Fajr Festival in Teheran

Poised between Censorship and Openness

The US government has declared Iran to be an "outpost of tyranny" and all but threatened it with war – but here the largest theater festival in the Middle East has gotten peacefully underway. Dorothea Marcus reports from Teheran

photo: Zaoum.com
At Sulayman Al Bassam's production of "Hamlet", most Iranians left in disgust, complaining about the play's crude anti-Americanism

​​"Fajr" means the glow of dawn. The international festival was actually founded in 1983 as a festival of the revolution – which is why it lasted ten days, the time Khomeini once took to return to Teheran from exile in France.

But far from glorifying the Islamic state, for years the festival has been regarded as a highlight of the Iranian cultural scene and as a prime venue for progressive theater. However, Iran's shift to the right in the most recent parliamentary elections has caused some changes.

A laboratory for experimental theater

The director Attila Pessyani is one of Iran's most prominent theater people. For the Fajr Festival he founded a kind of laboratory for experimental theater. The play he is directing this year is a piece without words; all that is heard is the heart-rending whimpering of a blind, deaf-mute girl who lives in complete isolation in a no-man's-land. Her only friend is a fallen angel without wings, but with a blinking heart.

She struggles with two menacing, alien forces, while a video showing disturbing images of oppression and reeducation is projected onto the background, with a mute goldfish swimming in between. Apparently, the only escape for the two young people is to be transported upwards – a good image for the dead-end situation of many young Iranians.

Pessyani's work harks back to the times of the big "Shiraz Festival" that was held before the revolution: "Many famous artists of the time such as Brook, Grotowski and Kantor worked there. That was the origin of experimental theater in Iran", the director explains.

He is optimistic about the future of theater in Iran: "The Iranian theater scene is constantly developing. Already we have six theater departments with more than 100 graduates every year – and they'll do anything to work. At the moment we have around 20 very promising directors!"

Simple, "authentic" theater

However, in most Iranian productions western music and videos, the insertion of audience polls or forays into the audience come across as misplaced and half-baked. Often, simple plays with few props and little scenery, in which Iranians speak about their everyday life, are more emotionally affecting.

Examples include a play in which young girls run away from their strict fathers and live in the park, or the simple family story "Recent Experiences" by Reza Kohestani: a family made up of changing members sits around a table; years are intoned soberly while the family is rocked by strokes of fate. The dialogues are simple and restrained – and very touching.

Otherwise the festival features mainly European dramas, especially German ones: four Shakespeare plays, Beckett, Büchner's "Woyzeck", Frisch's "Santa Cruz", Arthur Miller, Antigone, Medea – at least in a reduced form (40-60 minute performances).

The festival is gigantic; nothing in e.g. Germany – being a "theater nation" – can compare. There are 29 foreign and 89 Iranian productions to coordinate, with 20 performances a day, always filled to bursting and often sold out early on.

Theater for all?

However, with the new theater management put into place several months ago, some organizational problems have arisen: the ticket prices have been raised to the equivalent of three euros, the competition has been shelved, the English program was severely delayed, and the festival's grandiose motto "Theater for all" seems to have turned into exactly the opposite, according to theater critic Laleh Taghian, whose theater journals have been suspended from publication by the new management:

"They've changed the whole policy of the festival. It isn't run by theater people anymore, but mainly by political and religious officials. The festival was known throughout the world for its quality – and today they're inviting puppet theaters! The change in management has ruptured the contacts and experience of the festival. Besides, the censorship has gotten worse – the theater groups can hardly say anything onstage anymore," Taghian complains.

After the events in the province of Khuzistan censorship has increased: there the festival directors have been under arrest for the past three weeks because an Armenian theater group appeared in transparent costumes.

Thus, anyone expecting political messages on the 18 stages of the Fajr Festival this year is likely to be disappointed. On the contrary, people seem to be resigned and tired of politics.

Complaints about anti-Americanism

At the production by the Kuwaiti director Sulayman Al Bassam, in which Hamlet is transformed into an American-supported Islamic fundamentalist, most Iranians left in disgust, complaining about the play's anti-Americanism. And most people hardly react to the threats from the Bush administration – either because they don't believe them, or because they secretly hope they will come true, according to theater critic Laleh Taghian:

"People here have to live with politics whether they like it or not. But they'd rather just live! At the moment they need theater as a way of escaping into other worlds. And theater people want to stay here so that they can work in their own language."

Of course, Iranians think little of the American military, says Taghian, but if it should ever come to Iran, it would not be their problem, but Mr. Khomeini's problem. Their problem is their life. People have grown weary, she explains. Thus, at the moment Iranians would accept anyone in power.

Dorothea Marcus


Translation from German: Isabel Cole

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