Sunday, 20 March 2016

Playing on the big screen this Iranian new year

Tehran Bureau correspondent joined the crowds queuing in the Tehran winter for the Fajr Film Festival. These are the movies Iranians will be watching over Nowruz
Me directed by Soheil Beiraqi. Courtesy the Guardian.
by Tehran Bureau correspondent, The Guardian

This 34th Fajr Film Festival, which ran for 11 days from 1 February, previewed most movies that will be in cinemas around Iran in the coming year. Being popular at Fajr can boost a film through creating a buzz on television, magazines and social media. 

Fajr can also be helpful on what to avoid. Critic Shadmehr Rastin scoffed on Channel 4’s programme Sinamayeh Iran (Iranian Cinema): “If you want to sell your movie, add a runway girl and a secret pregnancy.” And in truth, betrayal, pregnancy and an angry older brother were a common theme this year. 

Audiences seeking a break from familiar story lines had to attend screenings in the Negah-e No (new look) section, for first-time directors, or Honar-o Tajrobeh (art and experience), added the previous year to showcase art-house films.

Ehsan Biglari and Hamireza Qorbani, two former assistant directors to Oscar-winning writer and director Asghar Farhadi, presented their first feature films in Negah-e No, with Farhadi himself taking a break from shooting his latest project to attend the premieres.

My Brother Khosrow. Courtesy the Guardian.

In Biglari’s My Brother Khosrow stars Shahab Husseini as Khosrow, younger brother of Nasser, a successful dentist in Tehran. The bipolar Khosrow is forced to stay with Nasser and his family for a few weeks, stirring old wounds and awakening his older brother’s demons.

Qorbani’s A House on Forty-First Street is another tale of two brothers, opening with them fighting in their glass goods store. A push leads to a violent shove, and one unintentionally kills the other. Struggling to cope with the consequences are the wives and children, who live on different floors in the same building on 41st Street. But the film suffers from the female actors barely looking interested, and ends up as testimony to Iranian cinema’s need for credible actors and nuanced stories.

A House on Forty-First Street. Courtesy the Guardian.
One of the few original family dramas to step away from the Farhadi formula of a family grappling with secrets and moral quandaries was Behnam Behzadi’s Inversion, a tale of three siblings that masterfully featured Tehran’s air pollution. A more common backdrop was Iran’s nuclear agreement with world powers, which cropped up on the television news as characters spoke, fought or otherwise went about their day. Perhaps this reflected the belief expressed by many at Fajr that the lifting of sanctions will be pivotal for the film industry.

Behnam Behzadi’s Inversion. Courtesy the Guardian.

In previous years at Fajr, the decline of directors notable in the 1980s and 1990s was reflected in their poor-quality work showcased. Thankfully, this year’s line-up included many solid films by young directors. More than half a dozen directors were daheh shasti (born in the 1980s).

Life Without Parole, the first feature-length film from 26-year-old Saeed Roostaie won nine prizes, including those for best director and best leading actress Parinaz Izadyar. It was also chosen as the best film by votes of the audiences. The fast-paced movie set in south Tehran chronicles a struggling family as they prepare to send off a sister to Afghanistan for a marriage arranged by her eldest brother.

 Life Without Parole. Courtesy the Guardian.

One of the festival’s most invigorating films was Mohammad Hussein Mahdavian’s docudrama Standing in the Dust, a biopic of Revolutionary Guard commander Ahmad Motevasselian, who disappeared in 1982 in Lebanon along with three other Iranians.

Iranian cinema has for two decades attempted to depict the most well-known commanders of the 1980s. Ebrahim Hatamikiya tried and failed with Che (about Mostafa Chamran – ‘che’ as in the first letter of his name rather than Guevara), as did the late Rasool Molagholipour with Hiva, based on the life of Hamid Bakeri and his wife Fatemeh Amirani. Reza Azamian, Shahram Asadi and Javad Ardakani are other directors who have depicted wartime commanders with lacklustre results.

Standing in the Dust. Courtesy the Guardian.

This makes Mahdavian’s poignant portrayal of Motevasselian a breakthrough. Telling the story from childhood until his disappearance, the film is a docudrama. We don’t hear the voices of the actors but rather voiceovers of family members, friends and at a few points, real audio clips of Motevasselian’s speeches. We also see depictions of other commanders, including Ebrahim Hemmat - killed in Operation Kheybar, the 1984 offensive in the southern marches, when the Iraqis used chemical weapons for the first time - and Mohsen Vezvaie, killed in the 1982 Operation Beytol Moqadas that liberated Khorramshahr.

Bodyguard. Courtesy the Guardian.

Ebrahim Hatamikiya, who has spent his career making films about the wounds of war carried by Iranian soldiers and their families, was back at Fajr with the story of a bodyguard of an ex-head of the atomic agency running for president. The bodyguard struggles to carry on with a job that seems to sacrifice the idealism of the Revolution and war eras for ‘business as usual’. Bodyguard is Hatamikiya at his best and worst: melodramatic and ambiguous, yet occasionally hitting at the core complexities of current-day Iran.

Linking past and present with different results was Mani Haqiqi’s energetic, colourful Enter the Dragon, which was also in competition at Berlin Film Festival, which ran 11-21 February. Set in the 1960s on Qeshm Island in the Persian Gulf, the movie follows three young investigators trying to solve a case of murder and disappearing persons.

Enter the Dragon. Courtesy the Guardian.

The film baffled movie-goers. While it references the 1960s, none of the dates is accurate and none of the events depicted took place. Haqiqi connects the story to today’s Tehran through an old chest found in a basement and includes footage of political commentators Sadeq Zibakalam and Saeed Hajjarian. Viewers cannot be sure if words they speak are fact or fiction.

With reality and myth, truth and lies, so entwined, film critic Javad Tousi called the film “intellectual charlatanism”. But audiences selected it among their five favourite films of the festival.

Me, directed by the young Soheil Beiraqi, a former assistant to director Abdoreza Kahani, was another Fajr surprise. With her usual shy, quiet demeanour, Leila Hatami takes the central role of a mysterious criminal hustler involved in everything from smuggling refugees to million-dollar land sales. Amir Jadidi and Behnoush Bakhtiari shine.

While the best supporting actor prize went to Navid Mohammadzadeh for Life Without Parole, and best actor to Parviz Parastooie for Bodyguard, Jadidi deserved both accolades for his supporting performance in Me and his starring role in Enter the Dragon.

Attendances were high at Fajr, with both critics and filmmakers recalling the first decade after the festival was launched in 1983, a time when movie fans queued overnight during Tehran’s cold winters. Given the high demand this year for films like Life Without Parole, Bodyguard and Enter the Dragon, cinemas scheduled special screenings as late as 2am, when queues were still like rush hour on the metro. Such popularity is important to Fajr, which sees itself both as the vitrine showcasing Iranian cinema to the world and as the mardomi (people’s) festival. 

Lantouri. Courtesy the Guardian.

The death penalty and the option of the deceased’s family choosing mercy or forgiveness was another theme for filmmakers this year. Director Reza Dormishian’s third film Lantouri took on the issue and then some, specifically acid attacks. In 2013, Dormishian’s I am Not Angry premiered at Fajr but was not subsequently issued a screening permit, and it remains to be seen if Lantouri will be screened nationally.

Either way, the film took Fajr audiences to the heart of Dormishian’s work - youth issues at their most harrowing. The story was riveting and intense, even if it suffered from being an advocacy video and an educational clip on mental health as well as a movie.

Nafas Photograph: Handout. Courtesy the Guardian.

Narges Abyar, who wowed audiences with Track 143 two years ago, was back with Nafas, a tale of four young siblings living with their father through the Revolution and the Iran-Iraq war. The child actors, especially Seyedeh Sareh Nour Mousavi, were a delight and Abyar’s attempt to depict Iran’s most tumultuous years through the eyes of children is an effort that has not been made. But the film was too long and left viewers wondering how children could stay looking exactly the same year after year.

The Mad Lover and the Dog. Courtesy the Guardian.
In Art and Experience Cinema, which is only slowly finding its way as an independent section (both at Fajr and select cinemas throughout the year), the highlights were Ali Mohammad Qassemi’s The Mad Lover and the Dog, Hadi Mohaqeq’s Mamiroo and Karim Lakzadeh’s Scissors.

Qassemi told a tragic love story set in the harsh winters of Talesh, north Iran. Haunting cinematography added to the mystery of the story. Mamiroo shot entirely in Kohgiluyeh and Boyerahmad province - which means ‘immortal’ in local dialect - used minimal dialogue in depicting the world of a young man, who has lost everyone in his small village household, except for his grandfather, who can neither die nor fully live. Instead he lies in a corner of the house in a perpetual daze, leading his grandson to believe he is possessed.

First time director Lakzadeh’s Qeychi (scissors), shot in Tehran, on a train and on Hormuz Island in the Persian Gulf, follows a lone protagonist as he runs away from the consequences of a heinous crime – only to find that it is himself that he cannot escape. Many films are shot in north Iran, so it was good to have Lakzadeh as well as Haqiqi exploring the intriguing beauty of Iran’s Persian Gulf islands.

One debate long a part of Iranian cinema is whether the most popular Fajr films should get the coveted holiday-season screenings, beginning with Nowruz in late March. Film fans always ask the same questions. Why should films that have already had so much media attention during Fajr also get the best screenings? Shouldn’t they be left for less known films? And why does Ebrahim Hatamikiya always get the Nowruz premieres?

The answers are far from obvious. After receiving a screening permit, films must gain screening time from Shorayeh Senfiyeh Namayesh, a screening union that used to be based at Khaneyeh Sinama (house of cinema), Iran’s cinema guild, but is now co-managed with the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance. Their deliberations are not public.

Nonetheless, Fajr shows that feature films are now being made by dozens of short-film directors, assistant directors and writers in their late twenties to late thirties, people who have worked behind the scenes for years.

What are going to be the most successful films at Nowruz around the country? I’d say Bodyguard, and Life Without Parole. The silver screen will portray two very different - yet both deeply scarred - Irans.

The Tehran Bureau is an independent media organisation, hosted by the Guardian. 

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