A still from Sahraa Karimi’s entry to the Venice Film Festival, Hava, Maryam, Ayesha. Source: labiennale.org

Farsi Cinema À La Biennale Di Venezia – A History

This week, Farsi Cinema Center has its eyes glued to the upcoming 76th Venice International Film Festival, organized by La Biennale di Venezia, which is slated to take place at Lido di Venezia from August 28th to September 7th, 2019. As the oldest film festival in the world, Venice has had a long on-and-off relationship with Farsi-speaking cinema. It all started in 1971 when Iranian director and producer Dariush Mehrjuri, one of the founding members of the Iranian New Wave movement, received the festival’s FIPRESCI Prize for his internationally acclaimed second feature, The Cow. After 39 years of the festival’s existence, Iranian cinema finally made an impactful introduction at the Venice Film Festival, gradually recovering from the country’s long phase of artistic and political struggle with respect to cinema.

73th Venice International Film Festival paid tribute to the late Abbas Kiarostami during the opening ceremony. Source: VideoBlocks

For 24 years thereafter, Farsi cinema struggled to prove its mettle at the film festival, a spell finally broken by Abolfazl Jalili in 1995 when he won the Golden Osella for Best Director for Det Means Girl.

This was taken forward by Abbas Kiarostami in 1999, when he won the FIPRESCI Prize, Special Jury Prize, and CinemAvvenire Award for The Wind Will Carry Us, for which he was also nominated for the Golden Lion. It’s important to note that, to date, 33 of the 54 winners of the prestigious Golden Lion have been European men. With this in mind, it was a glorious moment for Iran when Jafar Panahi became the first-ever and only Iranian filmmaker to receive the Golden Lion for The Circle (which remains banned in Iran till date) in 2000. The same year, Marzieh Meshkini became the first female Iranian filmmaker to win accolades at the festival, taking home the UNESCO Award, Isvema Award, and CinemAvvenire Award for her debut film The Day I Became a Woman.

The new millennium for Iranian cinema started with Babak Payami’s massive wins at the festival for Secret Ballot, which won him the Silver Lion for Best Director, along with the OCIC Award, Netpac Award, UNICEF Award, and Pasinetti Award in 2001. Female filmmakers also simultaneously gained prominence and accolades for their glass-ceiling-breaking work. Hana Makhmalbaf became the second Iranian woman to be recognized at the festival, following her mother’s suit, when she won the Lina Mangiacapre Award – Special Mention in 2003 for Joy of Madness. In 2004, this was followed by Mania Akbari’s Digital Cinema Award for 20 Fingers and Marzieh Meshkini’s Open Prize for Stray Dogs.

A still from Jafar Panahi’s The Circle, the movie that made him the only Iranian filmmaker to ever receive the Golden Lion. Source: IFFR

The year 2008 brought the FIPRESCI Prize for Ramin Bahrani (Goodbye Solo) and the SIGNIS Award – Honorable Mention for Amir Naderi (Vegas: Based on a True Story), while 2009 was a good year for Shirin Neshat (Golden Osella for the Best Director) and Abdolreza Kahani (Special Jury Prize). Accolades continued to follow throughout the next decade, with Shahram Mokri’s Special Orizzonti Jury Prize in 2013, Rakhshan Bani Etemad’s Best Screenplay Award in 2014, Ana Lily Amirpour’s Special Jury Prize in 2016, Vahid Jalilvand’s Orizzonti Award for Best Director in 2017, and Navid Mohammadzadeh’s Orizzonti Award for Best Actor, also in 2017. Apart from awards, the festival’s coveted Jaeger-LeCoultre partnership, given to filmmakers that bring great innovation to contemporary cinema, has also been offered to Iranian influencers such as Abbas Kiarostami (2007) and Amir Naderi (2016).

While Iran’s cinematic journey continues to grow, Farsi-speaking cinema in countries such as Afghanistan is still reeling under various pressures. The 76th Venice International Film Festival’s lineup, however, includes Sahraa Karimi’s Hava, Maryam, Ayesha in the Orizzonti category. The film, set in war-torn Afghanistan, chronicles the life of three Afghan women from different social backgrounds. It’s an important milestone in the history of Afghan cinema because it focuses on the war stories of women, a relatively marginalized section in terms of representation. Sahraa Karimi’s radical cinema is not the only aide in her shattering of the glass ceiling; she was also recently appointed as the first female General Director of Afghan Film, the country’s state-run film production company. In a recent interview, she reflected on the lack of recognition for Afghan films at major festivals ― “War has affected Afghanistan’s cinema in terms of production, but our films can be very rich in terms of content because our country is full of colorful stories.” The organization’s President, filmmaker Abdul Latif Ahmadi, also mused that “Afghanistan cinema’s problems are multidimensional. For instance, there is no budget, there is no encouragement and also government, especially the Information and Culture Ministry, have no cooperation and artists have been separated.” Despite these challenges, Afghanistan has managed to create cinema that will be showcased at the festival.

Afghanistan-Bangladesh co-production Roqaia, directed by Afghan filmmaker Diana Saqeb Jamal, has also been selected in the festival’s Orizzonti segment, an international competition dedicated to films that represent the latest aesthetic and expressive trends in international cinema. The film features Afghan actors Roqia Rasuli, Asadullah Rasuli, Gavhar Taj Salmanian, and Qorban Ali Salmanian in major roles.

A still from Afghanistan-Bangladesh co-production Roqaia. Source: labiennale.org

Iran’s stint at the festival continues with Saeed Roustaee’s Just 6.5, which features in the festival’s Orizzonti segment. The movie, billed as the highest-grossing domestic film ‘outside of comedies’ in Iranian history, walks the razor’s edge of spiraling tension as good-bad cop Samad (Payman Maadi) slyly lures drug lord Nasser (Navid Mohammadzadeh) into his trap. In addition to this nomination, Iranian cinema will also feature in the festival’s Venice Classics section; The Hills of Marlik by Ebrahim Golestan (1964) and The House is Black (1962) by Forough Farrokhzad.

While FCC is ecstatic about the importance being given to Farsi cinema, we hope to see more Farsi features in the lineup over the coming years. To this end, FCC supports Farsi-speaking filmmakers to help them take their dreams and art to the big screens of film festivals through various means. Here’s to keeping our fingers crossed for wins this year ― we’ll have to revisit this.


TOLO News: Sahraa Karimi To Lead Afghan Film As First Female Chairperson by Haseba Atakpal (May 16, 2019)

Dhaka Tribune: Bangladeshi co-production to compete in Venice Film Festival by Siam Raihan (July 25, 2019)

Hollywood Reporter: ‘Just 6.5’ (‘Metri Shesh-o Nim’): Film Review by Deborah Young (April 29, 2019)

La Biennale Di Venezia: The Films Restored for Venice Classics (July 24, 2019)

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