A Delicate Balancing Act
Iranian foreign policy is currently making headlines around the world, with a controversial nuclear program, threats to Israel, and protests against the Muhammad caricatures. On the domestic policy front, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has called for a return to the revolutionary values of Iran's ultra-conservative past.
Given the almost uncontrollable flow of pirated CDs and DVDs, the government's recent ban of "indecent" Western music and American films remains little more than hollow rhetoric, and the Iranian cultural scene in 2006 merits special attention.
Financial support for international co-productions
Iran's annual Fadjr Festival acts as a window to the world. Its three sections – music, theatre and film – are renowned for their international character and eagerly attended by foreign audiences and residents of Teheran yearning for new cultural experiences.
In addition to inviting guests from abroad, the festival provides financial support for international co-productions. But this year funding has been slashed and the government has drastically restricted the individual authority of section organizers.
Prominent habitués such as Claus Peymann (Berliner Ensemble) and Roberto Ciuli (Theater an der Ruhr) did not stage their own productions this year, a development which could be interpreted as a consequence of new policies under Ahmadinejad. At the same time, there was a general trend to promote domestic theater productions, particularly those from the provinces, with 73 out of the 89 theater groups invited coming from Iran.
Many artists would rather avoid provocation
This year's selection of films clearly lacked direction. Audiences had fewer outstanding productions to choose from, and many observers felt that the predominance of lackluster pictures spelled the final end of the highly acclaimed wave of innovative Iranian cinema that thrilled the world in the 1990s.
But this sudden drop in creativity more likely reflects the widespread uncertainty of many Iranian filmmakers about their future: although fears of increased censorship remain largely unfounded, many artists would rather avoid provocation.
Festival organizers – essentially controlled by the Iranian Ministry of Culture – are also carefully watching their step. As a result, there was a lack of genuinely controversial films, such as the 2004 courageous mullah comedy "Marmulak", or the extraordinary 2001 women's action thriller "Sag Koshi".
More than anything else, this year's closing event reflected the ideological shadow that hangs over the festival. Under reformist President Mohammad Khatami, portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini and his successor Khamenei were suspended high up under the ceiling, virtually out of sight. Now religion has demanded its due.
The awards ceremony was generously interspersed with recitations of the Koran, and the main prize went to none other than Ebrahim Hatamikia for his melodramatic film "In the Name of Father", starring Parviz Parastui, who put in yet another unconvincing performance, once again as a Gulf War veteran.
Any lingering doubts about the ideological bend of the festival were finally put to rest by the Minster of Culture. Speaking to the audience, Mohammad Hossein Saffar-Harandi, whose full title is the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, launched an energetic attack.
Quoting Fukuyama and Huntington
Sporting a bristly beard and the clay marks on his forehead that attest to devout contact with prayer stones, Harandi rehashed a number of old theories, citing Francis Fukuyama and Samuel Huntington and their works on the clash of cultures, allegedly instigated by the West, and underscoring the need for Iran and its allies to stand together.
Such standard rituals practiced by the new regime fail to give much, if any, insight into the current cultural situation in Iran, primarily because the West, with its distorted perspective of the world, interprets everything as a direct reference to itself. Without a doubt, the renewed stern attitude toward the alleged corruptive influence of the West ("cultural imperialism") represents a bitter setback for proponents of liberal reforms, but it is still a far cry from total cultural control.
When it looks to the West, Iran certainly does not appear paralyzed by fear, and along with the usual easily digestible tidbits from Hollywood, the Fadjr Festival managed to serve up an appetizing full-course meal of international cinema, including a retrospective of Latin American film, a series on Chinese cinematography, and a comprehensive presentation of the life work of Japanese director Yoji Yamada.
Prizes for German Holocaust film
And there is yet another source of confusion in this supposedly clear-cut cultural clash between East and West; while the big guns are being rolled out on the foreign policy front, the festival has revealed itself as relatively cosmopolitan and invited German film directing legend Volker Schlöndorff to sit on the international jury.
Last year, Schlöndorff took home a large number of the international prizes for his production "The Ninth Day", a Holocaust film that takes place in the Dachau concentration camp.
Granted, that was back under Khatami, but meanwhile German-Iranian cultural ties have grown closer. In late 2005 Berlinale director Dieter Kosslick traveled to Teheran to promote cooperation between the two festivals.
The timing is perfect. According to the lunar calendar, this year's Fadjr Festival would have fallen in Moharram, the month of grieving, and so the festival was moved to late January. That opened the door for six Fadjr films to be accepted to the Berlinale. And for the first time in over 30 years, Iran is represented in the competition in Berlin, not with just one but two entries. No one can say for sure how things will look next year.
© Qantara.de 2006
Translated from the German by Paul Cohen
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Website Fajr Festival (in English)