Magazine article Variety

Is Iran at the Cusp of a NEW WAVE?

Magazine article Variety

Is Iran at the Cusp of a NEW WAVE?

Article excerpt

To measure how much things have changed on the Iranian film scene with the election of moderate president Hassan Rouhani in June, one need only look at some of the activity at the recent Fajr Film Festival and market. Movies like "Tales," a drama by about economic hardship, which had been banned since 2011, screened at the fest. And London-based Harry/Amir, a partnership between two young producers, Brit Harry Amies and Iranian Amir Rezazadeh, was looking to bring Western productions into Iran.

Iranian film production is booming, said producer Mohammad Attebai, who cited an official report stating that 170 features are in the pipeline in 2014, more than twice as many as last year. More significantly, almost half of these pics are by first-time directors whose pent-up rage over the disputed 2009 election pushed them to make movies, he said.

Yet while Iranian filmmakers are feeling a real difference in the political climate, progress remains incremental; censorship has eased a bit, but acclaimed director Jafar Panahi is still officially banned from making movies, and while not under house arrest anymore, he is not allowed to leave the country.

Nevertheless, change was palpable in Tehran at the 32nd Fajr fest, which kicked off Jan. 31 with a message from Rouhani, who indicated the dawn of a new era for filmmakers in a message read by Culture Minister Ali Jannati. "After what happened to art and culture over the past years, I see my country's cinema gloomy and depressed," Jannati read, adding Rouhani's vow that better days are ahead.

But the moviemaking community is pinning its hopes on more than mere words that the new government is film-friendly.

Iran's main movie-industry guild, the House of Cinema, shuttered two years earlier by hardliners, was reopened shortly after Rouhani took office in August. A couple of months later, censors lifted screening bans on two films: "Tales," by the outspoken Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, considered Iran's premier female helmer; and "Parinaz," a pic critical of Islamic superstitions, by helmer Bahram Bahramian. Both titles star Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, among the country's most popular actresses, now working again after being banned from acting for two years due to her political activism - and for being photographed at Cannes not wearing a hijab.

Reflecting the more upbeat mood, international industry presence nearly doubled this year at the Fajr mart, with some 240 foreign attendees on hand, including the U.K.'s Swipe Films, Germany's Beta, India's Madhu Entertainment and, for the first time, a delegation from Iraq. The roughly 150 registered Iranian bizzers included Attebai's shingle, Iranian Independents; and Katayoon Shahabi's Sheherazad Media as well as her Paris-based Noori Pictures; Attebai and Shahabi are back at the Fajr market after eight-year absences due to the previously dismal political climate. Indeed, in 2011, Shahabi was incarcerated for three months on reportedly trumped-up charges of collaborating with the banned BBC Persian service.

Noted Attebai: "Real change will take time, but what the president has done proves that we are right to be optimists."

The producer was in a forgiving mood over the 15-minute cut the Fajr fest official made in Reza Dormishian's "I'm Not Angry," set against the backdrop of student protests sparked by the country's 2009 elections, before its screening. The current festival powers are just being careful, he said, "to not create excuses for the hardliners to prevent the government from carrying out new policies. …

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