Iran’s Oscar submission committee announced today that Majid Majidi’s Muhammad, the Messenger of God will be sent to the Academy for consideration in the best foreign language film category. The news is not a surprise to anyone who has been following Iranian cinema for the past year. Despite some strong competition from arthouse titles that had premiered at international festivals—including Melbourne, Fish & Cat, and What’s the Time in Your World?—the most expensive film in Iranian history was never going to be overlooked.
Majidi has pedigree with the Academy. His films have been submitted on four previous occasions, the first of which resulted in Iran’s first Oscar nomination back in 1998 for Children of Heaven. His latest film has been a topic of intense conversation and controversy since its production was announced. As the first part of a planned trilogy, Muhammad covers the first twelve years of the life of the prophet of Islam, and has caused a stir in Sunni Muslim countries, where depictions of the prophet are strictly prohibited.
Majidi’s epic reportedly cost around $40m, and boasts an impressive array of talent behind and in front of the camera. Oscar winners like cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (Apocalypse Now, Reds), composer A. R. Rahman (Slumdog Millionaire) and visual effects supervisor Scott E. Anderson (Babe) are joined by an impressive cast of Iranian stars that includes the likes of Sareh Bayat and Mehdi Pakdel. Yet, the film’s Oscar chances appear to be minimal. Whereas Iranian audiences have rewarded the film with the country’s highest opening weekend box office of all time and continue to fill the theaters, foreign critics seem less enamored. Variety, reviewing the film after its Montreal Film Festival international premiere, called it a “dull” and “lumbering” and reminiscent of 1950s Hollywood epics. Oscar has not been in the mood for such historical fare in a long time.
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.
The general view among Iranians is that their cinema operates not as a systematic enterprise but as a dysfunctional family, an undisciplined, primitive and, to borrow a term from Hamid Naficy, artisanal industry. Never has this been felt more strongly than in the past couple of weeks, where news has spread of a feud between two of the most respected figures in the national film industry, spurring consequent hokey, jingoistic and comical reactions.
The chain of events started in April 2014, when Abbas Kiarostami implicitly criticized Ebrahim Hatamikia without mentioning his name at a filmmaking workshop at Syracuse University. Hatamikia is renowned for his war films, but his more recent works haven’t been as financially or critically successful as his films in the 1990s. His most recent outing, CH, was released around the same time as Kiarostami’s lecture, during which the latter allegedly stated:
“The Iranian audiences have grown weary of war films after so many years, but certain filmmakers still receive large loans from the government to produce these films that don’t sell. One of these filmmakers recently scolded me, saying that ‘while they were fighting the war, Kiarostami was finding his friend’s notebook.’ Actually, Where Is the Friend’s Home? is one of my most popular films. People saw it all over the world and it’s still resonant because it speaks of deep human values. Whereas you have made films that speak about a specific period, a period in Iranian history that is rousing and exciting to impressionable young people, like those who went off to get killed in a meaningless war.”
The war to which he refers is the eight-year conflict between Iran and Iraq, to which the Iranians refer as “The Holy Defense.” Not taking kindly to Kiarostami’s assertions, Hatamikia waited until September and the closing night of a national festival titled “The Festival of Resistance Cinema” to share his grievances on stage while accepting an award for CH. Under fire from progressives who viewed CH with skepticism and accused it of being partial and historically revisionist, Hatamikia did not hold back in his public criticism of Kiarostami, accusing him of the grave – and severely punishable – offenses of insulting the values of The Holy Defense and the martyrs of war. He further claimed that Kiarostami enjoys unfair advantage and protection from authorities and belongs to a movement that is oblivious to the importance of the war. Hatamikia briefly thanked Kiarostami for “raising Iran’s flag at foreign festivals” but nevertheless pleaded directly to the Iranian president, the minister of culture, the head of Iranian Cinema Organization and the head of the Farabi Film Institute to “come forward with their views on the matter.”
This isn’t the first time Hatamikia has made controversial, disparaging remarks about other filmmakers. He was recently in the news criticizing “progressive filmmakers” and picking fights with Asghar Farhadi and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, so much so that another filmmaker, Kiumars Poorahamd, pleaded to him to stop.
The authorities’ response to Hatamikia’s petulance was measured and thoughtful. Hojattollah Ayoubi, the head of the Cinema Organization, called the release of Kiarostami’s original statements six months after the fact and right in the middle of the “Holy Defense Week” – a week dedicated to celebrating the heroics of soldiers, when reactions to any anti-war sentiments are understandably glorified – a “questionable act” and requested a full transcript of Kiarostami’s lecture to “view the statements in context.” Leaping to Kiarostami’s defense a few days later, Ayoubi went as far as proclaiming that “Kiarostami wholeheartedly loves the Holy Defense!” The Minister of Culture, while remarking that “no one is allowed to bring the war under question,” defended Kiarostami by mentioning that “the war doesn’t only belong to certain individuals.” In the meantime, previous cabinet ministers who were accused of unfairly protecting Kiarostami from censorship came back to the limelight after several years to absolve themselves of that allegation of favouritism.
With accusations, rumors and paws full flung in the air, Kiarostami finally appeared in an interview where he defended his statements in trademark nebulous fashion, stating that “he is categorically opposed to wars, but only finds the Holy Defense meaningless because thousands of Iranian youngsters were killed in a conflict imposed on Iran by Iraq.” He further mentioned that he has “nothing but utmost respect for martyrs and war veterans.” But if you thought that put an end to all the hokey whatabouteries and kicking and screaming, mind this final (or so we think) twist. The head of the Office for Bureaucratic Justice, Hojjatoleslam Montazeri, accused Kiarostami of being a “Westernized alcoholic” whose words about the war he would feel immense shame to even repeat. The reason for this (over)reaction becomes evident when you read Mr. Montazeri’s full speech, where he derides Kiarostami for referring to the war as “a period in Iranian history,” seemingly misunderstanding the director’s words and mistaking them as an equation of the bloodshed of the holy war to menstruation! The period in Iranian history, you see? Did I mention that the Iranian film industry is undisciplined and primitive?
The number of Iranian films at major European film festivals has been on steady decline since the heyday of the 1990s and early 2000s, but this year has proven to be a delightfully surprising change of pace. After Cannes and Sundance, where several Iranian films have gained traction on the critical radar, this year’s edition of the Venice Film Festival, which runs between August 27th to September 6th, boasts a high number of Iranian participants as well.
In the main competition section, veteran director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad will screen her latest film, Tales (Ghesse-ha, 2014). Comprised of several different stories that interconnect, Bani-Etemad revisits characters from her previous films to follow up on their fates after the end of their respective films. Surprisingly, the Venice berth will not be the film’s world premiere, as Iran’s Fajr Film Festival has already screened it to the public, where it received an audience award. Bani-Etemad has previously won awards at European festivals like Karlovy Vary and Locarno. Her most famous films include The Blue-Veiled (Rusari Abi, 1995) and Under the Skin of the City (Zir-e Poost-e Shahr, 2001). Her latest has been dubbed “the most special Iranian film of all time” by esteemed critic, Ahmad Talebinejad.
Competing with Bani-Etemad for the Golden Lion is Ramin Bahrani, the American director of Iranian origin whose films include Man Push Cart (2005) and Goodbye Solo (2008). His first foray into working with professional actors, At Any Price (2013), wasn’t as warmly received as his earlier work, but he’s stayed on the same path anyway. In 99 Homes, starring Andrew Garfield, Michael Shannon and Laura Dern, Bahrani tells the story of familial and financial struggle for a father who’s family is being evicted.
The Horizons section of the festival will host the latest from the renowned filmmaker behind Hello Cinema (Salaam Cinema, 1995) and A Moment of Innocence (Nun va Goldun, 1996), Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The President, his first English language feature film, is set in a fictitious Caucasian country, were a deposed ruler comes face to face with the people of his country when he and his grandson are forced to disguise themselves as street musicians. This is Makhmalbaf’s first fiction film in five years and as usual, his family members all occupy roles behind the camera.
Finally, director Nima Javidi’s debut feature, Melbourne, will be playing in the Critics’ Week section. The film tells the story of a young couple whose plans to immigrate from Iran to Melbourne, Australia are thwarted when a family tragedy hits them hours before their flight. Melbourne stars Peiman Moaadi and Negar Javaherian and has already garnered much critical acclaim in Iran.
Here at Hello Cinema, we are big fans of Jafar Panahi’s Closed Curtain, a film we will be discussing extensively in the future. With the release of the film in the United States this week, quite a few major outlets reviewed the film. Surprisingly, Godfrey Cheshire–a previous guest on our podcast and a major advocate of Iranian cinema–found the film problematic. Writing about Panahi for RogerEbert.com, he noted:
He still works in order to stay engaged with life and cinema, and this film’s graceful framing, lighting and camera movement testify to his skills as a stylist, yet the movie also raises the question of how many more films he can make about himself and his frustration before hitting a creative wall.
At The New York Times, A.O. Scott is a bigger fan of the film, finding in the film something more touching than its political context:
For the viewer, this conundrum is both troubling and amusing. On one level, the film … is a mischievous, Pirandellian entertainment. It is also an allegory, dark but not despairing, of the creative spirit under political pressure, and of the ways the imagination can be both a refuge and a place of confinement.
BBC Persian has a report on the Karlovy Vary Film Festival that just wrapped up in Czech Republic. Three films with Iranian connections played at the festival: Mania Akbari and Mark Cousins’ Life May Be, Sudabeh Mortezaei’s Macondo (Variety review) and Abdolreza Kahani’s We’ve Got Time. Kahani has previously won prizes at the festival with Twent.y . BBC’s report is in Farsi.
Finally, Entekhab reports that City of Mice 2, a sequel to Marzieh Boroomand’s beloved classic will finally be released this summer, 29 years after the original film. The director is bringing back the characters from her famous TV series, later adapted for the screen, in a film that has become one of the most expensive ever produced through private funding in Iran. Anticipation for the film is at a peak, given the popularity of the diminutive characters for all generations of Iranians. The as-of-yet unconfirmed release date is expected to be in mid-August. Entekhab’s report is in Farsi.
This year’s edition of the Edinburgh Film Festival held a retrospective program on Iranian cinema which included screenings of several classic and new films and interviews with filmmakers and scholars. For the Persian readers among you, BBC Persian has written a cover story on the event. If you happen to be attending the festival, there is one more chance to catch up with the program tomorrow and watch Ebrahim Golestan’s rare film, The Crown Jewels of Iran (Ganjine-haye Gohar, 1965):
In Ebrahim Golestan’s beautiful and poetic The Crown Jewels of Iran, he put in a narration that directly criticised kings and their jewels as the empty objects of their pride. Later the Minister of Art and Culture censored the film. The film is remarkably condensed, very beautiful and powerful – the best example of Golestan’s mastery of form and rhythm in a cinema that is both political and poetic.
Reza Dormishian’s I’m Not Angry (Asabani Nistam, 2014), quietly but quickly picking up steam as one of the most acclaimed Iranian films of the year, has won several awards at the 17th Shanghai International Film Festival:
“I made this film with a love for Iran and the people of my country,” Dormishian stated during his speech at the awarding ceremony held last night. I’m Not Angry narrates the story of a university student, Navid, whose studies are disrupted due to his activities and beliefs.
Mahnaz Mohammadi, renowned Iranian documentary filmmaker, has been jailed for five years following allegations of espionage. Mohammadi has denied her alleged collaboration against the regime and any involvement with the BBC:
Mohammadi, director of the 2006 award-winning documentary Travelogue, was summoned earlier this month to Tehran’s notorious Evin prison to begin her five-year sentence, initially handed down in October 2012 and later upheld in the appeals court.
On a final note, if you happen to be in the London area on Wednesday July the 2nd, Asia House is hosting a program called “Real Fictions: Unlocking Iranian Cinema”. Rose Issa will be talking about several films, including works by directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, Jafar Panahi and Bahman Ghobadi. Details for the event can be found here.
In addition to the Iranian programme playing at this year’s Edinburgh International Film Festival, Mania Akbari and Mark Cousins will welcome their new film, Life May Be, about letter-writing in the 21st century. Watch the trailer. Excerpt from a List Film interview:
Mania: It’s a ‘happening film’ resulting from an encounter between two individual approaches to form, story, rhythm, sound and movement. On these correspondences, our pen is form and movement, and as we advance through life and images, we reveal secrets and expose the private. In the process, this incredible revelation joins a bigger picture which can be called cinema.
The Open City Docs Fest London features several documentaries about contemporary Iran by female directors. The programme includes Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa’s Jerry & Me:
The first-person documentary Jerry & Me sees director Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa remember her childhood through the movies she went to see with her father, in particular those featuring the comedic genius of Jerry Lewis. The accompanying voiceover gives a potted history of Saeed-Vafa, including her time teaching cinema to the Iranian political filmmaker Jafar Panahi and a move to the United States. Directing what is sure to be one of the highlights of the festival, Saeed-Vafa will be attending the screening in London and delivering a post-screening talk.
Kino Lorber will distribute Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone At Night in North America this October:
Shot in black and white, the feature debut of Ana Lily Amirpour, is set in an imaginary Iranian underworld with elements of neo-noir and spaghetti Western. It was the opening-night film at the New Directors/New Films event in New York.
Argo actress Sheila Vand stars as a vampire along with Arash Marandi and Dominic Rains, Mozhan Marno, Rome Shadanloo, Marshall Manesh and Milad Eghbali.
The Leila Hatami “Kiss Controversy” is still continuing, with the actress apologizing before her return to Iran at the end of this year’s Cannes Film Festival. In a press release by Hatami, she stated that she was sorry to have offended the sensibilities of some people but blamed the incident on the 83-year-old president of the festival, Gilles Jacobs:
“Although I am embarrassed to give these explanations, I had no choice but to go into details for those who could not understand the inevitable situation that I was stuck in.”
Following in the footsteps of Hatami, who serves as a member of the competition jury at Cannes, and Abbas Kiarostami, who presided over the short films jury, two other Iranian filmmakers have been appointed as the head of different juries in Asia. Asghar Farhadi, the Oscar-winning director of A Separation, will act as the president of the 8th Asia Pacific Screen Awards:
The Iranian filmmaker is a three-time APSA winner: Best Screenplay and the Jury Grand Prize for About Elly in 2009, as well as Best Film for A Separationin 2011. His films have received a total of ten nominations in the award’s seven-year history.
In the city of Erbil, in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, esteemed Iranian director Tahmineh Milani will preside over the jury in the inaugural edition of the city’s film festival. Milani is one of several women who came to prominence in the filmmaking arena following the Islamic revolution. Her best known films are The Hidden Half and The Fifth Reaction. Included in the Erbil Film Festival lineup are several Iranian films, including the directorial debut of A Separation‘s Peiman Moaadi:
Dance of Dust by Abolfazl Jalili, No Where No Body by Ebrahim Sheibani, Wedlock by Rouhollah Hejazi, Snow on the Pines by Peyman Moadi and The Last Winter by Salem Salavati are among the films that will represent Iranian cinema.
Abbas Kiarostami’s Like Someone in Love receives the Criterion treatment with a new digital master approved by the filmmaker, a making-of documentary, freshly translated English subtitles, and an essay by film scholar and critic Nico Baumbach:
In all of Kiarostami’s films, these games of simulation and dissimulation, likeness and play, are carried over from the protagonist to the spectator. One of the central gestures of his work is to create a relation to the film in which the spectator’s experience will mirror the character’s plight, which always means opening up a gap between the world (the social world but also the world of the film) and the viewer’s desires and revealing the subversive potential of appearance, of semblance, of being like. Kiarostami has suggested that this involves making the spectator the author of the film, which for him also means making the filmmaker something of a spectator.
A photo of Leila Hatami giving the customary French kiss-on-the-cheek to Cannes president Gilles Jacob raised the ire of Iranian authorities:
According to Iran’s interpretation of Islamic (sharia) law, in place since the 1979 revolution, a woman is not allowed to have physical contact with a man outside her family.
Jacob has attempted to prevent the furore in Iran, explaining that it was “a usual custom in the West.”
Ebrahim Hatamikia’s latest film Che along with several other films were screened at the year’s market during the last few days. Winners of the 32nd Iran’s Fajr film festival, 30th Tehran’s International Short Film Festival and Iran’s Seventh Cinema Vérité International Documentary Film Festival attended this year’s Cannes film festival.
Iranian actress Leila Hatami (A Separation, Leila) will partake in the Jury of the 67th Festival de Cannes, alongside Sofia Coppola, Willem Dafoe, Gael Garcia Bernal, Jia Zhangke, Nicolas Winding Refn, Jeon Do-yeon, Carole Bouquet and president Jane Campion:
As in 2009 the Jury will therefore include five women and four men. Their task will be to decide between the 18 films in Competition in order to select the winners – to be announced on stage at the ceremony on Saturday 24th May. The winner of the Palme d’or will be screened during the Festival’s closing evening on Sunday 25th of May, in the presence of the Jury and the entire team of the winning film.
During a festival screening of The Wind Will Carry Us, the audience cheered at a moment during the film, and Kiarostami immediately decided to cut that moment out. Audience excitement, the director seemed to suggest, prevents viewer immersion.
The Washington, DC-based non-profit Search for Common Ground will be hosting a two-day festival on Iranian women and youth, starting tomorrow:
Please join us for a two-day screening of a selection of Iranian films highlighting the present day realities of women and youth in Iran. Each day will conclude with a panel discussion with experts on Iranian cinema. These films display the complexities and the various aspects of Iranian culture from a religious, traditional, and legal point of view.
Two Iranian films were announced this week in the official lineup of festivals in Canada and China. Iranian Ninja, directed by Marjan Riahi, will play as part of the shorts competition at the Hot Docs Festival in Toronto this week (link in Farsi). The film deals with the problems that Iranian women face in the competitive martial arts scene. Maziar Miri’s acclaimed The Painting Pool will also play as part of the Shanghai International Film Festival in June. The film tells the story of a mentally challenged couple and their struggle to raise their child.
[The Painting Pool] was awarded with the UNESCO prize at the seventh Asia Pacific Screen Awards (APSA). Miri’s latest creation also took Best Film Award by Audiences and Best Set Design Award at the 31th Fajr Film Festival in Iran.