In Tehran’s majestic Freedom Square, a crowd of revelers a million strong commemorated the 20th anniversary of their independence, chanting “Death to America” and burning American flags. The previous evening, at the glamorous Vahdat Hall, it was awards night for the 17th Fajr International Film Festival, and a different sort of festivity reigned. Attendees cheered the news that Iranian director Majid Majidi, at the festival with his new film, Color of God, had been nominated for an Oscar for his previous effort, Children of Heaven.
Although justifiably proud of their flourishing national cinema, Iranians have no desire to be isolated from the world. With more than 100 films, including an international competition with films from Australia to Tajikistan and retrospectives on Bresson and Tavernier, among others, the festival takes over 10 Tehran theaters for 10 days. Furthermore, through a brisk black-market trade, Iranians are remarkably up-to-date on American culture (although popular musical taste seems focused on hits by Bon Jovi and Chris De Burgh). This cultural awareness is linked to what some are referring to as a social revolution, especially regarding attitudes toward women’s roles in society.
Tahmine Milani’s Two Women, which won the best screenplay award, is a bold yet slightly heavy-handed feminist statement. Featuring strong performances, it contrasts the life of a successful career woman with her unfortunate college friend, who must contend with a cruel father, a deranged stalker, and a loveless marriage. Milani, the only woman director in competition this year, infuses her indictment of patriarchy with a righteous elegance.
Audiences also embraced Ebrahim Hatamikia’s starkly allegorical The Red Ribbon, a story of three lost souls confronting each other on a ruined farm in the center of a minefield. Dry and intense, the film suggests an Iranian David Mamet’s take on the aftermath of the Iran-Iraq war. The similarly themed Hiva, directed by Rassul Mollaqolipur, chronicles a woman’s obsessive effort to discover what happened to her husband who disappeared in combat. As wartime flashbacks compete with a mournful present, the tale builds to a powerful, if somewhat predictable, conclusion.
While Majidi’s Color of God seems to have been passionately crafted, its saccharine subject matter feels almost calculating in its Hollywood-readyness. (A widowed father. A blind son. Both come to learn valuable lessons about life.) As one European festival programmer cynically admitted, “We’ve got to program it. It was made for us.” In a year when heavyweights such as Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf were notably absent, it easily won the international jury award.
At the revolutionary celebrations less than 20 feet from where Uncle Sam hung in effigy, a group of youths were doing a swift business in bootleg Titanic handbags. Although the Islamic government has successfully created one of the world’s most vital national cinemas, it’s hard to compete with Leonardo DiCaprio.