Iranian directors look abroad

Helmers travel to make harder-hitting films

Iranian multihyphenate Niki Karimi will lense her next feature “The Brackets” in London. The $4 million project, about Iranian immigrants living in the capital, is being produced by Judy Counihan (“No Man’s Land”) and scripted by Kambuzia Partovi (“The Circle,” “Border Cafe”). Karimi hopes to start shooting by the end of the year.

Karimi made the decision to shoot outside her native Iran for the first time following a series of confrontations with Iranian authorities.

In May, she took the unprecedented step of publishing an open letter to the country’s deputy minister of culture and Islamic guidance, slamming authorities for not having granted her 2005 debut feature “One Night” — about a young Iranian woman’s journey through a twilight Tehran — an official screening permit. “It is not too great an honor for me to make banned films,” Karimi wrote, “though I know ‘One Night’ is neither the first nor the last film of this bulky profile.”

The move seems to have had an immediate impact. Despite months of stonewalling from the minister’s office prior to the letter’s publication in the Iranian press, Karimi received an official reply only days after her missive hit newsstands, informing her the film had been approved for public screening. “But they cut 10 minutes out of it,” Karimi says. “You cannot even follow the story now. There’s a whole section in the beginning that has been taken out. They didn’t tell me why they had removed this scene.”

Karimi has decided not to release the pic in its shortened state. Regardless, the fact that the film had been allowed to be screened at all caught the attention of her fellow Iranian film execs.

“Many directors called me afterward to congratulate me,” Karimi says. “I wanted to show them that we have the power to talk. Why didn’t we have any films in Cannes? When everything is restricted and censored and there is so much pressure, how can a brilliant film happen? I cannot work in this atmosphere, so I prefer to go outside Iran.”

The lack of any Iranian films at Cannes in the official selection for the last two years, as well as this year’s Berlin, seems to have led to some introspection among Iranian government officials to loosen the restrictive measures put on the country’s arthouse auteurs.

While more than 70 features were produced in Iran last year, many of those were mainstream laffers or pro-regime war pics, with helmers who are keen on tackling harder-hitting fare left waiting in vain for official permits.

Recent weeks, however, have shown some signs of progress. “More directors, like Mani Haghighi, are starting to get permits now, but we can’t deny filmmaking has been a little bit more complicated because of the current government’s policies,” says one leading indie producer who insists on anonymity.

In fact, the sight of Iranian helmers working in Europe could become more common. Helmer Abbas Kiarostami is lensing his new project, “The Certified Copy,” starring Juliette Binoche, in Italy later this year. Combative helmer Mohsen Makhmalbaf also reputedly has a number of European-set projects up his sleeve once daughter Samira completes work on her pic “The Two-Legged Horse” in Afghanistan.

“It’s always better to shoot inside one’s own country with our language and culture, but sometimes it’s good to try something else,” Kiarostami says.

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