Tahmineh Milanis comedy about four vengeful women is on the bill at the festival.… (UCLA Film and Television…)
It isn't easy being a serious art-house filmmaker in Iran. Witness the sentencing last year of renowned directors Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof to six years in prison and banishment from making movies for 20 years because of their protests of the contested 2009 presidential elections, which saw hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continue in power.
Though Iranian films are shown in international festivals and have distributions in numerous countries, most are never released in Iran. Rather, they are screened through underground channels and sometimes become available through the black market. Still, the cinema endures.
"It is very interesting how people continue to try to make movies they want to make," says UCLA Film and Television Archive's Shannon Kelley, who curated the archive's annual "Celebration of Iranian Cinema" film festival opening Friday at the Billy Wilder Theater for a monthlong engagement. "We keep seeing people in Iran making very interesting and complicated stories."
Aside from a plethora of thought-provoking, complex political dramas and documentaries from directors including Tahmineh Milani, Rakhshan Bani-E'temad and Vahid Vakilifar, the festival also is highlighting vintage Iranian movies. (Rasoulof's 2010 film, "The White Meadows" is screening Feb. 9.)
Archive head Jan-Christopher Horak says despite the arrests of Panahi and Rasoulof, the archive didn't run into any unusual problems this year in obtaining contemporary films for the festival, which kicks off with Milani's comedy "Payback," about four women who meet in prison and decide to take revenge on the men who ruined their lives.
"I have to say that the Iranian program is always an incredibly difficult program because of all the issues ... we have to deal with in terms of politics," Horak said. "Even communication is always difficult and making sure we are following university regulations, government regulations and protocol."
This year, Milani will attend the event, as will director Alireza Davoodnejad, who will bring his feature "Salve." The drama about an elderly man dealing with his granddaughter's drug addiction will screen Saturday.
Milani has made 13 features in Iran and was imprisoned for her 2001 film, "The Hidden Half." "When I was in prison, I met a lovely lady that inspired me," said Milani of "Payback" in an e-mail interview.
Though most of the contemporary films in the festival haven't had theatrical distribution in Iran, "Payback" did. "It opened in Tehran," said Milani. " 'Payback' was banned for three years, and by cutting some scenes, we got permission to show it in some cities and with an age-limited PG-13. They didn't allow to show the movie in the religious cities. When the movie was shown in theaters, some men identifying with the negative characters in the movie did not like it."
Kelley says the decision was made last summer to highlight some of the country's classic early movies to satisfy requests from the L.A.-based Iranian audience. "We know a lot of the younger folks may not know some of the things we have shown in the past and some of the things that are part of the national film culture," Kelley said. "It was like why don't we create a little extra space in the program to celebrate this cinema as not only something topical but look at its deep and rich history."
The classic films were selected by Hamid Naficy, professor of radio-television-film at Northwestern University, who curated the inaugural Iranian program in 1990 while a graduate student at UCLA.
"I thought that showing the classics of Iranian cinema would be an eye-opener, as rarely are prerevolutionary movies shown in the U.S. in public cinemas or even in specialized cinemas, let alone films made during the silent and early sound era," said Naficy in an e-mail interview. Naficy will lead a symposium on Iranian cinema Saturday evening that will feature director Milani.
The festival also will showcase Iran's oldest existing silent feature film, 1932's "Mr. Haji, the Movie Actor" and the first Iranian talkie, 1933's "The Lor Girl," on Feb. 6. "Both of these cases show the ethnic and transnational dimensions of the Iranian cinema early on," said Naficy.
Naficy believes Iranian cinema has flourished despite numerous roadblocks "because these films stood in sharp contrast to the belligerent rhetoric and the violent politics of the Islamist government," he said. "Perhaps the very fact that Iranians had undergone a desired but destructive revolution, a devastating war, the hostage-taking episode that placed Iran among the 'pariah' nations, and a massive state-driven suppression of human and artistic rights, made them long for an ideal, harmonious community in which humanistic values ruled — values that emphasized the commonality of all humans and their basic goodness."