Kianoush Ayari (May 14, 1951, Ahvaz) is one of the prominent filmmakers of post-revolution Iranian cinema. He began his career with short and experimental films within the “free cinema” movement. He made his first film in 1979 and is still active. Ayari’s style is very unique compared to other Iranian directors. His realism is cunning and raw, and the subjects of his films are controversial and taboo; something that’s made a significant portion of his works subject to censorship, as well as delayed and often canceled releases.
Ayari began his filmmaking career in the “free cinema” group, which was a film society of young filmmakers in the 60s that planned to rival mainstream cinema with experimental 8mm or 16mm films . Unfortunately, only a handful of short films from that era are available today, but the footprints of the free, youthful and experimental style of free cinema is evident in all of Ayari’s works. The earliest film available from Ayari is a documentary called “Taze Nafasha”; a film made a few months after the revolution that documents the atmosphere in the streets of Tehran during the early days of the revolution. Ayari’s unique brand of biting and ironic realism is present even in this short film.
Unlike many other Iranian filmmakers, Ayari is a cinephile. The references in his films to various moments in cinematic history highlight his deep understanding of the medium. The protagonist in “The Spirit of Scorpion” is a cinephile who wants to make the movie no matter what. After failing to find a producer for his film, he decides to reenact his script in real life and rob a bank. One could see this film as a representation of Ayari himself. A filmmaker who, despite his unparalleled talent, has always been plagued by a myriad of obstacles. His early films have been lost, some have never been released, 2-3 of his films were released after a decade and his most important films were brutally criticized at the time of their release by government critics and neglected by independent critics.
Ayari has experimented with various cinematic genres in his 50-year old career. He made a couple of comedies like “The Grand Day” and “Cow’s Horn” in late-80s, “The Spirit of Scorpion” is a thriller, “The Parental House” and “To Be or Not To Be” are family melodramas, and while “The Abadanis” is a modern adaptation of Desica’s “Bicycle Thieves”, “Beyond the Fire” could be considered as one of the few Iranian Westerns ever made. Ayari mixes his passion for Westerns and his knowledge of his motherland, Khuzestan, and delivers one of the most striking films of the 90s. In the final scene, much like the ending of many westerns, the two brothers take part in what will be an inconclusive duel. Their mother watches on from on-top a horse, as oil wells scream flames in the desert and The Blue Danube by Johannes Strauss plays in the background: one of the unforgettable final sequences in Iranian cinema.
In Ayari’s realistic films, there’s always an underground and hidden current of comic relief that appears out of nowhere in moments and alters the film’s tone. Ayari’s comedy in these scenes are in no way a compensation for the bitterness and violence present in the film. In “The Paternal House”, which is his most brutal and violent film, some characters appear ridiculous in some scenes when they deliver their lines as if they’re in a comedy. The viewers who have had their breath taken away by the violence, lose their emotional equilibrium during such scenes and feel confused. Such drastic emotional turbulences are due to the inherent cynicism and pessimism of Ayari’s cinema. In the early moments of the film, a girl is brutally murdered by her own father, and from that catastrophe onwards, whatever happens in that cursed house is either ridiculously violent or violently ridiculous.
Ayari is also unique among Iranian filmmakers when it comes to casting strategies. He neither works with professional actors like Beyzaie or Naderi or Taghvaie, nor employs non-actors like Shahid-Saless or Kiarostami did. He usually hires 2nd or 3rd-level actors and makes them the lead of his films. If it wasn’t for Ayari’s cinema, we would have never seen the likes of Hassan Rezaie and Mehran Rajabi playing main characters on the big screen. These actors are neither masters of their craft nor are they amateurs like non-actors. Which is why you can’t ever feel the power of an actor’s acting or the power of a director’s directing. The only thing that matters to Ayari is the power of the film itself. Nothing else should solicit extra attention.
Kianoush Ayari has a remarkable ability in crafting cinematic Mise-en-scènes. The spaces and set-designs and even the harmony between different actors in a frame are all synced with the events of the story. The tension between characters always have a visual equivalent in the film and their emotions are accentuated by the visual elements in the film. In “To Be or Not To Be” the protagonist, who is a girl in need of a heart transplant, visits a family whose recently- deceased loved-one is compatible with her for the transplant. They live on top of a hill and the girl must walk-up many steps to get there and persuade them. The Mise-en-scène externalizes the inner feelings of the character: the exhaustion of the heart is entangled with exhausted feet.
Ayari’s cinema is truly and utterly an irreconcilable cinema. He is the most annoying Iranian filmmaker for the Iranian government. “The Parental House” was banned twice for having a dark depiction and “Canape’” will probably never be released due to the issue of Hejab. Ibrahim Hatamikia, a filmmaker dedicated to and loved by the government, wrote a letter after “The Abadanis” premiered and asked for the film to be taken down. He argued that since it’s a remake of “Bicycle Thieves” and since that movie is about an era of fascism, therefore “The Abadanis” is a film about fascist Iran. Hatamikia’s request is enough on its own to dub Ayari as the greatest anti-fascist filmmaker of Iranian cinema.