Iran's Fajr Film Festival

Martyrs on the Rise

The Fajr Film Festival, one of Iran's largest cultural events, also serves as an indicator for the state of Iranian film production one-and-a-half years after President Ahmadinejad took office. Amin Farzanefar reports

​​The end of the Fajr Film Festival on February 11 was celebrated in Tehran with a grand-scale – state-decreed – ceremony and a festival of lights surrounding the Revolution Monument. The martial Ashura procession with flagellants during the film festival's closing gala, which disturbed many a Western observer, aptly mirrored the direction in which Iranian cinema is presently headed.

As a case in point, the equivalent of 30 million euros was set aside to encourage filmmakers to summon up in the minds of the people – who have supposedly gone astray with their "worldly ways" – the memory of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 with its many "martyrs." At this year's festival there were thus noticeably more war films on view treating the so-called "holy defense" ("Defa-ye moghaddas") than in many previous years.

To see in this a "general mobilization" of the population for future foreign conflicts is nevertheless only applicable to a certain extent. On the contrary, as one cleric aptly remarked at a press conference: "If they keep showing these kinds of films, no one will want to go to war anymore."

Rediscovering patriotism

In fact, the new trend in movies is less about trying to rally forces against a new enemy than to inspire within the country a greater spirit of patriotism. It is surely worthwhile to take a closer look at some of the works in this new wave.

The statement made by old master Nasser Khosroi's film "Mesl-e yek ghesseh," which resembles a theatre piece, could almost be described as conciliatory. Dispersed in enemy territory, three Iraqi soldiers take the inhabitants of a cottage hostage – an old man and his grandson. In a fight over what to do with the hostages, a gunfight breaks out and only the Iranian boy and a friendly Iraqi survive. They take off together, but their budding friendship is not destined for a rosy future.

In Kiomars Pourahmad's "Night Bus" as well, the line between friend and foe is sometimes blurred. The film plays a variation on the motif of the prisoner transport familiar from old Hollywood war films – where fellow sufferers sit opposite each other in the bus, all having been forced by an ideological system to fight against their will.

In "Night Bus," shot ambitiously in black-and-white, Mohammad Reza Forutan, Khosrou Shakibai and other stars undertake an interesting attempt at putting on a morality play, but the result somehow falls flat, its call for national pride too blatant to be really convincing.

Ideological patterns

The new funding bonanza for war themes offers in particular well-established directors a good opportunity to finance their next film.

Maziar Miri, who presented the interesting work "Slowly" at last year's Berlinale, irritated festival viewers with a sorry effort that can only be called extremely conservative – even more of a disappointment in view of the fact that his film, "Padash-e Sokout," features Parviz Parastui, the superstar known to audiences from the regime-critical box-office hits "Glass Agency" and "Marmulak."

Once again playing his favorite role of aging veteran, plagued by nightmares and persistent memories, Parastui wanders forlorn through a squalid, shallow world, which wants nothing to do anymore with its bygone heroes and spirit of sacrifice. Behind every door he opens, office workers and editorial assistants flirt and gab frivolously on the telephone.

Apart from a sensational underwater sequence, Miri's third feature film seems too static, too stiff and has too many ideological undertones – a renunciation of every effort at reform.

Sentimentality and the pledge of allegiance

Utterly different is Massoud Deh-Namaki's film "Ekhraji," an expensive, lavishly produced war comedy that with its absurd humor sometimes seems like the Iranian version of the anarchic cult Vietnam War protest film "M.A.S.H.," but at telling moments reverts to the same old maudlin pledge of allegiance. With its mix of audience appeal, special effects spectacle, humor and subtle criticism of the system, Deh-Namaki's feature film debut could end up being a box office hit.

But most of the new war films are prevented from doing much damage by one shared aspect: no one will want to see them. The fact that one of these productions, "The Third Day," nonetheless swept up several grand prizes can only mean one thing: that the jury for the National Competition was made up primarily of cultural-scene hardliners and their hangers-on.

A glimmer of hope

The moviegoing public and filmmakers were quite disappointed by this year's productions. In comparison with the creative winds of change that could be felt during the Khatami era, one could clearly sense a general paralysis of Iranian cinema as a consequence of the country's new "iron-fisted" politics.

But to forecast the death of Iranian moviemaking would be premature. Even in this extremely weak annual crop, there were some artistically outstanding highlights.

Drug problems on film

​​Two of them were devoted to drawing attention to a dire situation currently plaguing the country – the growing use of hard drugs among Iran's youth. "Mainline" by Rakhshan Bani Etemad is perhaps not the internationally successful filmmaker's strongest effort to date, but it is an incredibly intense, well-acted portrait of a young drug addict from an upper middle class background.

Another production already caused a buzz before its premiere: "Ali Santoori," green-lighted by the censors at the last minute – probably only when the original title with its echo of the name of the Prophet's son-in-law was changed. The subject of the film must have also given the censors pause: director Darius Mehrjui shows the rise and fall of a musician addicted to heroin.

Mehrjui, a co-founder of the new Iranian cinema over 30 years ago, proved that he can still play in the "major leagues" of Iranian film production.

"Santoori," as the film is now called, is firmly anchored in the social, political and cultural atmosphere of the mega-city of Tehran, and yet still recalls great moments in international moviemaking, such as Oliver Stone's epochal work "The Doors" or Gus Van Sant's Kurt Cobain portrait "The Last Days." This hardly comes as a surprise, since stories with local roots but universal relevance have always been the best Iranian film has to offer.

Amin Farzanefar

© 2007

Translated from the German by Jennifer Taylor-Gaida

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