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Iranian Film Festival a Big Hit at Washington's Freer Gallery

By Louise Fenner, USINFO Staff Writer

Festival returns for 11th year featuring works by five Iranian filmmakers

Washington -- One of the most popular events at the Smithsonian Institution’s Freer Gallery of Art each year is the Iranian Film Festival, which presents contemporary works by internationally acclaimed filmmakers as well as new directors.

“We have overflow crowds,” says Tom Vick, the film programmer for the Freer Gallery.  “We usually don’t show films twice [during a film series], but with the Iranian films we have to,” he said.

Even with two showings of each film, people usually have to be turned away, according to Vick. “They are very enthusiastic [about these films] and very upset when they can’t get in,” he said.

About 70 percent of the audience is Iranian, often with entire families in attendance, Vick told USINFO.  The rest “are interested for professional or personal reasons, or they know about Iranian cinema or are film buffs.”

Stray Dogs, directed by Marzieh Meshkini
Stray Dogs, directed by Marzieh Meshkini, takes place in Afghanistan.
(Photo courtesy of the Freer Gallery)

The 11th annual Iranian Film Festival runs from January 12 to February 18 and features five films, including The Willow Tree by Majid Majidi, whose film Children of Heaven was nominated for best foreign language film at the 1998 Academy Awards.

The others are Ceasefire, directed by Tahmineh Milani; When Fish Fall in Love, the first film by theater director Ali Rafii; A Little Kiss, by former political exile Bahman Farmanara; and Stray Dogs, by Marzieh Meshkini.

Vick said the 2007 series “shows a real panorama of the kinds of films being made and the way of life” in Iran.

For example, When Fish Fall in Love is set in a Caspian village while Ceasefire is a comedy about a bickering upper-middle class couple in Tehran.  Stray Dogs tells a poignant tale of two impoverished children struggling to survive in post-Taliban Afghanistan.

When Fish Fall in Love, directed by Ali Rafii
When Fish Fall in Love, directed by Ali Rafii, takes place in a Caspian village.
 (Photo courtesy of Freer Gallery)

Ceasefire, which was previewed for film reviewers on January 8, stars Mahnaz Afshar and Mohammad Reza Golzar as a couple on the brink of divorce who end up in therapy.  Milani has made several films that, like this one, deal with women’s struggles in a male-run society, but this is her first comedy.

One of Milani’s films, The Hidden Half, landed her in jail for two weeks in 2001, after she was accused by the Islamic Revolutionary Court of numerous crimes, including supporting counterrevolutionary groups through her art.  She was freed after two weeks following a wave of popular protests, an international petition drive that included several well-known Hollywood directors and intervention by then-president of Iran Mohammad Khatami.

Milani’s film The Unwanted Woman was featured in the 2006 film festival at the Freer.

Mark Jenkins, the principal film reviewer for Washington’s weekly City Paper, said after the showing of Ceasefire that he is “a big fan” of Iranian films, but he acknowledged that Americans generally know very little about them and that only the works of a few well-known directors such as Abbas Kiarostami (Taste of Cherry) are commercially distributed in the United States.  This applies to most foreign language films, he said. Moreover, many foreign films, including those from Iran, are readily available on DVD.

Jenkins cited the importance of women in Iran’s film industry and said “there are more women directors in Iran than in the United States.”

Films in Iran must follow guidelines set by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and go through a multistep censorship process.  “These restrictions seem to have acted as a spur to a style of clever and symbolic story-telling, which has produced a world-recognized school of cinema,” according to a British Broadcasting Corporation news article on Iranian film.

Many things that cannot be said or shown directly are represented symbolically or presented through the eyes of children, Jenkins said.  The best Iranian directors produce interesting work because “they have to think about what they are presenting and how they are presenting it,” he said.

Vick said the Freer Gallery shows films all year round, but only the Iranian and Hong Kong film festivals are presented on an annual basis.  The Iranian series is “the most popular in terms of attendance” at the Freer, he said.  The 2007 series was organized by the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, which already has shown the films.  The films also are being shown in Houston, Chicago and Los Angeles and possibly elsewhere, Vick said.

The schedules of Iranian films for the 2007 and 2006 festivals are available on the Freer Gallery Web site.

For more stories about the influence of filmmakers and other artists in society, see The Arts.

(USINFO is produced by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:


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