Iranian cinema: Fajr International Film Festival
A Special Ceremony
by Massoud Mehrabi
The thirtieth edition of Fajr International Film Festival will be held this year. With all its ups and down, the festival has embodied “guidance, support, and supervision” policies of all post-revolution governments.
After victory of the Islamic Revolution, all criteria of the Iranian society changed in all fields. The revolutionaries sought profound changes in all areas, especially cultural issues, and various views were expressed on how to implement cultural reforms. When it came to cinema, as a far-reaching cultural tool, the difference in ideas was more pronounced. The fury of the Islamists at the cultural policies of the former Shah of Iran was translated into their hatred of movie theaters a number of which was burned down as the symbol of pre-revolution culture. There were even people who implied that an Islamic country did not need cinema at all. The historical statement of the late leader of the Islamic Revolution in his famous address on February 1, 1979, put an end to all such disputes: “We are not against cinema, we are against corruption.” Officials then realized that cinema, like other social areas, needs due attention and they decided to create an Islamic version of cinema. A number of Muslim intellectuals, who were familiar with arts, started generating new theories from the early months after the revolution in order to create that Islamic cinema. At the very outset, they expelled pre-revolution filmmakers and trained, young, committed people at such institutions as the “Islamic Center of Filmmaking.” That group was later known as the architects of the new Iranian cinema. the first edition of Fajr International Film Festival was held in February 1983, after the beginning of war with Iraq and at a time that revolutionary tumult had not still ebbed. It coincided with anniversary of the Islamic Revolution and aimed to reflect that group’s efforts in founding a cinema which had arisen from the revolution. The festival, as meant by its organizers, managed to draw renewed attention to cinema and its necessity and convince many critics that cinema could be one of the most important means of promoting Islamic tenets. That effort to convince the critics caused the Iranian cinema to be molded on the basis of ideological needs of the new society, not the will or requirements of the audience. It took years before the audience and industrial aspect of cinema received some attention from cinema managers and policymakers. That attitude left its mark on large-scale policies that affected Fajr Film Festival. Those policies enabled the government to set the course of filmmaking. As a result, from its first edition, the festival was held under supervision of the state and was nurtured through state budget in order to promote policies of cinema authorities.
Apart from large-scale policies and unlike many creditable international festivals, Fajr Festival has seen many fluctuations in methods, policies and annual schedules through the past 30 years. That unstable situation stemmed from high-speed social and political developments. Following the Islamic Revolution, Iran treaded a tortuous path marked with many milestones including the first few years after the revolution, the eight-year war with Iraq, the post-war reconstruction period, a period of reformism with more open political and social atmosphere, as well as the present time. Many cultural phenomena, including Fajr Film Festival, were under the influence of those fluctuations. Therefore, the festival’s course has been sinusoidal with various management methods applied to every edition of this event. For instance, in early post-revolution years, the jury did not care for women and winners were solely chosen out of men. That extreme attitude changed after a few editions. More attention was also paid to filmmakers who were committed to the Islamic values than their filmmaking expertise. Therefore, many valuable Iranian movies were either barred from entering the competition section or were not given a prize. It was more so about films which focused on controversial themes. That tunnel vision gradually changed. The jury of early editions of the festival comprised both film experts and politicians from parliament, the cabinet and other state-affiliated bodies. Sometimes the politicians outnumbered filmmakers. This situation was also modified and the jury became more cinema-oriented. At any rate, government’s expediencies were always taken into consideration when choosing the festival’s winners. Another major change in the festival, which happened gradually, was the requirement for all films produced in a year to be present in that year’s festival. If a film failed to appear on the festival’s schedule, it would have been denied a public screening permit. Such a condition put too much pressure on filmmakers and in addition to causing extreme stress, decreased quality of many films. That condition was waived in the 16th edition of the festival and participation became voluntary. The highest number of positive changes in the festival started in the same edition (1998); the year when reformist politicians swept to power and took control of the government.
During the past few years, there has been a kind of reversion to the past in certain policies of the festival. For example, more attention has been paid to filmmakers committed to Islamic values vs. expert ones. Political figures have once more became part of the jury and critical movies have been included in non-competition sections. Some of them are just screened for critics and film writers with no public screening at all. Since 15 years ago, Iran's House of Cinema has been representing various film guilds and has held a regular ceremony called “House of Cinema Celebration.” In that event, a jury whose members represented various cinema guilds (directors, producers, actors, cinematographers…) judged participating movies and gave awards to winners. As a ceremony free from state influence, the House of Cinema Celebration made up for the shortcomings of Fajr Film Festival. Since two years ago and subsequent to the street unrest which followed presidential election, during which most famous filmmakers sided with the losing side of the election, the relation between Cinema Department of Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and House of Cinema has been quite tense. In the latest turn of events, the Ministry recently decided to shut the House down. A similar decision was made last year by the Interior Ministry for the Association of Iranian Journalists. Most filmmakers believe that social base of the House of Cinema is powerful enough to prevent it from being affected by such negative trends…
…Now on the eve of its 30th edition and following a lot of trial and error, Fajr Film Festival has become a regular habit or necessity for the Iranian filmmakers who consider its annual return a special ritual and a necessity which cannot be denied. Let’s wait and see whether the old Persian proverb, “habits die hard,” still holds water.
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Publishing Date Summer 2011
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