Iranian Cinema and Fajr International Film Festival

Cinema Thermometer
 by Massoud Mehrabi 
   Iran has gone through many ups and downs during the past 25 years. Those developments have led to basic changes in political, economic, social and cultural structures of the country. Eight years of war with Iraq, tensions related to reconstruction period after the war, election of a reformist government and subsequent conflicts between it and fundamentalist groups, establishment of a radical government, the issue of nuclear energy and so on portray a picture which is indicative of more tumult ahead. Despite such historical developments, International Fajr Film Festival has moved steadily ahead like a boat sailing on choppy seas and this year, it will berth for the 25th time.
   About 25 years ago, when the first instance of the festival was held in the heat of war with only five Iranian films taking part and an unknown jury that did not consider any of those films to be worthy of a prize, it was hard to believe that the festival will reach its 25th anniversary. Some festivals had been held before and none of them had lasted for more than two or three years. International Fajr Film Festival evolved year after year in a gradual manner and grew stronger in parallel to developments of the Iranian cinema. Since the first year, holding the festival at an international level greatly tempted its organizers and policymakers, especially in view of the fact that before victory of the Islamic Revolution, Tehran International Film Festival had been held for six consecutive years as a Class A festival. Therefore, starting at the fourth festival, three sections were added to it in which foreign films were screened, thus giving “international” credit to the event. One of those sections was “children and young adults cinema,” which evolved into an independent festival three years later (this was also due to the fact that Tehran International Festival of Films for Children and Young Adults was one of the most creditable and important global festivals in the field). During the past 25 years, the Iranian cinema has been constantly growing despite all difficulties with International Fajr Film Festival as its full-length mirror. For many years, most filmmakers regardless of their attitude toward cinema policies and political officials have been eager for their films to be screened at International Fajr Film Festival because the attention of all filmmakers and serious moviegoers is riveted on this major event of the Iranian cinema.
   During all those years, International Fajr Film Festival has been a reflection of policies adopted by the country’s cinema officials. During early years, Iranian cinema authorities were very sensitive about making sure that domestic productions completely comply with their policies and goals, though that sensitivity has relatively faded during recent years. Although, supervision over production of a film usually started with studying the screenplay and approving it and continued until the very end of filmmaking process, if the film had not remained inside the predetermined framework, it was rated C or D. That rating caused the film to be publicly screened only at a limited number of low-quality and inferior theaters and the filmmaker would have received less financial assistance and equipment (which are usually supplied by the government) for his next productions. Rating films started from A, which was given to those films that completely complied with predefined cinema policies. A-rated films and some B-rated film, which were also called asterisked B (B*), were screened at competition section of International Fajr Film Festival while films rated B without asterisk, C, and sometimes D, were screened out of competition and even in accessory and less important sections. The jury of the competition section that was determined by cinema (and sometimes political) officials, awarded the best prizes to films that they liked and, thus, sent signals to other films to show them the correct direction in which they should move.
   What said before may cause one to think that the Iranian filmmakers have not been independent and all decisions were actually made by policymakers and cinema officials; but this is not the whole truth. It is true that most films that were rated C or D were insignificant movies that were merely made for commercial purposes and to earn more money at any cost. From this viewpoint, the measures taken by cinema authorities was, in general, to the benefit of the Iranian cinema and the “new Iranian cinema” which had grown a little before the Islamic Revolution, turned into a strong tree and bore fruit after the revolution as a result of the said policy. Most cinema authorities, like well-wishing filmmakers, were concerned about the national cinema, which has its roots deep in the Iranian culture and its artistic aspects prevail over its commercial and populist aspects. The cinema authorities clearly announced that the main goal of their policies was to “support, guide, and supervise” cinema activities while filmmakers tried according to their artistic capabilities and their understanding of cinema, to produce films that would make them dignified in the eyes of critics, viewers, and the history of the Iranian cinema. Of course, there were few filmmakers and films that did not receive the praise that they deserved.
   For many years, International Fajr Film Festival has attracted not only ordinary and transient viewers, but also special and professional ones. Film buffs give up their daily chores during 10 days that the festival is going on and try to watch three or four films every day as a selection of films that will be screened at the Iranian theaters during the forthcoming year and also to watch a number of major foreign films before their public screening. Those viewers feel less need to go to theaters during the year and quench their thirst for cinema by watching the latest films of the world on DVDs that can be bought at very high quality and everywhere in the big cities of Iran for one euro. During many years of the festival, especially during the first and second decades, this group of viewers crowded around theaters that screened festival’s films so intensely that the window panes were broken. They stood in long lines for many hours to watch films that were made by such filmmakers as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, Massoud Kimiaei, Bahram Baizai, Dariush Mehrjui… and sometimes forced festival organizers to consider extra showtimes at 02:00 or 03:00 hours in the morning! They thought that films made by the said directors will be censored on public screening or will be totally banned and sometimes, their worst fears came true.
   International Fajr Film Festival is thermometer of the Iranian cinema. Higher temperatures shown by this thermometer do not necessarily indicate illness, but are the sign of more warmth, vivacity, liveliness and prosperity of the Iranian cinema. The festival is still a meeting place for cinema policymakers, filmmakers, and viewers who try to do their part in increasing the temperature.

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