Iran's 37th Fajr Film Festival
Politics collide with the big screen in Tehran

With prominent film makers cancelling their attendance, the organisers of Iran's flagship cultural event are under pressure. The Fajr film festival in Tehran shows how culture can be used to make a political point. By Philipp Jedicke

Legend has it that it all started with a cow. After allegedly watching the 1969 film Gaav ("The Cow"), the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, decided Iranian cinema was worthy of support. The film by Dariush Mehrjui clearly depicts the roles of men and women, there is discipline and order, and it is about morality. It mirrored the religious leader's beliefs – whereupon he decided he wanted Iranian cinema of the future to look like this.

Gaav, a neorealistic fable about the relationship between an individual and a group, is still considered to be a cinematic masterpiece today. Banned under the Iranian Shah for its depiction of poverty in the countryside, it was smuggled out of the country and won the 1971 Critics' Prize at the Venice Film Festival.

Ever a controversial medium in the Islamic Republic

While the religious rulers recognised the immense cultural richness of Iran's national cinema, film as a medium continued to be controversial. At the height of the Iranian Revolution from 1978-79 and during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-88, cinemas repeatedly went up in flames. Films were condemned as "prostitution" one day and praised as instructive and morally educational the next, depending on whether they were needed as a highly effective propaganda tool for the purposes of the Revolution. This discrepancy remains evident in Iranian film today.

Still from Dariush Mehrjui's 1969 "Gaav" (photo: Iranian Ministry of Culture)
Pioneering Iranian cinema of the future: Dariush Mehrjui's 1969 film "Gaav", an existentialist fable about the relationship between an individual and a group, influenced by Neorealism, is still considered a cinematic masterpiece today. It was banned under the Shah for its depiction of poverty in the countryside, smuggled out of the country and won the Critics' Prize at the 1971 Venice Film Festival

"Ever since cinema was adopted as an accepted and state-funded art form, we've been in this paradoxical situation where the Ministry of Culture first promotes films, then ends up censoring them," said Amin Farzanefar, director of the "Visions of Iran" film festival in the western German city of Cologne. "Censorship is perceived as inherent to the system, as morally and politically meaningful." The Ministry of Culture must approve films before shooting begins and it also has the right to check in on production. Finished films must then be submitted to the ministry.

Fajr Film Festival: Iran's showpiece

In 1982, the Iranian government established the Fajr Film Festival. It is held every year in February on the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture. The goal was to link back to Iran's strong pre-revolutionary film tradition. The festival got off to a bumpy start, with the first-ever jury refusing to award a prize because so many submissions were so awful, Farzanefar said. That has changed. The Fajr Film Festival, the oldest Asian film festival by its own account, has become a prestige object for Iran, a showpiece cultural event.

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