (unless you're a monkey) Ebola-Reston strain has appeared in the United States, Italy, and the Philippines.

Current outbreak: The most recent outbreak of the disease in Congo was declared over in mid-February after 32 cases and 15 deaths. 2007's outbreak was more severe, resulting in 187 deaths, 71 percent of those affected. Uganda, Sudan, and Gabon have also suffered outbreaks in the last decade. The good news? Ebola is unlikely to develop into a pandemic because of the difficulty of transmission, but its terrifyingly high fatality rate has caused countries to close their borders in order to prevent its spread.


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What is it? An infection spread by mosquitoes that causes acute muscle and joint pain. Cases are generally non-lethal but dengue occasionally results in a deadly hemorrhagic fever.

Where is it? Dengue fever outbreaks have been reported in the tropics for centuries, but until 1970, only around 9 countries had been afflicted. Infections have spiked dramatically in dozens of countries in recent years, and there are now an estimated 50 million infections per year. Around two fifths of the world's population is currently at risk for the disease, according to the WHO. Latin America has been particularly susceptible. Unlike other mosquito borne-diseases, such as malaria, dengue affects both urban and rural areas.

Current outbreak: While the world's attention has been focused on Mexico's swine flu, a severe dengue outbreak infected 50,000 people in Bolivia and more than 20,000 in Argentina. (Georgetown's Michael Shifter wrote for FP this week about how the Argentine government's slow response to the crisis has become a scandal in Buenos Aires.) Exact figures are difficult to obtain due to underreporting, but the death toll is thought to be in the hundreds. Australia is also struggling to contain a dengue outbreak that has infected nearly 1,000 people.