Editor's note: This article about the 2007 Iran International Documentary Film Festival was published in the March-April 2008 issue of Documentary--well before the significant changes that have taken place in Iran over the past two years.
Last October, while the world was embattled with Iran over the nuclear issue and US media was using terms like "war" and "inevitable" in the same breath, another reality was taking place in Tehran, the capital of Iran: The first Iran International Documentary Film Festival (www.defc.ir).
This was an ambitious feat. Forty features and short films from Iran and 20 international docs participated in the competition section of the festival, while more than 80 films screened in other programs such as “Rumi—Poet of the World,” “Mirror of Festivals: Hot Docs & IDFA Selections,” and “Iran’s Neighbors—Iraq & Afghanistan,” to name a few. The festival was organized by the Center for Documentary Film, a semi-governmental organization that for more than a decade has worked independently under the leadership of Mohammad Afarideh and his tireless team to fund and distribute films by young documentary filmmakers and makers of short films. The team also successfully organized French and Dutch Documentary Film Panoramas in Tehran in 2002 and 2003. This was their first attempt at an international documentary film festival, which they intend to make into a yearly event.
Iranian documentary is now enjoying a revival due to the widespread interest in films and filmmaking in Iran, especially among the youth. Encouraged by organizations like the Center for Documentary Film and Young Cinema Organization, which provide funding and have branches in different regions of Iran, and spurred by the digital revolution, documentary film is flourishing in Iran. An astounding 806 Iranian films were submitted to the festival in different categories. They included films by young makers from remote regions, like the lyrical Taste of Sun from Abbas Amini, about sugar cane workers in the oil-rich southern Iran who show off their tattoos and dream about love.
Massoud Bakhshi, the director of the international competition of the festival, and a filmmaker himself, participated in the festival with his impressive feature debut, Tehran Has No Pomegranates, an ambitious essay film that weaves the recent history of Iran and the current conditions of life in Tehran, with creative use of archives, portraits of Tehrani citizens and his own playful voiceover. Bakhshi’s film won the Audience Award, as voted by the enthusiastic young crowds that filled the screening rooms, leaving little room for passage in the aisles or even on the floors.
The festival's international section featured several categories such as selections from IDFA and Hot Docs, and several representatives from these festivals were present in Tehran. They served either as judges or, in the case of Hot Docs, participated in a special event to introduce their festival to Iranian filmmakers. (This year Hot Docs will have a special section on Iranian films.) The list of international films was quite impressive—about 100, and spanned many countries, including the United States, despite its growing friction with Iran. Several American films about Iraq were featured, including Ghosts of Abu Gharib by Rori Kennedy, Iraq in Fragments by James Longley, My Country My Country by Laura Poitras and Falluja, a Deep Dish Production. Michael Moore was a newsmaker when rumors spread in the Iranian papers that he would attend the festival. He did not, but the 35mm print of SiCKO, which arrived late for the festival, was quickly dubbed into Farsi and viewed by a full house in the main screening room.
James Longley was present in the festival; he's in Iran working on a documentary project, which is still in its research stage. A special program featured a discussion between Longley and Saeed Abu Taleb, an Iranian filmmaker and television producer who was captured in Iraq by the Americans in 2003 and held for four months. Upon his return to Iran, Abu Taleb had a successful run for Majlis (Iranian parliament) and is now a government official. He admired Longley's beautifully shot film, but questioned his access to different factions in a volatile country like Iraq. As an Iranian television documentary producer, Abu Taleb had a difficult time finding access and was eventually captured. Longley also acknowledged his own difficulties in Iraq and attributed his good luck to spending an extended time in Iraq and focusing on ordinary people.
Other highlights from the festival were prize-winning docs from Europe like the impressive Four Elements by the Dutch filmmaker Jiska Rickels, who was in attendance, and 3 Rooms of Melancholia by the Finnish filmmaker Pirjo Honkasalo, which is a searing documentary that examines the Chechen conflict. There were also several films by Syrian filmmaker Omar Amiralay and Russian filmmaker Victor Kossakovsky.
For the young film audiences, watching films by Iranian filmmakers, especially young filmmakers, was the highlight of the festival. A few of these films broke new ground in exposing something of the forbidden in this restricted society. Iranian filmmakers don't have many opportunities to screen their films in Iran, even though Iranian national television commissions many of them. Most are never broadcast on IRIB’s highly ideological airwaves, nor are they able to find other screening venues, and they often they get relegated to the archives. Among the sold-out screenings were Iran in Advertising, about the history of Iranian advertising through rarely seen archives of pre-revolutionary publications. Another was Mohammad Rassulof’s Baade Daboor, a humorous film about banned media in Iran, showing how officials battle to remove illegal satellite dishes that proliferate most homes throughout Iran, even in regions that don't have regular electricity. The film also featured a movie buff who has closets full of foreign classics and Hollywood bestsellers and earns money renting them door to door to homes in Tehran—Iran’s answer to Netflix!
The festival served all of us like an island of cultural bliss, where 40 international filmmakers and buyers were present and more than 100 films filled the screens for five days. Iranian film enthusiasts and filmmakers freely exchanged ideas and watched films that they would normally not be able to see due to censorship on television and the small bandwidth of their Internet servers. Outside of this cinematic oasis in the middle of downtown Tehran, the people of this huge metropolis continued to endure a normal day of snarling traffic, rising prices due to sanctions, the pollution, political slogans of their leaders and the latent fear of an attack on their country.
Persheng Vaziri is an Iranian-born documentary filmmaker residing in New York City. She has just completed Caught Between Two Worlds, a documentary about Iranians in the US, and she works for Link TV on programs about Iran.