Watching it is like finding money in the pocket of a coat that you haven’t worn in years.
My friend Godfrey Cheshire is writing a book about Iranian cinema. The fundraising page is here. I have contributed to his fundraising campaign, and I am encouraging other movie lovers to do the same, even if it's as little as a dollar or two.
In the 22 years that I've known him, Godfrey has done important work as a sort of cinematic ambassador, consuming Iranian films, traveling to Iran to interview Iranian filmmakers and talk to film lovers there, and facilitating and sometimes hosting screenings of Iranian movies, old and new, that he considers important. The work will continue with "In the Time of Kiarostami," a collection of older essays and new work, fortified by new travels to Iran to conduct research and interviews that will make the book as current as possible.
It is impossible to overstate how much Godfrey's work has meant to me personally, or the influence he has had on my development as a writer and student of film.
Before I met Godfrey in 1995, shortly after moving from Dallas, Texas, to New York City, I knew nothing of Iranian cinema. I'd maybe seen one or two titles, and was so overwhelmed by the riches of American cinema in the 1990s—and, to a lesser extent, British, Chinese and Japanese cinema—that the prospect of diving into yet another treasure trove seemed too daunting. At that time, Godfrey, now a RogerEbert.com contributor and documentary filmmaker, was the lead film critic of the now-defunct downtown weekly New York Press, the Village Voice's main rival. He hired me to write additional film reviews, but he also acted as a teacher and mentor, expanding my horizons.
He had a number of specialties at the paper, things that it wouldn't even occur to most critics to focus on—this was a big part of what made his work so special—but Iranian cinema was far and away his greatest passion. I suspect his enthusiasm was partly that of a disciple sharing the Good News and partly that of a colleague trying to enlist as many allies in his cause as he could. Whatever the motivation, Godfrey's thoughtful curation of accessible titles helped ease me into the 1990s Iranian film scene. Very soon I was hooked, and I found myself going to see every New York screening of a new Iranian film that I could, plus repertory releases whenever possible.
One of the highlights of my entire life as a filmgoer was a screening of the late, great Abbas Kiarostami's "Close-Up," a "Six Degrees of Separation"-like story about a man who impersonates a famous filmmaker and then goes on trial for the crime; with its brilliant mix of documentary and fictional elements, including real-life participants re-enacting events that changed their lives, as well as its dry humor and deep empathy for human foibles, it's easily one of the best films I've ever seen. I wouldn't have gone if Godfrey hadn't emailed or called me literally every day in the weeks leading up to the movie's one-week theatrical engagement at a now-long-gone arthouse in Tribeca, telling me that I absolutely had to see "Close-Up" on a big screen. I finally saw it on the final night and was so knocked out that I chastised myself for not having gone earlier; that way I could've seen it more than once during its run. When the lights came up, I saw several people in the audience with me who were friends of Godfrey's. They were all there because they knew that if they didn't make an effort to see this masterpiece, they'd never hear the end of it.
I have a lot of anecdotes like this—stories that illustrate Godfrey's evangelical passion for Iranian cinema. Many others do, too. Godfrey has made it one of his missions in life to expose Iranian filmmakers' work to the widest international audience possible, while always paying special attention to his home country, the United States. There's an aspect of healing to his mission, plus an almost Capra-like belief that deep down, we're all more alike than different, despite what our governments tell us, and that no culture is truly "foreign" if you are willing to commit to learning a little bit about it.
I was far from the only movie lover that Godfrey introduced to the wonders of Iranian cinema. Over the decades I've met many cinephiles—some older than me, some younger, some of the same generation—who discovered Jafar Panahi, Majid Majidi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami and other giants through his writing.
For a small sample of Godfrey's work on this topic, I encourage readers to check out his 2012 Dissent article on "Iran's Cinematic Spring," his 1999 New York Press piece about "Close-Up," or his moving obituary for Kiarostami, who became a friend to him.
Godfrey's fundraiser page, once again, is here. Funds will be used to pay for editing and design; the remaining writing; assorted expenses including travel, research, translation; as well as printing, publication and publicity.
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