|Mahtab Keramati stars in ‘Ice Age’, a thriller infused with betrayal, drugs and luxury cars. Photograph: Promotional. Courtesy The Guardian.|
Divorce, abortion and infidelity – set amid villas with blue pools and lavish gardens – were the themes dominating this year’s Fajr film festival, which ran 1-12 February in Tehran. But it was one of the weakest line-ups in recent years.
The winning films were geared towards the box office, full of popular actors and story lines awash with deception, drugs and betrayal. One wonders if such films even belong in an arts festival.
Gone were the heavyweight names predominant in last year’s festival and many of the featured film-makers were relative unknowns. Abolhassan Davoodi’s Mad Rook, which took home the most Fajr trophies (five, including best director and best film), was a standard teen thriller on the perils of social networking. A group of youngsters meet through Facebook and the wealthiest girl dares the boy from south Tehran to enter (what she thinks is) a deserted home. Chaos ensues.
Alireza Raeesian’s A Time for Love, featuring Leila Hatami, was another story of adultery and unwanted pregnancy, but lacked substance. The much talked-about The Girl’s House had a story line based on virginity tests. Ice Age was yet another thriller infused with betrayal, drugs and luxury cars. None was what we expect of Fajr, the home of Farhadi, Mirkarimi and Banietemad.
The symbol of Fajr has long been the simorgh, the mythical bird living in the heart of the symbolic Qaf mountain. The festival has added a new aspect to the simorgh’s character as the bird bringing Iran’s stories to the big screen through Fajr’s exploration of the deep layers of Iranian society. This year, those stories were replaced by expensive automobiles.
Adding to the jarring nature of the films were long advertisements for the festival’s two main sponsors, RighTel, the Iranian mobile network operator, and ZTE, the Chinese multinational telecoms company. Never before had audiences been exposed to so many adverts. As well, multiple RighTel stands were seen in every Fajr cinema, and in the festival’s closing ceremony, all winners were handed a gift bag from RighTel along with their trophy.
The few notable movies in the competition section included Fracture, a fast paced story of divorce and its consequence on children. Bahman saw the celebrated actress Fatemeh Motamedaria back at the festival after years of absence due to an informal ban.
|Iranian actor Bahram Radan takes selfie during the photocall for the film ‘Ice Age’ at the 33rd Fajr film festival in Tehran. Photograph: Ahmad Halabisaz. Courtesy Ahmad Halabisaz/Xinhua Press/Corbis and The Guardian.|
The children’s adventure film Escape from Roodkhan Fort by Gholamreza Ramezani was little discussed but a delight to watch, especially as the genre is one that Iranian film-makers rarely tackle. A junior high school class of boys from Meybod, Yazd, go on a field trip to the north of Iran, and following a spat with the teacher, a group run away. Well-acted and whimsical, it was a rare gem amid a sea of mediocrity.
Not surprisingly, the better films did not receive nominations. “It is quite evident that there is an old guard that does not want to share the stage with us new film-makers,” Kiarash Asadizadeh, the young director of Fracture said at a screening of his film. “But forcing us out by exclusion is a wrong strategy. It will not work in the long run.” Asadizadeh’s first film, Acrid, never received screening permission - despite having a filming permit - from the culture ministry during the presidential tenure of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
This also begs the question of what have been labelled “invisible hands” that control the competition section, by far the most popular part of the festival. Why was a film like Iran Burger, a poorly written and badly acted comedy about a mock election in a village, or Sweet Taste of Imagination, more a two-hour advertisement for renewables than a movie, even featured in competition?
More importantly, three blockbusters were nominated each for at least ten prizes, while more deserving art-house films (though few) were ignored. When one looks at the names behind these films, the answer is clear: dominant individuals can get their movies into Fajr.
|Sahra Ahmadipour in 19 Ordibehesht, which takes a close look at the lives in south Tehran. Courtesy The Guardian.|
More than most years, one felt the grasp of more influential film-makers and producers over the competition section which saw for instance, Fracture, which as more deserving than most winning films, nominated for only one prize, best original score.
Saeed Aghakhani took home the prize for best actor in a forgettable performance in the family drama, I am Diego Maradona. Baran Kowsari won best actress for one of the better films in competition, A Street Without a Name. The daughter of cinema royalty, director Rakhshan Banietemad and producer Jahangir Kowsari, Kowsari’s role as the feisty south Tehran girl was one of her best performances to date.
As in every year, the north of Iran still proved the most popular location for film-makers. Nearly a dozen films were shot there, three in Anzali alone. But we also saw new places seldom explored, including Baluchestan, Khuzestan, and Kharg Island.
|Shams Langaroudi in the Risk of Acid Rain Photograph: Promotional. Courtesy The Guardian.|
The saving grace of the festival were the sections Negah-e No (New Look), featuring films by first-time directors, and Honar o Tajrobeh (Art and Experience Cinema), dedicated to less mainstream, artistic films. One wonders if these two together shouldn’t have formed the main competition section.
First-time directors seem to have much to teach more established film-makers. Ayda Panahandeh made her directorial debut with Nahid, about a working-class woman in the north of Iran trying to raise a son. Her film was an observant portrayal of ordinary lives far from glitz and glamour. “I made a point of not having black or white characters, but somehow women respond to my film leagues more,” she said at the screening. “Men just say I intentionally made the men in the film act horribly.”
Did she feel at a disadvantage compared to male colleagues? “I can actually say, no,” she responded. “We are in a place where men and women can try to make films, and their struggles are independent of their gender.”
Risk of Acid Rain, another Negah-e No film featuring the poet Shams Langaroudi, was a slow but rhythmic story on the journeys we make alone and the threads that bind us. It is probably the first Iranian movie where an old man smokes marijuana, gets high, and eats the night away. All was well-acted, without a hint of dramatics or preachiness, and the two young actors, Maryam Moghadam and Pouriya Rahimi, were outstanding as the old man’s unlikely friends.
|Amir Hossein Asgari’s Borderless Photograph: Promotional. Courtesy The Guardian.|
If a good film is about telling an old story in nuanced ways, than Amir Hossein Asgari’s Borderless has to be one of the best in this year’s festival. It took home a special jury prize in the directing category. Featuring the young Alireza Baledi, an Arab-Iranian amateur actor, the film portrays the life of a child on a deserted boat, and how his solitude can be torn apart not out of spite or evil, but by people put out of place. Vahid Jalilvand’s moving Wednesday, 19 Ordibehesht, winner of the best directing prize in Negah-e No, was a keen, microscopic look at south Tehran and the lives we pass but do not see.
Many directors in the competition section this year were still relative newcomers, at the festival with their second or third film. This was a change of course from last year, where most of the well-established 1980s and 1990s directors were present, though hardly with exemplary work. Such prominent voices as Dariush Mehrjui, Ebrahim Hatamikiya and Ahmadreza Darvish, very distinct in style, were a cornerstone of Iranian cinema. In older age, they have become increasingly irrelevant.
This poses an urgent question. Why are many seasoned Iranian film-makers unable to make good movies anymore? Why, instead of perfecting their craft, have they left it entirely?
Adding to the urgency is what most Iranian movie commentators predict will be a difficult year ahead. Iranian cinema depends on government funds, through organisations such as Farabi or the Centre for the Advancement of Documentary and Experimental Films. With oil prices plunging, many fear a shrinking of the budget available for films.
“We are facing two great challenges: an absence of good film-makers, and a dangerous absence of funds,” one film critic warns. It remains to be seen what stories the simorgh can bring back in the coming year.
Via The Guardian