Hong Kong International Film Festival 2015

Iranian filmmakers defy regime to win acclaim

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 28 March, 2015, 10:51pm
UPDATED : Monday, 30 March, 2015, 3:35pm

Iranian filmmakers at home and in exile are breaking free from restrictions - imposed both by their repressive government and by audience expectations - to form a creative wave that is increasingly winning attention internationally.

The 2011 best foreign-language-film Oscar for Asghar Farhadi's A Separation placed the spotlight on what was coming out of the Islamic republic. But those in the film industry emphasise that other notable productions go well beyond regime-approved portrayals of daily Iranian life.

"Iran has strong art and cinema" that will thrive no matter the adversity, says exiled Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose latest movie, The President, tells the story of a Central Asian republic's dictator toppled in a revolution and running for his life, as viewed by his young grandson.

"There is hope for this cinema, more than for the life of the dictatorship in Iran. There is hope that one day we don't have this regime, but we will have a good history of Iranian cinema."

Taxi by Jafar Panahi, a dissident director living in Tehran who is defying a government ban on making movies for 20 years, is the latest big success. His film, smuggled out of Iran, took top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival last month.

Taxi and The President are in the Hong Kong International Film Festival screening programme.

Taxi won't be shown in Iranian cinemas, but the film - which takes place inside a Tehran taxi cab driven by a beret-wearing Panahi - will be seen anyway by Iran's film fans who have access to bootleg DVDs in a thriving underground market.

That same market will also offer The Voices, a more commercial movie by Marjane Satrapi, the Iranian-French graphic novelist who co-directed the award-winning 2007 adaptation of her Persepolis, about the coming of age of a precocious young Iranian girl against the background of tumultuous political and social changes.

Sartrapi's new film, a macabre comedy starring Ryan Reynolds as a man pushed to murder by his talking pets, has nothing at all to do with her native country. It can be seen as part of a deliberate plan in her evolution to becoming a director first - and not one exclusively associated with stories about Iran.

"What I had to say [about Iran], I said at length … I don't like to redo what I [already] know how to do, because I would feel as if I'm not progressing enough," she says. Still, "Iran is in me, it's my country," she stresses, adding that the government's crackdown on Panahi and freedom of expression in general "particularly affects me".

Makhmalbaf, who now holds a French passport and lives in Britain, says he has survived four attempts by the regime to murder him. After 10 years in exile, "I don't know what my homeland is … Little by little I am less Iranian, honestly."

He, too, adheres to a more universal identity. "I am first a human being, second I am [an] artist, third I was born in Iran - not the reverse," he says.

Panahi, Makhmalbaf says, is "brave and has a lot of support, and that's why he makes one film a year". Other aspiring filmmakers in Iran are in prison or in exile - "but you don't know their names".

Given the oppression and censorship in Iran, some of the freshest visions emerging from there come from the post-revolutionary generation born and raised outside their parents' country.

Ana Lily Amirpour is an Iranian-American filmmaker born in Britain. Last year she offered a black-and-white "vampire western" about a trendy, bloodsucking Iranian dressed in Islamic garb titled A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The film, shot in California but set in an imaginary Iranian town and featuring Farsi dialogue throughout, has been well-received and opened up career horizons for Amirpour.

Her next project won't be Iran-themed or inspired: she told online magazine Indiewire that she's making a film in English about a "post-cannibalistic love story".

Agence France-Presse

The President , Thursday, 7.30pm, Cultural Centre, TST. Taxi , Thursday, 7.30pm, UA Cine Moko, Mong Kok; Saturday, 2pm, City Hall, Central. Part of the Hong Kong International Film Festival