Spotlight: Iranian Film Festival, Prague, 2016

We, human beings, are a funny lot. When we are young, we just cannot wait to grow up, and when we are old enough, we wish we were kids once again. When we live at home, we want to make a life elsewhere, and when we struggle to build a new life abroad, we long for home. The sounds, the smells, the sights, et cetera! We love explaining to friends and colleagues how things are done differently back home. How beautiful men and women back home are, how flavorful the food is, and how warm people are… How pretty much everything at home appears greener from our side of the world.

My experience at an event like the 5th Festival of Iranian Films / Festival íránských filmů held in Prague last week is testimony to this nostalgia that most of us thrive on. As soon as I entered Kino Světozor, the main venue for the festival, the tempting aroma of hot Iranian food wafted in. There were many sitting cosily, on soft red cushions that lined the staircase leading to the screening rooms, digging into the special dish. In between their noisy, cheerful banter, I noticed a certain satisfaction writ large on their faces. They were having “a slice of home,” according to Kaveh Daneshmand, the Artistic Director of the festival.

The festival, which travels to Brno and Bratislava after its Prague stint, brings such a slice of Iranian cinema, art, theatre, and food to each one of these cities. Although small in scale, with less than 20 titles playing in the festival, the line-up this year boasted films by Iranian veterans like Jafar Panahi and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. The viewer turnout, too, has increased tremendously, confirms Daneshmand, with more number of locals stepping in to get a taste of internationally acclaimed Iranian cinema.

The festival kicked off with a story of homecoming with Safi Yazdanian’s well-travelled film WHAT’S THE TIME IN YOUR WORLD? / DAR DONYAYE TO SAAT CHAND AST? (2014). Starring A SEPARATION / JODAEIYE NADER AZ SIMIN (2011) fame Leila Hatami as Goli, the protagonist who left Iran to pursue her passion for art in France, the film tells a tender story about memories, friendship, and exile. As soon as she arrives home, Goli is surprised that everyone in her small town knows more about her life than she does. As hard as she tries to fit in, she finds herself sticking out like a sore thumb. She finds herself belonging neither in her hometown, nor in her adopted home, France. And, then there is Farhad, who claims to be her childhood friend and is too eager to go out of his way to help Goli. Having stayed back even when all his friends left to far-off countries after the Revolution, Farhad is still nursing his school-time crush on Goli. He lives in a world he has created around himself, filled with small knick-knacks from Goli’s childhood, dreaming about Paris, learning and teaching French, making French cheese, and listening to young Goli’s voice playing on tape. Told beautifully, with a soulful, retro background score, the film makes us ponder about what we call home. Is it fair to treat the ones who left like Goli as outcasts? We realize that the state of the ones who did stay back, like Farhad, is not any better either. The film brings to us a generation that is stuck in limbo.

While many from that generation did leave the country, the much acclaimed film TAXI (2015), directed by the banned filmmaker Jafar Panahi, is about one man who did not. Despite being pulled down many a time by the rigid rules imposed by the Islamic Republic government, which included house arrest and a 20-year ban on filmmaking, Panahi does not seem to have given up his fight. Forced to stay within the geographical limits of his country, the filmmaker managed to smuggle out three feature films to international festivals around the world risking even his life. TAXI, which won the top honor at last year’s Berlinale, is his take on contemporary Iranian society. Panahi drives around in a taxi in Teheran, picking up people from various walks of life, allowing the viewer to get a glimpse of the real people of Iran and the problems that affect them. The film begins as a thrilling docu-drama of sorts, even confusing the viewer for a bit whether the taxi journey is in fact real or scripted, but soon fizzles out when Panahi’s 8-year-old niece makes an appearance. Having skillfully directed children in his past films, Panahi seems to have let go in TAXI, probably the reason why the little girl’s act looks a bit rehearsed. However, given the courage shown by the filmmaker to pursue his craft and make his voice be heard outside his country, the effort is definitely worth lauding.

On similar lines is Iran’s most famous woman filmmaker Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s anthology filmTALES / GHESSE-HA (2014). Having stayed away from making fiction films following a self-imposed ban, Etemad makes a comeback with a film that brings together characters from many of her previous works of fiction. For someone who is familiar with her work, it is a hugely rewarding experience to watch the after-stories of characters we have once seen in other films. TALES, that won the best film award at the festival is also a story of contemporary life in Iran, mainly focussed on the helpless working class. The ones who decided to stay back and fight in their own right. There is a young girl who turned to prostitution, a retired factory worker who has not got her pension in 9 months, an old ex-government employee whose insurance money is stuck in red tape, a reformed druggie, an engineering dropout, and so many such ordinary people who share their stories about surviving the conservative regime. The same question is raised by TALES as well: if what you call home is filled with obstacles, poverty, hopelessness, and a restrictive government, does it make sense to stay back? It makes us wonder whether such a battle is even worth fighting.

Debutant Nima Javidi’s film MELBOURNE (2014), starring Negar Javeherian and Peyman Moaadi (A SEPARATION, again), is about a couple who decides to leave. They are young, and they are planning to start their life in what they believe is the “best city in the world” – Melbourne. Their bags are packed, all their furniture given to the pawn broker, farewells have been said, when tragedy strikes. This intelligently-written thriller makes you think what you would have done in such a situation. In difficult times, how hard is it to do the right thing? And, what if you are not intentionally responsible for whatever went wrong, would you still step up to take blame? Javidi’s script and the extremely natural performances from his actors make the ride nail-biting and will make you realize that most decisions in life cannot be taken objectively. What is considered right and ethical in one situation may not work the same way in another.

The festival also had an interesting line-up of documentaries that played to full houses every day. In such an intimate festival, it brings joy to spot in real life the characters you see onscreen. When Sara Najafi, whose story her brother, Ayat Najafi, chose to portray in his documentary NO LAND’S SONG (2014), made an appearance at the festival as a regular delegate, there was a sense of curiosity among viewers. Sara’s quest as the first woman composer in the country and her fight to hold a concert, in which women sing solo, is documented beautifully in the film. Navigating through the strict and orthodox bureaucracy of the country and striving hard for three long years, she finally made it possible and, literally, brought the voice of women back to Iran. While she appears with long hair covered in a hijab in the documentary, Sara sported a pixie cut at the festival, sans the hijab. To a bunch of curious women, including me, who bumped into her after the screening, she candidly said: “The only time the hijab was of use to us was to hide our microphones while shooting the film.” The film documents her tireless journey, attending numerous meetings with religious scholars and ministry officials to get the required permission to bring in women singers from France and perform in the city. Despite her momentous victory in doing so, at the end Sara decided to leave home and moved to Los Angeles.

In TAXI, Panahi’s niece lists out the rules laid down by the regime to regulate the films being made in the country. A few of which are that no part of woman’s body, except her face and hands, can be seen, there can be no flirtatious talk or jokes shared between the men and women on screen, and the most funniest of them all being that films cannot portray “sordid realism.” All films made in the country have to go through an approval process by the government right from the script stage and yet again before the release. It is truly a wonder then that such beautiful, meaningful, and sometimes defiant films get made and can be seen outside the country. One thing that every such festival reinstates is that no matter what we call home, we can surely relate to the problems, agony, and happiness of the world around us. And, yes, also that we, human beings, are, indeed, a funny lot.

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