Born: Teheran, Iran, 1939.
Leading figure in contemporary Iranian cinema. A musician in his teens, he became an avid moviegoer and before long decided to become a filmmaker. After toiling for a year as a hotel manager, he saved enough money to go to the US in 1959 and enroll at UCLA’s film program. Disappointed by the level of the courses, he soon switched his major to philosophy. But his passion for the cinema remained unquenched. Returning to Teheran in 1965, he became a journalist and TV scriptwriter, and for a while also taught English, literature, and film aesthetics. He made his film directing debut the following year, with a forgettable James Bond spoof. But in 1970 he astonished the international film community with Gay / The Cow, a compelling symbolic drama, about a simple villager and his nearly mythical attachment to his cow. Although it had been funded by the Shah’s government, The Cow was banned by the Ministry of Culture because of its raw portrayal of impoverished conditions in rural Iran and only released in 1970, a year after its completion, with an added statement that dated the story 50 years back. When the film was still denied an export permit, a friend of the director smuggled a print to Paris in 1971. Echoing Italian neorealism, this grainy black-and-white, fascinating, “big-little film” brought Mehrjui instant recognition and heralded the belated coming of age of Iranian cinema when it was lauded by the international critics at the Venice Festival. Years later the Aytollah Ruhollah Khomeini singled it out for praise after seeing it on television.
In 1973 Mehrjui began directing what was to be his most acclaimed film. A vivid portrait of corruption, poverty, misery, and apathy, exposing the horrors of the illicit blood traffic in Teheran, The Cycle was co-sponsored by the Ministry of Culture but encountered opposition from the Iranian medical establishment and was banned from release until 1977. It was universally admired abroad. Meanwhile, Mehrjui found himself unable to work in Iran. He sojourned in California for a while, but with the fall of the Shah he returned to Iran, where he directed The Backyard (1980). But he soon found working conditions in fundamentalist Iran no less repressive. In 1981 he traveled to Paris and stayed there for several years, during which he made a feature-length semidocumentary for French TV, Voyage au Pays de Rimbaud (1983). Feeling homesick, he returned to Teheran in 1985. As dogmatism at the top began to mellow, he resumed his film work and in 1990 enjoyed a local success with Hanoun / The Desert.