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“Study the World!” 10 Great Iranian Films You Can Stream for Free Right Now

Asghar Farhadi is banned from the United States and will not attend the Oscars due to Donald Trump’s executive order. But the movies of his countrymen are as vital as ever.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

Last week, Donald Trump signed an executive order banning citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from entering the U.S for the next 90 days. The effects of the ban have been rippling throughout the world in the days since, tearing apart families, blocking students from coming back to school, and leaving innocent people detained in airports for interminable durations. One of the most widely covered stories about the ban has been that of the Oscar-winning Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, who, like his fellow countrymen, is effectively barred from entering the United States — let alone attending the Academy Awards on February 26, even though his latest movie, The Salesman, is nominated for Best Foreign Language Film. One unnamed White House source told People this weekend that an exception might be made for Farhadi, but the filmmaker stated Sunday that, regardless, he will not attend the ceremony. Instead, he issued a statement of “what I would have expressed to the press were I to travel to the United States.”

“Hard-liners, despite their nationalities, political arguments and wars,” he wrote, “regard and understand the world in very much the same way. In order to understand the world, they have no choice but to regard it via an ‘us and them’ mentality, which they use to create a fearful image of ‘them’ and inflict fear in the people of their own countries.” He added, drawing parallels between Trump’s regime and that of his home country, “Instilling fear in the people is an important tool used to justify extremist and fanatic behavior by narrow-minded individuals.” (Read the full statement here.)

The strongest antidotes to fear are education, compassion, and understanding. The irony in banning an artist like Farhadi is that his movies promote those values — a potential breach in the cross-cultural divide that got us in this mess to begin with. Of late, Trump has taken great pains to portray the film industry as frivolous and pretentious, offering out-of-touch fare for the close-minded left. But Trump and his backers have painted this picture in broad strokes. When I tweeted about Farhadi this weekend, a Trump supporter replied, “Cinema is where liberal Hollywood elites brainwash Americans.” This thinking is not only dangerous, but darkly humorous. I’m sure Farhadi, a man who right now is legally barred from stepping foot in Hollywood, would chuckle at hearing himself being lumped into such a category as “liberal Hollywood elites.”

And so if I must stoop to the kind of Us Weekly diction in which our president tweets and speaks: “Iranians: They’re Just Like Us!” As are Syrians, Iraqis, Sudanese, Somalis, Libyans, and Yemeni. And perhaps one of the easiest ways to relate to them is by watching movies from these countries.

Below is a list of 10 entertaining and empathetic movies you can stream online for free right now. In honor of Farhadi, and also because the country’s cinematic history is particularly rich, I’ve focused only on Iran, but I’d love to hear suggestions from the other countries included in the travel ban. As Trump himself tweeted this morning, “Study the world!” He meant it as an argument to justify his executive order, but out of context, it’s good advice.

‘About Elly’ (dir. Asghar Farhadi; 2009; streaming on Netflix)

This is Farhadi’s first masterpiece, a moody, modern mystery that’s also probably the only movie ever to draw equal comparisons to The Big Chill and L’Avventura. The film follows a group of friends who rent a vacation home on the Caspian Sea; their trip turns into a tense thriller when the newest member of the group, a reserved schoolteacher named Elly, disappears. The titular character is played, with expert restraint, by Taraneh Alidoosti, who is also the lead in The Salesman and who also had some choice words for Trump this week, in a tweet stating that she will also be boycotting the Oscars.

‘Close-Up’ (dir. Abbas Kiarostami; 1990; streaming on FilmStruck, which offers a 14-day free trial)

Iranian cinema suffered a huge blow last year when the legendary director Kiarostami died at age 76. Emerging from the Iranian New Wave in the 1960s, Kiarostami is widely credited with getting Western art house audiences to pay attention to Iranian film; his Palme d’Or win at Cannes in 1997 for Taste of Cherry was a pivotal moment in putting his home country’s cinema on the map. Perhaps his most dizzyingly brilliant movie, though, is Close-Up, a metafictional film about the trail of a man who was arrested for pretending to be the Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf. Profound and darkly funny, Close-Up is a meditation on both the Iranian legal system and the nature of film itself.

‘The Cow’ (dir. Dariush Mehrjui; 1969; available on YouTube)

Perhaps the most famous Iranian film before the revolution, The Cow is a sparse, Robert Bresson–esque story about a man’s descent into madness after he loses the titular animal, his only possession of value. At the time of its release, the shah of Iran decried this movie because he thought it made his country look rural and antiquated — the opposite of the image he wanted to present to the rest of the world. But after the revolution, the ayatollah expressed his appreciation for The Cow, and many believe this is why Iranian cinema was able to continue — albeit haltingly, with many restrictions — under the new regime.

‘The House Is Black’ (dir. Forugh Farrokhzād; 1963; available on YouTube)

Though Farrokhzād died tragically young in a car accident, she crammed a lot of life into her 32 years. She married and then, after a divorce, wrote several volumes of defiant poetry from a single woman’s point of view. In her late 20s, she got into filmmaking, writing and directing this lyrical 22-minute essay-film about leprosy. Though there was virtually nothing like it in Iranian culture at the time it was released, The House Is Black now feels like a kindred spirit of Chris Marker’s docu-poems.

‘Persepolis’ (dir. Marjane Satrapi; 2007; available via a seven-day free trial of Sundance Now)

Satrapi’s Oscar-nominated adaptation of her own graphic novel is a finely wrought coming-of-age tale that happens to take place in revolutionary Iran. Persepolis is a detailed depiction of a generation stuck between its parents’ and its children’s Iran, torn between tradition and modernism, Eastern and Western culture, endurance and flight.

‘A Separation’ (dir. Asghar Farhadi; 2011; FilmStruck)

This is Farhadi’s second masterpiece, and the one that won him the Oscar five years ago. (Take a moment to watch his daring, eloquent acceptance speech and mourn the sequel we may be deprived of this year.) Like About Elly and The Salesman, A Separation revolves around a tragic and somewhat mysterious incident, but Farhadi’s gaze is more concerned with the intrapersonal tensions and obsessions that arise in the aftermath of these incidents. A Separation is both political and personal, concerning not just the legal difficulty in obtaining a divorce, but the existential difficulty of ever really knowing the person you’ve married.

‘Taste of Cherry’ (dir. Abbas Kiarostami; 1997; FilmStruck)

Kiarostami’s aforementioned Palme d’Or winner (which, fun fact, Roger Ebert gave a one-star review) is a shattering reflection on life and death, following a lonely middle-aged man on his search for someone to give him a proper burial after he dies by suicide. Though that might sound depressing, by its transcendent conclusion Taste of Cherry becomes nothing short of life-affirming.

‘Jafar Panahi’s Taxi’ (dir. Jafar Panahi; 2015; streaming on Netflix)

‘This Is Not a Film’ (dir. Jafar Panahi; 2011; Sundance Now)

The renowned Panahi is banned from making movies. His films — which feature free-spirited women and men often skeptical if not outright critical of the Iranian government — rarely got released in his home country. In 2010 he was arrested on charges of creating propaganda against the government. (If you want to check out one of his pre-arrest films and don’t mind spending $2.99, I suggest 2006’s Offside, a women’s soccer movie that’s like a cross between Mustang and Bend It Like Beckham.) While waiting to appeal this charge the following year, he released an intimate documentary called This Is Not a Film; it was put on a flash drive and smuggled into the Cannes Film Festival inside a birthday cake. With an admirably playful spirit, Panahi has continued to resist his sentence through filmmaking; in 2015, he released Taxi, which features the filmmaker driving a cab and filming his clandestine conversations with passengers inside it. Thoughtful dialogue ensues just as often as high jinks: Two older women enter the car with a goldfish in an open bowl and, later, a bootlegger tries to sell Panahi one of his own movies on DVD.

‘Ten’ (dir. Abbas Kiarostami; 2002; streaming on Amazon Prime)

Panahi’s decision to set Taxi solely within the confines of a car was likely a nod to this modern Iranian classic, made by his late mentor and friend Kiarostami. Shot on digital video, Ten is a minimalist but surprisingly gripping story told through 10 different conversations a woman (played masterfully by the actress Mania Akbari) has with the passengers in her car. Her petulant but troubled young son chides her from the passenger seat for divorcing his father and remarrying; a prostitute to whom she offers a ride gives her a candid counterpoint to her more traditional ideas about sex; and, in the ninth and most powerful segment, a heartbroken friend looks for comfort. Like the best and bravest of Iranian filmmakers, Kiarostami is more interested in conversation than didacticism, and this movie in particular gives a glimpse of the tensions and contradictions that animate the people of his beloved, conflicted home country.