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Iran Film Festival Opens Amid Charged Atmosphere

Amid the charged atmosphere of political turmoil, economic instability, and acts of protest against the cultural status quo, the 36th edition of the prestigious Fajr Film Festival opened in Tehran on February 1.

The Fajr Film Festival highlights the past year of Iranian cinema for 10 days, although any sign of political dissent in new movies is conspicuously absent. Some of the films would never make it to public theaters thanks to strict censorship laws that not only tell filmmakers what not to show but often dictate what they should show and how to portray the otherwise gloomy everyday life of Iranians.

The occasion marks the Ten Days of Dawn (Fajr), the anniversary of the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and the 10 days that began with the return from exile of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini and the fall of the Shah’s regime.

The 20-plus films in this year’s festival include The Old Road by Manijeh Hekmat, about a woman struggling for life in a male-dominated society; Cold Sweat by Soheil Beiraqi, about a female soccer player who needs her husband’s permission to travel abroad for a championship; Ablaze by Hamid Nematollah, about a man striving to be “normal”; Confiscation, a comedy by Mehran Ahmadi; Small Rotten Minds by Hooman Seyyedi; and several government-funded movies about the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s.

Apparently, some filmmakers have decided not to enter the festival to avoid sensitivities that could potentially lead to them being banned.

In the past, the government in Iran has seized the chance to hold cultural festivals in order to create a false aura of celebration around an occasion otherwise reminiscent of lawlessness, bloodshed, and summary executions.

Since first launching in 1982, a few years after the new regime settled, the Fajr Film Festival has introduced -- among run-off-the-mill entertainment and unjustifiable political propaganda -- half a dozen quality films and directors that proved successful at big-name international film festivals such as Cannes and Berlin.

Those successful and internationally acclaimed films include movies by renowned filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami with his Palm d’Or winning Taste of Cherry (1997); Jafar Panahi, whose films have won numerous awards including Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion in 2000 for The Circle and Berlin’s Golden Bear for Taxi in 2015; and twice Academy Award-winner Asghar Farhadi for A Separation in 2012 and The Salesman in 2017.

The international spotlight turned Iranian cinema into a public diplomacy tool. Several governments, including the Rouhani administration, used Iranian films as part of their charm offensive to win hearts and minds as well as political support in the West. Culture Minister Abbas Salehi emphasized the importance of Iranian films in “cultural diplomacy” in his official message to the organizers of the festival the day before the opening.

Farhadi refused to go to Los Angeles in 2017 to collect his Oscar and instead showed his film to the public on London’s Trafalgar Square while issuing a statement against U.S. President Donald Trump’s travel ban at the time.