Iranian Filmmaking Rebounds at Fajr International Film Festival

Big changes for filmmakers in Iran bring hope for a lasting thaw.

Berlin -- Among the EFM stands and marketeers will be several Iranian companies who are on the upswing and arriving directly from the 32nd Fajr Intl. Film Festival, which ends Feb. 11. The event attracted an unprecedented 240 guests to Tehran this year. Organized once again by Farabi Cinema, after a one-year hiatus in which another governmental group failed to catch the spirit of the times, the festival echoed the bright upbeat mood of the country, which has exchanged aggressive ex-president Mahmud Ahmadinejad for the more progressive Hassan Rouhani.

Mohammad Attebai’s Iranian Independents label and Katayoon Shahabi’s Sheherazad Media (now joined by her French company Noori Pictures) returned from outcast status with booths in the Tehran Film Market, selling daring new films like the neo-love story and social drama  I’m Not Angry (playing in its uncut version in the Berlin Panorama) and Rakhshan Banietemad’s dark snapshot of Iran, Tales.

“After five years of being banned from acting, I’m working again,” said Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, one of the country’s most popular actresses, from the set of her new film Bahman. She praised the forward-looking policies of the new head of the Iranian Cinema Organization, Hojatollah Ayoubi, an urbane former cultural attaché at Iran’s embassy in Paris. He left no doubt about the new policy direction in his much-talked-about speech on the festival’s opening night.

“All the people who tried to ruin the roots of Iranian cinema for the last eight years and had a bad influence should have the courage to apologize, and others should have the power to forgive them,” he said. His message was that the government is aiming to put the dark years of Ahmadinejad behind them, and it was received with resounding applause by the film community. He was backed up by a statement from president Rouhani praising the role of culture in fostering understanding between nations.

The next to speak was actor-director Mani Haghighi, whose Men at Work premiered several years ago in Berlin. He said he had been about to criticize the banning of his new film Modest Reception by a private exhibition chain, but “will forgive them if they promise not to do it again.” The film won a prize for best trailer.

Other filmmakers were also understandably cautious about how long the reforms will last. Abbas Kiarostami was in Tehran working on a number of creative projects, including a major photography exhibit. He said he was considering making a new film in Farsi, but whether he would shoot it in Iran was not clear. Nor was there any mention of rehabilitating director Jafar Panahi, who was banned from writing and directing films in 2010, though he has been spotted around Tehran and his movements seem less restricted than before. He has anyway been able to defy the ban to make two films “This Is Not a Film” and “Closed Curtain.”

Accepting a career award, Italian D.P. Vittorio Storaro was enthusiastic about the two years he has spent shooting Muhammad, Iran’s mega-budgeted epic about the life of the Prophet, directed by Majid Majidi and now in post-production.  Another religious epic whose subject is the original Shia-Sunni split within Islam has just been completed, the pious historical costumer Hussein Who Said No. It cost a whopping $15 million. Once again top Western talent was called in to work on it, this time Oscar-winning composer Stephen Warbeck and UK-based editor Tariq Anwar.