Passion and Politics of Iranian Cinema
Posted on: 29/10/2015
Iranian Film Festival Australia's co-director Anne Démy-Geroe explains the passion and politics of Iranian cinema ahead of the 5th edition of the festival.
Long term observers of the Iranian film industry will notice again and again the very close interaction between the industry and the political situation. Cinema became a major cultural marker under Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s two terms of presidency. Many in the industry became activists and threw their support behind the Green Movement. The government response was punitive and activism was swiftly censored, including politics in film.
In 2009, filmmakers asked the foreign film industry to boycott the country’s major film festival, Fajr International Film Festival, which was supported by filmmakers such as Ken Loach, along with many international programmers and press. Perhaps the most prominent and unrepentant activism from Iranian filmmakers came from Jafar Panahi, who persuaded the whole jury at the 2009 Montreal Film Festival to wear green scarves to the closing ceremony of the festival. After a few more “misdemeanours” he was arrested and banned from making films for 20 years. During the filming of A Separation, production was halted and Asghar Farhadi was taken in for questioning after his speech at the House of Cinema supporting banned and exiled filmmakers. Not surprisingly, in 2012 this umbrella organisation for the individual cinema guilds was closed for the support it had offered its members. Many other individuals were punished for activism in a range of ways – for actors this often took the form of a ban on appearing in films or on television. In the case of directors they simply did not receive the necessary permits to make their films.
Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof returned to Iran despite facing a prison sentence after being arrested during a film shoot in 2010.
When Rouhani was elected in 2013, he immediately took action, re-opening the House of Cinema within weeks. Several months later, at the next Fajr Film Festival, the filmmakers and foreign guests returned in abundance, absent only due to the best of reasons - shooting commitments. As one filmmaker commented, “After eight years sitting around doing nothing, we are finally back working.” And on the closing night of that edition of the festival, in an extraordinary message, the deputy minister responsible for cinematographic affairs sent an apology to the filmmakers for their previous repression, asking for forgiveness.
This does not mean that all constraints have been lifted. It seems unlikely that Panahi will have his ban lifted in the near future, despite requests from the industry. While the government appears to turn a blind eye to his activities, he cannot make the kind of films that he previously did. Fatimeh Motamed Arya, one of the many actresses forbidden to appear on screen, now works again in film, but not in television. But we are happy to see her back at work in Avalanche, (screening at IFFA this year), for which she has just received a best acting nomination at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards. Mitra Hajjar, lead actress in The Long Farewell (also screening at IFFA), is also yet to have her television ban lifted after a general press interview at the Berlinale was aired on Voice of America. (Mitra is a guest of the festival in Melbourne.)
The government also seems to being taking issue to films dealing with Iranian life under Ahmadinejad. There were many problems getting a screening permit for I’m not Angry, which opened IFFA last year. Other themes also remain problematic. The director of The Risk of Acid Rain, the 2015 IFFA NETPAC Award winner, publicly denies the clearly gay themes in his film.
Nontheless, the industry remains very optimistic and this seems to be reflected in the lightened tone of many recent films. The delightful What Time is it in your World?, this year’s opening film, a story of love and memory, is exemplary. And our closer, I am Diego Maradona, while dealing with difficult relationships in an extended family, is a satire with moments of genuine comedy, as audiences elsewhere in Australia have found. This augurs well for the future of the Iranian film industry.
- Anne Démy-Geroe is co-director of Iranian Film Festival Australia as well as a scholar and programmer of Asian cinema, specializing in Iranian Cinema.