New Internationalist

Iran in the cinematic spotlight

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The UK’s first Iranian film festival arrives in London this week – Lucinda Dunn got a sneak preview.

Hosting around 20 film festivals a year, London is an ebullient centre on the festival circuit. Yet despite Iran’s burgeoning avant-garde cinema, UK audiences have had to wait until this year to enjoy a festival dedicated to Iranian film.

Pejman Danaei, the Director of the UK’s first Iranian Film Festival (UKIFF), felt this gap needed to be filled: ‘Other festivals only offer a tiny window for Iranian materials, [yet] valuable material is coming out of Iran which does not have a platform,’ he said at a press conference.

This year’s UKIFF, to run from 19 to 26 November, will showcase 35 Iranian films – a mixture of features, shorts and documentaries – across three cinemas in London (The Apollo, Cine Lumière and Shortwave).

The majority of submissions were received by post, but in the final stage the organizers opened an office in Tehran to ensure all the applications were received. Of the total 471 submissions from 53 countries around 50 to 60 per cent came from inside Iran.

So why has it taken so long to have an Iranian Film Festival in London?

‘Because it had no political aims, particular genre or agenda it was so difficult for us to find funding or people who would commit their support to the project,’ Danaei explains.

Despite the difficulties, he did not give up on the idea. As a filmmaker who has lived and worked outside of Iran for 10 years, he wanted to bring his culture closer to him: ‘Iranian film and art fill a part of me, and I couldn’t find it here, because it really wasn’t here.’

He describes the feelings that arise when even the festival trailer’s music begins to play. For Iranians and non-Iranians alike, Danaei says the poetry and spirituality it evokes make you feel good: ‘It gives you positive energy.’

With the aim of showcasing new talent coming out of Iran, Danaei is clear that the selection was based solely on the artistic value of the films, although it was important they should also reflect what is happening in today’s society in Iran.

The selection committee was made up of Iranians currently working in Iran, such as screenwriter Kambuzia Partovi (The Circle) and filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, and non-Iranians: British director Patrick Tucker and Eastern European cinematographer Zoran Veljkovic.

The non-Iranians were impressed by what they viewed, saying that the films were of a technical standard equal to European cinema.

Zoran Veljkovic was particularly taken by the ‘spiritual values that were so strong’ in all the films. And Patrick Tucker spoke of the enigmatic endings that force the audience to come to their own conclusions: ‘Iranian films are richer, with multi-layered messages,’ he said.

The opening night film, The White Meadow by Mohammad Rasoulof, has been tipped a masterpiece. It’s a fable-like story about Rahmat, a boy who sails from island to island on salt-filled Lake Urmia collecting tears. Myth has it the tears turn to pearls as people’s sins are atoned for. Tucker describes it as ‘wonderful from beginning to end’,with particularly splendid cinematography: ‘Black on white like a Bruegel painting.’

The programme spans poetic, social and political themes using different genres. Following on from Marjan Satrapi’s successful 2007 film Persepolis, And Life Went On by Maryam Mojaher explores the painful subject of descending into bomb shelters during the Iran-Iraq war through animation.

On the theme of women, we move from the artistic élite to the underclass in two poignant documentary films.

‘Some of the people who talk about Iran in pejorative terms, I wish they could see some of the films I’ve seen, because they’ve got the same fears and worries as we all do’

Pearls on the Ocean Floor by American director Robert Adanto intimately discusses the experiences and views of Iranian women artists such as Shadi Ghadirian, Shirin Neshat and Parastou Forouhar, while The Glass House by Hamid Rahmanian follows young girls in a day centre in Tehran as they struggle to leave the margins of society.

Tucker, who had limited knowledge of Iranian film before joining the selection committee, said the experience had given him new insight into Iranian culture: ‘Some of the people who talk about Iran in pejorative terms, I wish they could see some of the films I’ve seen, because they’ve got the same fears and worries as we all do. And that common humanity theme came through well in the films I saw.’

Danaei has big plans for next year’s festival, if he can secure the finances. For this year’s event he combined personal investment with the contributions of a couple of private investors in the US. He sees the festival also an opportunity to provide an independent channel for Iranian films looking to secure distribution outside of Iran. Three of the films in this year’s festival are currently under negotiation for general release.

‘There is a lot of potential for this happen. We can be very active. We can be an outside point of contact for Iranian filmmakers to release their work,’ says Danaei with excitement.

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