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Iran's top cultural event jeopardized by artist boycotts

Following a series of announced boycotts, including by the Iranian director Massoud Kimiai, this year's Fajr International Film Festival announced the cancellation of its opening ceremony in a gesture of solidarity with the families of the people killed when Iran-fired missiles struck a Ukrainian airliner.

Confronting a boycott by Iranian artists, the Fajr International Film Festival announced the cancellation of its opening ceremony, originally scheduled for Feb. 1. In a statement released Jan. 15, festival organizers cited the “public atmosphere of the community” in sympathy with the grieving families of those killed in Iran's accidental downing of Ukrainian International Airlines Flight 752 on Jan. 8. 

The cancellation marks a rare occurrence, as the festival's traditional opening in February and its concluding awards ceremony are usually star-studded, high-profile affairs staged to showcase Iran's contribution to global cinema and culture. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance sponsors and supervises the festival, which premiered in 1982 and is held every year on the anniversary of the Iranian Revolution.

The move by festival organizers follows in the wake of demonstrations sparked by anger over the Iranian government's initial denial and then admission that two missiles fired by its armed forces had struck the civilian airliner, resulting in the deaths of 176 people, including a number of medical doctors, university professors and students.

Alongside the protests in the streets and universities, a number of artists expressed their solidarity with the public's outrage by announcing their withdrawal from the Fajr festival.

The director Masud Kimiai, scheduled to screen his new film, “It was Blood,” was among the first to announce that he would boycott the festival. “People are enduring a lot of hardship these days,” Kimiai asserted Jan. 9 in a video posted to Instagram, adding that he does not want his film to be screened at such a sad time.

Other prominent Iranian actors who have also decided to boycott included Payman Maadi. The award-winning actor, director and writer wrote on Instagram Jan. 13 that all Iranians were in mourning.

“With what joy can I go to the festival and celebrate? When bright days come, we can all celebrate life and love together,” Maadi posted in white letters against a solid black background.

Pegah Ahangarani, an actress, director and outspoken critic of Iran's hard-liners, lashed out at the government on Instagram, “We are not citizens but hostages.” Other actors joining the boycott included Sara BahramiMaryam Bobani and Parastoo Golestani.

The boycott by actors and filmmakers quickly spilled over into auxiliary programs tied to the festival or organized in parallel with in. Various theater companies, among them Aran, which was scheduled to present the “Macbeth Puppet Show,” announced its withdrawal along with White Widow's Black Widow and Swan Singing. Jury members for the photo contest at the Fajr Visual Arts Festival also said they would be boycotting.

Artists' reactions to the tragedy have not been limited to the Fajr festival. Several musicians canceled concerts. “There is no life in me to sing,” Alireza Assar posted on Facebook, in announcing the cancellation of a pop concert that took him and organizers three months to prepare. “It is the least I can do in solidarity for the Iranian people.” The traditional singer Alireza Ghorbani announced that he was canceling all his concerts for January. 

The rising tide of boycotts and cancellations has provoked anger in some quarters. The newspaper Kayhan, a prominent mouthpiece of Iran's hard-liners, strongly criticized the artists' actions and brushed the boycotters off as cultural nobodies.

“Most of these people had no films in the festival, let alone influence in Iranian cultural life,” said a Kayhan editorial published January 15. It further asserted that the “fake boycott” by the actors provides a great opportunity for festival organizers to “alter the ideology” of the event, implying that going forward, the more liberal members of the industry could be blocked from taking part in it.

Some actors criticized the boycott by their peers, warning against encouraging division in Iranian society at a time when the people need to stand together against US sanctions. Among those expressing this sentiment was Shahab Hoseini, who won Best Actor at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival for his role in “The Salesman.”

“Withdrawal from the festival in the current situation is fueling disagreements and dividing society further,… [whereas] the society and people need solidarity and compassion more than ever,” Hoseini wrote on Instagram Jan. 17, garnering more than 450,000 likes.

“Personal decisions should be respected,” the art critic Arameh Etemadi told Al-Monitor. “One group of artists decided to boycott the festival whereas another group decided to attend it…. Of course, though there were cancellations in the past, there have never been as many as this year.”

Although some artists have withdrawn from this year's Fajr festival, it appears the show will go on, perhaps in a somewhat more subdued form.

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