In the past few years, the most popular movies about Iran have come from outside the country -- most notably the United States (Argo) and France (Persepolis). Whether made by Iranian expatriates or non-Iranians, the films play up Iran's image as a nation of tumult and revolution. Even movies by Iranian filmmakers that have achieved a semblance of popularity in the West often emphasize Iran's draconian government policies and the way average Iranians are exploited or find a way to circumvent cultural restrictions (No One Knows About Persian Cats). How Iranians see themselves. How outsiders see Iranians. It's a cinematic tug-and-pull that has been happening for more than 50 years, evident by The Poppy Is Also a Flower, a 1966 film with a Who's Who of '60s movie stars (including Omar Sharif, Yul Brynner, Marcello Mastroianni, Angie Dickinson, and Eli Wallach) that is screening at this year's Iranian Film Festival.
By showcasing a mix of rediscovered movies and new dramas and documentaries, the festival -- held in San Francisco this Saturday and Sunday, September 28-29, 2013 -- provides a unique window into Iran at a time when the country is constantly hovering in the news because of its (alleged) nuclear ambitions, its involvement in Syria's war, and its tenuous relationship with the United States and U.S. allies. The headlines disappear at the festival, giving way to characters' interior struggles with family relationships and personal demons that are the central focus of several inspired features. In For Shahrzad, the central figure, a young, pregnant woman with an abusive father, navigates her way through his overbearing ways, and never hesitates to confront him ("why did you bring me into this world if you could not afford it?") and the other people in her life. Much of the film is set in a hospital's emergency-room lobby, where a cast of memorable characters (a cynical supervisor, the pregnant woman's husband, the taxi driver who brought her to the hospital) meet and where flashbacks ensue that fill in the dramatic back story of the main character's life.
Everything Is Fine Here
In Everything Is Fine Here, a young writer who's newly engaged and newly acclaimed, with an invitation to lead a prestigious writing workshop in Germany, is sexually attacked, setting off a series of events that put a severe strain on her marriage-to-be and her relationship with her parents.
Two short films at the Iranian Film Festival -- Charisma and Return -- give indelible glimpses into lives that reach a frail precipice. In Charisma, an old man with a cane sits on a crowded bus across from a boy who recognizes the humanity in this elderly stranger. In Return, a multi-generational family waits for the return of an important member who's been fighting in the Iran-Iraq War. A flying kite, held up in the air by young children, becomes the symbol of transition in this short film that is cinematic poetry.
Among festival documentaries, No Burqas Behind Bars visits a women's prison in Afghanistan, where the inmates can be free of the blue, balloon garments that they're ordinarily required to wear in public. Many of the inmates are there for the "crime" of leaving an abusive relationship. In this Swedish/Afghani/Iranian co-production, director Nima Sarvestani paints a surreal picture of a prison system where inmates establish loving bonds with each other.
Even though it doesn't date well, The Poppy Is Also a Flower, which dramatizes a United Nations-Iranian campaign to stamp out heroin production from poppies, is worth spending time with. Filmed on location in Iran, it's based on a story idea by James Bond author Ian Fleming and was directed by Terence Young, who made three highly successful Bond films (Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball). The dialogue often plummets to absurdly funny levels, just like in Bond films. "Follow that elevator," one character says, while another offers, "Maybe she caught the midnight camel." Yul Brenner portrays an Iranian military man named Colonel Salem, while Jack Hawkins, who was a key figure in the movie Lawrence of Arabia, portrays an Iranian general. The film originally aired on ABC, and it was made at a time when the Shah of Iran was still Westernizing his country. As filmed by Young, Iran's Eastern desert areas become panoramic postcards, while the country's city of Esfahan -- site of treasured mosques and other acclaimed architecture -- is a marvel to behold.
"The film is very unusual because of its setting, its story, and its international cast," says festival director Saeed Shafa, an Iranian-American who has lived in the United States for forty years.
Now in its sixth year, the Iranian Film Festival has 36 films this time around, and is featuring a series of director and actor Q&A sessions. As in years past, it's being held at the San Francisco Art Institute.
"Every year," says Shafa, "we've had strong programming, and this year is especially strong. We try to build a bridge between Iranian-American audiences and non-Iranian audiences. The films are all in English or have English subtitles." So, one way or another, audiences have ways to get into the movies on screen, and to feel transported to a country that deserves to be considered beyond the daily cycle of news headlines that scream "war" and "sanctions" and "nuclear weapons."
The Iranian Film Festival runs Saturday, September 28, and Sunday, September 29, 2013 at the San Francisco Art Institute. For tickets and information, visit iranianfilmfestival.org.