Screening of The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi in Trafalgar Square, London (2017).
Source: The Daily Mail

The Unprecedented Emergence of Iranian film festivals

by Marisa Sittheeamorn, Kaveh Daneshmand

With Sundance kicking off the new year, and Berlinale wrapping up a few weeks ago, the festival season of 2019 is well underway. Sundance, Cannes, TIFF, Berlinale, Busan, Rotterdam, Venice, IDFA, and San Sebastian Film Festival remain industry favorites, while an abundance of equally important audience-based festivals celebrate international cinema around the world every day. The global scale of the festival market demonstrates a human desire to connect with others through the stories they have to tell. Festivals provide an outlet for these stories to be shared, amplifying the voices of those often misunderstood, misrepresented, or simply drowned out amongst the mainstream buzz.

The world’s most prestigious festivals are known for being inclusive in their programming, showcasing films from independent filmmakers spanning all six continents. Almost all film festivals, both large and small, feature the work of Farsi artists. Iranian cinema, in particular, is recognized globally as one of the most distinguished and active film industries in the world. In the process of creating its own legacy, Iranian cinema continues to evolve despite restrictive censorship practices and systematic punishment against artists pushing thematic boundaries.

Asghar Farhadi (center) with the stars of his Oscar-winning film, The Salesman (2017),
Source: Vox, Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi gained global critical acclaim winning the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film with A Separation in 2011, and again with The Salesman in 2017. Farhadi’s films have also been praised domestically, with crowds gathering overnight to attend the premier of A Separation at Fajr Film Festival, which eventually sold out in theaters, and became one of the highest grossing Iranian film in history. Most recently, films such as 3 Faces by Jafar Panahi and The Charmer by Milad Alami, among others, have garnered critical acclaim at some of the more prestigious festivals along the 2018-2019 circuit.

Iranian films showcased on the festival circuit often differ dramatically, both thematically and aesthetically, from films produced for Iranian theatres. This is in main part due to the involvement of the government in the local film industry. Most productions in Iran are sponsored directly through the government, or through media organizations also funded by the government. Locally referred to as main-body productions, these films are topically restrictive and known to promote financial and social agendas of the state. Independent filmmakers looking to explore emotional, political, or societal themes are therefore forced to seek alternative funding and be very innovative with their approach to storytelling. The strategy associated with crafting films acceptable to the government has, over time, laid the stylistic foundation of Iranian film that is poetic and grounded in allusion. Films adhering to this style seldom make affirmative or obvious statements, instead leaving audiences to piece the puzzle together themselves. Most often, it is these artistically suggestive films that global audiences expect from Iranian cinema today.

Source: “Amir Naderi’s 1984 film The Runner gave allegorical significance to a boy’s fascination with running,”
BBC. Credit: Alamy

Outside of adhering to the country’s censorship rules, independent filmmakers also have to seek permissions to shoot and distribute films. For local filmmakers, one way to avoid these restrictions comes in the form of co-productions. During an interview in 2015, Abdolreza Kahani, a director known to have one of the most comprehensive resumes in Iranian cinema, opened up about the freedoms associated with co-productions: “In France, when funding is given, there are no strings attached to it. You are free to make whatever you like, and what you make is supported. It is good cinema that is important.” Working on co-productions has become a popular way for many Iranian filmmakers to gain autonomy over their creative processes, and explore topics that may not otherwise be accepted locally.

While co-productions offer increased opportunity, it is rare for them to be embraced back home. For Kahani, his repeated tendency to make films exploring various domestic issues, has caused some of his films to be banned by local authorities, resulting in his reputation as one of the most suppressed filmmakers in Iran. Even with outside support provided by co-productions, tackling topics considered taboo by the government limits opportunity for filmmakers to explore new narratives, and receive acclaim at home. The platform of film festivals opens doors in this regard.

Although festivals provide an outlet for filmmakers to tell more socially-charged stories, they are also very selective. With the emergence of co-productions, the expansion of quality Iranian cinema is increasing at a rate faster than the film festival circuit can accommodate. The explosion of beautifully crafted, culturally significant artistic masterpieces from Iranian filmmakers is demanding to be seen by audiences worldwide, and has unleashed the emergence of Iranian film festivals around the world. Farsi Cinema Center aims to further contribute to this rise, offering continuous, seamless media opportunities and collaborations between Farsi film industries by incorporating untold stories and promoting diversity and equality. It is our mission to establish, promote, and provide recognition for the Farsi film industry, and its affiliates, as an integral, artistic, and creative part of the larger international film community.

ÍRÁN:CI 2018 – 7th edition.

Within the past decade, Iranian film festivals have established themselves all around the world. Most notably, some of these include FCC’s partner festival ÍRÁN:CI in Czech Republic, now preparing for it’s 9th edition in January 2020; Noor Iranian Film Festival in Los Angeles, as well as others across North America, Europe, and in the South Pacific. Iranian film festivals are emerging both in numbers and geographically, appearing in new cities around the globe. Within the past year, Chicago served as a host to the 29th Annual Festival of Films from Iran, and New York City hosted its inaugural annual Iranian Film Festival.

Many films entering the festival circuit follow the gentle and restrained stylistic qualities most critically acclaimed films are known for, however, the rising number of festivals dedicated to showcasing Iranian film is allowing artists to explore and experiment with various genres that are more forthcoming with their messaging. According to Variety, Sheeple directed by Houman Seyyedi, which was screened on the closing night of the first annual Iranian Film Festival in New York, served a “rather spectacular counterexample,” showcasing a level of violence not previously seen in Iranian cinema. The emergence of Iranian film festivals around the world suggests a stylistic, thematic, and generic evolution of Iranian cinema is on the horizon.

Source: Sheeple, 2019, (Houman Seyyedi) Winnipeg Film Group,
Image: Mehr News

The accumulating success for Iranian filmmakers, while exciting, comes with a variety of challenges. With limited domestic support and language barriers, working on co-productions, networking, learning, and finding an appropriate crew and cast can require a lot of effort. While the current state of Iranian cinema is at an all time high, there is little structure, and there are no systems put in place to facilitate its growth from this point forward. Farsi Cinema Center hopes to bridge this gap to foster a community of Farsi filmmakers worldwide, and encourage the work coming out of the region to continue to transcend boundaries and cross borders. Through networking at film festivals, opening a dialogue with quality Farsi talent, and facilitating co-productions, Farsi Cinema Center sets out to ensure cinema continues to evolve as an international art form.



Bright Lights Film Journal: Iranian Independent Cinema, Its Challenges and Future: An Interview with Abdolreza Kahani by Amir Ganjavie

Variety: Film Review: ‘Sheeple’ by Owen Gleiberman

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