Iranian cinema got a rare bit of good news recently. Earlier this month, two of the country’s most famous dissident directors —Jafar Panahi (Taxi, No Bears) and Mohammad Rasoulof (Berlin Golden Bear winner There Is No Evil) were released from prison after months behind bars.
The elation surrounding their release was short lived: Rasoulof was soon served with new, dubious, charges that could land him in back in jail. And Panahi is still banned from making movies or from leaving the country. And given the continued, and brutal, suppression of protesters in the country by the Tehran regime, there is little cause for celebration.
“Releasing some individuals among thousands who have been arrested during a few past months, doesn’t lead me to optimism,” notes Iranian documentary filmmaker Farahnaz Sharifi (Profession: Documentarist). “Considering all these issues and censorship and restrictions we are facing with, there is a long process ahead to reach to a human condition and freedom of expression in our country,” says Sharifi, before adding, more hopefully, “but we are on the way.”
A step on the path towards that freedom could come in Berlin, where independent Iranian filmmakers are gathering to try and sketch out a different future for Persian cinema.
The newly-formed Iranian Independent Filmmakers Association (IIFA) has taken over the Iran stand at Berlin’s European Film Market, traditionally run by the country’s state-backed film board after the EFM banned any association with connections to the Tehran regime from attending.
At the EFM producers’ hub, the group will present its strategy for creating a sustainable Iranian film industry free of government censorship and oppression.
“We have to get past just giving statements [opposing the regime],” says Kaveh Farnam, a producer on Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil and Abbas Amini recent Rotterdam Festival winner Endless Borders. “We have to do some practical things to make real progress.”
The official Iranian film industry, says Farnam’s producing partner Farzad Pak, is intractably bound up with the government and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard, the branch of the Iranian Armed Forces which has immense economic and political power in Iran.
Things have only gotten worse since 2011, when the Revolutionary Guard set up its own film production and distribution company, such as Owj Arts and Media Organization. The group finances and promotes movies, such as Mehdi Jafari’s The 23 (2019), and Ebrahim Hatamikia’s Exodus (2020), that have the superficial sheen of independent cinema. While still toeing the official government line.
“These are fake independent films where, for someone outside Iran, it isn’t possible to not spot that they are propaganda,” says Farnam. “They have the same subject matter as Iranian independent movies —showing how people are living in poverty, how they are struggling, etc. But in the end, you have a good police office, or a kind government official who saves the day.”
To create a truly independent Iranian cinema, Farnam argues, indie filmmakers, both in Iran and in the wider diaspora, have to set up a completely new infrastructure free of any government links.
The broad outlines of that infrastructure will be presented in Berlin, where members of the IIFA will show producers, financiers and other filmmakers how they plan to finance, produce and release Farsi-language movies outside the system. The group will also present a number of works-in-progess to demonstrate what this new Iranian cinema will look like.
The challenges are enormous. Recent Iranian independent films had to shoot entirely in secret — Panahi Venice award winner No Bears, or Rasoulof’s There Is No Evil —or be made entirely outside the country, as was the case with Ali Abbasi’s Holy Spider, which won lead Zar Amir-Ebrahimi the best actress award in Cannes last year and has become a sleeper success internationally. Abbasi, who lives in Denmark, set the film up as a German-Danish-French-Swedish co-production and shot it in Jordan. Sepideh Farsi’s animated feature The Siren, which screens in Berlin’s Panorama section this year, was also done as an entirely European co-pro.
Even setting up a co-production with an American or European partner can be tricky, because state sanctions can forbid western companies from doing business with Iran.
But the IIFA is confident they can make it. “It always has been challenging [to make movies in Iran] and now even more so,” says Sharifi, “but we have to find an effective way to be ambassadors for Iran’s people…we have to decide whether we are with the people or not. It’s the time to stop any kind of compromising with any kind of censorship.”
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