For eye-popping spectacle, the Iranian Oscars–as I call the event known locally as the “Feast of Cinema”–suffered not at all when compared to its gaudy American counterpart. There was music. There was dancing. There were enormous displays of film clips, proud evocations of the cinematic past and acceptance speeches full of tears and gratitude. Granted, the starlets were shrouded in chadors. Still, this being Iran, the event had an easy edge over glitzier Western soirees in one department–its air of historic moment.

Two factors deserve credit for that. First, the celebration’s 2000 edition, which was held in Tehran on Sept. 11, marked not only the past year’s artistic achievements, but also the 100th anniversary of cinema in Iran. Second, coming two days after Jafar Panahi’s The Circle became the first Iranian film to capture the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion, it implicitly commemorated a year in which Iranian cinema hit yet another peak in global recognition, spurred in part by the emergence of a new generation of filmmakers.

Established just four years ago by Khaneh Cinema, the umbrella organization for Iran’s film guilds, the Feast of Cinema is the younger and by now the grander of Iran’s two large film-awards ceremonies. The other comes at the end of the Fajr Film Festival, which is held every February. But Fajr, where until 1998 all Iranian films were obliged by government regulation to have their premieres, follows the ground rules of many big festivals by hosting both international and domestic competitions. The Feast of Cinema, by contrast, is strictly an Iranian affair that, like the Oscars, celebrates an industry as much as an art.

The ceremony this year moved from indoors-downtown to a Forest Hills-like tennis stadium at the Enghelab Sports Complex in well-to-do northern Tehran. The 4000-seat al fresco venue allowed for the extra spectacle and pageantry associated with the celebration of Iran’s cinematic centenary, which, as it turned out, helped provide something Iranian cultural events never seem to lack: controversy.

Seifollah Daad, a former film producer who’s now the Deputy Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance for Cinematographic Affairs, opened the evening with a speech that implicitly deplored the Iranian cinema’s prerevolutionary phase while crediting its current strengths to the policies and values of the Islamic Republic. More than one observer noted the ironic contrast between this message and the fact that, during the montage of film clips that preceded Daad’s speech, the crowd awarded some of its lustiest cheers to prerevolutionary stars and movie scenes.

The ironies continued with the address of Majid Majidi, the current head of Khaneh Cinema, who warned against artistic recidivism in the form of “commercial” filmmaking. These remarks would no doubt surprise American cinephiles who see Majidi’s own movies as consummately commercial: His Children of Heaven, after all, is so far the only Iranian film to be nominated for an Academy Award, and just before I arrived in Tehran, his Color of Paradise grabbed the title of highest grossing Iranian film yet released in the United States.

But by Majidi’s definition–which most Iranians would share–his expertly crafted films are about values and ideals, and therefore are “artistic” as opposed to “commercial.” What he was agitating against was the kind of pandering-to-vulgar-tastes moviemaking that reigned during the Shah’s era, and that he now sees returning in Iranian genre films like Mummy 3, an unapologetic schlockfest whose posters were ubiquitous in Tehran in September.

In Iranian terms, both Daad and Majidi could be described as occupying the conservative side of the political middle, and their official positions give them added impetus to defend cinematic “Islamic values” against anything that smacks of the ancien regime. But to some Iranians, the country’s theocracy itself increasingly feels like the old order, and they’re restless for change. When one of the Feast’s prize winners got up to receive his award, he asked for a minute of silence for two prominent reformists now in prison. The gesture sparked a firestorm of criticism in the conservative press the next day, but during that minute there was very little heckling. (In Iran as in America, the audience at the Oscars skews heavily towards the liberal.)

Climaxing an awards segment that was notable for its concise speeches and galloping pace (our Oscar givers could learn a few things, obviously), the Best Picture prize went to Khosro Sinai’s Bride of Fire. The film, which I saw a few days later at a downtown cinema, is a solid melodrama about a young medical student who’s forced by tribal custom to return to her village and marry her atavistic, deeply screwed-up cousin (brilliantly played by Hamid Farrokhnejad, who deservedly won Best Actor). Though it’s not anyone’s definition of an art film, Bride of Fire skillfully explores themes–traditional versus modern, duty versus freedom, male versus female–that are at the heart of Iran’s current debate with itself, and therefore ideal for a main- stream hit.

As indicated by the fact that 47 features were eligible for prizes this year (along with 81 shorts, 54 animated films and 85 documentaries), Iran’s cinema is a much bigger animal than most outsiders realize. Roughly, those features break down into three categories: crappy genre and propaganda movies that rarely make it beyond Iran (fans of this sector will be happy to know that Mummy 3‘s Sirous Ebeahimzadeh won Best Supporting Actor); mainstream movies like Bride of Fire; and auteurist art films. Most of what gets exported belongs to the latter category, although there’s a fair amount of overlap between it and the mainstream group; Majidi’s films obviously belong to both. Some art films end up getting far more attention outside Iran than inside, but occasionally one like Makhmalbaf’s Salaam Cinema becomes a blockbuster at home.

While Iran’s cinematic boom was shrewdly stimulated and nurtured by the Islamic Republic from 1983 on, outsiders also seldom recognize how deep its roots run. On the art-film side alone, there’s been nearly 40 years of sometimes extraordinary artistic growth and development, which can be most concisely summarized in terms of decade-defined “generations.” After the 1960s and a group of notable precursors, the ’70s saw an explosion of activity that was dubbed the “Iranian New Wave”; it produced world-class filmmakers including Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Amir Naderi, Bahram Beyzaie and others who are now in their artistic prime.

The 1979 revolution caused the whole apparatus to grind to a halt for a time, but the social and industry renewal that followed brought forth, in effect, a second new wave of directors with their own postrevolutionary sensibility. The ’80s juggernaut included Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (Iran’s leading woman director) and several others. Though the early ’90s saw a bit of a slowdown, due partly to increased restrictions imposed by the hardliners, its filmmaking generation eventually included Panahi and Majidi, whose audience-friendly The White Balloon and Children of Heaven (respectively) caught fire internationally, kicking the Iranian cinema to a whole new level of box office and critical success.

And now, with impeccable timing, generation 2000 has arrived. Beginning with three top awards at Cannes in May (including a shared win of the Camera d’Or for best first film), Iran has proceeded to clean up at many of the year’s prize-giving festivals: Montreal, Venice, Pusan, Edinburgh, Chicago. While some of the attention has gone to veterans like Panahi and Bahman Farmanara (whose Smell of Camphor, Scent of Jasmine played the New York Film Festival in early October), most of the prizes have been won, remarkably, by first-time directors. Not since 1986, when that second new wave broke, have there so many acclaimed debuts.

The first one to reach American theaters, Bahman Ghobadi’s Time for Drunken Horses (which shared the Camera d’Or and, in Tehran, won the critics’ prize for best film), opens in New York and other cities this Friday. A stark, impassioned drama about children who live among smugglers on the mountainous Iran-Iraq border, the film is one those Iranian works that draws inevitable–and in this case deserved–comparisons to the Italian Neorealists. It certainly marks a promising start for its director, a 30-year-old Kurd who’s worked with Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami.

Though he’s first out of the gate in the United States, Ghobabi has plenty of company and competition, including a whole crew issuing from clan Makhmalbaf. For the past couple of years, Mohsen Makhmalbaf has said, he’s been “making filmmakers, not films.” His daughter Samira’s second film, Blackboards, was one of the big Cannes winners. Now comes The Day I Became a Woman, the first film by Samira’s stepmom and Mohsen’s wife, Marziye Meshkine; it won top awards at Venice, Pusan and Chicago. Other current offerings from Makhmalbaf Film House, as it’s called, include the debut documentary by Mohsen’s teenage son, Maysam.

It’s tempting to call this whole surge of activity “the Khatami wave.” Not only has the loosening of restrictions on filmmakers by President Mohammad Khatami’s government contributed to the boomlet, but many of the films bear the mix of forward-looking restiveness and present-tense frustration that’s characterized Iran during his regime, with its constant see-saw between idealistic reformism and conservative reaction.

I also realized while in Iran that the Khatami era has witnessed other changes pertinent to filmmakers. When I first visited the country in 1997, three months before his election, I don’t think I saw a single cell phone or Internet connection. Now both things are ubiquitous in Tehran, and other technological innovations are following fast in their wake. Abbas Kiarostami told me he will shoot no more movies on film. He’s now completing a U.N.-sponsored documentary feature about AIDS children in Uganda, and it convinced him, he said, to use to use digital video for all his work.

The current strength of the Iranian cinema internationally doesn’t appear salutary from every angle, of course. To an extent, it’s a product of the hype-driven, flavor-of-the-month mentality that reigns at many international festivals, where programmers who wouldn’t give Iranians the time of day 10 years ago now will condescendingly tell them what kind of films they’re expected to make (this according to one well-known director). And no doubt, Iran also looks good because virtually every other national cinema today resembles a dead bug decorating Hollywood’s windshield.

Still, watching the Iranian Oscars underscored how remarkable, and unlikely, the Iranian ascent has been. A decade ago, many cinephiles would have considered the idea of a cinematic renaissance in Iran beyond laughable. Now, for an ever-increasing number of people, “foreign film” means Iranian films, in the way it used to mean European films. How long can it last? I wouldn’t hazard a guess. The one thing that occurred to me in Iran is that the more Americans see of Iranian art films, the more they’re going to be intrigued enough to cross the line into mainstream Iranian cinema. Bride of Fire or its like coming soon to a theater near you? Don’t be surprised. EndBlock