Still from Son-Mother (Mahnaz Mohammadi, 2019), which will premiere at TIFF next month, Source: TIFF

Hunting for Farsi Films at the Bell Lightbox

by Marisa Sittheeamorn

The Toronto International Film Festival has never been shy about it’s appreciation for Iranian cinema. As mentioned last week, TIFF’s active commitment to Farsi cinema grew exponentially, when it presented a special program of 18 Iranian Features in 1992. The spotlight was the first of its kind beyond Iran’s borders, introducing many canadian audiences and cinephiles to the magnetism of Iranian storytelling.

More recently in the spring of 2015, TIFF revisited the enchantment of Iranian cinema though ‘I for Iran,’ a month long retrospective showcasing the evolution of Iranian film dating back to the 1930s. The Cinematheque’s programming included 15 features and two shorts, serving up a platter of the country’s most essential films. Later that fall, TIFF Director and CEO Piers Handling hosted an “In Conversation With” career retrospective on Abbas Kiarostami – one of the most revered filmmakers in global cinematic history. Following his mourned death in the summer of 2016, TIFF posted the intimate two hour on-stage conversation online, making it accessible to the public.

Still from Disappearance (Ali Asgari, 2017), Source: Variety

Then, in 2017, TIFF published an article on the future of Iranian cinema. In the article, film programmers Chandler Levack and Andrei Tanasescu, named Iran as having “one of the most distinguished cinemas in the world.” In making a case for the cinematic language formed by Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, Tanasescu and Levack drew attention to the new generation of Farsi-speaking filmmakers whose films were selected for the festival lineup that year. Through an interview with Sadaf Fouroughi, Ali Asgari, and Abed Abest, Tanasescu prodded the region’s most emerging talent about their newest projects, the effect of Iran’s political climate on their work, and the future of Iranian Cinema.

Despite acknowledging the continuing legacy of Iranian cinema over the years, the festival has struggled to give films from the Farsi region a deserved platform through its festival lineup. Over the past five years the festival has included an average of three films per year from filmmakers with Farsi backgrounds. When compared to the 200-plus films selected for each edition of the festival, titles from Farsi filmmakers make up less than two percent of the total lineup.

Still from Tales (Rakshan Bani-Etemad, 2014), Source: Asia Pacific Screen Awards

This sliver of the festival includes Farsi titles from three categories; Farsi speakers living in Iran, co-productions with Farsi speakers living outside Iran, and second and third generation filmmakers with Farsi backgrounds. In fact, the last film that was wholly Iranian, meaning the entire production took place domestically, was Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s 2014 drama, Tales. Since then, films included in the programming such as Ava (Sadaf Fouroughi, 2017), Border (Ali Abassi, 2018), Oblivion Verses (Alireza Kahatmi, 2017), and Baba Joon (Yuval Delshad, 2015) have all been co-productions with other countries.

Films lucky enough to make it into TIFF’s competitive lineup, however, go on to achieve high recognition, winning numerous awards and generating interest for future projects. Sadaf Foroughi’s Ava (2017) for example, won the FIPRESCI Discovery Prize and honorable mention for Best Canadian First Film at TIFF in 2017. Following its success at TIFF, the film won many nominations at the Asia Pacific Screen Awards and the Canadian Screen Awards, where Bahar Noohian took home Best Supporting Actress for her role in Ava. Since then, Foroughi’s newest project Summer With Hope, which is currently in production, has been awarded support from the Canadian Film Center in collaboration with Women in View.

Although TIFF has had an undeniable impact on the cinema of Iran, the newly-released 2019 festival lineup has indicated a new low for the inclusion of Farsi cinema. Son Mother, a Czech Iranian co-production directed by Mahnaz Mohammadi, and Sonia Hadad’s short Exam are the only two Iranian titles with plots taking place in the Farsi region. Atiq Rahimi’s French, Belgian, Rwandan co-production Our Lady of the Nile, which centers around a group of school girls at a Belgian-run Catholic boarding school, is the festival’s only inclusion of an Afghan filmmaker. Two western titles by filmmakers of Iranian heritage also include Radioactive by Marjane Satrapi and Briarpatch by Ana Lily Amirpour and Steven Piet.

Still from Afghan director Atiq Rahimi’s latest film Our Lady of the Nile (2019), Source: Variety

While the Farsi community is proud to celebrate the work of all Farsi filmmakers, the lack of films directly produced by the region’s local filmmakers is alarming. How can one of the world’s most distinguished cinemas be so absent in film festival lineups?

Serving as a collective voice for all filmmakers of Farsi backgrounds, Farsi Cinema Center hopes to remedy this missed opportunity by collaborating with local film organizations, such as TIFF, to connect them with the most current Farsi film industry developments. With over eight years of successful festival execution with a specialization in Iranian cinema, FCC is able to serve as an advisory curatorial arm to ensure the promotion of high-quality, art-house films from the Farsi region. In a country comprised of approximately 400,000 Farsi-speakers, it is our dream to see ourselves on the big screen at the Bell Lightbox every Fall.

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