60th San Sebastian International Film Festival, 1-29 September 2012


Report on the 60th San Sebastian International Film


60 Years Is Nothing

 The 60th edition of San Sebastian Film Festival was held in a descent way with over 200 movies in various sections, enthusiastic viewers, passionate and friendly hosting, and very little shortcomings in the tumultuous days of Spain’s deep economic crisis, and in its organizers’ words amidst a crisis that has left its mark on creativity and culture by ruling them out as unnecessary extravaganza. Like the other four times I had visited he festival in recent past, it had a pleasant discipline and tempo and a cordial atmosphere both in the movie theaters and in the spectacular city that is to become Europe’s cultural capital by the year 2016. The festival was first held in 1950 to attract more tourists to the beautiful beaches of San Sebastian with its golden sand and azure water. It became officially an international film festival in 1953and later became Spain’s most credible and impressive film event. It also became the best place to detect and follow the newest and most notable films from Latin America as well as a platform for the region’s creative filmmakers and a very good venue to introduce their films to European film markets. The festival’s budget this year was less than previous years. But organizers do not run a festival only with money. They invested their heart in order to ad value to the spectacular festival.

Preparations for holding the 6th festival started only a few days after the 59th edition when an email from the organizers informed reporters that posters were being designed by graphic artists for the 60th edition of the event. From then on, in between the news of new films and celebrities to take part in the event, we also saw various posters in the emails from the festival. Those posters were beautiful, created in various styles with a variety of motifs. Every one of those posters could have been elected as the best poster, if there was a contest among posters for film festivals. Later a modest black and white poster was chosen from among all those colorful beautiful designs. It showed a 60 with the last figure looking like an opened link of a chain. It was not a surprising choice. A country with great painters such as Francisco Goya, Diego Velazquez, El Greco, Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dali with about four million Euros I revenues from tourism who go there to see the works of hundreds of such great artists did not need to boast colors on the posters of its most important film festival. Such a simple but otherwise solid and eye-catching work of art has been born out of such a celebrated good taste. From another point of view, such a choice could be a sign of sympathy with the economy of part of the population: A choice that has to be appreciated.

Posters and teasers of film festivals are part of their identity and they can be memorable when they are created beautifully and in an artistic way. The film festival in San Sebastian has always had the shortest, the most attractive and the most memorable teasers. The posters have always been consistent with the teasers as far as their motifs are concerned. The teasers are so short that they will not be boring even you watch them several times during the day. You are going to love them every single time. As young adults we used to draw the picture of a standing man on a 5x% cm cardboard and on the other side of it we sketched the same man in a moving position. Then we whirled the threads we had fastened to the two sides of the cardboard and created some sort of enjoyable moving image. This year’s San Sebastian Film Festival’s teaser had used the same technique of animation. The figure 60 was printed on both sides of the cardboard and when it moved we saw the figure 60 in many – perhaps 60 – positions which turned from a shaking pale grey into a static 60; the same familiar one that we had seen on the poster. In this way we saw 60 years of ups and down of the history of the festival in a matter of six seconds.

Usually the competition section of a class A film festival features 18 movies. This year, for the first time, only 13 of the 18 entries in this festival were reviewed by the jury. Out of the other five Arbitrage (Nicholas Jarecki) was shown at the opening ceremony and Quartet (Dustin Huffman) at the closing ceremony; and Argo (Ben Affleck), Atraco! (Eduard Cortes) and The Impossible (Juan Antonio Bayona) were shown out of competition. Apart from the financial strains, the only intelligent guess about why only 13 films were shown at the competition section, which is the core of any festival, is that there are less and less good films and more and more superficial movies everyday that cannot add value to such a festival.
The selection committee had chosen 17 films for the New Directors section. All of these films including the Iranian entry Parviz by Majid Barzegar, had their first screening at San Sebastian. At the closing ceremony the section’s jury, headed by Iranian distributor Katayoun Shahabi who distributes Iranian films in the international market, expressed appreciation for Parviz and the Peruvian entry The Cleaner by Adrian Saba. However, the most spectacular section of the festival was Zabaltegi, with 28 films that had already been shown and were acclaimed at other international festivals. These included Amour (Michael Haneke), the winner of Palm d’Or at Canes 2012, and Caesar Must Die by (Paolo and Vittorio Taviani) the winner of the golden bear at Berlin 2012.

ParvizI was surprised upon my arrival after I found out that there were only two films planned for journalists for 26 September. It was unprecedented. I had only seen it in Animafest Zagreb (1986) that organizers had let alone reporters for half a day. But the surprise did not last long. Every day after the festival opened, there were more and more flyers, posters, handwritten slogans and graffiti around. On the 26 September there was an all out demonstration by leftist and right wing groups against unemployment, poverty and the economic austerity policy of the government. That was why the organizers had minimized the number of films to be screened on that day.
When I woke up on the 26th I could hear the demonstrators’ slogans chanted from all over the town. In every neighborhood groups of 30 to 40 people had set out to go to the venue of the demonstrations with their flags and slogans. It was in the vicinity of the festival palace. I gave up my breakfast and moved quickly. I walked past the closed doors of the festival’s palace and made it to a square where tens of thousands of people had gathered. There was the deafening sound of the crowd’s demands for some things to be eliminated and other things to be created. The police were standing in a distance and their looks told you that were sympathizing with the crowd. After a few speeches the crowd began to move in dense rows. It took them an hour to get past the festival palace. As their voice came from a distance, the street floor became filled with flyers and statements on paper and the autumn breeze carried them here and there. Such demonstrations have been going on across Spain for quite a few years now. Whether they really work is another story. According to one of my Spanish friends although the organizers may not benefit from such demonstrations, there are two groups who certainly benefit: Those who make the flags and flyers and sprays and loudspeakers and the factories that produce batons, helmets, armored personnel carriers and water cannons and other devices.

I saw two films by two Iranian directors on the same day. Parviz, the second movie by its director Majid Barzegar with its impressive global motif elicited a long standing ovation by viewers. With its new outlook and innovative story and delicate directing style this film signified a certain type of independent cinema which is alive and kicking. This unique and different movie with a superb memorable performance by Levon Haftvan created a new image for Iranian cinema. The other Iranian film Rhino Season owed all of its merit to the eye-catching cinematography of its director of photography Touraj Aslani who won the jury’s award for photography. Good films are not simply made by putting together big names without having a good screenplay and reasonable characterization. Apart from the beautiful frames presented by Aslani the film lacked any artistic value. It’s fabricated story is utterly attempting to appeal to non-Iranian viewers. Most of the film’s symbolic scenes look naïve and superficial and often  include undue self-reflections such as the gathering of cats that reminds one of the director’s (No One Knows About Persian Cats), the falling turtles (Turtles Can Fly) and the horse that pushes its head into the protagonist’s car (A Time for Drunken Hoses). It was interesting that the film was presented as an entry from Turkey, where the story of characters like Sahel have been so true during the past four decades.

Argo was shown at San Sebastian 27 days before its international release. I knew about the film’s story before going to the festival and was looking forward to watching it as its story could be interesting to Iranian viewers. The film’s trailer was full of familiar commercial clichés. Which look shiny thanks to good music and fluid editing and good performances by actors. The film mildly criticizes US government for the 1953 coup that made the Shah’s government last a bit longer to suppress freedom fighters and to widen the class gap. It’s a convincing beginning. But the film distances itself from reality as it continues and then becomes a thriller. The film is about 6 US embassy staff members fleeing Iran but where the people are present in the scene, it is the cliche that prevails: The same cliché that presented a distorted image of Iranians following the seizure of the embassy by a group of students. When the episode took place Ben Affleck was only six years old.  His views and mind appear to be under the influence of the media he admits have scared Americans by their exaggerated stories and pictures following the 4 December 1979 seizure of the embassy.  Argo starts with a series of pictures and documentary footage. From among the pictures of the revolution presented in Argo there is a vague picture of a man being hanged on a crane. This is one of the pictures Affleck presents to depict the inhumane behavior of violent Iranians in those days. This comes while on those days no one had even thought of the idea of hanging on a crane. Two other such examples are the scenes that show the van carrying embassy personnel and CIA agent Tony Mendez comes across a group of demonstrators in Tehran who support the student. The demonstrators chant slogans and shout angrily as they see the foreigners and beat and kick the car. This comes while from the viewpoint of the demonstrators they could have been the staff members of any other embassy in Tehran and therefore they saw no reason for such a Zombie-like behavior. Since a long time ago the bazaar in Tehran has been frequented by foreign tourists. Those working and living in that area are used to seeing foreigners and like them as generous customers who usually do not haggle before shopping. That a traditional man of the bazaar makes such a fuss by seeing a foreigner woman taking a picture of his shop among supporting by standers looks funny to any Iranian viewer.
Iranians did not expect Ben Affleck to make a film to cater to Iranian taste as he works within the frameworks of Hollywood rules. But a film that boasts to be based on a historical event with many repercussions and has reconstructed the embassy compound in Tehran in great detail gives rise to the expectation that it should have attached more significance to the role of the main characters. Affleck’s most notable mistake is that he forgets to talk about the role and presence of the students. He has simply omitted them from the story. This ignoring is to the point that he shows a bunch of adolescents sitting in hall trying to put together shreds of confidential papers.
According to Affleck what mattered to him was only the entertainment side of the story. He has simply sought to make an entertaining movie not a political film. So, one may ignore the final scene in which the guards chase the Swiss aircraft that carries the six Americans on the runway based on the idea of a last minute breakthrough. As if the airport was located in wilderness, lacked a control tower and was not situated in a densely populated city. As if they could not make a phone call to the control tower to stop the plane before takeoff and as if fighter jets could not take off and force the aircraft to land. The question is whether the impact of this “entertaining non-political film” on the public opinion among Iranian and non-Iranian viewers did matter at all to Affleck? He presented an unpleasant image of Iranians in a well made movie. It is sad to divide the people of the world into first and second grade. Governments come and go, but the people will always be there.

Caesar Must Die Amour, Haneke’s moving film with its eternal story is a movie about death. It is a rebellious performance of man’s longing for a decaying world. Darius Khonji’s brilliant photography is another testimony to his ability to portray the worlds of filmmakers with various styles and visions. Amour is one of those films that would linger in one’s mind for many years. Caesar Must Die embodies several different visions of the world. It is a unique adaptation of William Shakespeare’s play Julius Caesar. Instead of working with professional actors the Tavianni Brothers have had an unmatched experiment. They have used the inmates of Rebibbia prison in Rome where they serve often long terms from ten years to life imprisonment. The story and the message of the film transcends the play and its black and white and color scenes span from the Roman empire to modern day European Union. This line by the actor who played Casius at the end of the movie is enduring: “Solitary confinement became a real prison since I began to know art.”

The seven-episode-movie 7 Days in Havana is fun. It has seven separate but other wise7 Days in Havana liked stories directed by six directors and performed by a very well known actor. Every episode describe one day of a week. It covers the unusual everyday life of its characters. The film is far from the familiar clichés of Cuba’s official propaganda for tourists as they were used before the country’s recent reforms. It conveys the real spirit of the city, its neighborhoods, ambience, generations and cultures. Emir Kusturica’s performance in the episode directed by Gaspar Noe and Elia Suleiman’s performance in the episode he made are so pleasant and both episodes are so comic. The two have appeared as themselves. Kusturica has gone to Havana to receive the best film award and Suleiman is there to interview Fidel Castro with the mediation of the embassy of Palestine: an embassy where there is no one although there is a TV set constantly on, broadcasting an exciting speech by Castro.

From among the four Spanish movies Snow White (Pablo Berger), The Dead Man and Snow White Being Happy (Javier Rebollo), Atraco! (Eduard Cortés) and The Artist and the Model (Fernando Trueba) shown at various sections of the festival, Snow White has a stunning directing with eye-catching performances, a very simple art directing and an absurd ambience. This is a valuable work of art from Spain. It is a simple but otherwise intelligent adaptation of the Grimm Brothers Snow White and the Seven Dwarves. Here the protagonist is a rigorous female matador and the story goes on in southern Spain the 1920s.The film is full of incidents, feelings and laughter. The Dead Man and Being Happy is a talkative and slow movie about a sick man in the final days of his life. Based on the cliché of this type of films, he sets out in a journey in search of his past but finds nothing and leads no one to nowhere.  The only memorable thing in this film is the performance by Jose Sacristan as the murderer.  Atraco! Is one of those films that cannot be categorized in any genre because it is a combination of all genres: comedy, noir, drama, thriller, costume and whatever. The story is about a mock robbery to get back the stolen jewelry of the wife of Juan Peron, the former Argentine dictator who was toppled with a coup in 1955. Like most similar films, at the end of the movie no one gets the jewels that remain for generations to come. The Artist and the Model is an eye-catching movie about the originality of art. However, it remains at the surface of this controversial subjectThe Artist and the Model and does not offer anything new. The screenplay by Jean-Claude Carrière and Fernando Trueba is about a disillusioned sculptor who regains his love of beauty after many years upon meeting a young girl. Everything in this movie is in its right place, its beautiful scenes take place at the border between Spain and the war stricken France of 1943 with black and white photography Jean Rochefort plays the sculptor, Claudia Cardinale plays his wife and Aida Folch plays the young model. They have all performed very well but the film is less than impressive.

In Something in the Air Olivier Assayas talks about the restlessness of the the post 1968 generation in France in the early 1970s. Gilles, a young student is restless in the midst of political turbulence. Like his friends hie is divided between social commitments and personal ambitions and has to make a firm choice. Just like Gilles and those in his generation the movie is also divided over choices and at the end leaves the viewers in an undecided state. Something in the Air is several steps behind its director’s brilliant TV series Carlos. It is not even as good as his Paris Awakens which he made more than 20 years ago in 1991. The Attack by Ziad Doueiri, a co-production from Lebanon, France, Qatar and Belgium is also in an undecided state.  It is made based on a book by Algerian author Mohammed Moulessehoul who writes under the alias Yasmina Khadra. His novel is about a suicide bomber and her husband in Tel Aviv. Amin Jafari is a Palestinian surgeon who is not a stranger in Tel Aviv. He has a good family and professional life and has many friends. But when his wife is found behind a suicide bombing at a restaurant and kills herself and 18 others he has no longer any place in Tel Aviv or Gaza. The film’s a motivation is to gap the bridge between Israelis and Palestinians but this paper bridge will have to collapse with the first drops of rain.

Foxfire (Laurent Cantet), Fishing Days (Carlos Sorin), Twice Born (Sergio Castellitto) and The Hypnotist (Lasse Hallstrom) were among the competition section films that were at a lower level than the other films of the directors who had created them although viewers would decided to see these films based on the credibility of the directors’ names. In Foxfire, with a story that goes on in the early 1950s based on a novel by the celebrated Joyce carol Oates a group of young girls form the Foxfire secret association led by a neurotic Legz to take revenge of men and take the law in their hands, but will have to pay a high price for that. Foxfire has been most adversely affected by the sidelines that dominate the main story line. Fishing Days adds nothing to the carrier of Carlos Sorin who has such a good film as Histrorias Minimas in his track record. Marco, a peddler who has a background of drinking decides to change his life after detox. Part of the therapy calls for a hobby and he chooses fishing and sets out for southern Argentina to among other thing find her daughter who has been away for some years. The film only attempts to tell this story but fails from going any further to the deeper layers of the novel. The crime thriller The Hypnotist by Lasse Hallstrom might be a hit in Sweden where viewers like psychodramas, but it is far less than a second grade Hitchcock movie. Hallstrom who has won international acclaim and an academy award for his family drama My Life As A Dog shows with this new film that a good screenplay does not necessarily make a good film. Twice Born is made by prolific Italian actor Sergio Castellitto and looks better than the other three movies. With a story that takes place during the Balkan war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the film has a good start and continues very well but the multitude of its sentimental finales ruins the directors superb work on the reconstruction of the Sarajevo war scenes. In one scene the protagonist decides to commit suicide out of despair and jumps from a rock into the waves. After a long pause his son brings his head out of the sea and the entire theater dedicated to the press burst in applaud!

Another film in the competition section was The Dead and the Living, with a below average quality of a television film. Capital whose name reminded one of Karl Marx’s book was a film by Costa-Gavras one of the most political filmmakers of world cinema who has won many international awards including academy award. In spite of its good screenplay and well calculated structure, the film was not a surprise and offered a cliché-like caricature of the topic of crisis in global economy and was unlike its director’s memorable movies such as Z, The Confession and Music Box and will be forgotten quickly. The film is the story of an ambitious banker who would resort to anything in order to reach his goal; exposing the destructive structure of capitalism. The message of this film is an old statement Costa-Gavras reads out to the press after the film is screened: “We are the slaves of capital. We shrink when it shrinks, we grow when it grows. And when it is victorious, we celebrate. Who is going to set us free? Shall we take the initiative and liberate ourselves from the clutches of capital? At least we should come to know those who serve the capital and the way they serve it.” In the House, made by now well known French director Francoise Ozon is aIn the House pleasant and engaging movie that won the Golden Shell award at this year’s festival. This is one of those films whose straightforward story will be popular with ordinary viewers while its complicated motifs will attract the attention of the elite: German a literature teacher at high school is marking his students’ test papers. All of them are terrible except Claude who sits at the end row so that he can see everyone. His writing is powerfully imaginative. As he calls on Claude to pay more attention to the reality of life around him, he begins to write more seriously inspired by the life of those around him. They end up in a situation where Claude collects information about everyone including the teacher’s wife. Gradually the border between reality and imagination become blurred to the point that when the teacher reads Claude’s writings his relationship with his wife falls apart. He helped Claude to be a writer such as Louis-Ferdinand Celine who wrote a bitter ending for the story of his characters.

The action thriller Savages by Oliver Stone with its two absolutely different endings was something like a computer game. I could tolerate it only thanks to the brilliant performance by John Travolta. The film was full of inconsiderate scenes of bloodshed and savage torture, masochism, treason, crime and sadism of two drug producers and a Mexican drug cartel and its mercenaries, with the loose message that for some people (definitely for Stone, they are capitalist “systems” such as the one in America) man’s life has no value and they would kill and destroy whatever that comes in their way, in order to materialize their bleak goals.  Had the film a few more comic scenes like the one in which we see a gallon of artificial blood spilled next to a shop, it could have been categorized as a parody to the Godfather.

Delicateness, liveliness and sometimes lyrical tone of Me and You by Bernardo Bertolucci Bernardo Bertolucci removed the dull sense of watching movies like Savages from my eye and mind. After eight years being far away from cinema Bertolucci in his 24th film, which he made on a wheelchair, worked on a story by Niccolo Ammaniti whose prevailing theme and preoccupation has always been the psychological crises and sentimental complexity of contemporary German middle class. Like his previous work, The Dreamers (2003), this new movie is also about the challenges of adolescence and a new quest into this tumultuous period of its two leading characters. The story mainly goes on, and is filmed, in their house’s basement with its delirious labyrinths. Lorenzo is an isolated 14 year old adolescent with an abnormal behavior whose relationship with his parents and peer has been disrupted. He decides to hide in this deserted basement in order to escape from all of his problems. However, an unwanted surprise meeting with his half sister changes his world. Bertolucci has tried his best to make this film in the best possible way having in mind his physical situation these days. Therefore, it is not devoid of small shortcomings which are mainly about the performance of his actors. Nevertheless, like his previous works this film too has a calculated and refined structure.  A lighting that makes the scenes look more or less like paintings, delicate compositions in difficult indoors settings, the meaningful art directing with abandoned objects and a music which is consistent with the characters’ mood are not the only positive characteristics of this movie. The maestro has embodied a new and different message compared to his vision in his previous films: Change yourself, and the world will change.

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56th San Sebastian International Film Festival, 18-27 Sep, 2008

Report on the 56th San Sebastian International Film Festival

For “Great Goya” and Then “Dear Godard”

Massoud Mehrabi

Nowadays, international film festivals are not attractive enough to lure foreign guests on their own. Despite one or two decades ago when festivals did not show so much films, did not have diverse sections, and were not surrounded by all kinds of entertaining programs, now at the age of information and communications, most cinema productions can be easily accessed in any part of the world; from the initial idea that set them off to their birth and later survival. Undoubtedly, international film festivals are still attractive enough to local people and even at a national level. However, they can hardly persuade others to pack up and travel thousands of kilometers to reach a festival. Perhaps, this would not be so difficult in not-so-far future and they may invent a device to take you to any part of the world in a blink of eye [provided that you would not be caught in a disaster as happens to Set Brundle in The Fly (a film made by David Cronenberg on the basis of George Langelaen’s screenplay)]. Until that time, it is not a short distance from Tehran to San Sebastian: you have got to fly from Tehran to Istanbul and from Istanbul to Madrid before taking a train to San Sebastian. I had 24 difficult hours due to frequent stopovers and insomnia. For few reporters who had come from Japan and China, it was even more difficult. Most of us had caught a cold due to exhaustion and temperature changes. During the first few days, you could constantly hear reporters coughing at the theater.

The question is why, then, we had taken that hard trip? I don’t know about others, but I admit that cinema-related motivations were the last thing on my mind. I am one of those people who believe that museums are often more productive than film festivals and a painting, for example by Goya, is more amazing and impressive than a film by, for example, Godard. I mostly went there to revisit the works of art that are being held at the magnificent Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao as well as to see unique national heritage of Prado Museum. Although San Sebastian is a magical city with its superb beaches, revisiting the works of Velazqez, Tiepolo, Sarolly, and Zurbaran, and of course, the gods of painting, Rubens and Goya, gives me the ultimate pleasure which I derive from touring this trove of human heritage.

We descend through dream-provoking clouds to touch our real Earth. The 56th San Sebastian International Film Festival was very productive this year. There were different sections such as Official Selection, Zabaltegi, Horizontes Latinos, Made in Spain, Basque Cinema Day, Velodrome, and Japanese Film Noir as well as tributes to grand cinema masters, Mario Monicelli and Terence Davies. More than 200 films were screened in 617 showtimes. Apart from 3,000 Spanish reporters and 1,000 foreign ones, 177,654 viewers watched the films. There were a number of surprising films topped by Hunger, the admirable work of Steve McQueen which is a favorite of writers and critics. Before reviewing films, like standing in front of paintings in a museum in order to reflect over them, enjoy them, or forget them with indifference, I have to mention a prominent part of the festival; a work which was screened as many times as festival’s films: it was festival’s trailer. Trailers of San Sebastian Film Festival are extraordinary as compared to other festivals: short, pounding, impressive, and memorable. In other words, they are like a small aperitif which increase your appetite for the main course even if the main course is not a delicious meal. The word “pounding” brings a bitter memory to my mind. The trailer of the 22nd Montreal International Film Festival (1998) was also pounding. Of course, this does not mean that it was positively surprising, but it hit you like a sledgehammer before the beginning of every film (that is, 3-4 times a day). Its subject was not bad, but its presentation was awful. A cubic piece of stone was cut until a baby was born out of it. It took 35 seconds before the baby was born, and during that time, the sound of chisel and hammer combined with uproar of the audience and the music and every other imaginable sound could be heard on loudspeakers at the highest possible decibels; it made breathing difficult for you.

San Sebastian’s trailer was 10 seconds long; it was a fixed image of a piece of wood (a narrow cut of a tree trunk) put on two thin bars. It reminded one of a bird. You could first hear mild uproar of people over it, which was like heartwarming voice of audience at a theater before a film has begun. It gradually dissolved into the sweet voice of a bird: chirping, chirping, and chirping. It was all. At the background of that symbolic bird, you could see a beautiful sky and a green forest. You have certainly experienced the sound of silence in nature. To hear that sound in this year’s trailer was like a dream. There was another delicate meaning to the trailer: the circles you saw on the section of the horizontal piece of wood signified the number of years that the festival has gone through; just in the same way that biologists use those circles to know about lifetime events of a tree.

As a traveler from Tehran, it was quite natural for me to begin my tour by seeing Iranian works before watching other films in accordance with subject and rhythm of my report. The Iranian cinema was represented by three films: Two-Legged Horse by Samira Makhmalbaf in competition section; Song of the Sparrows by Majid Majidi and The Firm Land, a co-production by Iran, India, and France directed by Chapour Haghighat in Zabaltegi section.

Makhmalbaf family has not been making films in Iran for a number of years and the reason is obvious: they want to make films without concern for approval of their screenplays and with ease of mind. Mohsen Makhmalbaf started filmmaking outside Iran with Time of Love (1990) which he made in Turkey. The screenplay has been published in Iran many times, but the film was banned from public screening. After that, Makhmalbaf made six more films in Iran the last of which was A Moment of Innocence (1995). His next four films have been made in Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and India. Silence (1997) and Kandahar (2001) have been screened in Iran, but his last two films, Sex and Philosophy (2005) and Scream of the Ants (2006) have been made in such defiance of filmmaking regulations in Iran that they are never possible to be screened in the country. Of course, his fans have bought and watched smuggled CDs of those films. Although Makhmalbaf has worked freely in these films, some of his fans have noted that they did not like them or, at least, they preferred his past works. Two-Legged Horse can be considered within such a framework; all works of Makhmalbaf family members come forth from the same origin. Two-Legged Horse is about exploitation of a poor boy that has to carry a disabled boy to school on his back in return for daily pay. When he is carrying the boy, he has to compete with donkeys and horses in streets and alleys. However, the disabled boy, who comes from an affluent family, is not satisfied with him because he cannot run as fast as horses. Despite controversies which surrounded production of this film in Afghanistan (like a grenade which was thrown into crewmembers during production), its subject is good for those Iranian filmmakers who have an eye on international markets (Amir Naderi made Harmonica in 1969 whose subject and even some of whose scenes were similar to Two-Legged Horse and has been sold in many countries). Therefore, the film had no problem for production in Iran and the name of Makhmalbaf family was enough to ensure its global sales. However, the location in Afghanistan is admittedly more suitable for this film combined with amateur actors and for many years, every film that has been made without influence from censorship system has attracted more viewers.

Two-Legged Horse is aimlessly long and full of clichéd metaphors and outdated symbolism. It could have been a better film, if about 30 minutes of the total 100 minutes had been cut out. As a person, who has read all books written by Makhmalbaf and watched all their films, I am familiar with their production course as well as the rise and fall of their metaphors and symbols. Once, those metaphors and symbols were a forte for Makhmalbaf’s films, which were made under a highly political atmosphere of Iran, but now they have become Achilles’ heel of their works. Makhmalbafs should define stories of their future films in a more comfortable manner without allowing metaphors and symbols to overshadow each and every scene. I know this is going to be very difficult for a person who is looking for metaphors at the back of the simplest phenomena around him. Another article is needed to get to the details of this issue. I will write it in an upcoming issue.

Iranian films have claimed San Sebastian’s prizes on many occasions, including the brilliant Turtles Can Fly by Bahman Qobadi which won Golden Shell of the festival in 2004. Just to the extent that I hailed the choice of the jury in that year, I was surprised when a special jury prize was given to Two-Legged Horse this year.

Watching Iranian films along with reporters and writers from other countries is an opportune time to know about their reactions during and after watching those films and know whether they laugh at the same things which make us laugh, what are our cultural commonalties and to what extent a national film can rise on an international level? Watching The Song of Sparrows with this group was a very good experience. The amazing work of Majid Majidi, which is Iran’s nominee for 2009 Academy Award, almost elicited the same reaction from viewers in San Sebastian which I had observed in Iran. I had frequently noted that understanding of western audience of some Iranian films was quite different from and even to the opposite of the main intent of filmmakers. Western audience usually does not directly relate to the Iranian films, but sees them through the lens of politics and reverberations of Iran’s developments in their mass media. It was not unexpected that understanding of western audience of The Song of Sparrows was close to reality: its pictures were close to their idea of Iranian life while its humane message presented a more acceptable and different image of contemporary Iran.

The Song of Sparrows tells the story of a worker called Karim who works at an ostrich farm. He is fired when an ostrich runs away while he badly needs money to buy a hearing aid for his daughter. He goes to the city to find a hearing aid and finds out that he can earn money by carrying passengers on his motorcycle. Karim starts the new job and apart from the money, he finds worn-out things around the city and stores them in a corner of his small yard. He gradually changes and once he is tempted to steal a refrigerator, which he is carrying on his motorcycle.

The image of Tehran in Majidi’s film is quite bitter. You see a section of a class society where many people are amassing wealth (in its negative sense). Stores are full of consumer goods produced by multinational companies, as if people – importers, brokers, sellers, and buyers – were their slaves – just like people in Fritz Long’s Metropolis (1927). In that environment, innocence, nobility and honesty of Karim is threatened to be lost. The solution proposed by Majid Majidi is going back to innocent human nature and sacrifice. Karim does that and is saved and that solution is open to other people living in this metropolis.

Undoubtedly, few filmmakers but Majidi are able to approach such hectic themes. In reality, he is considered an insider by the government, but his films have been admired by critics with different tendencies. In Children of Heaven (one of five nominees for foreign film Academy Award in 1998), he had presented an intelligent image of poverty and darkness. In The Song of Sparrows he has added delicate shades of religious themes to his bitter and protesting story, so that, it won’t be considered as presenting a bleak picture of the country (which state authorities usually believe such films try to do). Majidi is not only successful in the country, but he is also one of the most successful Iranian filmmakers in winning awards from many creditable world festivals. Two examples include jury special prize of San Sebastian for The Father in 1996 and the best actor prize of Berlin Film Festival for The Song of Sparrows in 2008.

Good feature films are not usually made on small budgets: The Firm Land by Chapour Haghighat is one of them. It is a co-production by Iran, India and France and reminds one of poor children with emaciated bodies and lackluster faces as a result of malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies. People like Chapour Haghighat who write cultural screenplays with an artistic intent (most of which are not suitable for public screening) are not few and since professional producers are reluctant to help them, they go everywhere to find a small budget and make their dream come true. Such endeavors are laudable, but the result should conform to the minimum of film standards. Although most of such films end up in some festivals and cultural circles as well as unpopular television channels, when a work has nothing to say on ground of low budget, it is like a leafless tree with no shade.

The Firm Land is story of villagers at a remote village near the Indian Ocean which is plagued by a lethal disease. Villagers decided to call on government for help, but since they have no direct access to authorities, they send six representatives to the capital to employ “educated people” who could speak for them. Villagers are confused and in trouble in the big city, but a former and disillusioned university teacher encourages them to harass health ministry officials until somebody would listen to them. However, the ministry staff violently rejects them. An old dame, who is a broke noblewoman, arranges a big feast for them. They dance and sing and talk about happiness and life….

The film is supposed to be about the passage of time and hopes of people who suffer from loneliness and death. The suffering through which the viewers go in order to get that message is no less! It is an unorganized film like amateur ones. Naturally, there is no Indian singing and dancing (whose choreography and performance is very costly); if there were any, we would have expected less from the film. Now, facing a film with a claim to artistry, the least expectation is to see some good scenes, satisfactory mise en scene and few impressive performances. But even this minimal expectation is not met.

There is no doubt about cultural intentions of Chapour Haghighat, but it is not enough. It is correct understanding of film which turns a revolving reel into a work of art. Haghighat is not famous in Iran. He has been born in Garmsar in 1947, but has lived in Paris for many years. He is said to hold a doctorate in sociology and teaches at Sorbonne. Supported by a cultural foundation, he made The Night Song of Travelers in 2005 whose storyline was somehow similar to The Firm Land.

Perhaps festival organizers had been under a contractual obligation or something to put three Spanish films in Official Selection section (something like unending rivalry between Barcelona and Real Madrid soccer teams over championship) because those three films were not good representatives for the brilliant Spanish cinema. If those are top productions of Spain in 2008, what should we say about other Spanish films? We know that most new films are made for box office return and entertainment and their makers do not care much about aesthetic aspects of their works. This is not special to Spain and the situation is the same all around the world. There is no sign of brilliant films of 1950s to 1980s. It seems that the world in culturally in decline. Maybe I am too picky because in a world plagued by terrorist bombings, war in Gaza, and widespread economic woes, people need more peace and entertainment away from serious thinking.

Out of three Spanish films in the competition section, My Prison Yard by Ms. My Prison Yard Belen Macias included pleasant and attractive moments despite its bitter story, though it was not an overall powerful film. It was very similar to Women’s Prison, which was also made by a female director, Manijeh Hekmat, in Iran in 2000. Apart from few instances, minor stories which shape both films are the same. The only important difference between the two films is in their tones. My Prison Yard has a happy and hopeful tone, while that of Women’s Prison was bitter and sad.

My Prison Yard tells the story of female prisoners who have been banished from normal life. Isa is a bitter-minded but generous thief who cannot adapt to life out of prison. Her friends include Dolores, Women’s Prison a blonde gipsy who has killed her husband; Rosa, the kind and vulnerable prostitute; Ajo, who is in love with Pilar (another inmate); and Luisa, a simple Colombian who is baffled in an environment where nobody understands her. When Mar arrives as a new member of prison staff who cannot adapt to strict prison laws, women prisoners start on a journey which ends in their freedom. With Adla, the prison warden closing her eyes, they form a theatrical group which gives them new energy to fight difficulties of life.

Even if My Prison Yard has been inspired by Women’s Prison, Belen Macias has made is into a totally local and independent work. Unlike men, women’s behaviors and tempers are somehow similar all around the world and they face the same problems and difficulties wherever they are. Belen Macias has been born in Tarmgona and has already directed theatrical plays, advertisements, and television series. She has made two admirable short films and My Prison Yard is her first feature.

Bullet in the Head was the second Spanish film in the competition section and was among those films that linger in memory. It is not because of an attractive story or memorable performances; nor for its masterly structure or the dialogues which cannot be heard! Jaime Rosales should have worked himself to death over this film. There are so many needless or necessary shots from behind a window or door that you just feel sick of any door and window. It is an attractive idea that characters talk and we see their lips moving without hearing what they say. However, using this outmoded method with no creativity makes us sorry more than seeing a good theme that has been wasted. Rosales has mainly used two methods; he has either recorded long shots using a Tele lens, or has got people to talk behind window panes of their houses, stores, phone booths, and automobiles. There is a scene where the leading character is making love to a woman. Where in the world will somebody do this at night, in a heavily lighted room, and behind a window overlooking the street?

Story of this memorable film, which may excite some cinema freshmen, is as such: Ion is an ordinary man who wakes up in the morning, has his breakfast, gets his things and meets with his lawyer. One night, he comes across a girl at a party. They spend the night at the girl’s apartment (the aforesaid scene). Afterwards, Ion’s life continues on the past smooth course and he spends days in the same unimportant situations. One day, he rides a car with another person and they drive toward France. They spend the night at a couple’s house. The next morning, they kill two plainclothesmen after a chance meeting at a café. The only dialogue that you hear is in the closing scene when Ion shouts “Fuck policemen” before shooting them!

Such “ambiguous” movies pave the way for some critics of metaphor to claim that the film has depicted such a police atmosphere that even viewers were considered outsiders! Or what is the use of words when there is nobody to listen to you? If this is the case, what we should say about silent masterpieces which talked through their pictures alone? I will not exchange a single frame of German expressionist silents for a hundred of such films.

Bullet in the Head is the third feature film by Jaime Rosales. He has been born in Barcelona in 1970 and made his first film, The Hours of the Day, in 2003, which was screened at Cannes and won a FIPRESCI award. I have not seen that film, but those who win FIPRESCI usually fail to make more films better than or even matching their first; there are many examples.

The share of the American films from box office in many European countries is usually higher than domestic productions of those countries: at least 60 percent of annual sales. Sometimes, governments take action to support the national cinema and try to change this rule by lending their financial support and appropriating subsidies to films with special themes. Camino, the third Spanish movie in the competition section is one of those films which has been funded by Spain’s Ministry of Culture and Television and has been made through a hefty budget (compared to other Spanish movies). Although the result is not remarkable, it will be most probably welcomed by domestic markets and television channels.

The film is based on a true story and is an emotional journey focused on an 11-year-old girl called Camino. The girl should simultaneously face two serious events in her life: falling in love and dying of cancer. Above all, she is supposed to be a bright light penetrating through all the darkness which is trying to strip her of the love to live and show other people around her the path to salvation.

Camino is very emotional. The director, Javier Fesser, has used all elements to make a weepy movie for tender viewers. It is quite similar to The Song of Bernadette, the admirable work of Henry King (1943). The director has not denied that similarity and to prove that he is honest, he shows us the cover of the book, The Song of Bernadette (by Franz Werfel) in a scene when Camino’s mother is reading a book to her at the hospital. This is not the sole imitation in the film, but it employs certain elements from Cinderella. The music weighs heavily on the film and there are few scenes without it. The film budget has been mostly spent on its special effects. Like The Song of Bernadette, the film contains anti-dogmatism elements (condemning dogmatic priests) without insulting religion or the church. On the whole, Camino is an intermediate movie which is fit to be a telefilm, rather than a feature.

Javier Fesser has already directed such feature films as The Miracle of P. Tinto (1998) and Mortadelo & Filemon: the Big Adventure (2003). He has been highly admired as director of short films and has won many prizes. In 2004, his short film, Binta and the Great Idea, was nominated for Academy Award of the best short film. His publicity material for Camino outdid all other movies. Despite most other films whose publicity was limited to a brochure or a folder, there was a green book at reporters’ box with the name Camino on it. When you opened it, instead of book, you saw a small box in which a number of letters in Camino’s handwriting had been put in an adroit manner which gave you specifications of the film, a summary of the screenplay, and introduction of crewmembers. A number of photos, a CD containing parts of the film, a prayer from the Bible, and a leaf of Camino’s painting notebook were other items inside the box. Camino’s painting was a heart on which she had written: Camino Loves Jesus. The word “love” was replaced by a small heart. This brilliant idea of producers was truly enchanting.

The United States was also represented in Official Selection section by three films, though two of them were not for judgment: the war comedy Tropic Thunder (Ben Stiller), a social drama called Frozen River and Rian Johnson’s The Brothers Bloom, which was a slapstick comedy. Frozen River was Courtney Hunt’s directorship debut which has won jury’s grand prix of Sundance Festival (which supports independent films in the United States) in 2008 and is an impressive film. It tells the story of a woman called Ray Eddy who wishes to buy a small house where she is living with her young boy. Her problems begin when her gamble-loving husband secretly takes the money they have saved to buy the house and loses it in gamble. Realtors have given her a deadline to either pay the debt or leave the house. To find money, Ray enters a human smuggling gang. She sees many people who have suffered a lot and whose sufferings are much bigger and more painful than hers.

Ms. Courtney Hunt, who has directed this film, is a graduate of fine arts from Columbia University’s Film Division whose first film is a long stride. She has been successful in communicating the cold atmosphere of her film to her audience. Realistic photography by Reed Morano using natural lights has done a great part in transferring the cold atmosphere of the film. Good performances, especially by Melissa Leo as Ray Eddy, constitute another advantage of Frozen River. If Hunt stays away from low-quality television films, she would be a promising filmmaker.

Although public screening of The Brothers Bloom has been scheduled for spring 2009, there have been few festivals which did not have it in one of their sections since September 2008; from Stockholm Festival in Sweden to Abu Dhabi Festival in the United Arab Emirates and from Toronto in Canada to San Sebastian. Interestingly, some festivals have proudly announced that the film is their opening or closing program. This shows that many festivals need a great audience in order to attract sponsors and needed money.

The Brothers Bloom is an entertaining and funny film. It is a well-made commercial movie running on a popular storyline. Bloom brothers are the most skillful cons in the world. They have plotted many scenarios on the basis of weaknesses of their millionaire victims to rob their money. Now, they are planning their last scheme before retirement. They are going to cheat on a young, wealthy woman who has been handed down a hefty bequest. However, their adventure takes a different turn and through a journey around the world, a true romantic story evolves which is quite the opposite of what the two brothers thought about.

The Brothers Bloom is a costly film shot in many locations and its producers have been so confident about the result of their work that they have spared no expense. Adrien Brody, Rachel Weisz, Mark Ruffalo, and Rinko Kikuchi are leading actors of the film and salaries paid to the first three have been relatively high. Locations vary from New York to Jakarta and from Africa to Australia. Producers are hopeful that the film will be received enthusiastically in 10-15 countries where it has been shot. We must wait and see what happens in the spring, though nothing is quite impossible in our changing world.

Rian Johnson has graduated from cinema and television school of USC in 1996. His first feature film, Brick (2005), has won many prizes and has been greatly admired by critics, but The Brothers Bloom does not seem possible to win the same acclaim.

England, like Spain and US, had sent three films to Official Selection section, as if some kind of balance had to be kept! Two of those films were not to be judged. Perhaps quality of other countries’ films is so low that nine films of this section have come from the above three countries. The Other Man (Richard Eyre), Enova (Michael Winterbottom), and The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas (Mark Herman) were Britain’s representatives the last of which is a remarkable work.

The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas is an antiwar movie based on a novel by famous Irish writer, John Boyne which tells the story of friendship between the nine-year-old Bruno, son of a prison camp guard in Berlin in 1942, and Shmuel, an underage prisoner of the same camp. The shocking melodrama helps the young audience to come to grips with the atmosphere prevalent in World War II and to learn more about this horrible human catastrophe. Mark Herman, the screenwriter and director, has noted that this has been his main motive for making the film. He has already made a number of acclaimed movies such as Brassed Off (1996) (which was both a candidate for BAFTA and won a Casar award for the best foreign film). He has noted that his film is not solely for children and is different from fantastic films like Harry Potter, but kids can and should see it. He maintains, “Life is not simply adventures and fantasies about superheroes like Batman and Superman and children should know about what happened to children of their age during the World War II. The Boy in the Stripped Pyjamas is very impressive and especially its surprising and unconventional ending lingers in mind.

Every film made by Michael Winterbottom depicts a different world compared to his previous films. His last production, Genova, has nothing to do with his Mighty Heart (2007) and, especially, with his controversial film, The Road to Guantanamo (2006). In Genova, 16-year-old Kelly and 10-year-old Mary who have lost their mother, Marianne, in a car accident, leave the United States with their British father, Joe, to live in Genova for a year. Barbarra, an old friend of Joe, helps them get settled. Their father teaches at the university while his daughters learn piano from a guy called Mauro. Mauro’s house is in the old part of Genova which is full of tortuous alleys where the girls have difficulty finding their way. As Kelly finds out about this new, mysterious world and is annoyed at having to take care of her younger sister, Mary blames herself for her mother’s death and tells Barbarra that she sometimes sees her mother in a trance before falling asleep.

Genova is a confused film on the long track record of Winterbottom. He vacillates between making a touristic film and a spiritual one and the result is unattractive. Genova is not even as successful as those films which tourism departments make to introduce their cities’ attractions. Winterbottom shows nothing of the zest of warm-blooded people of Genova. I have seen, strolled, and walked in many of those places which you see in this film; Genova’s magic is worlds apart from Winterbottom’s exotic concept.

Zabaltegi is the most productive section of the festival where major movies are screened. Before saying farewell to the festival, I review four more films in this section.

Rachel Getting Married by Jonathan Demme, the active director and winner of five Oscars for his memorable The Silence of the Lambs (1991), is the story of Kym, an oversensitive, problematic girl who has been hospitalized at a clinic for a while. She is very talkative and has a slanderous way of talking who neither recognizes her own shortcomings, nor knows how to behave toward others. She constantly smokes and looks nervous, but instead of regretting what she has done, she is ready to incriminate others. She is trying in vain to adapt to her surroundings and look like a normal person, but she cannot do that without nervous fits and drawing other people’s attention. Now, she leaves the clinic after more than nine months and goes home to take part in wedding ceremony of her sister, Rachel.

It is a journey back to Jonathan Demme’s independent cinema and a good beginning for Jenny Lumet (Sydney Lumet’s daughter) who is screenwriter. Helped by a photographer and an editor, they have managed to create a totally acceptable atmosphere. The best aspect of the film is that Jonathan Demme has dared to combine bitter and sweet. He has understood that major milestones like marriage combine the best and worst of humans. The factor which had made the film even more realistic was a decision by Demme and his director of photography to make “the most beautiful family film in history of cinema”. This is an acceptable work by Demme, which of course, falls short of his past masterpieces.

Tokyo Sonata, which represents Japan in 2008 Academy Awards, has a universal story: Sazaki is loyal employee of a big Japanese company. When the company decides to relocate its administration in China, Sazaki loses his job, but does not dare to tell his family. He stands in line at job agencies while his wife goes around their house with remarkable tact to bring apparent peace to their house which only exists at the dinner table. Their children have lost their emotional relationship to their father.

This is the latest work of Kiyoshi Kurosawa, a director who belongs to the third generation of Japanese cinema, and its screenplay has been written by Kiyoshi Kurosawa and Sachiko Tanaka based on an original novel by the Australian writer, Max Mannix. They have first cast a sarcastic look at father’s vain effort to mask his joblessness followed by his accidental meeting with an old friend, Kuroso, at a restaurant which gives free food to the poor. Kuroso, who is also jobless, has set his cellphone in such a way that it would ring at certain intervals to show others that he is very busy! In a funny sequence, when Sazaki has invited him to his house, he tries to make his wife believe that they work together! In the second part of the film, the initial comic look shifts toward a tragic situation to give it a universal dimension. Although there is nothing new in this film compared to other Japanese movies, Tokyo Sonata avails of seamless performances of its actors, especially Teruyuki Kagawa as Sazaki and Kyoko Koizumi as his loyal wife. Kurosawa’s style in trying to convey the message through implications, which has made his horror movies such a hit, has been also successful here and is a positive point for this film.

After making their brilliant No Country for Old Men, which brought four Oscars to Coen brothers (Joel and Ethan), they have returned with Burn after Reading in order to demonstrate their finesse in making unconventional films once more. It is present-time Washington. Osberne, the experienced CIA analyst is demoted for his alcoholism. He is angry and decides to write his memoirs. On the other hand, Kaite, his wife who is demanding divorce, copies his computer’s contents on a disc, but one copy of that disc is lost. It is found by a gymnastics coach who sees that an opportune time to pocket some money. His middle-aged friend, Linda, who is going to have a plastic surgery, joins gymnastics coach to con Osberne. During a subsequent meeting, Osberne reacts violently to their scheme, but Linda tries to sell the disc to the Russian embassy.

Coen brothers’ films always make you feel that everything is happening in the past. Even present-time events seem to suspend in time. Brothers make their movies with due care for every scene down to the smallest details. However, their success depends on them being cautious not to allow their films look very formalistic, which may get viewers away from the main story. Burn after Reading is all about searching and following. Like most other characters created by Coen brothers, the leading characters lose a valuable (which is a computer disc here), but they are avidly looking for something else and foolishly think that they can get away with it. Coen brothers accompany their stories with satirical mages of exciting scenes of spy films including satellite photos at the beginning of the film as well as views from security cameras looking down and powerful music. On the whole, they make up a “farce” comedy containing attractive properties of a comic work.

I conclude this report by reviewing one of the most remarkable films made in 2008: Steven McQueen’s Hunger; the 40-year-old black British director whose debut was quite showy. His film is the story of the last six weeks of Bobby Sands’ life at Maze prison in Northern Ireland and the events which ended in his hunger strike and eventual death. He also looks at the situation of other prisoners and prison guards. In March 1981, Sands’, who was member of the Irish Republican Army (IRA), went on a hunger strike which led to his death 66 days later at an age of 27. This turned him into an international figure and drew global attention to IRA’s anti-British struggles. The then British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, and her cabinet refused to recognize Sands and his friends as political prisoners and said they were criminals who should be punished like other common criminals. His death was followed by other members of IRA going on hunger strike which sent nine more members of the Irish Republican Army to their deaths.

The film has a quite, but powerful tone in telling this political and historical story. There are many shocking and impressive scenes in the film, but what makes it so prominent is a verbal duel between Bobby Sands and a Catholic priest both of whom are apparently on the same side. Both of them believe in struggle for the liberation of Northern Ireland, but their methods are totally different. Therefore, their 18-minute conversation is hectic focus of the film. Both are sitting on either side of a table and are, at first, arguing in low voice. Sands is not wearing a shirt (while the priest is clad in his official black robe) and his nakedness lends more stress to visual aspect of the film’s main theme: hunger strike. At first, it seems that Sands is having a heart-to-heart talk with the priest, but they gradually oppose each other. They do not talk to viewers, but question each other’s methods. Therefore, there are no common behind-the-shoulder or edited scenes in this sequence and everything has been shot in an 18-minute take. It is here that the director has taken his stride and, though depicting the consequences of physical torment, he reminds us that determining correct method of struggle is sometimes more different than the struggle itself.
Steve McQueen has studied at Chelsea School of Art, Goldsmiths College of London and the Tisch School of the Arts in New York. He began his career as still photographer. McQueen has organized many exhibitions of his photos at creditable museums and galleries and has won prizes. Hunger has also won a Camera d’Or in Un Certain Regard (A Kind of Look) section of Cannes Film Festival in 2008.

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Iranian Cinema and Film Literature

Silver Pages
by Massoud Mehrabi

The film literature in Iran was introduced about two decades after production of early Iranian films. Two or three years after production of the first Iranian film in 1900 (which conformed to the same standards as early movies of the world), the sole official and state-run newspaper started to show interest in “cinematograph”. Naturally, film critique and other theoretical issues were not extant in those years. News about the most amazing phenomenon of the century as well as its good and evil effects on viewers and the whole society were the most important issues.
The first film critique (in the modern sense) was written by Ebrahim Moradi, a pioneer director of dramatic features in Iran. His writings, which gradually improved, focused on technical and dramatic problems of films. Few other writers started to follow suit with Moradi, though they later used what they had taught from him against his own films.
Growth of film literature in Iran is much indebted to art and cinema press. Although no films were produced in Iran between 1937 and 1948 due to various reasons, including the World War II and its consequences, since the more recent world cinema productions were screened in the country, cinema magazines were thriving. During that period, apart from various newspapers and magazines, three specialistic film magazines called Namayeshat (Entertainment), Jahan-e Cinema (World of Cinema) and Hollywood were published in Tehran and criticized all aspects of cinema art and industry, including films. Toghrol Afshar, Houshang Qadimi, Troal Gilani, Babak Saman, Farrokh Ghaffari, and Houshang Kavousi were among prominent critics of those years whose writings helped to promote film knowledge in Iran. Those periodicals and articles later gave rise to books on cinema.
The first book on cinema was published in 1927. It was written by Zabihollah Behrouz in two chapters. The first chapter was about the position and role of cinema in the world and its undeniable impact on human societies and the second chapter was a screenplay adapted from ancient Persian legends. Although that screenplay was never produced as film, the book was received warmly by movie buffs and encouraged other people to publish similar books and this continued until 1947. Three consequential books were published in those years: Troal Gilani wrote The Technique of Cinema, Toghrol Afshar wrote In the Rainbow of Cinema, and Hossein Saffari translated Lo Duca’s History of Cinema into Persian. The three books are considered among important events, which along with a number of earlier books determined the policy and orientation of film literature in Iran. The Technique of Cinema was an educational book which introduced its readers to filmmaking equipment (from raw film to cinematographic camera) and explained the filmmaking process from the beginning to the end. The book even included a chapter on how to become an actor and acting techniques. In the Rainbow of Cinema focused on theoretical issues of cinema and film analysis. History of Cinema and its writer are so well-known as to obviate explanation.
As film literature in Iran started with publication of a screenplay, publication of similar books continued with more zeal in later years. Among different types of cinema books, which ranged from theoretical and reference books to biographies of actors and filmmakers, screenplays ranked first both in terms of number and reprints. This was especially true after 1979 revolution when directors could not make every screenplay either due to their themes or inadequate funds. During those years, enthusiasm for screenplays was (and still is) so high that the Iranian auteur, Bahram Baizai, who has thus far only made six feature films, has published 26 screenplays. Some of his screenplays are more interesting and more impressive than his films. He is followed by Mohsen Makhmalbaf who has published all his screenplays (even those which have not been produced as film). On the whole, screenplays written by these two filmmakers have been republished 50 times. The screenplay of Makhmalbaf’s banned film, Time of Love, has been reprinted 11 times. Although publication of film books was not as extensive as it is now, screenplays also accounted for the main part of pre-revolution film literature and most of them were screenplays of prominent films. L’Avventura (Michelangelo Antonioni) and The Nights of Cabiria (Federico Fellini) (whose translations were published in 1965) started a trend which continued with The Discreet Charm of Bourgeoisie (Luis Bunuel), Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio De Sica), The Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein), M (Fritz Lang), and Face to Face (Ingmar Bergman). Since that time, the works of nearly all prominent filmmakers have been published in Iran.
After screenplays, educational books on filmmaking are the next in demand. Before the revolution, most young people who were interested in this subject were members of a center called Cinemaye Azad (Experimental Cinema Center) and since they used 8-mm cameras, books like Film and Director (Don Livingston, 1963) or Film and Education (Dr. Ebrahim Rashidpour, 1967) were all they needed for primary education. Today, however, there are tens of state-run and private filmmaking centers with 4,000-5,000 students. Therefore, all educational books imaginable have been published in Iran: from Eugene Vale’s The Technique of Screenwriting to Lee Strasberg’s A Dream of Passion. Apart from translations, tens of other books have been written by Iranian instructors.
The situation is very satisfactory for theoretical and analytical books. Although they rank after screenplays and educational books, the quality of their authorship and translation is ideal. Almost all books written by great theoreticians of world cinema have been translated by the best Iranian translators: from Andre Bazin and Rudolf Arnheim to Peter Woolen and Allan Casebier and W. F. Perkins. Iranian theoreticians have also authored valuable books some of which, including the works by Dr. Babak Ahmadi, can be presented internationally.
Books on history of cinema and reference books are like a magical substance which strengthens structure of every country’s film literature and determines its identity. There is no shortage in this category of books. Apart from books written by Lo Duca and Arthur Knight, which were respectively published in 1948 and 1962, the most important books in the history of the Iranian cinema which have been written by such prominent authors and researchers as John Howard Lawson, Christian Thompson, Geoffrey Nowell Smith, Eric Rhode, David A. Cook, and David Robinson have been translated and published. In addition to those books, many volumes have been compiled on the history of the Iranian cinema in addition to guide books and encyclopedias about Iranian and world cinema films and characters by Iranian authors, including myself, which can provide future researchers and authors with a comprehensive and rich source of study.
Iranian film literature is very rich. If professional Iranian filmmakers had established a better relationship with it from the early days that the Iranian cinema took shape, the situation of that cinema would have been much better now.

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42nd Karlovy Vary Film Festival


Report on the 42nd Karlovy Vary Film Festival (June 29-July 7, 2007)

Tales of Suffering and Ecstasy
by Massoud Mehrabi

The main reason for my third trip to Karlovy Vary was neither its old and creditable festival, nor its great film program, but it was the magic of Karlovy Vary which enticed me. Without any doubt, many correspondents, film critics, and guests, who arrive in the city every year (to pay pilgrimage to it), are more infatuated with the city than its film festival, though they may say nothing about it in their reports. Only one single visit to the city is enough to make its beauty as well as spas and scenic specters part of your dreams even when you are wide awake. It is a fact that the city is cinematic than its festival.

Karlovy Vary is located 110 km west of Prague. The old and historical part of the city is located in the bottom of a valley flanked by relatively high hills and surrounded by lush forests. A river passes through the city and its bed has been designed into small cascades. Therefore, the sound of water is heard like a soothing music which calms down human soul. On both sides of the river, there are buildings which are quite balanced in terms of number and stories, external decorations, paintings and their classic architectural style. The first feeling that sweeps over you in the first glance is that you are standing among a magnificent historical film décor. Not only external view, but internal components of that décor indicate high artistic tact. It is for the beautiful location of the city that, thus far, more than 100 short and feature films have been made there.

The city owes most of its fame to spas. Apart from special baths inside or on the side of hotels, the water from mineral springs is directed to several pools that are located along the main boulevard of the city via canals where tourists can drink the water or pour it in something and take it as souvenir. Karlovy Vary, which is located near border with Germany, has drawn many courtiers and royal families from all across Europe and even Asia and Africa to its spas in late 18th and early 19th centuries, including Iran’s Mozaffareddin Shah who visited the city in 1900. The city is not simply famous because it has been visited by kings and emperors, but such dignitaries as Johan Wolfgang von Goethe, Friedrich Schiller, and Ludwig van Beethoven have also visited it while Friedrich Chopin, Karl Maria Weber, Richard Wagner, and Nicolo Paganini have lived there for a time. Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, Johannes Brahms, Anthony Dvorak, and even Karl Marx have been there. Presence of masters of world classic music in the city has, undoubtedly, been due to the effect of the city on their creativity. Other things have also contributed to make the city more famous. One of them is a crystal factory, which still produces the finest crystals in the world. All told, the climate is heavenly. The Republic of Czech is the roof and garden of Europe and Karlovy Vary is the roof and garden of the Republic of Czech.


Karlovy Vary Film Festival is 62 years old and has gone through many ups and downs. Its first edition opened in July 1946 as an international, but noncompetitive event simultaneously in Mariánské Lázně and Karlovy Vary. In 1948, the festival moved to Karlovy Vary and a competition section was added to it where films could win prizes. Later incidents were influenced by political developments following domination of communists on the country in February 1948. Thereafter, especially during the Cold War, the festival paid more attention to political, rather than artistic, films. Even worse than that, the festival was broken in two parts as of 1959: it was alternatively held in Moscow and Karlovy Vary! Therefore, this year’s festival was its 42nd, and not 62nd, edition. Karlovy Vary was established concurrent with film festivals of Cannes and Locarno and is the second oldest film festival in the world after Venice Film Festival. However, internationalist decisions made by the leftist authorities prevented Karlovy Vary Film Festival from being appreciated for all its capacity.

The festival’s standards took a nosedive in 1970s and movie buffs lost interest in it. Therefore, some thought that Karlovy Vary was not a good place for a film festival and it should be transferred to the capital city to attract more viewers. The tug-of-war continued until 1994 when a new festival opened in Prague and started its work just before the 30th edition of Karlovy Vary. However, they failed to marginalize Karlovy Vary and it was the new festival that gradually vanished.

At present, Karlovy Vary Film Festival is a full-fledged cinematic event. During this year’s festival, about 260 short and feature films from 58 countries were screened in 20 main and subsidiary sections. There were films for almost all tastes. Therefore, all sections of the festival including competition section, documentary films section and even retrospective of Bretislav Pojar (the grand master of animation) attracted special audience. Ordinary movie buffs chose their favorite films out of catalogues and watched them. However, choosing was more difficult for us, the critics and correspondents, who watch films from a professional slant. We were naturally attracted to films in the competition section, most of which were screened for the first time. We consider them unexplored treasures and are too eager to watch them, though most of them turn out to be disappointing. In reality, we already know what would be the result and then ask the same repetitive question: “How many good films, do you think, are made in the world every year?” Well, their number can be counted on fingers. The same happens in all festivals with small differences, but the grumbling critics never learn from the past!

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Thessaloniki International Film Festival

Report on the 47th  Thessaloniki International Film Festival
(17-26 Nov 2006)

Ares vs Aphrodite
by Massoud Mehrabi

HistoryThessaloniki, which is second in significance among Greek cities after Athens, stands on the easternmost part of Europe on the dividing line between Europe and Asia and is an important city due to its geographical situation. The downfall of the Macedonian Empire; occupation of various Greek cities, including Thessaloniki, by the Ottomans; as well as freedom-seeking struggles against fascism, Nazism and the dictatorship of generals a few centuries later, have created special conditions for people of this region during the past centuries and decades. Thessaloniki, as the most important cultural center in Greece which dates back to 3,000 years ago, reflects those historical ups and downs both in terms of people’s customs and traditions, and in view of economic, social and cultural conditions. That reflection is evident in symbolic and beautiful expression of Nikos Kazantzakis in his book, Report to Greco, who believes: “I don’t think that the two symbols of perfection, Ares and Aphrodite, have been blended so meaningfully elsewhere as the pure and the happy land of Greece.”


Background – Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF) is the oldest film festival of Greece, which has been held internationally since 1992 and has gone through a tortuous path. The festival was born about half a century ago called, “Week of Greek Cinema” and aimed to support the national cinema of Greece. The week of cinema gradually evolved into an important arena for introducing prominent Greek filmmakers. Theodoros Angelopoulos won the best prize of the 11th edition of the festival (1976) for his first film. A year later, he won the best director’s prize for his second film. The support offered by the festival for new filmmakers created a sense of competition which promoted the quality of the Greek cinema. Of course, in some years, it led to conflicts between the new and traditional filmmakers. The 1970s witnessed prosperity and rebirth of the “New Greek Cinema”. The Greek Film Center was launched in the early years of the said decade and helped further prosperity of the festival. In spite of the support from the socialist government, which came to power in 1981, that led to joint productions with other countries, due to various reasons including lack of people’s enthusiasm for Greek films and cinema, film production began to decline. During those years, Thessaloniki Film Festival was the main event that kept the Greek cinema alive.

Thessaloniki International Film Festival (TIFF, which should not be mistaken for Tokyo International Film Festival, Toronto International Film Festival or Tiburon International Film Festival !) has grown considerably over the past years as the most creditable cinema affair in Balkan region. Much of that growth was owed to endeavors made by previous managers of the festival, whose job has been followed by the current managers. TIFF, with its many awards and diverse sections, both discovers new talents and plays a great role in introducing the world’s top movies to Greek audience. The section for reviewing the works of creditable filmmakers, which is accompanied with publication of a books about them and their works, is world-famous. TIFF is the first festival to have arranged a review of Kiarostami’s cinema in 1992 (which was held in a more complete format in 2004). Since the festival went international, the Iranian cinema has enjoyed a superior position. A review of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s works, presence of such Iranian filmmakers as Abolfazl Jalili and Niki Karimi among the official selection, arranging five seminars on “Women in the Iranian Cinema” which have been attended by five prominent Iranian actors, screening important Iranian films in a section called “Treasures of the Iranian Cinema”, organizing an exhibition showcasing 170 photos from major Iranian still photographers themed “Iranian Look”, annual participation of new Iranian movies at international competition section and other sections, as well as winning important awards of the festival by the Iranian cinema indicate deep-rooted cultural ties between the two ancient nations that have forgotten the exhausting wars of past centuries, especially the damage done to the Iranian civilization by Alexander the Great. Today, festivals are crossroads of human culture and civilization and it is not important whether their award is called “Alexander” or “Olive Branch”.

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Iranian Cinema and Fajr International Film Festival

Cinema Thermometer
 by Massoud Mehrabi 
   Iran has gone through many ups and downs during the past 25 years. Those developments have led to basic changes in political, economic, social and cultural structures of the country. Eight years of war with Iraq, tensions related to reconstruction period after the war, election of a reformist government and subsequent conflicts between it and fundamentalist groups, establishment of a radical government, the issue of nuclear energy and so on portray a picture which is indicative of more tumult ahead. Despite such historical developments, International Fajr Film Festival has moved steadily ahead like a boat sailing on choppy seas and this year, it will berth for the 25th time.
   About 25 years ago, when the first instance of the festival was held in the heat of war with only five Iranian films taking part and an unknown jury that did not consider any of those films to be worthy of a prize, it was hard to believe that the festival will reach its 25th anniversary. Some festivals had been held before and none of them had lasted for more than two or three years. International Fajr Film Festival evolved year after year in a gradual manner and grew stronger in parallel to developments of the Iranian cinema. Since the first year, holding the festival at an international level greatly tempted its organizers and policymakers, especially in view of the fact that before victory of the Islamic Revolution, Tehran International Film Festival had been held for six consecutive years as a Class A festival. Therefore, starting at the fourth festival, three sections were added to it in which foreign films were screened, thus giving “international” credit to the event. One of those sections was “children and young adults cinema,” which evolved into an independent festival three years later (this was also due to the fact that Tehran International Festival of Films for Children and Young Adults was one of the most creditable and important global festivals in the field). During the past 25 years, the Iranian cinema has been constantly growing despite all difficulties with International Fajr Film Festival as its full-length mirror. For many years, most filmmakers regardless of their attitude toward cinema policies and political officials have been eager for their films to be screened at International Fajr Film Festival because the attention of all filmmakers and serious moviegoers is riveted on this major event of the Iranian cinema.
   During all those years, International Fajr Film Festival has been a reflection of policies adopted by the country’s cinema officials. During early years, Iranian cinema authorities were very sensitive about making sure that domestic productions completely comply with their policies and goals, though that sensitivity has relatively faded during recent years. Although, supervision over production of a film usually started with studying the screenplay and approving it and continued until the very end of filmmaking process, if the film had not remained inside the predetermined framework, it was rated C or D. That rating caused the film to be publicly screened only at a limited number of low-quality and inferior theaters and the filmmaker would have received less financial assistance and equipment (which are usually supplied by the government) for his next productions. Rating films started from A, which was given to those films that completely complied with predefined cinema policies. A-rated films and some B-rated film, which were also called asterisked B (B*), were screened at competition section of International Fajr Film Festival while films rated B without asterisk, C, and sometimes D, were screened out of competition and even in accessory and less important sections. The jury of the competition section that was determined by cinema (and sometimes political) officials, awarded the best prizes to films that they liked and, thus, sent signals to other films to show them the correct direction in which they should move.
   What said before may cause one to think that the Iranian filmmakers have not been independent and all decisions were actually made by policymakers and cinema officials; but this is not the whole truth. It is true that most films that were rated C or D were insignificant movies that were merely made for commercial purposes and to earn more money at any cost. From this viewpoint, the measures taken by cinema authorities was, in general, to the benefit of the Iranian cinema and the “new Iranian cinema” which had grown a little before the Islamic Revolution, turned into a strong tree and bore fruit after the revolution as a result of the said policy. Most cinema authorities, like well-wishing filmmakers, were concerned about the national cinema, which has its roots deep in the Iranian culture and its artistic aspects prevail over its commercial and populist aspects. The cinema authorities clearly announced that the main goal of their policies was to “support, guide, and supervise” cinema activities while filmmakers tried according to their artistic capabilities and their understanding of cinema, to produce films that would make them dignified in the eyes of critics, viewers, and the history of the Iranian cinema. Of course, there were few filmmakers and films that did not receive the praise that they deserved.
   For many years, International Fajr Film Festival has attracted not only ordinary and transient viewers, but also special and professional ones. Film buffs give up their daily chores during 10 days that the festival is going on and try to watch three or four films every day as a selection of films that will be screened at the Iranian theaters during the forthcoming year and also to watch a number of major foreign films before their public screening. Those viewers feel less need to go to theaters during the year and quench their thirst for cinema by watching the latest films of the world on DVDs that can be bought at very high quality and everywhere in the big cities of Iran for one euro. During many years of the festival, especially during the first and second decades, this group of viewers crowded around theaters that screened festival’s films so intensely that the window panes were broken. They stood in long lines for many hours to watch films that were made by such filmmakers as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Abbas Kiarostami, Massoud Kimiaei, Bahram Baizai, Dariush Mehrjui… and sometimes forced festival organizers to consider extra showtimes at 02:00 or 03:00 hours in the morning! They thought that films made by the said directors will be censored on public screening or will be totally banned and sometimes, their worst fears came true.
   International Fajr Film Festival is thermometer of the Iranian cinema. Higher temperatures shown by this thermometer do not necessarily indicate illness, but are the sign of more warmth, vivacity, liveliness and prosperity of the Iranian cinema. The festival is still a meeting place for cinema policymakers, filmmakers, and viewers who try to do their part in increasing the temperature.

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