TEHRAN — The 39th edition of the Tehran International Short Film Festival (TISFF), which is the oldest of its kind in Iran and the region, kicked off Oct. 19 in the Iranian capital amid controversy surrounding its timing and the board members’ attitude toward the anti-government protests since the death of Iranian Kurdish woman Mahsa Amini in religious police custody Sept. 16.
During the weekend before the festival, an international association of the short film industry, known as the Short Film Conference (SFC), lashed out at TISFF for what it called support of the Iranian government’s measures against protesters.
“We have compelling testimony from industry and filmmakers that the current board of the Tehran ISFF are fully supportive of the disgraceful current actions of the Iranian government and its systematic oppression,” read the statement issued on Facebook with #MahsaAmini and #WomanLifeLiberty hashtags.
The SFC further called on filmmakers not to submit or screen at TISFF, urging industry professionals to shun the festival until “their stance has changed."
Earlier in October, calls grew for boycotting art festivals associated with the Iranian government in the wake of the deadly crackdown on demonstrations. A five-member delegation representing Iranian filmmakers entered negotiations with TISFF director Mehdi Azarpendar to postpone the program, only to hear that the calendar will remain unchanged. Azarpendar, who is simultaneously the head of the festival’s main organizer, the Iranian Youth Cinema Association, argued that films cannot be put on hold indefinitely.
In reaction, a group of prominent artists opted out, especially after the organizers defended the Islamic Republic’s “concerns” in the middle of the ongoing protests. “It is an absolute disgrace if the festival is canceled under the shadow of these incidents; I would never accept it,” said Azarpendar during a presser.
Composer Fardin Khalatbari, researcher Hassan Hosseini, producer Pooyan Sedghi, short filmmaker Kaveh Mazaheri and editor Hamid Najafirad were the first group to cancel participation in the festival. In a matter of days, more than two dozen independent Iranian artists joined in.
On social media, an unknown graphist slapped a bloody handprint on the TISFF official poster in reference to the deadly crackdown on civilians. Two lines under the poster warned against “normalizing the current situation” by participating in the festival. Another poster, designed by renowned Iranian experimental filmmaker Mohammad Shirvani, portrayed the bare back of a woman sprayed with 39 bullets, symbolizing the age of the festival.
Withdrawals also hit the international section of the festival that screens movies from 35 countries. Three foreign key speakers and a curator canceled their panels. All the animation and live-action section filmmakers dropped out in protest against “the organizers’ suspected ties with the paramilitary group Basij.”
“We also regret that the festival has not made any statement condemning the deadly crackdown on protesters," wrote Anabela Angelovsa, after removing her movie from the international competition.
A 29-year-old cinema graduate and short-film maker who asked to remain anonymous told Al-Monitor that the 2022 audience turnout was visibly lower compared to previous years. Images and videos coming out of the venue corroborate the account. “The halls were almost empty during some screenings,” according to a visitor.
Even a video report by the Iranian semi-official news agency Tasnim appeared to stick to a close shot of the audience as they cast popular votes without moving the camera around. Tasnim is affiliated with the Iran Revolutionary Guard Corps and usually defends government policies.
Unofficial reports said the festival had offered free accommodation in Tehran to all short-film makers living in other cities as an incentive to boost attendance. The tickets were also free this year as opposed to previous years.
“The boycott comes from within, from the cast and the crew; many have removed their names from the credits of their movies,” said a young Iranian director of photography who has worked on several short films, adding that organizers screen the entire initial lineup regardless of withdrawals.
The festival was originally founded in the early 1970s. It underwent fundamental changes until 1983 when it turned into the most important event for short films in the West Asia region. It was given its current title, TISFF, in 2003. The Oscar-qualifying event is held annually, and its 39th edition runs until Oct. 24, 2022.
Iran will be holding two more international film events in the next six months — namely, the 16th Cinema Verite Documentary Film Festival in December and the 41st Fajr Film Festival in February. “As long as the artists and the public see no change in the current situation, other festivals are not expected to fare better,” predicted a Tehran-based film critic who spoke to Al-Monitor on condition of anonymity.