|Juliette Binoche and William Shimell star in Certified Copy. Photo via Aceshowbiz.|
With liberal films sidelined or banned, and scripts requiring government approval, five years ago Abbas Kiarostami, Iran’s most celebrated film director, vowed not to make any more films in his home country. The government of Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad had sent the message they “don’t want cinema”, he said.
The director has long riled conservatives in the Islamic Republic, once sparking outrage at home for kissing French actress Catherine Deneuve, a woman who was not his wife, at the Cannes film festival. But, in a sign of the increasingly open mood in Iran, Mr Kiarostami’s once-banned film, Certified Copy, opened the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran last weekend.
While foreign films are rarely shown in Iran, this year the festival has rejigged its schedule to give them a higher profile. In February it screened exclusively domestic films, allowing it to focus on international films for the April screenings. Most of the 150 films screened in April were foreign. The festival culminates on Saturday night with the award of the Simorgh prize for the best film.
Directed by Kiarostami in 2010, Certified Copy, set in Tuscany, is the story of a British writer and a French antiques dealer whose relationship undergoes an odd transformation over the course of a day. The film was originally banned in Iran because of Juliette Binoche’s low-cut dress. At last weekend’s screening, her chest was blurred to protect her modesty.
Even with this concession to Tehran’s conservative regime, the film’s screening highlights the growing vibrancy of Iran’s cultural scene.
Since the centrist government of Hassan Rouhani swept to power in 2013, the arts have become a battlefield between moderate forces and hardliners. While the government has tried to give more freedom to cinemas, theatre, media and music, hardliners occasionally ban movies and concerts, in an attempt to thwart Mr Rouhani and his supporters.
Many people hope the nuclear agreement reached in Switzerland last month will not only boost the economy and lead to a more open relationship with the west but will also lead to greater cultural diversity at home. “Any nuclear deal will give Mr Rouhani’s team the power to open up the atmosphere not only politically and economically, but also culturally and socially,” said Negar, a local cinema correspondent who did not want her surname to be published.
Directors such as Mr Kiarostami, known for Through the Olive Trees and Palme d’Or winner Taste of Cherry, Asghar Farhadi, known for A Separation and The Past, and Jafar Panahi, whose work include White Balloon, Crimson Gold and Taxi, have been feted in film festivals in Cannes and Berlin and honoured at the Oscars and the Golden Globes.
In recent years, he managed to thwart the ban and make Taxi. To the surprise of many observers he was not punished for this. The film then won the Golden Bear prize at the Berlin film festival this year. Despite Mr Panahi’s request, authorities have not allowed the film to be screened in Iran.
Even in the face of heavy regulation — scripts must first be approved by the culture ministry — at least 100 films are produced each year for the domestic market. Most films are privately funded, with potential backers nervous of funding anything contentious or even thoughtful.
The screening of Certified Copy and of foreign films may be a first step to giving Iranian cinema the recognition it deserves domestically and in the Middle East, analysts say. Yet, it has still some way to go. It may have screened foreign films but there were few, if any foreign stars, in attendance.
“The Dubai festival can roll out the red carpet for [Australian actress] Nicole Kidman,” said a cinema analyst. “But the most we can do for now is to bring Kiarostami.”