It’s been a fascinating couple of weeks for Iranian cinema, beginning in Tehran with the Fajr Film Festival and culminating in Jafar Panahi’s Golden Bear in Berlin for Taxi. Berlin has been generous to Iranian filmmakers in the past—most famously with Farhadi’s triple win for A Separation in 2011—and this year was no different. The critics were on board with the jury: FIPRESCI awarded both their prizes to Iranian films, with Taxi in the competition section and Hamed Rajabi’s A Minor Leap Down (Paridan Az Ertefa-e Kam) in the Panorama section.
Panahi’s film doesn’t have a prayer in receiving public screenings in Iran, meaning it was never even in contention to get a festival berth at Iran’s most important film festival. Now in its thirty-third year, Fajr is designed to showcase the best films ready for the upcoming calendar year, which starts with the start of spring in Iran, on March 21st. The dichotomy between Iranian cinema’s foreign exports and domestically popular films is visible with such exclusions: Panahi’s film, A Minor Leap Down and the other Iranian film at Berlin, Atom Heart Mother (Maadar-e Ghalb Atomi, Ali Ahmadzadeh) will not screen at Fajr. Not that this happens every year, mind you. Most successful filmmakers have had the first domestic screenings of their work at Fajr, chief among them Asghar Farhadi, Reza Mirkarimi and Rakhshan Banietemad.
Fajr tends not to generate the same amount of enthusiasm that it did a decade ago—partly because of the general decline in interest in cinema in Iran—but it still remains the most significant time of the year for the industry. Not everyone is on board with the idea of the festival—least of all myself—and it is very rare to see any country putting the best of its upcoming films on show, often months before theatrical release, hence tempering any public anticipation in case of less than friendly reviews, which is often the norm at film festivals. And yet, having discussed this issue with industry professionals, I’ve noticed they tend to agree the festival is an integral part of Iranian cinema, due to the environment it fosters, the thrill and the rush it provides for its mostly young attendees, the relatively lax environment where real issues in the industry can be discussed and, most importantly, the fact that films are mostly released before they pass through the censor’s scissors. Tweaks need to be made to the festival’s structure, but no one wants to see it go.
This wasn’t a year for the internationally famed directors at Fajr, but several younger directors screened new work, and many received stellar responses. This year’s top prize went to Crazy Face (Rokh-e Divaaneh) by Abolhassan Davoodi, who also won the audience prize with a small margin. This is Davoodi’s first film in six years. He’s directed several critically acclaimed hits in Iran, but his most popular hit remains Bread, Love and Motor 1000 (Naan, Eshgh va Motor-e 1000) a wild, irreverent and uproariously funny social comedy. Crazy Face also nabbed prizes for best director, visual effects and sound.
Davoodi is a director whose films are very well received at home without crossing over the border, and his competition consisted mostly of filmmakers in a similar position. Farzad Motamen, who shot to fame with an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s White Nights, had The Long Goodbye, a romantic-crime film reminiscent of the pre-revolutionary jaheli films (and a brilliant poster evocative of the genre, too). Veteran comedian Saeed Aghakhani, won best actor for the film’s lead role. Alireza Raeesian, whose previous films had played at San Sebastian and Montreal festivals, brought his latest film, A Time for Love and took away two prizes for cinematography and screenplay.
Mostafa Kiayi—a less established name, but the winner of last year’s audience prize—won two prizes and nearly took the audience award again for his film, The Ice Age, which was one of the buzziest titles at the festival. But the film to really keep an eye out for didn’t even play at the competition lineup: trusted voices have been praising Safi Yazdanian’s What Time Is It In Your World? starring real-life couple Leila Hatami (A Separation) and Ali Mosaffa (The Past), and Hatami’s real-life mother, Zahra Hatami. Mostly shot with amateur actors in the north of Iran, the film is about a woman who returns to Iran after 20 years in France to reconnect with her rural roots. The premise, the famous stars and the fact that parts of the dialogue are in French have me hoping this one will tour international festivals.
Despite the lack of local distributors for some of these films—and some will inevitably remain without release plans for a few months—this promises to be a strong year for Iranian cinema. Most importantly, the general sense of doom that followed the tepid response to last year’s festival, when several notable filmmakers of the past delivered mediocre films, has been replaced with enthusiasm. It does feel ironic, however, that the most acclaimed film of the year is bound to be one that doesn’t receive any screen time in Iran.