Cinema Tehran Brings a Dance Party Vibe to Indie Movie Theaters

When Arya Ghavamian was growing up in Iran, a satisfying film experience was hard to come by. After the 1979 revolution, the Islamic Republic had cracked down on Iran’s robust film industry, denouncing it as an obscene and immoral product of Westernization.

Theaters were burned down and movies containing depictions of sexuality or other forms of debauchery were banned, as were certain actors. The government only permitted movies it deemed appropriate to be screened in public. Iranian auteurs were exiled, or else learned to adapt to the new restrictions.

In the 1990s, Arya got his first taste of unsanctioned movies by watching bootleg copies of “The Maltese Falcon” and “MacKenna’s Gold” in his home. His family lived on the Iranian border of Afghanistan and Pakistan, a known smuggling route, where his parents, who were doctors, often received black-market films as gifts from patients.

But in 1996, after the family moved to Tehran, Arya was shocked to discover those same movies had been cut with Iranian cartoons and football. “The film that I wanted to watch was right there,” he recalled. “And I put it in the tape player, and it was something completely different.” He later realized that his parents, wary of patrol checkpoints, had recorded over the VHS tapes before the move to the capital city.

The DVD era ushered in a new dimension of film smuggling in Tehran, where Arya, then a teenager, would source what he wanted from an aghafilmi (“film man”) who peddled banned movies from a stairwell of an apartment complex. There, customers would visit the film man, who would share a catalog of offerings. “Die Hard 2” would be listed alongside Andrei Tarkovsky’s “Stalker” and the Iranian classic “Ballad of Tara,” Mr. Ghavamian recalled. Once selections had been made, the film man would use a walkie-talkie with someone in charge of the stash to coordinate the handoff. “That’s how I got my film education,” Mr. Ghavamian said.

In 2008, Arya, then 17 and with a well-developed passion for art and indie films, moved to the United States alone. “I left Iran for cinema, literally,” he said. Upon arrival, he expected to find a “Cinema Paradiso”-like reverence for the movies. But when he moved in with his uncle in San Jose, Calif., he encountered a different kind of void: multiplexes that focused on modern Hollywood blockbusters and not much else.

Tea and Persian cookies were served after a recent screening that featured female directors from Iran and Hungary.Credit…Amir Hamja for The New York Times

Eventually Mr. Ghavamian made his way to New York and found what he was looking for in its independent theaters and art houses. Even though the city had more to offer than San Jose did, he realized that there was a parallel between his experiences in Tehran and New York: If he wanted to see interesting cinema — foreign or art films, say, or older titles — he would have to actively seek it out.

After living in New York for nine years, Mr. Ghavamian, 31, along with his co-founder Mani Nilchiani, 36, started Cinema Tehran, which organizes pop-ups in independent theaters that show films from across the globe, including many by contemporary Iranian directors. “I see Cinema Tehran as an antithesis of what’s playing in the cinemas,” said Mr. Ghavamian, who wanted to create “a space that is very inclusive of art that isn’t being marketed and pushed on Instagram feeds and billboards.” He also wants to revive the communal act of going to the movies, which he feels lost its way amid digital streaming and the pandemic.

The film project comes on the heels of the duo’s success with Disco Tehran, the performance project and party that has garnered a devoted following in New York City and more recently, Europe. This summer, they sold out shows in Paris, London and Berlin. The parties, which combine live music and D.J. sets, emphasize cultural dialogue and exchange. In one night, you could expect to hear a Slavic brass band open for a Colombian tropical futurism quartet, followed by a D.J. remix of Persian trap music.

Both founders of Cinema Tehran plan to support Iran’s film scene, which has continued to blossom despite ongoing restrictions. Credit…Amir Hamja for The New York Times

The two men hope to apply the same philosophy of cultural intersectionality to Cinema Tehran. “Finding unexpected connections is something that is at the core of it,” Mr. Nilchiani said. They also plan to support Iran’s film scene, which has continued to blossom despite ongoing restrictions, not just by showing its classics but also by using a portion of their profits to produce films by emerging Iranian directors who live both inside and outside the country.

In May, they had their first screening at Anthology Film Archives, an independent theater on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, which Jonas Mekas, a Lithuanian immigrant helped found. The lineup included two shorts, “The Bread and Alley” by the Iranian New Wave director Abbas Kiarostami and “Extra Sauce” by the emerging Iranian director Alireza Ghasemi (whose films they’ve started producing). The headliner, “Wings of Desire,” directed by Wim Wenders, was shown in its original 35-millimeter format.

Although multiplexes are still struggling because of the pandemic, Jed Rapfogel, the film programmer at Anthology, remarked that since the theater’s reopening in August 2021, it has had larger audiences than usual. “I get the sense that there was a pent-up demand for moviegoing,” he said, adding that the Cinema Tehran events have been particularly successful. “Those guys have the ability to draw audiences. There was a lot of energy.”

After the screening, attendees mingled under a string of lights in a nearby alley, while Nasrin Rejali, an Iranian refugee and caterer, served up plates of traditional Persian food: gheimeh, a tomato-based stew with split peas and chunks of beef, served over saffron rice. Food has always been central to the Tehran events. At some of the earliest Disco Tehran parties, Mr. Ghavamian often would feed his guests himself, showing up late holding a pot of ghormeh sabzi, a Persian stew made of herbs, with kidney beans and dried lime.

Last week, Cinema Tehran also introduced a membership-based streaming platform. Mr. Nilchiani, who is spearheading the effort, hired a developer from Ukraine to help build it. His vision for the platform is to be the opposite of Netflix. Instead of offering a seemingly endless menu of content, he wants to give viewers “a very curated menu,” like a chef’s tasting menu, he said. “This is the starter, this is the entree and this is dessert.”

There is a sense, when attending a Disco Tehran or Cinema Tehran event, that the pursuit of cultural connection is in earnest, as both founders are immigrants who are driven to provide a sense of community outside of their home countries. In August, Mr. Nilchiani applied for naturalization after living in the United States for 11 years. Mr. Ghavamian, who sought political asylum after Iran’s 2009 elections, hasn’t returned to his home country in 14 years.

A still from the short film “Reverence” at Anthology Film Archives.Credit…Amir Hamja for The New York Times

But both men are still very much connected to home, where a young woman, Mahsa Amini, was killed after being arrested by Tehran’s morality police because of a law on head scarves. As demonstrations spread across Iran last week, the duo shared information, through their Disco Tehran newsletter, of a protest to be held during a scheduled appearance by Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi at the United Nations. Later that week, when the government shut down the internet in parts of the country where protests were escalating, the men helped those inside Iran access virtual private networks, or VPNs.

“This is not the first time an Iranian woman has had such a fate,” they wrote in their newsletter. “Everyone’s fed up with cruelty and exploitation in our country.”

Last month, they held another screening at Anthology, co-curated by Mr. Ghasemi, the filmmaker and producer with whom they’ve started to work. This time, the focus was on women filmmakers, including the short “Reverence” by Sogol Rezvani, an emerging Iranian director, followed by “My 20th Century,” a feature by the Hungarian director Ildikó Enyedi that won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1989.

The alley was not available this time, but a table was set up outside of the theater with Persian cookies and tea. A panoply of languages could be heard, Persian and Italian among them. A woman who moved to New York from Moscow six months earlier stood smoking on the street alone. She’d heard about Disco Tehran from her friend in France.

“I just want to have an experience where in the end, I feel that there is this warmth,” Mr. Ghavamian said. “That I was able to provide this warmth for myself and for other people.”

The next installment of Cinema Tehran is scheduled for Oct. 26 and 27 at Anthology Film Archives at 32 Second Avenue. The Iranian filmmaker Rafi Pitts will present two of his features, “It’s Winter” and “The Hunter.”

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