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Sehaty Foreign Exchange

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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 press.

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 "Baran."

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 homes where

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.


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