LONDON — The 2006 Berlinale was notable for the return of Iranian films to the fest after an absence of nearly 30 years. Berlin topper Dieter Kosslik had traveled to Tehran to view Iranian contenders as organizers at the Fajr Film Fest, Iran’s premier showcase, agreed to move their dates to allow for Iranian pics to compete in Berlin for the first time in decades. Talk of rapprochement and cooperation was rife.
This year, however, the most noteworthy aspect of Iranian cinema’s presence at Berlin is its absence from any of the festival’s competitive sections.
Coupled with the fact that no Iranian films vied for the Palme d’Or at last year’s Cannes has led some in the Iranian film biz to question whether the West’s love affair with Iranian cinema is finally coming to an end.
With the political temperature between Iran’s hardline government and the U.N. Security Council, particularly the U.S., continuing to rise over the nuclear issue, it appears Iran’s helmers, who for years have acted as their country’s de facto cultural ambassadors, may be caught in the middle.
“Unfortunately, we are in a bad position right now. Many TV channels in Europe are telling me they cannot buy Iranian films because of the political situation. It should be the opposite,” says Katayoon Shahabi of sales agent Sheherazad Media Intl. “Some people here say the only reason our films win international awards is because they show the problems of Iran, while people outside Iran think we work for the government and are making propaganda for them. We’re not accepted by either side.”
Little is ever black-and-white in Iran, and the state of the film industry is no different. While auteur and indie helmers appear to be suffering, the makers of mainstream, commercial movies are enjoying something of a renaissance.
Last year’s biggest hit, “Ceasefire,” a romantic comedy about two newlyweds who seek counseling after their competitive natures lead them to the brink of divorce, took more than $1 million at the box office. Theaters also reported takings up almost 100% from the previous year, according to state cinema authority Farabi Cinema Foundation.
“Things have changed. People understand now that they can be successful commercially inside and outside the country,” says “Ceasefire” helmer Tahmineh Milani.
The picture also is positive when one looks at the lineup for this year’s Fajr Film Fest, which ran from Feb. 1 through today, where 25 features were vying for the top prize.
Among high-profile films at the fest was “Persian Carpet,” a portmanteau pic that brought together the country’s leading helmers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Behrooz Afkhami and Dariush Mehrjui, each delivering his own personal 10-minute segment.
The market section saw 80 companies from 46 countries, including the U.S., attending.
It may be surprising to find American films, such as “Edison” and “The Illusionist,” screening as part of Fajr’s international selection, particularly in the wake of the government’s 2006 ban on any film that featured “propaganda for the world oppressor,” a term specially reserved for the U.S.
“It doesn’t mean every film made in America promotes imperialism,” says Amir Esfandiari of Farabi Cinema Foundation and head of Fajr’s international market. “The important thing is that it is a good film.”
Where auteur helmers such as Kiarostami and Panahi routinely faced problems getting their films permits to screen in Iran, the situation now has intensified to the point that many of them aren’t even getting production permits.
“The authorities are encouraging commercial films, such as family and social dramas, as well as what we call here ‘sacred defense movies,’ about the Iran-Iraq war. Very few auteur filmmakers are getting permits to make their films,” says one leading indie producer who requested anonymity. “Even when some auteur filmmakers get permits to make their film and screen them at Fajr, they don’t get permits to screen them publicly.”
And it’s not just permits that are giving some helmers headaches. According to some execs in the country, the government is choosing to give subsidies and coin only to films that have a proven mainstream appeal.
“A lot of these commercial films are successful and they don’t need subsidies, but they get them. These subsidies used to be for arthouse films, but now it’s the opposite,” Shehabi says. “There is no official restriction, but in fact it is a restriction because, without these subsidies and help, these films can’t get a producer and they won’t get made.”
Another ongoing problem is the lack of screens in Iran. There are currently only 270 screens for a population of 70 million. That means films that are more demanding of local auds — essentially those same films that have picked up prizes at fests around the world for more than a decade now — often are deemed to have little box office potential.
Things might be looking up with the news that the mayor of Tehran, Mohammad Ghalibaf, is actively looking to invest in the city’s cinema infrastructure.
“He’s very interested in cultural activities. I’m hearing that by this time next year we might see Iran’s first multiplex in Tehran,” says one Iranian producer.
The next few months are uncertain times for Iran and its film biz. The prospect of further international sanctions, and even the threat of possible military action against the country, continue to hover like the sword of Damocles.
Words of encouragement and reassurance have been flooding in, though, sometimes from the most unlikely of places.
“I have friends in Iraq who have told me that if their country had a cinema like Iran, then the situation we are seeing there now would never have happened,” Shahabi says.
“They tell me not to worry about a possible war because my country has cinema. When you have political problems, you have to open the door for an exchange of cultures. It’s the only way to know the real situation of people.”