Tehran, Iran—Branded part of an “axis of evil” on the eve of the 20th Fajr Film Festival, Iran effectively reminded the world that it is not, in fact, some medieval sinkhole, but the home of a sophisticated and world-renowned cinema. Although “Death to America” would roar from hundreds of thousands of throats the day after the festival’s February 10 close (during the annual celebration of the 1979 revolution), Fajr itself was again a model of civilized—if slightly self-conscious—cosmopolitanism. The international jury, which included former Berlin festival head Moritz de Hadeln and cinematographer Darius Khondji, named Godard’s Eloge de l’Amour best film, Takeshi “Beat” Kitano best director (for Brother), and Jack Nicholson best actor (for The Pledge). The latter prize was accepted by Telluride festival codirector and Nicholson pal Tom Luddy, who genially promised to convey Tehran’s appreciation directly to Jack.
In the Iranian competition, however, the jury headed by Majid Majidi faced a celluloid sea of discontents. Unhappiness over President Mohammad Khatami’s failure to deliver on promises of reform, evident throughout Iranian society of late, has now displaced winsome children, poetic auteurism, and even Afghanistan at the top of Iran’s cinematic agenda. The film that took top honors in Fajr’s Iranian section, Bahman Farmanara’s House Built on Water, is a veritable catalog of current social ills. Opening on the death of an angel and ending with an angelic child reciting the Koran, this like-minded follow-up to Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine offers a morose dramatic tour of predations including AIDS, drug addiction, and the recent “serial murders” of Iranian intellectuals. Although sometimes choppy and baldly rhetorical, the film provides a grimly apt illustration of the saying “Life without hope is like a house built on water.”
An even more passionate evocation of hopelessness, Ebrahim Hatamikia’s Low Altitude begins in a southern Iranian airport where the TV monitors suddenly erupt with CNN’s coverage of September 11 (a first?). An embittered worker, accompanied by his extended family, then hijacks an airliner and demands to be taken to a nearby Arab state, which he hopes will relay him to the U.S. and a good job. Told that Iran’s neighbors would extradite him, he fumes and briefly entertains another idea: Israel.
Since art films are now equated with tasteful restraint, Hatamikia, whose splashy, overheated style suggests a collision of Sam Fuller and Frank Tashlin, remains an odd man out, all but unknown to international audiences. Yet he is arguably Iran’s most boldly provocative filmmaker, a fact not lost on local filmgoers; Fajr’s audience award overwhelmingly went to Low Altitude.
A much quieter polemic, one popular with audiences as well as jurors (who gave it prizes for screenplay, director, and actress), Rasul Sadr-Ameli’s I Am Taraneh, 15 follows a girl whose widower father is in prison for unspecified crimes. Wooed, married, impregnated, and then jettisoned by a moody middle-class cad, she elects to have and keep her baby in defiance of convention and all advice. Directed with a coolly meticulous naturalism, the film benefits enormously from young Taraneh Alidoosti’s subtle, stunningly assured performance in the title role.
Young talent, both in front of and behind the camera, was also displayed in two of the festival’s best debut films. With its La Ronde/The Circle-like segueing from one set of characters to another, Naser Refaie’s Examination sketches the hopes and frustrations of Iranian girls by observing a school yard as students await their college entrance exam. And there are hints of Cassavetes, Fassbinder, and Godard in Alireza Amini’s striking, semi-improvised Letters of the Wind, in which a soldier relays illicit audiotaped messages between the barracks and the outside world. (Although another promising debut, Manijeh Hekmat’s Women’s Prison, was banned before Fajr, it seems a likely candidate for international festival exposure.)
Two highly anticipated films by veteran auteurs were overlooked by Fajr’s jury, yet both reflected the prevailing mood of social criticism. From Naser Taghvaie, the director who transferred Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not to the Persian Gulf in his Captain Korshid, Blank Page concerns a married woman trying to launch herself as a screenwriter in a time haunted by the murders of intellectuals. And in Bemani, Dariush Mehrjui adopts a style resembling that of Soderbergh’s Traffic to limn the trials of a poor rural woman forced to marry a tyrannical miser. That the film’s heroine finally escapes only through disfigurement provides the kind of acrid irony that’s not confined to Iran’s cinemas in early 2002.