Teheran Fest Is Mecca For (Prudent) Persian Passion

Iranian filmmakers are talking love, not war.

Characters don’t actually touch – even hold hands – and women never shed so much as a head scarf, but the heady scent of romance is in the air of Persia.

The increasingly daring Iranian film industry is wading into murkier waters, with the first post-revolutionary film about adultery.

Mohsen Makhmalbafs “Time Of Love” is tame by Western standards, to be sure, but racy enough in Islamic Iran to cause hundreds of cinemagoers to camp out overnight in Teheran to ensure they had tickets to last week’s screening at the annual Fajr Intl. Film Festival.

Why have the Iranians’ fancy lightly turned to thoughts of love? Filmmakers had been preoccupied with the Iran-Iraq war. “This is the first year they’ve been able to think about more important things,” explains Farabi Cinema Foundation export/import director Ali Reza Shoja Noori.

Unlike the rest of the world, Persians are celebrating peace. After eight years of savage combat with Iraq, Iranians have the time and inclination to see films other than war movies.

“It is a great delight to observe that, unlike the cinema of the West, in which the noble sentiment of love has been degraded and restricted to the physical contact between man and woman and is being used in its most obscene form as an element of commercial success, the Iranian filmmakers have begun to tread into the hazardous domain of love with dignity and dedication,” said Shoja Noori.

While war would be expected to permeate every conversation in Iran, the Persian Gulf conflict seemed millions of miles away, surprising the 18 foreign guests and jurors who attended (40 of 60 invited guests canceled).

“Guests were expecting more tension about the war,” per Shoja Noori. “There’s more tension in Europe than here.”

Having suffered through years of war with Iraq and some 1 million casualties, including chemical warfare victims, most Iranians seem content the war is only on tv and not in their backyards.

Business at the fest wasn’t exactly booming – largely because of the lack of participants – but the buyers who did make it wrapped deals on several pics. Jean-Jacques Varret of French arthouse distributor Paradox signed for Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close-Up” and advanced negotiations on “Homework.”

He said most deals here involved a small minimum guarantee or payment on a percentage basis. He also said additional special screenings and increased availability of videos would improve the fest’s chances of attracting foreign distribs.

Ellis Driessen, managing director of Kyros Film Zurich and virtually the only festival vet, said she will announce her selections in Berlin after wrapping negotiations with Shoja Noori.

Driessen also summarized the paradox of attending a film festival in a country so close to the war zone. “While I was sitting in the lobby [ of fest headquarters, the Hilton], the entire Iraqi delegation, followed by the Algerian and Turkish delegations as well as [ Iranian President Hashemi] Rafsanjani, arrived to negotiate Iran’s peace proposal. So not only do you have the feeling you’re in the middle of history being made, you find it hard to concentrate on film.”

This year’s crop of Iranian films drew 430,000 Teheranians to the cinemas at the Feb. 1 to 12 fest.

The president of the international jury, India’s Aruna Vasudev, said she was disappointed that “Time Of Love” and another fest favorite, “The Last Act” (directed by Varuzh KarimMasihi) weren’t included in competition, which was restricted to first and second films. “We did say that the best Iranian films were not in the international competition. Their reply was that a selection committee chose the films,” she said.

Competition films from Syria and Cuba didn’t show up (officially because they were “lost in transit” and unofficially because they were held up in customs), leaving only 10 films for the five member jury to judge. A hung jury awarded the top honors to two pics: “The Last Stop” (a Soviet film by Serik Aprimov) and “Portrait Of Love” (an Iranian pic Shahriar Parsipoor).

The statuette for best direction went to Giorgos Karipis from Greece for “In The Shadow Of Fear.” Best film prize went to “Piravi” by India’s Shaji, and a special jury prize was awarded to Furuzan of Turkey for “My Cinemas.”

A second jury, composed of Iranian industryites, awarded eight prizes to “The Last Act”: best director, set design (Hassan Farsi), makeup (Masud Valadbeigi and Mozhdeh Shamsai), sound (Parviz Abnar), actress (Farimah Farjami), supporting actor (Saeed Poorsamimi), supporting actress (Niku Kheradmand) and best cinematographer (Asghar Rafi Ie-Jam).

Other awards included best sound mix (Mohsen Roshan for “Glass Eye”); special effects (Iraj Taghipoor for “Shadow Of Imagination”); music (Babak Bayat for “The Bride”); screenplay (Yadollah Samadi for “Apartment No. 13” ); editor (Mohammad Reza Moini for “The Bride”) and best actor (Medhi Hashemi in “Double Feature”).

The Iranian jury also was hung, refusing to award a prize for best film but recognizing “Double Feature” (directed by Dariush Farhang) and “Apartment No. 13” (directed by Yadollah Samadi).

A local film buff, interviewed on one of Iran’s two tv stations, said this year’s Iranian pics were weaker than those from previous years. And from a Westerner’s point of view, the obsession with love also got a bit tiresome.

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