The Iranian Film Festival is an event not to miss for many reasons and was held September 28-29 at the San Francisco Art Institute. The high quality is similar to a larger film festival where some of the newest films of the year are brought to San Francisco that would otherwise take longer with international distribution or not find distribution at all. The festival comes complete with awards for the first time this year: the "Sepanta Awards" in honor of Abdolhossein Sepanta, father of sound in Iranian Cinema, for the Best Film, Best Director, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Documentary, Best Short Film, and Best Animation Film. Abdolhosein Sepanta made the first talkies in Iran in the 1930's in the Persian language.
The films that are especially good at this festival are the ones made by Iranian expats who for political or personal reasons live abroad such as in France, USA or Canada. Provocative and poignant perspectives abound on living away from a beloved country, which for various reasons is impossible to live in. The prolific and ground breaking Iranian nouvelle vague director Mohsen Makhmalbaf lives in Paris since 2009 with his family including his two daughters, Hana and Samira have also won awards in international film festivals (Venice, Berlin and Cannes). The award winning Makhmalbaf filmmakers are not allowed to shoot films in Iran by the Islamic government.
Several other Iranian filmmakers are presently prevented from making films in Iran, incaracerated or forbidden to leave the country such as Jafar Panahi, (imprisoned), Mohammad Rasoulof (now out on bail) and Mehdi Pourmoussa (detained). Rasoulof’s film "Manuscripts Don’t Burn" featured at this year’s "Un Certain Regard at Cannes about government censorship and torture was screened with no references to the actors because of problems they might have with the Iranian authorities. Rasoulof, who resides in Germany, was uanable to travel to Cannes with the film. It was one of the best films of the selection. He has recently been denied to attend the Stockholm International Film Festival in November and his passport was confiscated on Sept 19 by the government after a visit to Iran.
A special film at the festival made in Iran shows the artistic capabilities of this bold generation of Iranian filmmakers. It is not a feel good film, but you feel good having witnessed great cinema. “Parvis” by Majid Barzegar (Iran 2012) won the Jury's Special Mention Award at the San Sebastian Film Festival in Spain (2012). And it won this year's "Sepanta Awards" for best film, cinematography, director and actor. Barzegar is one of several directors who works in partial secrecy in the underground film culture of Iran. He said he didn’t have the permission to make the film but did it anyway. It is about a 50-year-old man (the Iranian and Canadian based theatre actor Levon Hoftvan) who lives with his father (Mahmoud Behrouzian). One day his father decides to get married and move in his new wife, and his son out. A set of circumstances finds the otherwise complacent and useful man losing much of his security around him. From a person who makes no waves to one who becomes increasingly vengeful, the film shows a dramatic transformation. "Parvis" is mostly shot indoors but the sparse surroundings add to the dramatic tension of the film.
The debut film “Meeting Leila” (Iran 2012) was perhaps the most well-attended film of the two day festival directed by Adel Yaraghi and written together with veteran filmmaker and Palme d'Or receipient Abbas Kiarostami. The story is about a man (played by Yaraghi) whose fiancée Leila (Leila Hatami- "Sepanta award for best actress") wants him to quit smoking and the script is excellent. This film would not meet a censorship problem, but is thin on engagement, especially when compared to "Parvis". The story set in the daily life in Iranian culture follows the absurd situation of a smoker and a relentless girlfriend who spies on him.
The best documentary "Savanta Award" went to "No Burqas Behind Bars" (Sweden/Afghanistan/Iran 2013), directed by Nima Sarvestani about the long term incarceration of women in prison in Afghanistan, primarily for fleeing their husbands.
Short films also picked up "Savanta Awards" this year: Best Short Film: "More than Two Hours", directed by Ali Asgari (Iran 2012) ; Best Director for a short film: Talkhon Hamzavi for "Parvaneh"(Switzerland 2012); Best Screenplay for a short film: Soheila Golestani for "Return"( Iran 2012) ; Best Short Documentary: "Forget-Me-Not Egg", directed by Mohammadreza Farzad (Iran 2013) ; Best Actor in a short film: Mohammad Yasin Ardehi for "Beyond the Deadend" (Iran 2012) ; Best Cinematography for a short film: Roozbeh Raiga for "Hannaneh" (Iran 2013); and Best Animation: "Why this phone doesn’t ring?" directed by Hadi Yaghinlou (Iran 2013).
Other notable shorts were:
“The Girl in the Lemon Factory” (Spain 2013) by Chiara Marañón (Spain) developed through a IBAFF International Film Festival workshop with Abbas Kiarostami. The short confirms that the documentary tradition is steeped in the mechanics of work from the very first film of workers leaving the factory by the Lumière Brothers (France 1895). In this case a young pregnant woman on an assembly line in a lemon factory and her breaks from the monotony is the focus.
The short film “Silk" directed by Catherine Dent, (USA 2012) features Academy award nominee Shohreh Aghdashloo ("House of Sand and Fog" 2003) and Saye Yabandeh, a guest of the festival. Aghdashloo moved to England during the 1978 Islamic revolution. The film is about a child bride (Shohreh Aghdashloo) who finally breaks free of a confining relationship at middle age with the help of a young woman (Saye Yabandeh).
“Ambrosia” (Canada 2012) directed by Baharak Saeid Monir is a film not without ambition in illustrating the traditional values of Iran in conflict with the individualistic values of native Canadians. Saeid Monir has been a resident of Canada since 1995 where she studied filmmaking. The story is about Ali, an Iranian pizza takeaway owner (Camyar Chai) and Leila, a young fashion designer (Sahar Biniaz - Miss Universe representing Canada 2012) who have been married for 14 years. As the economic conditions press down on the young entrepreneur, the marriage turns sour. Meanwhile Leila, with a haut couture wardrobe change in every scene, is being seduced by her boss Sarah (Heather Doerksen) in her own waning relationship. Sarah gives Leila a book to read about the moral compass of modern humanity and she finds herself reflecting about her marriage and the values of the Iranian culture. Leila and Sarah seem to always be in the ornate bathroom when the seducing is going on. Ali makes ridiculous jokes about the size of his pizzas to a middle age immigrant woman of Asian descent and in turn Canadians insult him as an outsider and for his pizzas. It is not a place for a fashion designer but Leila offers to help Ali out. Saenid Monir wants to convey that the artificial extremes of Canadian culture illustrate the eradication of traditional values, ones still held in esteem by Iranian expats, and the problematic upscale lesbian subplot is part of it. Best to go back to crude jokes and pizza and preserve what is left of the traditions. Leila is good about setting limits with her boss but it still feels like being a lesbian is considered a western excess and represents the decline of culture.
There were several films with perspectives from outsiders who are not ethnically Iranian. Since it is forbidden to film on the streets and in public places, David Vee, an Australian who lived two and a half years in Iran, took a circuitous route and made an entertaining documentary entitled "Pulp Farsi"(2013) featuring young people of both genders who circumvent the restrictions, dance in nightclubs (women without head scarves), join rock bands and write fantastic lyrics, hike, sport, skateboard and play ancient instruments in the mountains. The film gives a totally different feel for the Iran that is known as a closed and strictly guarded society. Young people manage to live within the rules and still express themselves.
The short film "Lady Tehran " (France 2013) by Camille Simony from France, in attendance at the festival, is about a taxi driver (Amir Yazdani) who speaks of an ancient Tehran under the Sadr freeway he navigates by night. The text is based on the narration "Tehran Banou" - Manzoomé Tehran by Mohammad Ali Sepanlou, an Iranian writer who is a critical voice of the present Islamic government and censorship.
"The Poppy is Also a Flower" (UK/US/Iran1966) is not available in the USA after its debut in 1966, a film sponsored by the United Nations with an all star cast and which is partially shot in Iran. (There is DVD made in Spain and one made in the UK). The film is based on a story by Ian Fleming and directed by Terence Young who was the helmer behind three James Bond films. Several famous actors volunteered to work on the film who believed in the antidrug message, introduced by Grace Kelley. Here is an opportunity to see "Goldfinger’s" Odd Job (Harold Sakata) in a speaking role along with Yul Brynner as Colonel Salem and a young Angie Dickinson as the tough undercover agent, Linda Benson. In order to stop the flow of opium, the pods are planted with radioactive material that can be traced with a Geiger counter. Yul Brynner lies down and takes a snooze after the covert operation is under way. The film was released on DVD in Spain but has yet to make its way to the USA in a DVD release.
Programmer and executive director of the festival Saeed Shafa stands behind the quality and success of this 6th edition. The San Francisco patronage at the event confirms that the Iranian Film Festival will be back as an annual event.