Asghar Farhadi’s return to Cannes with his double prize-winning “The Salesman” comes after the Iranian auteur’s Paris-set “The Past” vied for a Palme d’Or in 2013. It also marks his somewhat unexpected return to shooting in Iran after “A Separation.”
“The Salesman” stood out as this year’s only competition film to score two nods, one for actor Shaab Hosseini and the best screenplay prize for Farhadi.
Following “A Separation,” which in 2012 became the first Iranian film to win an Oscar, Farhadi had seemingly embarked on a path similar to his revered compatriot Abbas Kiarostami, whose last two films, “Certified Copy” (2010) and “Like Someone in Love” (2012), were shot respectively in Tuscany and Japan.
Though neither director would publicly admit it, shooting outside Iran was certainly less problematic, and the lure of A-list international movie stars, photogenic locations, and bigger budgets, had pull.
Speaking after the Cannes premiere of “The Salesman,” Farhadi (pictured) explained that after it was announced last year that he would segue from “The Past” to shooting a film in Spain, he got “nostalgic” and changed plans.
“I wanted to work in my country, I wanted to go back home,” he said. “Despite all the existing difficulties, I get great pleasure and I am most satisfied from shooting films in my country,” he added.
Popular on Variety
Those difficulties continue to include the risk of incarceration and censorship.
As the Cannes fest got started, dozens of film organisations, including the Federation of European Film Directors, launched an appeal to Iran’s government to grant clemency to Iranian filmmaker Keywan Karimi, sentenced last year to six years in jail and 223 lashes for his film “Writing on the City,” about political graffiti spanning the period from the 1979 Islamic Revolution through Iran’s contested 2009 election. Though sentenced, Karimi remains free pending appeal.
Similarly Jafar Panahi, whose surreptitiously shot “Taxi” won the Berlin Golden Bear last year, is still formally banned from filmmaking and to all effects from travelling, and “Taxi” remains unreleased in Iran.
Yet it’s a fact that, driven by an improving economy, Iranian film production is suddenly experiencing a burst, as ticket sales rise and multiplexes mushroom.
This year’s Cannes Marche Du Film world film market trends report notes that “the lifting of economic sanctions by the international community is expected to have a positive effect on attendance and production” in Iran. While the nuclear agreement is just one of the factors behind the accelerating Iranian economy, that effect is already been felt.
“This is an outstanding year for Iranian cinema” enthuses Mohammad Atebbai, head of Tehran-based sales company Iranian Independents.
Atebbai, who tracks local productions, says there are now 247 feature films in various stages of production in Iran, as of mid-April, 130 of which already completed. That’s a major increase compared with Iran’s official 2015 film production output, which was 84 films according to the Farabi Film Foundation, Iran’s official export body. Atebbai tallies last year’s output at 108 films. Both provided figures for the Cannes market report.
Meanwhile, box office is soaring.
During the Iranian New Year holidays – the key March 17 to April 1 period – box office reached a record-breaking 222 billion Rials ($7.3 million), according to Atebbai and other sources. Iranian media boasted that this year’s exceptional New Year haul amounts to more than the county’s total annual box office intake two years ago.
By Atebbai’s count, Iran will be adding 80 screens to its measly current 384 digital screen count by the end of 2016 thanks to a multiplex boom that sees more than one hundred new plexes under construction across the country. Iran’s population is more than 78 million, at least half of which aged under 35, which makes it the last major territory still untapped by the Hollywood majors. Not surprisingly, the national share of the local box office is 92 percent.
Though Iran is back on their radar, don’t expect the studios to be coming in anytime soon. Still, changes are underway in the country that Jim Jarmusch in Cannes called “one of the gardens of cinema on our planet.” It will be interesting to see what blossoms.