Putting on the head scarf humbles a woman instantly: Ears pinned down, hemmed in from every side, you are all eyes. Not the worst thing that can happen to a critic, perhaps. The scarf went on upon arrival at Tehran airport for the Fajr International Film Festival. The weather was warm, and colorful lights bobbed among trees: Iran was celebrating the 22nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution. Festival habitués observed that things have evolved, that women let their scarves slip back off the forehead.
But cultural restrictions have a way of invading what you see on-screen. How does a director film a love story when he can’t show a man and woman touching? “It was my problem all my life,” said Bahram Bayzai, famous for Bashu, the Little Stranger, made in 1986 and released in 1990 after censorship hassles. Bayzai’s Killing Rabids marks his return after 10 years of problems with the regime. His wife, Mozhde Shamsai, won the best-actress award playing a bourgeoise who returns to Tehran after the revolution to save her husband from murderous business partners. She becomes a kind of antique heroine, stalked, battered, and raped. This urban thriller won the audience award, and Bayzai said he thinks it’s because the film recounts a period that haunts Iranians: “They’ve heard about these times from their parents; they are curious.”
Iran is a young country: 60 percent of the population is under age 30. During Majid Majidi’s Baran (Rain), the best-crafted film in competition (and winner of the top awards), kids stamped their feet to the action scenes—admittedly scarce in this film, a meditation on mute desire. Majidi, a devout Muslim and international prizewinner, twice nominated for the best foreign film Oscar (Children of Heaven and The Color of Paradise), doesn’t have to tussle with the censors—he seems to instinctively censor himself.
Baran evokes the plight of Afghan immigrants, a theme that preoccupies Iranian directors—Mohsen Makhmalbaf just returned from shooting on the Afghanistan border. In Baran, a girl disguises herself as a construction worker to replace her father, victim of a fall. Work clothes and cap conceal her until she bewitches a fellow worker: He catches sight of her combing her hair behind a curtain. Sixteen-year-old Zahra Bahrami, who plays the beautiful and religious heroine, was discovered by Majidi in a refugee camp.
This year’s movies showed the texture of Tehran street traffic as well as the snowy mountains beyond, and treated some forbidden themes. The Hidden Half, by Tahmine Milani, hints that the heroine had premarital sex. Saman Moqaddam’s The Party ends with a party scored to rock and roll. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Under the City’s Skin has drug trafficking and wife beating. The Unfinished Song by Maziar Miri involves a man’s search for a famous folksinger; he finds her in jail, presumably for singing. Indeed, many movies at the festival seemed to be about women oppressed by more than a mere scarf.