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Beauty and Censorship Show in Festivals Celebrating Iranian Films

By Jeff Baron, Staff Writer,

Washington - The lights are going down, and the images of Iran are going up at museums in several U.S. cities as Americans take another look at what Iranian filmmakers have to say about that country.

In The White Meadows, a man visits residents of isolated islands periodically to collect their tears. The film's director and editor have been imprisoned.

"You see a lot of films this year that take issue with the restrictions on what artists are allowed to do," said Carter Long, the film curator at the Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) in Boston, which has begun the 17th annual edition of the Boston Festival of Films from Iran. Other such festivals are running this winter in Washington, Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Honolulu.

That's not to suggest that his choice of films was a political statement, Long said. "I wouldn't program with political considerations. Here at the MFA, it's all about the art of the film," he said.

Nor did he set out to focus attention on two Iranian directors, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, who were sentenced in December 2010 to six years in prison by an Iranian court on charges of working against Iran's ruling system. But Long chose to close Boston's festival with a film directed by Rasoulof and edited by Panahi calledThe White Meadows, the allegorical tale of a man who travels to isolated islands to collect the tears of their residents.

"It's very likely my favorite movie that I've seen in 2010. It's just beautiful," he said. "It's a great sort of surrealist or magical-realism approach to filmmaking, which I really get a kick out of, and it's really affecting at the same time: It's a really powerful film about personal subjectivity."

At least one movie, My Tehran for Sale, is showing at several festivals accompanied by its director, poet and first-time filmmaker, Granaz Moussavi. It tells the tale of a young actress who must decide whether to leave Iran for Australia to pursue her art. Long said that Moussavi, who lives in Australia, managed to gain Iranian government approval to shoot her film in Tehran.

"She had some really clever ways of bringing in difficult subjects and topics - and depictions of those subjects and topics - while working within the system. It's just fascinating," Long said.

In Washington, film curator Tom Vick said he noticed something of a trend as he tried to decide which movies to pick for the 15th annual Iranian Film Festival at the Smithsonian Institution's Sackler and Freer Galleries.

"A lot of Iranian filmmakers are being influenced by other parts of the world now. I mean, it used to be everyone was kind of imitating Abbas Kiarostami and [Mohsen] Makhmalbaf and making these very quiet, kind of minimal films," Vick said. "You definitely see a different kind of aesthetic going on."

In My Tehran For Sale, a young woman whose theater work has been banned in Iran faces a decision over whether to leave the country to pursue her art.

Filmmakers also approached different topics, he said. The Washington festival includes Salve, which depicts drug use and other social problems in Tehran through the story of a woman trying to protect her rebellious granddaughter.

"It's the first year I've really seen a lot of these films that are going away from what we expect Iranian films to kind of look and sound like," Vick said. "And I think that may also be sort of the energy from the protests and the elections [of 2009]. I mean, that need to protest and say something and get news out, it's sort of leaking out in the films as well."

Long offered a similar assessment of how the atmosphere in Iran might be affecting its movies. "To a certain extent, limitations and restrictions and difficult social and cultural climates can, in some cases, produce the best art, and we may see that exemplified in films from Iran coming up," he said. "It's certainly, I would say, the case with Mohammad Rasoulof's film, The White Meadows. I think it's an absolutely beautiful film that came out of very, very trying circumstances."

That doesn't mean that the movies are all serious or bleak. There's Nothing Behind the Door, which is showing in Boston, is something of a crime caper, more of a commercial film than an artistic one and "definitely enjoyable," Long said.

And both Boston and Washington are featuring the comedies Frontier Blues andPlease Do Not Disturb. Frontier Blues, which follows four men's lives in a village in Iranian Turkmenistan, is absurdist and subtle, with very dry wit, Vick said. "If you like that style of humor, you'll like it, and if you hate that kind of humor, you'll absolutely despise it," he said.

Please Do Not Disturb is more likely to be broadly popular with Americans, Vick said. "I found it quite funny. It's very engaging," he said. "Our curator of Islamic art is always challenging me to find an Iranian comedy - she's always complaining about how [the films are] always so dreary. So this is my comedy."

Long, Vick and Marian Luntz of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, work with one another on their Iranian film festivals, though the programs are not identical. The independent Ilex Foundation, which promotes the study of cultures from the Mediterranean and Near East, helps support the programs.

"It's tough business putting on an Iranian film festival, you know," Long said. "It's not easy to find the material sometimes, and then to secure the rights to screen it can be equally difficult."

The response, though, is easy to predict: These are the most popular film festivals at the museums every year.

"It's a thrill every year, and yeah, we get a great audience," Long said. "There are quite a few people of Iranian descent - I mean, there's the cultural interest and the heritage interest - but there is a lot of interest, I think, in American film buffs' minds in Iranian cinema, going back to the '90s."

Vick said that Washington, as a city with a large international population, is fertile ground for international films, but that the Iranian festival stands out.

"It's our most popular annual series, and we get a really good turnout from the Iranian community, which is really great," he said. "It's really gratifying to be able to reach out to these different communities in the city. They want to see not only just films from Iran, but I think they want to see Iran and they want to get together and sot of celebrate this culture."

(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site:

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