Iranian cinema carries strong spirit of reform
By deborah Young
February 19, 2001 - February 25, 2001
TEHRAN Iranian filmmakers continue to push the limits of social criticism,
most recently with pics unveiled at the 19th Fajr Film Festival, held in
Teheran Feb. 1-10. The surprise was the strong show of support they received
from government cinema types.
At the fest's closing ceremony, which typically begins with a prayer,
something different happened this year: After the distribution of prizes,
which mostly went to Majid Majidi's Afghan story "Baran" and
Bahram Bayzai's thriller "Killing Mad Dogs," the recently ousted
liberal minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance Attaolah Mohajerani was
called to the stage to receive a special prize.
"Political and military officials should be more careful regarding
art and culture," intoned the reformist pol. "Politicians will
leave, military officials will go, but our art will remain."
After 19 years, the Fajr fest has evolved into a well-organized showcase-cum-market
of new Iranian product for some 90 foreign distributors, programmers and
Although none of this year's 20 new pics knocked anyone out, consensus
flowed toward "Baran," a story about the impoverished underbelly
of Iran's 1.5 million Afghan immigrants, and femme helmer Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's
"Under the City's Skin," a drama whose hero's sole dream is a
visa out of Iran. "Skin" is tops at the local box office, and
the fest honored Bani-Etemad with a retrospective.
An international jury judged 19 films in competition, including U.S.
entries "The Green Mile" (voted audience favorite) and "O
Brother, Where Art Thou?" Zhang Yimou's "The Road Home"
took top honors as best film, Nuri Bilge Ceylan's "Clouds of May"
won the special jury prize, and Majidi got the nod as best director for
On fest's closing day, which by design coincides with the 23rd anniversary
of the Islamic revolution, dozens of young people were arrested as they
demonstrated for more freedom of speech.
While returning festival guests found the outward rules a bit more relaxed,
many Iranians, from filmmakers and journalists to taxi drivers, say they
find their country more of a prison than ever.
In this atmosphere, the Fajr festival screened pictures like "The
Party" which shows youths organizing clandestine parties in private
they drink, smoke dope, and dance to rap music; and "Under the
Moonlight," which describes the contempt in which Iran's clergy is
held by the common people.
"In the current situation in our society," notes new culture
minister Ahmad Masjed Jamei, also a reformist, "social messages are
given out through our cinema ... . Films are having a strong effect."
Jamei apologizes for the lingering censorship that kept films like Ebrahim
Hatamikia's "Dead Wave," a somber view on the war with Iraq,
out of the fest.
Current film rules allow filmmakers to shoot just about anything, but
censorship kicks in when the film is ready for release. Abbas Kiarostami's
"The Taste of Cherry" and "The Wind Will Carry Us,"
lauded and prized at Western festivals, each took more than a year to find
distribution. Jafar Panahi's bold exploration of the plight of women in
"The Circle," winner of the Gold Lion at Venice, still has no
release date in sight.