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Who's winning in Iranian-Arab film festival battle?

Censorship and neglect are contributing to the decline of Iran's flagship Fajr Film Festival.

The 34th Fajr Film Festival will be held in February in Tehran, Iran’s capital. The event is the oldest of its kind in the region, after the Cairo International Film Festival, which was established in 1976. However, if one takes into account the six rounds that were held prior to Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution, with the first held in 1972, it is undoubtedly the oldest in the Middle East.

Before the Islamic Revolution, the Tehran Film Festival was considered a fierce rival of the Cannes Film Festival; it was rumored to have an even higher budget than Cannes. However, after the Islamic Revolution, which was followed by a year of cultural confusion, the Tehran Film Festival came to be viewed as a symbol of Western triviality by the revolutionaries, as were many other artistic events of the shah’s era — and so it was canceled. However, in 1982, the Tehran Film Festival was revived, but under the title of the Fajr (“Dawn,” in reference to the Islamic Revolution) International Film Festival, and held on the anniversary of the victory of the Islamic Revolution. This did not, however, allow the Fajr International Film Festival to gain much international credibility, in contrast to the newer cinematic events that were being held in Arab countries in the Persian Gulf region, such as the Dubai International Film Festival or the now closed Abu Dhabi Film Festival, or going farther away, the Istanbul or Cairo festivals, which have gained international recognition. Moreover, by maintaining a conservative nature while insisting on Islamic moral principles, the Fajr International Film Festival has failed to make news far from home.

In a sign of the disarray, this year’s festival has yet to begin, but already one of the judges has resigned. Once again, it appears that the issue at hand is the blade of censorship that is held over Iranian cinema. This fact of daily life in Iran has led many filmmakers away from Tehran and toward other film festivals in the Middle East.

For instance, in 2011, prominent Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani’s film was removed from the Fajr Film Festival and not given permission for screening after Farahani posed semi-nude for a French magazine. In contrast, she won the best actress award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

Indeed, it appears that Iranian cinema managers and the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which is in charge of governmental censorship of films, are pushing Iranian artists toward festivals in other Persian Gulf countries. At events in Dubai and Abu Dhabi, the presence of many top Iranian filmmakers has been evident over the years, and they are not just attending, but also participating as judges, chairpersons and special guests. A mere cursory glance at the history of these young festivals during the past decade reveals that faces of Iranian cinema who have always been a name at European and American festivals have expanded their portfolios of awards to include the Golden and Silver Lion of the Venice Film Festival and the Golden Palm awarded at the Cannes festival. Moreover, on several occasions, they have won prizes worth $100,000 and the Black Pearl at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival.

The question is why the Tehran Film Festival, once one of the most important cinematic events in the world, has come to stoop so low. This event once saw prominent visiting directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni, who at the 1975 Tehran festival revealed his secret that he took long sequence shots without any cuts, effectively dropping a news bomb in the world of cinema. Yet now, even local filmmakers feel as if they have no rivals participating at the festival and look to the other end of the Persian Gulf.

Iranian cinema is one of the oldest of its kind in the region, and local productions have for many years been among the top 10 in the world, after countries such as India, the United States and China. Yet the Fajr Film Festival is in deep disarray.

Yousef Latifpour, an Iranian cinema journalist, said, “Censorship is the most obvious prohibitory element and the most important necessity that makes any festival fall not only in its international standing but also from being given the title of ‘festival.’”

Other festivals in the world, while benefiting from governmental and local financial support, have an artistic independence that in effect acts as their secret for creating unique identities. The Fajr Film Festival has tried to be the leader of moral cinema, yet it has not been able to offer a clear definition of what this actually means.

One of the most important features of any credible festival is the number of films that will have their initial screening or at least their regional debut there. The Tehran Film Festival does not seem to care about this and has made no investments in this regard during the past three decades. According to cinema critics, the lack of creative managers who have extensive international networks as well as the absence of touristic significance have contributed to the decline of the Fajr Film Festival. Latifpour said, “Very few non-Iranian participants come to watch a film at Fajr on their own budget when they can see the same films in better conditions and in their full version at the Dubai, or Abu Dhabi or Istanbul film festivals.”

Indeed, last year, Iran had two films in the World Cinema category at the Dubai Film Festival: “Wednesday, May 9th” by Vahid Jalilvand and “The Man Who Became a Horse” by Amir-Hossein Saghafi. “Wednesday, May 9th” tells the strange story of a man who plans to donate a significant amount of money to the person most in need through the placement of an advertisement. “The Man Who Became a Horse” is the third feature film made by young Iranian filmmaker Saghafi. More broadly, in the past decade, about 100 Iranian filmmakers and cinematographers have been invited to regional film festivals, such as the ones in Istanbul, Cairo, Abu Dhabi and Dubai, to either act as judges, introduce a film or receive an award. In contrast, a look at the list of invitees to this year’s Fajr Film Festival reveals that less than half of participants come from regional countries.

The recent 12th Dubai Film Festival was host to films such as Oscar nominee Lenny Abrahamson’s “Room,” and Adam McKay’s “The Big Short,” which stars Brad Pitt, Ryan Gosling, Christian Bale and Steve Carell. With only weeks left until the Fajr International Film Festival, the people behind the event need to think of something if they want to stay in the game — and think fast.

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