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The Freer Gallery of Art may be closed, but that’s not stopping the museum’s annual Iranian Film Festival now in its 20th year. With the Freer closed for renovations, film screenings are taking place at the National Gallery of Art, East Building and the AFI Silver Theatre in Silver Spring. Iranian cinema—much like its country—is often the subject of both controversy and mystique, because of the Iranian government’s stringent censorship. Tom Vick, the Curator of Film at the Freer and its sister museum, the Sackler Gallery, spoke to Arts Desk via email about this year’s selections, qualities of Iranian cinema, how Iranian directors work, which selections will appeal to non-cinephiles, and more.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Arts Desk: Can you tell me about the start of the festival? How has it evolved since then?
Tom Vick: The festival began 20 years ago (before my time), at the height of the Iranian New Wave, when directors like [Abbas] Kiarostami, [Mohsen] Makhmalbaf, etc., were getting a lot of attention for the creative and poetic ways they found to make artistic—and sometimes subversive—films despite Iran’s strict censorship.
For many years, this mode seemed to dominate Iranian filmmaking, but I have noticed in recent years that Iranian directors are clearly being exposed to more kinds of films from around the world, and the style and subjects of their films are changing accordingly. In addition, the Green Revolution inspired some directors to take more bold political stances. One thing that hasn’t changed over the years is the devotion of the local Iranian community. They come out in droves for the festival, and always express their appreciation.
For those not that familiar with Iranian film, would you say the movies being shown this year have some common characteristics? Does that depend on if the film was made in Iran under the country’s rules, or by an Iranian filmmaker working elsewhere?
TV: I would say that this year’s batch is quite varied. Films like Avalanche and Melbourne are typical of the style many people associate with Iranian cinema, but Taxi, 316, and Atomic Heart, for instance, take more experimental approaches. The first two comment in different ways on censorship in Iran. Atomic Heart (whose title comes from an obscure Pink Floyd album) shows a side of Iranian life most Americans wouldn’t be familiar with. The two films made by Iranians living abroad (Bahar Noorizadeh and Mohsen Makhmalbaf) both reflect on their makers’ exile.
Have the government’s rules forced Iranian directors to have to convey ideas via a certain manner?
TV: What first got the attention of programmers and critics in the West about Iranian cinema was the creative ways directors found to work within a very restrictive system, using strategies that, in part, stem from the Persian poetic tradition of using allegory and allusion to address taboo topics.
Has it gotten harder over the years to make movies there at all? Like the director of Taxi? Are some directors leaving the country (if they’re able to)? Are some imprisoned?
TV: There is an ongoing debate among Iranian filmmakers over whether it’s better to leave Iran and work where one has freedom of expression, or to stay and try to change things from within. I wouldn’t say it’s become harder to make films there, but the rules can change from year-to-year according to the political winds. A few years ago, for instance, a number of directors, producers, and distributors were imprisoned, but they were all later released. Jafar Panahi (director of Taxi) is an interesting case because he’s managed to make three films in Iran since being officially banned from making them. Taxi, in particular, is quite brilliant in that it basically asks how a government can ban someone from making films when the technology of smart phones and GoPro-type cameras makes everyone into a filmmaker by default.
How has acquiring films for the festival changed—or not—over the years? How did you plan this year’s festival (and did you do it differently than in years past)?
TV: If anything, there are more films than ever to choose from. There are a handful of distribution companies, both in Iran and in Europe, that I usually work with. I meet with them at film festivals, and then narrow down the list in collaboration with the MFA Boston and MFA Houston, who also show the films. This year, for the 20th anniversary, I really tried to present a broad panorama, from classic films like The Cow, to contemporary films from inside and outside of Iran, made in a variety of styles. In a way, I wanted to challenge people’s assumptions about Iranian movies and Iranian culture generally.
Tell me about some of the older films showing at this year’s festival. Why did you choose them?
TV: The Night It Rained, the short film we showed on the first weekend, very cleverly subverts the documentary form by blending fact and fiction. As such, it’s an important precursor to the work of Kiarostami and Makhmalbaf and their generation, made 20-30 years before they came to prominence. The Cow is simply one of the most important Iranian films of the ’60s. The National Film Archive of Iran made a beautiful digital restoration, and so it seemed like the right time to show it.
How has Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s movie-making changed over the years?
TV: Makhmalbaf has always been a very politically engaged filmmaker, beginning by addressing issues inside Iran and moving on to Afghanistan and now more global issues. He’s been able to do this by moving his family out of Iran, which allows him to make political work without fearing repercussions.
What should viewers expect from Makhmalbaf’s The President?
TV: The President uses the allegorical style Makhmalbaf honed as young filmmaker to more ambitious ends. It is set in an unnamed, fictional country, but could be inspired by any number of recent despots (Hussein, Qaddafi, Assad). It speculates about what would happen if a figure of that type were forced to hide among the very people he has oppressed.
What are some qualities and aspects of upcoming films in the series that you think will appeal to moviegoers that may not be already familiar with Iranian films and who don’t speak Persian or Farsi? Do certain films in the remaining series have more general appeal?
TV: In addition to Taxi, which is such a warm-hearted, enjoyable film that even those with no knowledge of Iran will be won over, I would suggest that people check out Atomic Heart, which, with its surprising pop culture references, party girl heroines, and apocalyptic atmosphere, is sure to upend most people’s assumptions about life in Tehran.
Iranian film The President (photo courtesy of the Freer above) screens for free Sunday Jan. 17 at 4 p.m. at the National Gallery of Art. The Festival concludes Sunday, Feb. 28th with a 7 p.m. screening at the AFI Silver of Atomic Heart.