Making movies against all odds: Iranian cinema at Cairo Film Fest

Rowan El Shimi, Wednesday 19 Nov 2014

The 36th Cairo film festival featured two Iranian films, a documentary on censorship in Iran and a Moroccan tribute to Iranian cinema. Through them, audiences sampled the challenges facing filmmakers in the Islamic republic

Still from Melbourne winner of the Golden Pyramid award for Best film at the Cairo International Film Festival

In spite of continuous tense diplomatic relations between Egypt and Iran, the 36th Cairo Film Festival (CIFF) – held between 9 and 18 November – hosted several Iranian films, among them Melbourne which won the festival's main award, the Golden Pyramid for the Best Film.

This should come as no surprise, as Iran has an exceptionally large film industry with around 800 films produced each year and Iranian art house cinema is the most celebrated in the region.

Iranian filmmakers have been making festival runs with their movies for several decades. Iran's filmmakers have won Oscars, Palme d'Ors and Golden Bears since 1997. As an industry, Iranian cinema is one of the oldest in the world, with silent films being made in the 1930s.

The most informative of the Iranian films that showed in Cairo was American/Iranian Jamsheed Akrami's documentary, A Cinema of Discontent, which chronicles the tight laws and censorship codes enforced by the Iranian Islamist state.

The film features interviews with some of Iran's most important filmmakers, such as Jafar Panahi, Bahman Ghobadi, and the Oscar-winner Asghar Farhadi, as they narrate the issues they face with the censorship board and their aspirations for Iranian art house cinema.

While the interviews provided deep insights, they were perhaps too long and towards the second half of the film proved repetitive. However, the most interesting aspect of the film was the numerous examples Akrami provided on how filmmakers deal with censorship laws.

As in Iran, women are not allowed without a headscarf in public places, a cinema screen falls directly under this law. Thus even if the film is showing a married couple behind closed doors or a group of women at home the female actresses have to be wearing their headscarves, which undermines the realistic element in today's Iranian cinema.

Iran's authority also puts restrictions over gender segregation, so men and women cannot touch in films. One filmmaker, as shown in the documentary, takes a medium shot of a couple without showing their hands, then the male asks the female why her hands are so cold as a way to tell the audience that they are holding hands.

According to the film, some filmmakers insert several extra scenes into the script which they send to the censorship authority that they know will get removed, in an effort to salvage the scenes they actually wish to push borders with.

Being screened at the beginning of the festival, the Cinema of Discontent puts Iranian films in a whole new light for the audience. It gets us to really value the great deal of trouble filmmakers go through to keep the cinema industry going in these harsh circumstances.


Golden Pyramid winner for Best Film at CIFF was Nima Javidi's debut feature Melbourne – which premièred in the Venice Film Festival's critics' week outside the official competition. The film is engaging and gripping even though it is all conversation based and set almost entirely in a middle class apartment owned by a young couple in Tehran.

The title is a reference to the fact that the couple are packing their house and moving to Australia. Taking place in real time, as they pack, an unintentional tragic event suddenly takes place, and the couple's relationship, their ethics and respect for each other is tested throughout the film.

The film can only be described as suffocating, where a viewer feels they are trapped in the same situation with the couple, and feeling frustrated every time they do not deal with the situation in the way we would.

Throughout the film, lead actress Negar Jacherian – who gave an impeccable performance – did not take off her headscarf even once, in spite being in the comfort of her own home with her husband.

Not to mention that, this couple who are dealing with a serious crisis, and are in an emotional roller-coaster, never include any slightest comforting method that would include physical elements.

Among other Iranian films featured was actor turned director Abed Abst's The Corner, which enjoyed its world premier at CIFF. The film is about a man who sits in front of his camera at home chronicling how he, along with three friends, caused the death of his father and niece.

A Moroccan docu-fiction dubbed 'The Iranian Film' also showed at CIFF where director Youssef El-Idrissi plays a fictional version of himself as he is trying to make a graduation film for his Masters degree in Morocco. Inspired by his love for Iranian cinema, he shows his attempts to make an Iranian style film called 'National Day' about a village that refuses to raise its flags on this day.

Through referencing Iranian cinema, El-Idrissi sheds light on the hardships Moroccan independent filmmakers go through when wanting to make a film.

Following the talk after the screening, El-Idrissi told Ahram Online that he used Iran particularly due to the fact that filmmakers have so many restrictions, but in spite of that 'creativity prevails' and they manage to produce great films.


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