IRÁN:CÍ balloons in Kino Lucerna during IRÁN:CÍ, Farsi Cinema Center’s festival of Iranian Films in Czech Republic and Slovakia, Source: IRÁN:CÍ

A Worldly Embrace of Iranian Film and Culture

What could Paris, Prague, Sydney, San Francisco, and New York possibly have in common?

With drastically varying landscapes, mother tongues, and cuisines, identifying the constant across these bustling metropolis’ may come as a challenge to many. However, to film-going lovers of Farsi cinema, the glue connecting these cities is obvious. These cities are all home to some of the world’s most renowned Iranian film festivals.

With somewhere between four and five million Iranians living abroad, Iran has one of the largest diasporas and dispersed populations. Within its scattered population lives educated and skilled artists, writers, and filmmakers who have endured decades of troubling run-ins with the state. These creatives have been forced to experiment with alternative practice of expression, ultimately resulting in one of the most awarded art forms in the world of cinema. To fully appreciate the magic that is Iranian film, it is first necessary to acknowledge the numerous impediments that have informed its current condition.

Sohrab Shahid Saless on the set of The Willow Tree, Source: Goethe Institute, Photo: Bert Schimdt

Iranian artists, writers, and filmmakers have long been considered by government officials to be nagging voices of resistance. The rise of the Iranian New Wave in the 60s and 70s birthed some of the country’s most iconic contemporary filmmakers such as Ebrahim Golestan, Dariush Mehrjuri, Abbas Kiarostami and Sohrab Shahid Saless. Borrowing from Italian Neo-Realism, the work of New Wave artists commented on the autocratic political environment of their time. Filmmakers deemed too explicit in their messaging faced a lot of difficulties and, at times, the banishment of their work.

Punishment of filmmakers continues to be a current reality in Iran’s current post-revolutionary state. Censorship laws are at a high, controlling freedom of expression – especially through artistic mediums. In fact, just last week, on July 24 2019, award-winning filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof was sentenced to one year in prison for highlighting the treacherous political landscape independent artists must navigate in Iran. Rasoulof tells the Center for Human Rights in Iran that he is being accused of “‘propaganda against the state’ for telling stories.”

Abbas Kiarostami and Japanese film legend, Akira Kurosawa, Source: Cinephilia & Beyond

Despite unsolicited imprisonment, Iranian filmmakers continue to make their voices heard. Censorship laws, while constraining, have encouraged filmmakers to challenge traditional modes of storytelling. Second Wave contemporaries who emerged following the Islamic revolution, such as Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhamalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi, have developed a distinct poetic and illusionary cinematic language that cinephiles instantly recognize. According to Iranian-American writer and professor, Reza Aslan, “perhaps the most notorious aspect of this distinctly Iranian cinematic style is the use of visual poetry and metaphors to express views and emotions that would otherwise land the filmmakers in jail.”

While independent filmmakers in Iran have created a way to weave social and political criticism into their craft, others feel a responsibility to step away from the political, share the everyday, and establish normalcy. During the revolution, the only media coverage about Iran displayed violence from the war. Sharing apolitical stories about the mundane today, offers filmmakers a platform to dispel damaging misconceptions about their home, and build connections with other communities and cultures.

Unsurprisingly, the pressure to work within the confines of the state has inspired many filmmakers to move abroad. Working primarily with European producers, Iranian filmmakers are able to tackle more partisan themes with less fear of punishment. The exodus of skilled artists from Iran contributes to the mass global diaspora of immigrant Iranians.

A packed house during the opening of IRÁN:CÍ, one of Farsi Cinema Center’s festivals in Czech Republic and Slovakia, Source: IRÁN:CÍ

Iran’s treacherous cinematic history has established itself as one of the most boundary-pushing art forms in existence, instilling a sense of pride for many of its citizens. Both approaches to Iranian film, the metaphorical and non-political, have made tremendous waves along the festival circuit and invented spaces for international audiences to learn more about daily life in Iran. In addition to receiving recognition at major festivals such as Cannes, Berlinale, Venice, TIFF, and Sundance, film festivals dedicated to showcasing the work of Iranians have created a name for themselves in cities around Asia, Europe, and North America.

In an interview with Four Three Film, Amin Palangi, the founder of Persian International Film Festival in Australia and Palangi Productions, describes how his motivation to create a festival was born out of his desire to share Iranian cinematic culture with other Australian communities. Beyond fostering community among Iranians, Amin expanded his vision to include the Persian community as a whole – allowing Iranians, Afghans, and other Persian speakers to feel more at home in their new adopted countries. By showcasing quality cinematic masterpieces of Persian speaking filmmakers, the festival, “aims to be a leader in shifting views and misconceptions in Australia by creating new and alternative voices of Persian-Australians and by being a forum for dialogue between and amongst diverse communities.”

Amin Palangi at Fajr International Film Festival, 2016, Source: Palangi.com.au

What originally started out as a small festival in Sydney, is now a sold-out national and annual event that has become one of the largest cultural happenings in the Southern Hemisphere. The success of the Persian International Film Festival has created a community of movie goers that are able to stay current with new releases in the art-house and underground industry. Australia is also home to Iranian Film Festival Australia, and Farsi titles are popping up regularly in non-Iranian film festivals.

Melbourne International Film Festival, which is about to kick off on August first, for example,  has programmed four Iranian films. The films programmed include Tattoo (Farhad Delaram, 2019), Son of the Sea (Abbas Jalai-Yekta, 2018), Passage (Kimia Hendi, 2019), and Brick and Mirror (Ebrahim Golestan, 1965). The breadth in the selection will provide audiences with the opportunity to witness the transformation of Iranian film from the 60s onwards.

Australia is not alone in experiencing a surge of popularity in Iranian films. France, Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the United States all have dedicated festivals to celebrate the work of Iranian artists. The most notable festivals dedicated to Independent Iranian films outside Iran include, IRÁN:CÍ in Prague, Bratislava and Brno, Cinema(s) D’Iran in Paris, Iranian Film Festival in San Francisco and Iranian Film Festival New York. As access to Iranian work increases globally, we can only expect to see more dedicated celebrations of Iranian film. It is our hope that overtime, this appreciation will expand to recognize the complex histories and works of Afghan and Tajik filmmakers as well.

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