Old guard v new blood
at Iran’s Fajr film festival
Tehran Bureau correspondent
theguardian.com, Tuesday 11 February 2014
‘Fajr isn’t about discovering new talent, but showcasing the old. That’s how organizers have always sold tickets and gathered crowds’.
As the opening trailer for the 32nd Fajr International Film Festival (February 1-11, 2014) comes on screen, my lips quiver and I feel tears roll down my face. The lady to my right gives me a look, as if to say: “You do know the film hasn’t started, right?” Yes, I know, but I can’t help it. I can’t believe that I am alive to see another Fajr unburdened by the eerie quiet of the past few years.
This year 31 films were in competition, much more than the customary 20 or so. An editor who worked on one tells me, “It’s all about the lobbying. Producers call and want their films in, directors with influence want the official Fajr logo on their movie posters. It does wonders for sales and prestige, and they will hound organizers to get their movies in. And all the big names want in this year.”
That was abundantly evident from some of the films. Masoud Kimiai, who has been directing since the late 1960s, brought a picture so horrid I couldn’t sit through it. A young woman takes shelter in an old, abandoned movie theater. She is being stalked by the widow of a recently deceased man to whom she was a sigheh, or “temporary” bride. By the time I made my exit, fleeing an assault of screaming, beatings and gore, about a third of the audience had already departed – but not before jeering and shouting curses at the screen. That Kimiai’s films are brought to the competition year after year speaks volumes about how the festival functions. As critic and blogger Mohsen Azarm noted in an op-ed for Tajrobeh magazine, “Fajr isn’t about discovering new talent, but showcasing the old. That’s how organizers have always sold tickets and gathered crowds.”
And Fajr this year saw the old guard show up en masse, including many who had not brought a film in years. Almost all of Iran’s well-known directors had pictures in competition, and the story of this edition of the festival was an old guard that needs to put down the camera. Many of these veteran directors, like Dariush Mehrjui, have made some of Iran’s most memorable films. Over the past decade, however, many have shown – often at Fajr – that they have no more stories to tell.
But they still draw crowds. For four days at the beginning of the festival, despite a heavy snowstorm, people stood in line for hours to see the veterans’ films, perhaps in hopes of one last masterpiece. The theater was packed for Mehrjui’s Ghosts, but audiences booed and left midway through; it now has one of the lowest viewer ratings on Salam Cinama, the festival’s official audience website. After the first few days, word of mouth began to circulate about lesser-known films – that’s how new talent is discovered at the festival.
|Fajr presser A press conference at the Fajr Film Festival 2014. Photograph: Amin Mohammad Jamali/Getty Images|
This year, Fajr moved online in a major way. Starting months before the festival’s opening, its Twitter feed was updated daily. Tickets were sold online in packages of 11, with prices varying from 22,000 to 77,000 tomans (£4.50 to £16 at the market exchange rate) depending on the theatre. Salam Cinama featured up-to-date ratings and news for each movie. The critics at Caffe Cinema, the top-notch Iranian movie review website, posted hourly critiques. For the first time, as well, festival programs were brought to each of Iran’s 30 provinces beyond Tehran.
One of my favorite films this year was Kamal Tabrizi’s The Sensitive Floor. A man purchases a two-level grave so he can be buried close to his wife, but another man is interred on top of her by accident. Chaos ensues. And through this seemingly random setup, social, political and religious norms are observed, dissected, ridiculed. This is Tabrizi’s gift: to take the seemingly mundane and make a viewer both laugh and question. The screenplay is by a young writer whose name is increasingly familiar to Iranian moviegoers: Peyman Ghasemkhani. His scripts have been the basis for some of the best social comedies of recent years.
Another notable entry was Kianoush Ayari’s Ancestral Home, finally screened after a three-year ban. Ayari, though far from prolific, is one of Iran’s best directors. Here he has made a grave, contemplative film. A father kills his daughter for “shaming the family” (no details are revealed). He buries her secretly in the basement, but her shadow lingers for generations.
The talented Mehdi Rahmani presented a much less talked about film, Snow, a beautifully shot family drama with strong performances. The festival’s best came from the only female director in competition besides Rakhshan Bani Etemad, a Fajr regular for the past two decades. Narges Abyar brought the 143rd Valley, an unprecedented feminine take on the Iran-Iraq war. Set in a tiny village in central Iran, it chronicles the life of a woman, Olfat, who awaits word of her son, gone missing in the war, for more than 15 years. The film evoked both tears and a sense of relief. This new generation of filmmakers will tell stories our fathers were never able to. We need more films like Abyar’s: ones that depict the effects of the Iran-Iraq conflict free from slogans and propaganda, that show the lives of the ordinary Iranians forever scarred by the legacy of war.
Fajr wouldn’t be Fajr without controversy. One of the festival’s most sought-after prizes is the audience award. Ballot boxes are placed outside the theater after every film, and audience members are asked to throw their tickets into the box of their choice, ranging from “did not like” to “loved”. According to one organizer, dozens of festival employees guard these boxes “with their life”. There was anger when it was suddenly announced that two of the top viewers’ picks, Bani Etemad’s Stories and Reza Dormishian’s I Am Not Angry, had been kicked off the candidates’ roster, apparently for being too ideologically provocative.
Dormishian’s film especially was one of the most talked about at the festival. I Am Not Angry concerns the fate of university students active in opposition politics who were forced out of school during the Ahmadinejad years. What makes it original is it tells the story of a society that eats its young from their own perspective. It offers a fresh take on the frustrations of the country’s youth and portrays young love in a way I have never seen before in Iranian cinema. Hardline news outlets have lambasted the culture ministry for permitting it to be screened. One perk of attending Fajr is that the more controversial films are sometimes banned immediately following the festival. Many predict this is the fate that awaits I Am Not Angry.