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Iranian Cinema Is Finally Getting a NYC Festival, and Cinephiles Should Pay Attention

The co-founder and co-programmer of the inaugural festival offers an insider's look at bringing this remarkable new event to fruition.

Jafar Panahi

Helping create the new Iranian Film Festival New York, which has its inaugural edition January 10 – 15 at the IFC Center, was the realization of a long-held dream. My initial encounter with Iranian cinema came at the first festival of post-Revolutionary Iranian films held in New York, at the Walter Reade Theater in the fall of 1992. Discovering the work of directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Bahram Beyzai, and many others was literally a life-changing experience for me; I began writing about Iranian cinema at every opportunity and made a number of trips to Iran to study the subject up close.

In 2017, my friend Ahmad Kiarostami invited me to go to Tehran and speak at a memorial for his father, Abbas, who died the previous year. The event was held in conjunction with Iran’s annual Fajr International Film Festival. While there, I met Armin Miladi, who distributes Iranian films in the U.S. and Australia and who co-founded the Iranian Film Festival Australia, which is now in its ninth year. When Armin told me he was interested in starting an annual Iranian film festival in New York, I said I’d wanted to see that very thing for well over two decades and proposed that we team up.

To me, Iran’s cinema remains extraordinarily vital and fecund, amazingly so given the challenges even its best-known creators often face. From the time in the 1980s when the government of the Islamic Republic resurrected a film industry that had been effectively destroyed by the country’s 1979 Revolution, filmmakers have inhabited a paradoxical situation: While the regime supports the creation of “artistic” (as well as commercial) films in various ways, from funding them to getting them into international festivals, it also hems their makers in with a strict censorship code and a panoply of content restrictions. One effect of such limits, though, has been to make Iranian filmmakers endlessly creative in eluding them.

Perhaps nothing better illustrates the paradoxes of Iranian cinema currently than the case of Jafar Panahi. Arrested during the protests that followed the contested 2009 presidential elections in Iran, the director in 2010 was put on trial and given a draconian sentence that banned him from making films, writing screenplays and giving interviews for 20 years. Yet since then he has made four features that have been smuggled out of Iran and enjoyed wide international attention. (His brilliant latest, “3 Faces,” will play at our festival and then go into U.S. theaters in March.) The hardships forced on Panahi might crush many an artist’s spirit, but not his. When I was in Tehran last April, he invited me to go on a drive around the city and spoke exuberantly about “3 Faces”’ prospects at the upcoming Cannes Film Festival (where it won Best Screenplay).

3 Faces

“3 Faces”

Memento Films

Panahi’s indomitable resilience strikes me as a great symbol of the plucky determination that distinguishes many Iranian filmmakers, including our festival’s Guest of Honor, Bahman Farmanara. Truly a legendary figure in Iranian cinema, the writer-director-producer-actor has been active since the 1970s when, as part of “the Iranian New Wave,” he made two seminal features (as well as producing Kiarostami’s “The Report”); the second of these, “Tall Shadows of the Wind,” a daring political allegory, will be shown at the festival.

On Opening Night, Farmanara will present his latest film, “Tale of the Sea,” a haunting meditation on mortality and Iranian artistry in which he stars as a famous writer who’s just spent three years in a mental hospital after witnessing a political murder. We’ll also show Farmanara’s previous film, the comedy “I Want to Dance,” about a man who’s being crushed by depression until he starts hearing imaginary music that makes him want to dance. The film was just released from a four-year ban in Iran. What caused the ban? Reportedly, the authorities didn’t like the title (dancing is frowned upon) or the implication that many people in Iran are depressed (pretty droll, that).

One thing that we’re hoping to do with year’s festival is to connect the cinema of Iranian filmmakers known to people outside of Iran, such as Kiarostami, Panahi, and Farmanara, with the work of up-and-coming talents. Having attended the Fajr festival the last two years, I came away convinced that Iranian cinema is undergoing surge of renewed energy that’s resulting in some very innovative and fascinating new films, and I’m excited that our festival will introduce several of these to New York audiences.

As for trends: Iranian cinema historically has not been known for aiming at the viewer’s funny bone, but in this sense, Farmanara’s “I Want to Dance” may prove prescient, since two films here illustrate a movement toward satiric comedy. The darkest, wildest and most extravagant of these, Mani Haghighi’s “Pig,” concerns a blacklisted filmmaker who’s suffering a multi-pronged midlife crisis while a serial killer is beheading prominent Iranian filmmakers; the fact that he hasn’t been targeted is, in a way, yet another insult he must endure. Brilliantly lensed by the great cinematographer Mahmoud Kalari, Haghighi’s film continues the Iranian tradition of films-about-filmmakers while adding its own acidic, absurdist spin.

Kamal Tabrizi’s “Sly,” meanwhile, offers a send-up of the Iranian political system that seems amazingly daring. It concerns a right-wing political hopeful (Hamed Behdad, whose hilarious performance is my favorite in the festival) who agrees to run as a left-winger to further his political ambitions. Incidentally, some people writing about this film have followed The Hollywood Reporter’s Deborah Young in saying that it’s a satire of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. I don’t think that’s Tabrizi’s intent but, rather, that the protagonist is more a general type of political climber. When I watched the film with Oliver Stone in Tehran, he called it “an Iranian ‘A Face in the Crowd.’” That’s closer to the mark.

“I Want to Dance”

Two other films may reflect the influences of Iran’s two most internationally renowned directors, Kiarostami and Asghar Farhadi. In the tradition of lyrical Kiarostami films that focus on young characters in distant parts of Iran, Abbas Amini’s sophomore feature “Hendi and Hormoz” concerns a 13-year-old girl and 16-year-old boy who enter into a traditional arranged marriage in a village on the Persian Gulf, then must get to know each other as they also deal with the challenges of poverty and misfortune. Distinguished by its extraordinary acting, luminous humanism and lyrical look, this is easily one of the most moving and impressive of recent Iranian films. And the impact of Farhadi, whose two Oscar wins during this decade have brought Iranian cinema to new heights of international recognition, might be detected in the tight, suspenseful plotting, masterly mise-en-scene and terrific acting of Asghar Yousefinejad’s “The Home,” which concerns the complex machinations and hidden agendas of a family preparing to bury its patriarch. It’s rare for a debut work to win Best Film at the Fajr festival, but this one deservedly did.

Of the cutting-edge films by younger directors in the festival, easily the most startling and provocative is Houman Seyyedi’s “Sheeple,” the warped tale of a criminal family in south Tehran at war internally and with other vicious lowlifes. With its machinegun-fire dialogue, high-octane pacing, explosive violence and bravura acting (Navid Mohammedzadeh is a standout), the film plays like a melding of “Mean Streets” and Brazil’s “City of God,” directed by a meth-crazed Tarantino. Like other films noted here, it richly deserves a look-see by U.S. distributors.

Finally, since the great Kiarostami indirectly led to the creation of the Iranian Film Festival New York, it’s fitting that our first edition includes two documentary portraits of him. One, the warm, observant “76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami,” was made by cinematographer and documentary director Seifollah Samadian, who worked with Kiarostami on several projects; it will be preceded by the New York premiere of Kiarostami’s last short, “Take Me Home.” The other documentary, “A Walk with Kiarostami,” is a lovely 30-minute short made by critic, professor and longtime Kiarostami friend Jamsheed Akrami. It will be part of a program titled “Iranian Cinema Through the Lens of Jamsheed Akrami,” in which we will show clips from three documentary features that Akrami has made about the history of Iranian cinema and I will discuss them with him. These films, which are great ways to learn about Iran’s cinema, have just been released on DVD by Kino Lorber and copies will be on sale at the festival.

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