IFM report: Talking truth in Tehran

The 31st Fajr Film Festival and the 16th Iranian International Film Market (IFM) took place earlier this month in Tehran. TVF International sales exec Harriet Armston-Clarke (pictured) reports on one of the industry's lesser-known events.
February 26, 2013

The 31st edition of the Fajr Film Festival and the 16th Iranian International Film Market (IFM) took place earlier this month in the Iranian capital of Tehran. Harriet Armston-Clarke (pictured), sales exec at UK distributor TVF International, reports on one of the industry’s lesser-known events.

When I told people that I was going to an Iranian film market and festival, reactions ranged from incredulity to panic.

Despite the difficulty in getting there at all, for many in the West Iran is synonymous with extremism, a controversial nuclear program and the oppression of women.

Moreover, since diplomatic relations ‘cooled’ between the UK and the Islamic Republic in 2011, visas granted in either direction have been few and far between. However, if I could withstand the excessive bureaucracy surely the opportunity to attend such a unique market was too good to miss.

Without the help and endless enthusiasm of the talented young team at the Visual Media Institute who were running the 10-day event, I would never have made it to Tehran. They worked incredibly hard, at a time of strained diplomatic relations and tightening sanctions to bring the world to Iran and stopped at nothing to ensure the eventual arrival of some 75 international guests, myself included, from all over the world.

Industry professionals were in attendance from a whole range of countries – from Australia to Tanzania, and Azerbaijan to Cuba, with companies such as Al Jazeera, Radiotelevisione Svizzera and Deutsche Welle represented, to name but a few.

The Fajr International Film Festival is held every year to commemorate the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution. With this in mind there might have been a risk that we would be bludgeoned with an official narrative and see nothing of creative significance. However, while some degree of censorship was clearly in effect, we were able to enjoy a number of thought-provoking films and speak openly with Iranian industry professionals, while also enjoying incredible hospitality.

Amongst participants there were hushed mutterings that that the vibrant creativity of the pre-2009 festivals was somewhat lacking – that only the mildest of documentaries and films had been permitted to be shown the festival. And indeed, there was a noticeable lack of anything very political, with the exception of a vast quantity of government approved films about the Iran-Iraq war, an Iranian genre known as “Holy Defence”.

winners onstage at the 31st fajr film festival

Award winners on stage at the 31st Fajr Film Festival in Iran

In recent years, Iran has hit the headlines in its treatment of the industry as a whole. Some of the household names who helped to put Iranian filmmaking on the map, such as Nasser Taghvai, have given up making films altogether under Ahmedinajad’s government and others, like Bahram Beyzayi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have left for the U.S. and Europe to continue their work. The treatment of Jafar Panahi, director of the acclaimed, Oscar-shortlisted doc This is Not a Film, who was sentenced to six years imprisonment and a 20 year ban on writing or directing, is a chilling reminder of the battles that filmmakers face in today’s Iran.

However, the predominantly young and liberal Iranians I spoke to reminded me that Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar-award winning drama A Separation might be seen as a symbol of hope. Whilst the director has had his fair share of run-ins with the authorities, the film received critical acclaim both at home and abroad, proving that it is possible to subtly transcend censorship and create meaningful narrative.

“Like anyone, we don’t stop making films just because sometimes it is difficult,” one filmmaker told me at the market.

The Fajr Film Festival itself is comprised of four sections: International; Looking for Simorgh (Iranian cinema); New Vision (newcomers); and Cinema Vérité (the documentary competition). All four competitions culminated in a lavish awards ceremony where 38 prizes were awarded to national and international films.

Alongside the competitions and screenings were spotlights on Polish and Chinese cinema; the Iranian International Film Market (held January 31-February 4), where international sellers and distributors – such as myself – held stands; and the third International conference on ‘Hollywood-ism,’ a series of talks about the promotion of U.S. hegemony through cinema.

Each day films were screened in cinemas and theatres across the city packed with an audience comprised of mostly young Tehranis, lapping up the atmosphere and networking with local and international professionals. According to the Visual Media Institute, the total audience for the festival numbered somewhere in the region of 80,000.

Not only does this underline the broad importance of a creative festival in Iran today, but in a country ravished by economic decline and political difficulties, this creative thirst was inspirational.

Perhaps as a consequence, the reaction from the participants and guests at the Iranian Film Market and Fajr Film Festival was extremely positive. Asia Pacific Screen Awards’ artistic director Maxine Williamson said that being at the festival “has bolstered my belief in the importance of what we do.” Documentaries really do have the power to challenge and change perceptions.

From my own perspective as a documentary distributor, I was hoping to pick up some interesting docs from Iranian producers which would merit international broadcast distribution and also to talk with broadcasters about coproduction opportunities.

harriet armston-clarke (left), aya al blouchi (center) and shorooq shaheen (right)

TVF's Harriet Armston-Clarke (left) with the Doha Film Institute's Aya Al Blouchi (centre) and Qatari filmmaker Shorooq Shaheen (right)

Iran has been a world-famous hub of cinematic creativity for many years now, and where this talent can be used to combine a traditionally lyrical style of filmmaking with a subject targeted at Western audiences, there is enormous potential – especially considering the unique geo-political position in which Iranian filmmakers work. Watch this space.

The award for Best Iranian Documentary this year went to Ramtin Balf for the documentary Liang River, a scenic exploration of the wildlife and cultural and national heritage of the Persian Gulf and the region of Bushehr. Last Days of Winter, by Hadi Behrouz, took the award for Best Technical Achievement, and the Best Director prize went to Mehdi Yamanpour for Mashti Ishmael.

During the closing ceremony, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Seyyed Mohammad Hoseini, told us that “the 31st Fajr Film Festival was much better than previous festivals both in terms of quality and quantity of films being presented at the festival”. Personally, I returned to the UK with a mind full of ideas and exciting contacts. The Minister continued to say that the success of the premieres of young filmmakers bodes extremely well for the future of the Iranian film industry as a whole, and despite the difficulties that it will face there is evidence of some truth in this sentiment.

Based on the number of Iranian films contending for documentary awards, as well as a thirst for documentaries from broadcasters and producers alike, this should especially be the case in the factual realm. I witnessed great hope on the part of participants and the organizers that documentary filmmaking will continue to grow in the region. And with so many untold, fascinating stories, it would be a crime if it did not.

  • Harriet Armston-Clarke is a sales executive at London-based factual distributor TVF International. The 16th Iranian International Film Market (IFM) took place in Tehran, Iran, from January 31-February 4.
About The Author