Launched in 1983, this festival is among Iran’s biggest cultural events. Most Iranian films take part in it before they find their way onto public screens. This significance is rooted in various factors. Up to ten years ago, taking part at the festival was the precondition for every film’s public screening. Such a precondition no longer exists, yet the festival is still important for filmmakers, officials, critics and viewers. The evaluation that every film gets during the festival, affects the welcome it receives in public screening. In fact, International Fajr Film Festival is a state-sponsored event organized by Farabi Cinema Foundation, an organization affiliated to the office of deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance for cinema. It plays a part in assigning the selection committee and the jury. The festival is held during the Ten-Day Dawn celebrations that mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
This year too, the festival has many sections including, notably, the competition section where a selection of the Iranian films chosen by the selection committee based on their merits are screened. This year, there were 25 films in this section. We will discuss some of them here. Other Iranian films were screened in the “guest section” if they have a minimum of merits. Otherwise, they were not admitted. First and second films by new directors are judged separately. This section contained 17 films this year as opposed to 20 films in the guest section. All that is, of course, separate from the short and documentary films competition section.
Some 40 films took part in the festival’s International Competition section, Competition of Spiritual Cinema and Competition of Asian Cinema. Some of the best among these films were Illusionist (Neil Burger, 2006), As You Like It (Kenneth Branagh, 2006), Sophie Scholl – The Final Days (Mark Rothemund, 2005), River Queen (Vincent Ward, 2005) and The Wicker Man (Neil LaBute, 2006).
Other sections of this year’s festival included three tributes, Cinema of Resistance (which screened films about resistance of nations against tyranny), Festival of Festivals (screening a selection of important films, which had been screened in major international festivals during the preceding year), and Special Screenings (a selection of new films of the world cinema) as well as films screened on their directors’ centennial, literary adaptations and “Cinema and other Arts” section (which screened films about composers, writers and painters).
Tribute was paid to Mario Monicelli, one of the most famous Italian comic genre directors, who is famous for his Big Deal in Madonna Street (1958), La Grande Guerra (1959) and Un Borghese Piccolo Piccolo (1977). Abbas Kiarostami took part in the ceremony and awarded the festival’s medal to him. Tribute was also paid to the Iranian film and stage actor, Ali Nassirian, whose major films include Cow by Dariush Mehrjui as well as Mr. Simpleton, Captain Khorshid, Scent of Joseph’s Shirt and major TV series such as Sarbedaran and Hezar-Dastan. Nassirian was also a member of the jury at the Iranian cinema competition section. The third artist to be paid tribute was Yadollah Samadi who started filmmaking in 1985 and has made quite a few comedies based on the stories of his homeland, Iran’s Azarbaijan province. Samadi was also a member of the board that selected the Iranian films.
Review of Some Iranian Films
Special stress was laid this year on spiritual films and war movies. We have already discussed these two genres in issues numbers 50 and 51 of the Film International. There were 6 spiritual movies and six war films in the festival. Some believe that this is reflecting the new Iranian government’s policy on cinema. Under the former president, Mohammad Khatami, most of the Iranian films had social, political and love themes with religious and war films accounting for a minority. That equation has now shifted in the reverse direction to indicate that governments of Khatami and Ahmadinejad are even disparate with regard to cinema. Many of this year’s spiritual movies talked about one form or another of miracles. Another common point was paying attention to pious Christian figures next to their Muslim counterparts. In The Sun Shines for All, a Muslim woman called Negar takes her ailing husband for a pilgrimage to the shrine of the eighth Shiite Imam. In the course of the Journey, she meets a Christian woman called Janet, who regains her lost faith. In Robin (Redbreast), a Muslim boy whose behavior has led to the unwanted death of his friend prays along with a Christian boy and begs God to give a new life to their dead friend. They resort to Jesus Christ and Imam Hossein (the third Shiite Imam) and the miracle finally takes place. In the Agonies of the Maiden, a Christian girl called Janet, whose parents have great respect for Imam Hossein and have, thus, named her Fatima in her birth certificate, hates that name and wants to change it. Her fiancé does not like the name either. In the meantime, Janet is overwhelmed by feeling of guilt after she comes to believe that she has killed a woman in an accident. As compensation for killing that woman, she turns to the dead woman’s fiancé who is a painter depicting portraits of Jesus. In the meantime, she develops a positive attitude toward Muslims as she, at the same time, realizes that she has not killed anyone. This film ends with the resurrection of a war veteran who has been helped by Imam Hossein and Jesus Christ. There is also a miracle in The Empty Hands where a young man wakes up from coma after several years thanks to the blessing he receives from Imam Hossein (the third Shiite Imam). This year’s spiritual films were marked by the idea of understanding between religions and belief in miracles, though poor cinematic and dramatic treatment makes the films look pretentious.
Barefoot in Paradise was this year’s best spiritual movie. This was the first feature film made by Bahram Tavakkoli who is already known in Iran and abroad for his short films. He wrote his academic thesis on religious cinema with special emphasis on Ingmar Bergman’s films. Barefoot in Paradise is about a young cleric who goes to find an answer to his philosophical questions while serving terminally ill AIDS victims to make death easier for them. This is a Kafkaesque story shot with many jump cuts, inserts and oblique angles. It promises the arrival of another good filmmaker.
Another major theme in this year’s films was war. Iran’s war against Iraq in the 1980s is officially known as the Sacred Defense to indicate that any criticism of that war would not be along official policy lines. Therefore, the Iranian war movies generally follow similar lines of thought with little innovation. Only a few filmmakers such as Ebrahim Hatami-Kia, Rasoul Molla-Qolipour and Kamal Tabrizi have found new ways of telling their stories in this genre. None was present in this year’s festival though. Most of the war movies in the festival were first films by new directors. Kioumars Pourahmad, a veteran filmmaker, in his first war movie, The Night Bus, tells the story of two Iranian soldiers who have to evacuate 38 Iraqi POWs behind the lines. The ensuing developments create friendship between Iraqi captives and the Iranian soldiers. Pourahmad is extremely successful in handling mainly interior scenes that take place at night and inside a bus. The film introduces war as something that goes on between politicians while ordinary men fall victim to war and have to destroy one another. Pourahmad’s previous films were mainly emotional and this war movie also happens to be so.
The Wages of Silence is Maziyar Miri’s first war movie. He has already established himself as a good filmmaker with The Unfinished Song and Gradually. His new film is based on a story by Ahmad Dehghan entitled: I Killed Your Son. The screenplay has been developed by screenwriter Farhad Towhidi. The story reflects a sensitive aspect of war: A soldier has to kill his comrade in order to prevent the disclosure of their position by his cries of agony. He ends up with a guilty conscience for years before he goes to the victim’s father to reveal the truth. Miri has done a great deal of work to moderate this bitter story. He had to add many marginal stories to reduce the impact of the main tale. These marginal stories are about the social situation of war veterans in Iran’s modern society where their sacrifices have been almost forgotten. The story was sensitive but the director had created a safety net by seeking the Presidential Office’s confirmation and having the president’s cultural advisor to inaugurate the project. Also, the film’s producer had previously worked on major projects like Holy Mary. The Third Day is also the first war film ever made by its director, Mohammad Hossein Latifi, known to be a director of comic and thriller films. It is the story of the final three days of resistance by the people of Khorramshahr against the invading Iraqi army in 1980. In the story, a young man and his friends try to rescue his sister who has been captured by the Iraqis. In the meantime, an Iraqi officer falls in love with the girl. The film won many awards at the festival apparently thanks to its inherent symbolic values. Latifi, better known as director of a TV series, is successful in telling a fluctuating story in spite of the weaknesses in the screenplay and directing. The most controversial war movie in the festival was The Expelled by Massoud Dehnamaki who had made just a couple of documentaries before this feature film: one about prostitution and another one about soccer. About 10-15 years ago he was a known opponent of the moderate and pro-reform policies of former presidents Khatami and Rafsanjani. He made his opposition known by directing street mobs and publishing radical journals and became one of the leaders of the political group Ansar Hezbollah. Later, he turned to cultural rather than political activities, first in the press and then in cinema. The Expelled has received spiritual support and a lot of facilities as a production. A group of young hoodlums, whose leader is in love with the neighborhood’s pious figure’s daughter, go to the battlefields so that the aspiring young man could prove his capabilities and piety to the bride-to-be’s father. Their inconsistent behavior becomes problematic at the warfront. At the end, the young men are evolved and their leader is martyred. The Expelled became the viewer’s most popular movie at the festival sharing the title with Dariush Mehrjui’s Dulcimer Player. Nevertheless, it suffers from evident cinematic and structural shortcomings one would expect from a first film. However, Dehnamaki says that he has depicted the latent realities of the war in his film and that he had eliminated the cliché of the Iranian war movies and created a new mystical approach which has led to widespread welcome by the viewers. The discussion about the Iranian viewers’ taste is a complicated one that requires a separate article. The Expelled was the festival’s most controversial film. Dehnamaki strongly protested against the jury that he believed had ignored his film. He made this point clear even at the festival’s closing ceremony, accusing the jury of making political judgments. He said that the people were the final jurors. Even some MPs as well as the president’s cultural advisor demanded a revision of the jury’s verdict. This was unprecedented. The Expelled was extremely successful at the box office.
There were also two horror movies in the festival. Eghlima was made by Mohammad Mehdi Asgarpour, who had already directed Ghadamgah, a successful religious movie. Like his previous film, Eghlima too has a religious and ethical theme. The film’s finale is also based on ethical principles. Nevertheless, it belongs to the horror movies genre. The horror is created by a jinni who lends his name to the movie and surrounds Sara, the leading actress of the film. Later, we find out about a conspiracy hatched by a husband to scare his wife. The man loves another woman and they conspire against the first woman in order to drive her insane. The film is in one way reminiscent of Henri-Georges Clouzot’s Les Diabolique. The film’s good directing has fallen victim to its poor screenplay. The film’s plot opens prematurely. The second film in this genre was Parkway, directed by filmmaker and critic Fereidoun Jeirani who has made several films in various genres, including social, comic, love, and psychological movies. In Parkway, he begins with love and ends with horror. Here, the factor that creates the horror is a psycho who is under his evil mother’s influence. This makes his love of his wife a nightmare for the young woman and turns the film into a slasher movie. There are also references to Hitchcock’s Psycho and Kubrick’s Shining. However, it suffers from poor characterization. The main characters’ mental problems are disclosed to the viewers prematurely.
Apart from The Expelled, there was another comedy in the festival, The Rule of the Game directed by Ahmad Reza Motamedi whose previous works have been about serious matters such as philosophy. This one is a Zuker Bros’ or Jim Abrahams’ style comedy with references to The Godfather and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Nevertheless, the filmmaker has failed to take care of the situations and characters in this overcrowded movie. Yet another comedy was Bayram Fazli’s Do You Have More Apples? which was a first film. Fazli is a cinematographer who has made a brilliant short film, The Well. This new comedy is another version of an old Persian tale; Hassan the Bald. Here, an episodic structure has lent it a modern façade. The main character in this film is a lazy man who has to be expelled from his home by his mother to look for a job. On his way, the man comes across strange characters in various villages and town. They include tax evaders who defy a tyrant government. He tries to persuade them to rebel against the ruler. But when they are defeated, the lazy man becomes one of the agents of the ruler. This is a symbolic film about the socio-political situation of the developing world. The film mocks behaviors that are characteristic of such societies: violence, passivity, greed, ignorance and barbarity. Yet another comedy is Tehran Has No More Pomegranates, though it is originally a documentary. The filmmaker, Massoud Bakhshi, reviews several centuries of the history of the Iranian capital Tehran from various economic, social, cultural, political, environmental, and architectural perspectives with an irony in terms of words, action and situations. The film is full of fresh ideas. It has taken the director six years to make and it is based on the activities of the film crew to collect evidence and documents to make a film.
This year there were some films about social or family problems. Eternal Children was based on a social background like other films made by its director, Pouran Derakhshandeh. It is about a group of children with mental retardation (Down syndrome). The film’s message is that these children should be taken care of at home rather than in institutions. However, the film tackles the issue in a rather emotional way which is not necessarily logical at all times. Mainline is about drug abuse. This is the latest work by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad whose film is marked by good directing and brilliant performances by Bita Farrahi and Baran Kowsari as well as a fine photography. Mainline is about 36 hours in the life of a drug addict girl whose mother is about to take her to a rehabilitation center. On their way to the center we see a delicate depiction of the background of every character. The film’s critics say it lacks a new look at the problem of drug abuse. But Bani-Etemad does not seem to be trying to tell a new story. Her report of the problem, which is rendered in black and white to make it more look like a documentary, depicts the bitter situation of a drug addict who is dangling between suicide and prostitution. The filmmaker ends the movie with hope instilled in it. The Dulcimer Player is also about addiction. Here, however, the director, Dariush Mehrjui is far from saying that addiction is bad. Here, addiction is merely an occasion to show a man on the verge of decline who wishes to establish his entity. But to do so, he even forgoes his love. Although it is not at the same level of merit with other films directed by Mehrjui, the marks of his unique style are evident here and there all over the film. The new element in this film is its musical structure which is justified by the protagonists’ occupation. Some have compared this film to Walk the Line. Bahram Radan’s performance as an addicted musician is an asset. The Aster of Silent Town, a coproduction with Germany and Canada, is the third feature film directed by Amir Shahab Razaviyan. It is the story of an Iranian doctor who returns to Iran from Germany. In the course of his journey from Tehran to Bam (the epicenter of a major quake that killed 25,000 people three years ago and demolished a 2000-year monumental citadel) we see details from Iran’s ancient Persian culture and civilization. The film has no story in the traditional sense, but it follows a linear narrative about the lives of three generations of Iranians and their approaches to such concepts as love. The film’s climax is when the character representing the older generation discloses a secret to the character representing the younger generation of Iranians. And that is a concept to which the new generation is alien. Another film about the generation gap is Locksmith. Here, however, there is an educational approach. A young boy who is constantly beaten by his father complains to the police and his father is arrested. A family problem ensues that finally ends as the father regrets his deed. Good performances by the young actors have made this simple story more tangible. Daybreak is an adaptation of Ariel Dorfman’s Death and the Maiden based on which Roman Polanski has also made a film with the same title. Bijan Mirbaqeri has localized the story which now takes place immediately after the Islamic Revolution in Iran. He has replaced the rape scene with torture and the story ends with the death of the torturer and his victim. There is no forgiveness in the story (as opposed to the original play). The film is attractive enough although there are limited locations and characters in the new version.
One of the most talked about films in this year’s festival was The Iranian Carpet, a project managed by Reza Mirkarimi and funded by the National Iranian Carpet Center and Farabi Cinema Foundation. Major Iranian filmmakers have been called upon to make 5-7-minute films on the Persian carpet. Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Dariush Mehrjui, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Behrouz Afkhami, Bahram Baizai, Kamal Tabrizi, Seifollah Dad, Mojtaba Raei, Khosrow Sinai, Majid Majidi, Bahman Farmanara, Mohammad-Reza Honarmand, Noureddin Zarrinkelk and Reza Mirkarimi are those who have made 15 short films about the Persian carpet based on such elements as religion, art, economy, mythology, history, fantasy, sociology and so on. One of those 15 films, Jafar Panahi’s Resolvement consists of just one long shot. No Response to Paging by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad has chosen an enigmatic structure about a marvelous three-dimensional carpet. These are literally the best of the fifteen episodes.
The Most Important Selections in Various Sections of the 25th International Fajr Film Festival:
-The Iranian Cinema Competition: Best film: The Third Day, best directing: Mohammad-Hossein Latifi (The Third Day), best actor: Bahram Radan (The Dulcimer Player), best actress: Baran Kowsari (The Third Day and Mainline), best music: Kambiz Roshanravan (Eternal Children), best director of photography: Hamid Khozouei Abyaneh (Barefoot in Paradise), best first film: Barefoot in Paradise.
- International Competition: Best film: The Lives of Others, best directing: Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (Mainline), best screenplay (The Lives of Others), best actress: Martina Gedeck (The Lives of Others), best artistic achievement: River Queen,
- The Special Jury Award: Sophie Scholl–The Final Days.
- The viewer’s choice: The Dulcimer Player and The Expelled.