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Venezuela, Iran boost local film biz

Leaders aim to counter Hollywood 'hegemony'

LONDON — It looks like being in George Bush’s bad books might not be such a bad thing for Venezuela and Iran when it comes to boosting their local film biz.

The leaders of both countries, who have forged a so-called “axis of unity” in the face of political pressure from the U.S. and Western governments, have unveiled a series of measures in their own countries aimed at counterbalancing what Venezuelan prexy Hugo Chavez has described as the “imperial hegemony” of Hollywood.

Last year Chavez inaugurated the $13 million state-sponsored studio complex Villa del Cine, which includes soundstages and post-production facilities, to boost local film production.

The studio’s first efforts are just starting to be released.

“Miranda regresa” preemed Oct. 12.

Pic, with a reputed $2 million to $3 million budget, is a biopic about revolutionary figure Francisco de Miranda, who led Venezuela’s independence struggle against the Spanish before dying in 1816. “Miranda” has garnered admissions of 130,000 people in its first five weeks of release.

Next up is the $900,000 drama “La clase,” which preems Nov. 23.

Pic, which boasts a first-time helmer, scribe, d.p and a cast predominantly making their big-screen debut, tells the story of a humble female violinist who must overcome class barriers to realize her dreams.

Other projects set to bow in the coming months include a film based on the life of Luis Posada Carriles, a former CIA operative accused by Venezuela and Cuba of masterminding the 1976 bombing of a Cuban jetliner — a charge that Carriles denies — and a feature about an honest Venezuelan taxi driver who reveres Simon Bolivar — the19th century revolutionary hero who led independence movements throughout Latin America — and decides to become a vigilante on the streets of Caracas.

All the films produced under the Villa Del Cine banner boast a social conscience and ideals close to those of Chavez’s own oft-declared social revolution.

“This is part of regaining our sovereignty and recovering the cultural identity of our country,” says Villa Del Cine director Lorena Almarza. “We don’t want to be spectators for only one type of product from Hollywood. These are visions which pervert notions of the Latin American people. Our main intention is to rediscover our culture as Venezuelans and Latin Americans.”

In Iran, the crackdown on Hollywood and Western fare has intensified with hard-line Iranian newspapers publishing a list of moral vices that authorities have said they will no longer tolerate including “decadent Western clothes” and “procuring decadent films.”

While Iranian art-house films were feted for years at major international film festivals, there has been a noticeable lack of quality Iranian fare vying for the top prizes at the likes of Cannes, Venice and Berlin this year. While some Iranian film execs have blamed their absence as blowback from Iran’s increasingly heated standoff with the West over its pursuit of nuclear energy, the Iranian box office has had a stellar year, with a number of home-grown pix with no chance, or intention, of playing overseas posting boffo grosses.

Massoud Dehnamaki’s “The Expelled,” a black comedy about a group of misfits sent to the front line to fight the Iraqis which opened in January, has become the biggest-ever hit at the Iranian box office, with admissions topping 2 million people, according to local sources.

Other big hits have included first-time helmer Shahram Shah Hosseini’s “The Crow Game,” Fereidoun Jeirani’s horror flick “Parkway” and most recently Mohammad Hossein Latifi’s “Serendipitous Necessity,” which opened at Nov. 8 and subsequently scored the country’s most successful opening weekend ever.

“It’s been a very good year for Iranian cinema,” says helmer Mani Haghighi. “The most appealing genre has been romantic comedies. With so much international pressure and the economic problems at home people are just looking for laughs.”

With Hollywood fare virtually absent from Iranian theatres — the odd exception like Emilio Estevez’s “Bobby” has screened this year — Iranian auds are free to devote the majority of their film-going to local pix.

The added irony is that the same auteur-driven films that propelled Iranian cinema to international acclaim have often been banned by Iranian authorities for fear of their provocative content, leaving the way clear for more commercial, mainstream Iranian filmmakers. Even respected mainstream filmmakers such as Tahmineh Milani, whose romantic comedy “Ceasefire” was the biggest hit of 2006, have fallen foul of government censors when attempting to branch out into more daring subjects. Milani’s latest pic, about a group of female criminals, has been banned in Iran.

It is telling that few of the Iranian films topping the box office have appeared at fests outside of the country.

It’s a trend not limited to Venezuela or Iran.

In Bolivia, where prexy Evo Morales is another firm Chavez ally, local hits can be driven by an auteur’s sense of frustration.  

Bolivian helmer Rodrigo Bellot’s debut, “Sexual Dependency,” was a fest favorite.

“It went to twenty-something festivals and won prizes at 15 but it was hardly seen in Bolivia,” Bellot says.

So he agreed to direct “Who Killed the White Llama?” a hip, frenetic road movie, souped-up with split-screening and pop-up subtitles, which takes a huge swipe at deposed Bolivian president Carlos Mesa and U.S. involvement in Colombian’s cocaine trade.

“Llama” became the highest-grossing film in Bolivian history.

In Turkey, rising nationalism has coincided with a series of attacks launched by Kurdish rebel group the PKK and widespread anger at an October vote by the U.S. congress labeling as genocide the deaths of Armenians more than 90 years ago in the country.

The biggest films at the box office in 2006 and 2007 have been two pix highly critical of the U.S. invasion of Iraq. Last year’s “Valley of the Wolves: Iraq,” and this year’s “Masked Gang: Iraq” offered little cultural value but were mucho returns for their respective producers.

The public attempts to counter-act Hollywood fare and focus on the local is, however, leaving some people unimpressed.

“America is not very popular these days in Turkey,” says Teuton-Turkish helmer Fatih Akin. “It’s a fight against this overrun American cinema system. It’s a resistance. From time to time you have films like ‘Valley of the Wolves,’ which are part of a propaganda machine and films in the tradition of like the Pentagon has used with certain kind of Hollywood structures. I think we have to take care about these kinds of films.”

“It really shouldn’t be seen as film in the traditional sense,” says Jonathan Jakubowicz, whose debut “Secuestro Express,” remains Venezuela’s box office champ with admissions of 1.3 million people but forced the helmer into self-imposed exile in Los Angeles after drawing the ire of the Chavez government for its portrayal of crime in the country. “Stalin made propaganda films in a similar style to what Chavez wants to do to promote the values of the revolution, national pride and basically using film as a tool for brainwashing the masses. The difference is that Stalin had Eisenstein and Chavez has a couple of soap opera directors making movies that no one wants to see.”

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