Thin crop of Iranian films hampers Fajr fest, market

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As international politics heat up and the U.S.-Iran divide widens by the day, one might think it's a less than ideal moment to hold an international film event in Tehran.

But the 26th Fajr International Film Festival and the 11th International Film Market unspooled right on schedule, with more foreigners attending than ever before.

But who were they? Asian companies from China, Korea and Indonesia. Notable business also was done by Lebanese brokers who sell U.S. indie pics to the Mideast.

"The political situation has had no effect," said market chief Mohammad Esfandiari, who seemed as surprised as anyone about the amount business done. The active sales bazaar — a jewel in the Middle East panorama with its 35 Iranian and 60 foreign companies — has gotten so big that like-minded sellers were asked to double up and share stands.

What is getting smaller, on the other hand, is the enclave of distributors and festival programmers who once flocked to see the latest Iranian films. It certainly didn't help that some of us were dragged out of the airport VIP lounge on arrival to be messily fingerprinted, apparently in retaliation for what happens to Iranian citizens visiting the U.S.

It happened, for the first time, to the handful of American guests attending Fajr, including this reporter and a hapless Frenchman who applied late for his visa after French president Nicolas Sarkozy backed President Bush against Iran.

But the airport indignity was more than made up for by the fest's gracious hospitality, and I can't count the number of times I heard my Iranian acquaintances apologize for the occurrence. There clearly is a major difference between official policy and people's feelings here.

Still, the atmosphere is not getting any lighter, nor creative choices any easier. The real reason many buyers and programmers skipped the market is the sad fact that there aren't a lot of top-drawer films being produced in Iran these days.

Last year's crop was extremely thin, and this year's was only marginally better.

What happened?

"I think it's a zeitgeist thing. It's like there aren't enough good ideas going around at the moment," said Mani Haghighi, director of the well-liked "Men at Work" and the edgy "Canaan," the story of a well-to-do young married couple on the brink of divorce.

The 97 Iranian pictures submitted to the fest this go-round rely heavily on social themes, marriage and family problems or explore mystical or religious issues.

The better titles included Iran's Berlin competition entry "The Song of Sparrows," directed by Majid Majidi; "As Simple as That," about a Tehran housewife; Mohammad-Ali Talebi's "The Wall," focusing on a female motorcycle stunt rider who circumvents the authorities to practice her sport; and Rasoul Sadr Ameli's telefilm "Night," which follows an old fraud handcuffed to a young soldier through a cold winter's night.

Notable by their absence: Abbas Kiarostami, who is waiting to start a film in Italy; "Copy Conforms to the Original," with French star Juliette Binoche; and the Mohsen Makmalbaf family, now permanent residents abroad.

Meanwhile, censorship in Iran is stronger than it has ever been.

Bahman Ghobadi's "Half Moon" is still on the shelf, along with Dariush Mehrjui's tale of a young musician, "The Dulcimer Player," and Saman Moqaddam's pain-filled ode to the sweetness of life before the revolution — and the worsening conditions thereafter. One also regrets Oliver Stone's nonstarting biodoc on Iran president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

I came home thinking that if Turkey is grappling with the Muslim headscarf issue — which used to seem like such a big deal when I visited Fajr in the past — Iran today has a lot more serious problems to grapple with.
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