Iranian cinema is having a great year despite the many impediments film directors face there, including being jailed.
Reflecting this burst of irrepressible cinematic energy, after strong showing of Iranian cinema at Berlin, Cannes and Karlovy Vary, Venice has five films from the country, two of which are in competition. Also, Leila Hatami, star of Cannes festival jurist Asghar Farhadi’s “A Separation,” is a member of Venice’s main jury panel.
“We have never received so many submissions from Iran, and many of them are good,” says Venice chief Alberto Barbera. He notes that “the paradox is that this is happening at a time when the Iranian regime is among the most rigidly conservative and repressive in the world,” and is responding to uprisings sparked by the country’s harsh economic conditions by re-incarcerating directors such as Jafar Panahi, whose latest film “No Bears” launches from Venice, fellow dissident filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof, and others “who try to freely express their opposing points of view.”
Barbera calls Panahi’s “No Bears,” which interweaves two parallel stories where the lovers face hidden obstacles, including the force of Iranian superstition and the country’s power dynamics, “his best film in a decade,” noting that “it’s not a political film. It’s actually a romancer.”
Panahi and Rasoulof in a statement issued at the fest on Saturday from Tehran’s Evin prison said the “hope of creating again” is a “reason for existence.” They also underlined that “independent cinema reflects its own times. It draws inspiration from society. And cannot be indifferent to it.”
“Somehow there is more potential in suffering,” says Iranian auteur Vahid Jalilvand, speaking from Tehran, whose third feature “Beyond the Wall” premieres in competition at Venice. His first two films, “Wednesday, May 9” and “No Date, No Signature,” previously played in the fest’s Horizons sidebar.
“There are more dilemmas, so there is more drama,” adds Jalilvand. “Maybe in other countries in the West or in the U.S., artists have to look for drama. But in Iran, drama is there. We just have to find it and collect it.”
Jalilvand points out that “Beyond the Wall,” which is the tale of a visually impaired man whose life changes when he intersects with a woman who is a fugitive from the police, “is not necessarily a reflection or a portrait of Iranian society,” but rather “a portrait of the world.”
Emerging Iranian helmer Houman Seyedi, whose “World War III” is premiering in Venice’s Horizons section, seems to embrace the notion that’s he’s made a political metaphor for his country and beyond.
“World War III” is about a homeless day laborer on a construction site named Shakib. He gets hired to work as an extra on a film being shot on the site about the atrocities committed by Hitler during WWII.
Shakib then has to contend with the pic’s tyrant filmmakers and a secret lover who jeopardizes this potentially life-changing opportunity.
“Societies ruled by totalitarian regimes are the most effective creators of anarchists,” said Seyedi in his director’s statement. “I’ve always wondered for how much longer there can be tyranny and oppression in the world and who the people are who will be crushed by the powerful rulers of such plagued societies.”
But for Iranian filmmakers, the fear is: how long will it last, since the Iranian films surfacing on the international circuit are bound to ruffle feathers.
“Nobody has any idea what movies we will have next year because of all the pressures and restrictions that the authorities are forcing on filmmakers,” says international distributor Mohammad Atebbai, whose Tehran-based shingle Iranian Independents is selling “World War III.”
Atebbai and others in Iran’s film community are worried that, besides putting filmmakers behind bars, Iranian authorities now are “not interested in issuing that many production permits.”
“They think they should not bring more problems upon themselves, since most of these films selected at major festivals are drawing ire from authorities within the current hardliner government,” he notes.