Fajr Film Festival Diary, Iran

By Michael Chanan


In Search of debate, diversity and the moving image in Tehran

Tuesday, 24.1.06

Intense curiosity and a little unease are my feelings as I set out for the Fajr film festival in Tehran. Curiosity because it is always deeply fascinating to physically arrive in a place which you know from its image on the screen, and I've been watching Iranian cinema for a dozen years or more. Besides, this is my first visit to an Islamic country (not counting the Old City of Jerusalem). While this in itself is no reason for trepidation, what makes me feel uneasy is the renewed anti-Semitism of the new Iranian regime. I don't mean the old hostility towards Israel and support for the Palestinian cause, because, as an anti-Zionist Jew, I don't consider this in itself as anti-Semitism. Or rather, it ought not to be automatically considered so, although that is indeed the response of the Zionists. What is upsetting, however, are the pronouncements about the Holocaust by Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the new President, and his call for a 'scientific' conference on the matter. I am very curious to know what the Iranian intelligentsia makes of this. As I see it, the West is falling into a trap set by Iran over the nuclear issue, but Iran is falling into a trap set by the Zionists which only results in further demonisation of Iran in the West. But how do Iranians see it?

Wednesday 25.1.06

A curious, frustrating, but eventually interesting day. I've been invited to Iran to give a lecture to accompany a panorama of Latin American cinema within the Festival, although the invitation came originally from the Misagh Cultural Centre in Tehran, which is run, it turns out, by a group of documentary film makers. The result is a little difficulty in making contact with the Misagh people because the assistants at the Festival registration desk, although they knew who I am, don't seem to know anything else.

But first, because the registration desk doesn't open till later in the morning, there is a film to see, Journey to Hidalou. A religious melodrama about an aging professor of religion whose religiosity is being tested and which frankly made less and less sense to me as it proceeded. No doubt full of all sorts of symbolism inaccessible to a non-Islamic Westerner, but at the same time, I cannot avoid the feeling that this is the Iranian revolution's equivalent of socialist realism in Soviet Russia – basically, state propaganda. Are there, I wonder, lots of films like this?

After registration, I feel I’ve been cast into limbo. A pleasant young man goes off to see if he can find someone who knows something about where and when I'm supposed to give my lecture. He doesn't inspire much confidence when he comes back after about fifteen minutes to say that he's located the head of the translation team who will come and see me so could I please wait there a little longer. It is he himself who returns a few minutes later to say that the Misagh people will come and meet me at the hotel after lunch. Except that they don't, and I have to start explaining the problem all over again, this time to the assistant at the Festival desk in the hotel, who speaks little English. Further assistance is provided by the hotel desk clerk, who has a splendid moustache and insists that he remembers me from last year. I am beginning to feel that Iranians are very nice people, but they're so laid back that they're practically prone. Finally, after half an hour of explanations and phone calls, someone arrives to help, and with only a couple of mobile phone calls, a new appointment is made for the director of the Misagh centre, Muhammad Safari, to meet me at 4pm. This time he arrives very punctually with a colleague, and now the problem is that again their English is very poor, and we have no translator.

After chatting for a while we go back over to the Festival building and in due course – but by now I've missed another two films – we link up with a number of others, and my frustration abates. The conversation flows a little better because they find a young woman to translate, but when we're joined by another documentarist who has excellent English and takes over the translation, the effect, I suppose, is inevitable: the woman reverts to silence. Without leaving the table, she seems to disappear. I look at her once or twice, but there is no longer any eye contact. A little later, I meet up with the other guest invited for the Latin American retrospective, the Nicaraguan documentarist Félix Zurita, who tells me about one of the films I have missed, Jafar Panahi's Offside, a comedy about a girl's attempt to attend a football match by dressing up as a boy. I remember the last Iranian film I saw in London, The Lizard (Kamal Tabrizi, 2004) about a thief who escapes by dressing up as a mullah, and I cannot help but think about Cuban cinema, where comedy emerged in the 1980s as the most effective form of political critique.

The conversation begins to take a most interesting turn. They tell us about the films they make, which include a lot of war reportage from the Iran-Iraq war and more recently Afghanistan, Iraq and Chechnya. One of them, Reza, has red patches on the skin of his cheeks half hidden by his beard, which he later explains are long term effects of chemical weapons. The discussion is always politically informed, and it isn’t long before we are engaged in a political dialogue. The question of Israel and Palestine comes up, and I feel bound to explain where I’m coming from and what my qualms are, but I also find my interlocutors ready to engage.

From now on, Félix and I are inseparable. Talking with him later, we soon agree that comparisons with Cuba are hardly relevant, but there are certain similarities with other Latin American countries and especially between Tehran and Mexico City, both of them huge sprawling third world metropolis of 15 million or more, choking with cars and pollution because the air is kept in by surrounding mountains. And in Tehran, where petrol costs 10c a litre, you have another phenomenon: Iranians are obviously gentle and patient people, but when they get behind the wheel of a car, they go a little crazy.

As for cinema, the Iranian film industry is rather more successful than the Mexican, both domestically and internationally. This is first of all because it isn't dominated by Hollywood, and has therefore been able to develop along its own lines, although you then have to add that many of the films by directors like Kiarostami and Mahmalbaf that win prizes and get distributed abroad in the art house circuits do not get shown or have very little success at home. But production levels are very high – 120 feature films last year. There are not enough cinemas to put them in, says Nader Talebzadeh, another director who joins us, who has just finished his first feature film, The Messiah, an Islamic view of Jesus. While I immediately begin to wonder if this is Iran's answer to Mel Gibson, Nader explains that it's the cinema version of a television series which cost no more than $1.2m, even though he shot on 35mm. It is of course the very low costs of production which allow a country like Iran to produce so many films. Nader is also very informative about the Iranian film scene. About 20% of feature production is shot on digital video, and there is more than one laboratory with a video to 35mm transfer facility. There is a good deal of independent production, even of documentaries which can’t be shown publicly but circulate on CD or DVD. He cites the example of a documentary called Poverty and Immorality by Masoud Dehnamaki about prostitution in Tehran, which asks why it has not only persisted but grown. A film that Nader wouldn’t condone, expressing the belief that ‘you shouldn’t wash your dirty linen in public’.

I think of the comparison with Mexico again. The Mexicans have a saying that the country is too far from God and too close to the USA. I’m tempted to say that in Iran it's the other way round.

Thursday 26.1.06

I do not get to see many Iranian films at all, largely because the Misagh people are also acting as very instructive tourist guides. They have laid on a minibus for us, and Félix and I go around together accompanied by a little entourage consisting of one of the Misagh people, our interpreter Mohsen, and a film student from one of the universities with his camera, because he has chosen to make a film about our visit for his coursework.

Mohsen, I have to say, is a great delight. He is a true cinephile, who gave up medical studies after five years because he wasn't cut out for it, he said. Now he's a part-time school teacher who also translates films for subtitles – and sometimes runs into trouble because he translates certain things too literally. He is not religious. In his early 40s and unmarried, he is delightful company, although he drives me a little mad as he constantly asks me my opinion of this film or that. His knowledge of cinema is truly encyclopaedic, and he has an excellent filmic memory, especially for dialogue. He confesses to a fascination with Judaism, and has no doubts about the Holocaust – he has seen practically every Holocaust feature film that’s been made, and explains that you can get DVDs of everything under the counter. He is well read, although his intellectual references are pre-postmodern. He is fascinated to discover that I was a student of Isaiah Berlin’s, but didn’t know that Isaiah was a Zionist.

In the morning we go to the famous Bazaar, visit a mosque, and have lunch in a traditional tea house where after eating we smoke a hookah. Since I have recently given up smoking cigarettes, I find this quite delightful. In the Bazaar, the young owner of a carpet shop shows us photos on his computer of himself with Sean Penn. (Later, back home in Bristol, I discover the actor’s diary of his visit to Tehran on the web: http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2005/08/22/DDGJUEAF041.DTL)

Then we go to the cinema to see one of Félix's films, a documentary about the disastrous effects of free trade area economics on small peasant farmers in Nicaragua. Muhammad invites us to stay and see the feature, the Chilean movie Machuca, so that he can introduce us afterwards to the Minister of Culture. Since I have already seen the film, I am not put out when dragged out in the middle of the cinema foyer to do a live radio interview from by mobile phone, which the interviewer holds up in front of me and Mohsen.

The conversation with the Minister is curious, and gives Mohsen the chance for a rest, since Talebzadeh is there to translate. The Minister asks me why my interest in Latin American cinema. I explain about its aesthetic appeal and how Cuban cinema especially represented a fascinating alternative to Hollywood, but without saying anything about politics. He surmises that I must be 'interested in socialism', and then says he has the impression that socialism in Latin America has a religious dimension. l reply that its true that it's influenced by the theology of liberation. And that's about it.

Then, as we leave the cinema, a group of students approach us, quickly explaining that they are Marxists and would like to interview us for their email magazine. It's not the right moment, so we suggest they come and meet us at the hotel in the morning.

Friday 27.1.06

The day begins with the students, about half a dozen of them, two of whom speak pretty good English. Félix conspires with me to interview them before they interview us, and they are not put out by my little video camera (after all they have a camera of their own ready to film us with). They seem to have inherited their politics from their parents, and tell us of members of their families who being communists, were imprisoned or worse, either under the Shah or after the Ayatollahs seized power. Their Marxism seemed a little anachronistic – not because Marxism per se is anachronistic, which I don’t believe, but because they spoke the language of a kind of communism which came to an end almost everywhere except Cuba in 1991. They explain that within the university they are free to publish their magazine – as long as it isn’t too explicit and doesn’t directly attack the religious state – but not outside. They explain that the regime allows them this little space because they are seen as a foil to the liberals, who are regarded as much more dangerous to Islamic principles. As for cinema, the students dismiss the films of directors like Kiarostami as imitative of Western filmmakers like Godard and not a cinema of the people, who, by the way, they say are not at all religious.

The only thing I find disturbing in this encounter is their response to our question about their attitude to Ahmadinejad’s Holocaust pronouncements. Unsure of themselves, they hesitate and then say that maybe there weren’t so many victims. I do not intervene, as I do with my peers, to tell them of the suffering of my own family at the hands of the Nazis, but they sense that neither I nor Félix are happy with this response. They discuss the question further among themselves and change tack. Look, they say, we are very sorry about what happened to the Jews, but we are also very sorry about what is happening to the Palestinians. I am left with the impression that while on questions of internal politics they are instinctively highly sceptical and critical of government claims and policies, the Holocaust and Israel is an area where they are still caught in an ideological bind, and they cannot separate the historical Holocaust from the way the Zionists use it to block any criticism of Israel. The problem, of course, is that the emotional blackmail of Zionism is so strong that too many other people in other places cannot escape this conflation either.

After the students it’s time for more tourism, this time to the Shah's palace. This takes longer than anticipated, so we then rush back across town just in time to see Solanas's film about the Argentine crisis, which Félix hasn't seen either. One of the young intellectuals from yesterday comes up and gives me a copy of an Iranian edition of my Chilean Cinema, published there back in 1980.

All these encounters bring their own perceptions and nuances, raising questions about the political sub-currents lying below the surface. What is common is the feeling of a very warm and generous culture, albeit full of paradox.

Saturday 27.1.06

Yesterday Mohsen and me bantered about Hitchcock – I was telling him I only really liked the comedies. This morning, he reports a dream. There was me and Peckinpah (of all people), and we were discussing how to do away with Hitch!

Today's programme: we are taken first to the television studios, to record interviews for a programme about Latin American cinema linked to the Festival screenings. However, to my utter astonishment, I am also asked to comment on the Holocaust!

Passing through the newsroom after the interviews – prayers. Then we meet the head of Iranian television news, and again he asks about the Holocaust. He listens as I tell him about my family and give him my opinion that the intended conference is off-target and very bad public relations, and then tells me that Ahmadinejad’s speech went down very well in the Arab countries. I am trying to make sense of why they keep asking me my opinion on this subject as we go off for some more tourism – first to see Khomeini's house and then the film museum. I can only suppose that they’ve not met someone like me before – an anti-imperialist English university professor, a secular Jew who lost family in the Holocaust and professes anti-Zionism. To me, this seems unexceptional. I am a child of my generation. I guess that for them I break their stereotypes. But I feel absolutely no hostility towards me from anyone.

After that, it's back to the Film Festival, more conversations, and I do the interview on camera which Nader Talebzadeh has promised me.

Sunday 28.1.06

Félix leaves in the early hours, and on my last day I miss his company. We not only hit it off together, but commented to each other how useful it was to have the other there as a sounding board, to test out our perception of what we were seeing.

The morning is given over to shopping for souvenirs, but before my lecture in the evening, I have another and even more astonishing meeting. This is not just a courtesy call but turns out to be two hours with Ahmadinejad's personal advisor for cinema – in other words, his spin doctor. Abbas Shamaghderi, a film director who Muhammad tells me in advance has 'a personality much like Mr. A. himself', is leader of a small group of about ten self-proclaimed Islamic film-makers to which, as I later discover, Nader Talebzadeh also belongs. We cover a lot of ground but this is one I didn’t film. He is telling me that Ahmadinejad is truly a man of the people as well as a radical who goes back to the original inspiration of the Iranian Revolution. He listens to my critical questions without any sign of annoyance, and replies warmly but without giving any ground.

My lecture in the evening goes down pretty well, and several people want to talk to me afterwards, so it’s very late when we get back to the hotel, but it still isn’t over. I have been asked to give one last interview, this time for a film magazine, and it’s about how to develop a documentary script, so the answers need care and attention. And after that, I have a long sort of ‘de-briefing’ conversation with Muhammad, so it’s four a.m. when I get to bed – and it’s up at seven to set out for the airport and the return journey.

As I depart, my mind goes back to a conversation I had with someone about Edward Said, whose work they greatly respected, despite his secularism. I think about his book ‘Orientalism’, and wonder if I’d really understood it when I first read it, or at any rate how much more sense it now makes in retrospect. Because I’m aware that I have found in ancient-modern Persia-Iran something very seductive, which at the same time seems to mask a dangerous depth. But this, I’m afraid, is something too difficult to fathom after only three hours sleep at the start of a long flight home.

Michael Chanan is a writer, documentary film-maker and teacher.