TEHRAN – Iranian President Hassan Rouhani sent Iran’s film community a significant signal of support as the 32nd Fajr Film Festival and Market kicked off in Tehran with a robust international industry presence and Aussie-in-Hollywood helmer Bruce Beresford on hand as main jury prexy.

“Bringing back people who have turned away from the cinema is the most essential task of our officials and filmmakers today,” Rouhani stated in a message read by Minster of Culture and Islamic Guidance Ali Jannati during the fest’s opening ceremony on Jan. 31.

“Today, after what has happened to art and culture over the past years, I see my country’s cinema gloomy and depressed,” the message from Iran’s president went on to say.

“But now a new era has dawned, and it is time to leave behind whatever happened to cinema previously, although we shall never forget the lessons.”

There was long applause in Tehran’s Vahdat Hall when Jannati finished reading Rouhani’s message.

The ceremony was followed by a concert by Iranian rock star Reza Yazdani.

“I’m happy that the president is aware of the importance of cinema. It’s absolutely crucial,” said Iranian sales agent and producer Katayoon Shahabi. “We are a big country, we have a big film industry. But as artists we cannot be the mouthpiece of the government. We want to have our own words. So I’m very happy that the president understood that.”

“The message for me was: ‘I know how you have suffered for so many years; but the hard times are over,’” Shahabi noted.
She cautioned that she did not know how substantial this new policy will be, “but I think as Iran’s film community, we have to help our government to achieve it’s goal,” she added.

Significantly, Shahabi, whose Shahabi Sheherazad Media International/Noori Pictures shingle has offices in Paris and Tehran, is back at the Fajr film mart after an eight year absence due to the difficult film industry climate, which seems to be improving.

British documentary producer Mike Lerner, who produced Jehane Noujaim’s Oscar-nommed “The Square” and co-directed “Pussy Riot: A Punk Prayer,” called the message from Iran’s president “A very special moment.”

“I was in Iran ten years ago and I’ve been waiting ten years to come back. It does feel like there is opportunity here now,” he said.
“The negative things are going away and there is hope for the future,” enthused Amir Esfandiari, Director of International Affairs of the Farabi Cinema Foundation which organizes the Fajr fest and mart.

Of course several fest attendees remarked that Iranian helmer Jafar Panahi is still not allowed to leave the country and is banned from making movies, since 2010 when he was sentenced on charges of propaganda against the state due to a docu he was said to be making about the disputed 2009 re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Since that ban Panahi has actually made two films “This Is Not a Film” and “Closed Curtain,” his reflection on being an active artist under physical and creative constraints in Iran. Both these pics have been smuggled outside the country.

Reflecting the more upbeat mood, the international industry presence at the Fajr film mart is substantially higher year, with some 240 foreign attendees, comprising buyers, sellers, fest programmers and journos, who have made the trek and roughly 150 Iranian industryites registered. Companies attending include Iran’s Iranian Independants, Germany’s Beta, India’s Madhu Entertainment, Japan’s Small Talk, Lebanon’s Italia Film International, the U.K.’s Swipe Films, L.A.-based Ideal Cinema and, for the first time, a delegation from Iraq.

More than fifty Iranian pics, including helmer Sayyed Roohollah Hejazi’s relationship drama “The Wedlock,” are unspooling alongside international titles such as Danish helmer Berit Madsen’s Sundance standout “Sepideh-Reaching for the Stars,” about a young girl in a rural village far from Tehran who wants to become an astronaut, and Serbian director Srdan Golubovic’s war drama “Circles,” (these three are in the main competish).

The fest runs through Feb. 11.