Fajr Film Festival bridges the separation between Iran and the West

We wrap up the happenings at the 30th Tehran Fajr Film Festival.

Cinema enthusiasts filled the show spaces at the 30th Fajr Film Festival in Tehran's Milad Tower.
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Even during the tense times Iranians are currently experiencing, there is still time to catch a movie.

Judging from the halls packed full of cinema goers over the past 10 days at Tehran's Fajr Film Festival, this seems to be the feeling among many Iranians, who withstood cold, snow and often long lines to attend screenings of films from around the world.

Now in its 30th year, Fajr is not as well-known in the film community as perhaps it should be, but as one of the longest-running such events in the region, it is earning a reputation for showcasing some exceptional films. Undoubtedly, it has contributed greatly to Iran's appreciation for cinema and a population that is cinematically well versed.

This has definitely been re-enforced by the hugely successful film A Separation by the acclaimed Iranian director, Asghar Farhadi, which premiered last year at the Fajr festival. The film, which follows the interwoven stories of two families as they struggle with their relationships in the increasingly difficult to manage urban landscape of Tehran, has been nominated for two Academy Awards, one for best foreign language film and a surprise nomination for best screenplay.

While no single film among this year's offerings garnered the kind of attention A Separation did last year, there are several movies that have left people talking. One is Private Life, a political drama about domestic infighting among Iran's reformist and conservative movements, and the personal struggles of the film's protagonist, an opposition leader. If the movie receives government permission to open in cinemas nationwide, it is expected to do very well.

Also receiving attention from audiences and critics alike is Orange Suit, the latest offering from veteran director Dariush Mehrjui. It stars Leila Hatami, who is also the lead actor in A Separation and her co-star, Peyman Maadi, premiered his directorial debut, Snow on Pines, at the festival as well.

Like any good film showcase, this year's Fajr also had its fair share of forgettable efforts. One example was The Last Thursday of the Month, an unfunny comedy about a mixed gender party that goes awry when the neighbourhood cleric arrives unannounced. Neither clever nor endearing, the film ends on a sad note, offering a caution to young Iranians who attempt to break the rules. Whether good or bad, and despite a very active cinema industry, all these works will probably remain largely unnoticed on the world stage.

News of A Separation took months to reach global audiences. Although the 10-day festival is very much an international event, with films from over 50 countries being represented and at the film market, the small number of attendees from the foreign media has limited Fajr's reach.

Over the past two years, this notable absence has been re-enforced by an unofficial boycott of the festival following Iran's disputed 2009 presidential elections. Such decisions, though, seem counterproductive. Iran is already such an isolated country in so many ways and it is quite difficult for journalists to visit.

Attending the Fajr festival, however, has often provided an entryway for journalists who otherwise would not be allowed to visit Iran. Along with the films which reveal so much about the misunderstood society, first-hand accounts of goings on in Iran could help the world to know this place a little better. Perhaps the best-known example of this was the work of the late Christopher Hitchens, who attended Fajr in 2006, his only visit to Iran.

One attendee from this year's event who echoes these same sentiments is Sean Stone, the son of the Academy Award-winning director, Oliver Stone. He says he sees the festival as a way for westerners to get to know Iran and its cinema.

"What's unique? It's held in Tehran for one thing," quipped Stone. "It's important for changing the image people have of Iran. It's one condition in which we as Americans can come here."

Stone added that he and the production company he works with, Reel Knights, intend to produce films in Iran in the coming years that will "facilitate dialogue and understanding, while also entertaining audiences".

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