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Iranian Filmmakers Have Reason to Cheer as Political Climate Slowly Shifts

Government easing censorship, but hurdles still remain

To measure how much things have changed on the Iranian film scene with the election of moderate president Hassan Rouhani in June, one need only look at some of the activity at the recent Fajr Film Festival and market. Movies like “Tales,” a drama by about economic hardship, which had been banned since 2011, screened at the fest. And London-based Harry/Amir, a partnership between two young producers, Brit Harry Amies and Iranian Amir Rezazadeh, was looking to bring Western productions into Iran.

Iranian film production is booming, said producer Mohammad Attebai, who cited an official report stating that 170 features are in the pipeline in 2014, more than twice as many as last year. More significantly, almost half of these pics are by first-time directors whose pent-up rage over the disputed 2009 election pushed them to make movies, he said.

Yet while Iranian filmmakers are feeling a real difference in the political climate, progress remains incremental; censorship has eased a bit, but acclaimed director Jafar Panahi is still officially banned from making movies, and while not under house arrest anymore, he is not allowed to leave the country.

Nevertheless, change was palpable in Tehran at the 32nd Fajr fest, which kicked off Jan. 31 with a message from Rouhani, who indicated the dawn of a new era for filmmakers in a message read by Culture Minister Ali Jannati. “After what happened to art and culture over the past years, I see my country’s cinema gloomy and depressed,” Jannati read, adding Rouhani’s vow that better days are ahead.

But the moviemaking community is pinning its hopes on more than mere words that the new government is film-friendly.

Iran’s main movie-industry guild, the House of Cinema, shuttered two years earlier by hardliners, was reopened shortly after Rouhani took office in August. A couple of months later, censors lifted screening bans on two films: “Tales,” by the outspoken Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, considered Iran’s premier female helmer; and “Parinaz,” a pic critical of Islamic superstitions, by helmer Bahram Bahramian. Both titles star Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, among the country’s most popular actresses, now working again after being banned from acting for two years due to her political activism — and for being photographed at Cannes not wearing a hijab.

Reflecting the more upbeat mood, international industry presence nearly doubled this year at the Fajr mart, with some 240 foreign attendees on hand, including the U.K.’s Swipe Films, Germany’s Beta, India’s Madhu Entertainment and, for the first time, a delegation from Iraq. The roughly 150 registered Iranian bizzers included Attebai’s shingle, Iranian Independents; and Katayoon Shahabi’s Sheherazad Media as well as her Paris-based Noori Pictures; Attebai and Shahabi are back at the Fajr market after eight-year absences due to the previously dismal political climate. Indeed, in 2011, Shahabi was incarcerated for three months on reportedly trumped-up charges of collaborating with the banned BBC Persian service.

Noted Attebai: “Real change will take time, but what the president has done proves that we are right to be optimists.”

The producer was in a forgiving mood over the 15-minute cut the Fajr fest official made in Reza Dormishian’s “I’m Not Angry,” set against the backdrop of student protests sparked by the country’s 2009 elections, before its screening. The current festival powers are just being careful, he said, “to not create excuses for the hardliners to prevent the government from carrying out new policies.” Although Attebai pulled Dormishian’s film from the Fajr market, it screened uncut in Berlin to critical acclaim.

Shahabi struck a similar note of hope. “As artists, we cannot be the government’s mouthpiece, and I’m very happy the president understands that.”

Shahabi’s lineup at Fajr included Sundance standout “Sepideh,” a doc by Danish helmer Berit Madsen about an Iranian girl who wants to become an astronaut; the pic has drawn ire from Iranian hardliners. She was also selling “From Iran, a Separation,” a doc about local reaction to the country’s first Oscar, for Asghar Farhadi’s 2011 film “A Separation.”

Meanwhile, the 1979 American hostage crisis in Iran is featured in several new film and TV projects that aim to add perspective to that period, which redefined U.S./Iran relations.

Prominent Iranian producer Jamal Sadatian’s Boshra Film shingle recently trumpeted plans for a big-budget TV series, which he would like to shoot in the former U.S. embassy, with American actors playing some of the hostages.

A clear sign of the ambitions of Iran’s film industry: Majid Majidi’s religious biopic “Prophet Muhammad,” now in post, about Muhammad’s early life — and government-financed to the tune of $200 million, according to a knowledgeable source — is the nation’s biggest-budget pic yet. Lensed by d.p. Vittorio Storaro, who received a career nod at the Fajr fest, it features vfx by Scott E. Anderson (“The Adventures of Tintin”).

Meanwhile, the microbudget end of the spectrum is cresting with a wave of Web-connected filmmakers starting to make an international splash.

Standouts include Shakram Mokri’s genre pic “Fish & Cat,” which scored a special innovation prize at Venice last year; and “13,” the first feature by 33-year-old Houman Seyedi, about a middle-class Tehran teen who reacts to his parents’ divorce by getting into trouble with small-time drug dealers.

“Thanks to social media and the Internet, these first-time directors are very educated, and aware of all the changes in artistic trends around the world,” Attebai noted.

This wired generation is also eager to break out of its artistic isolation and connect with the rest of the world on the same wavelength.

Among the most symbolic companies of the new spirit of detente was Harry/Amir, which is looking to bring Western productions to Iran now that it’s “rational” again, its toppers said. Their dream is to shepherd an international documentary about Iran.

“We feel (the country) has been misrepresented most of the time by Westerners,” they explained.

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