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Will the Fajr Boycott Work?

by GOLAB P. in Tehran

25 Jan 2010 19:47Comments

fajr-milad.jpgmilad-fajr.jpg507924_orig.jpg[ dispatch ] The annual Fajr Film Festival is the biggest cinematic event of the year. It was established two years after the 1979 Iranian Revolution. The festival is sponsored by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and the Farabi Film Foundation, and usually held during the ten days of Fajr in February commemorating the victory of the Revolution. As of 1994, the festival has become international in scope, at times attracting acclaimed screenwriters and filmmakers from across the globe.

Each year, movie lovers here seek out the schedule with great excitement and prepare to queue up in a line that can stretch for miles (photos here are from the Palestine Cinema in Tehran in 2007). Even though the festival is held in the dead of winter, the brutal weather has never dampened enthusiasm. Neither has other obstacles. For example, at least once every year, one much-anticipated movie is banned just prior to screening. Tickets were sold out for Ali Santoori in 2007. But renowned Iranian director Dariush Mehrjui's film was banned the day before it was scheduled to be screened. Ebrahim Hatamikiya's The Color Purple met a similar fate.

Boycott or not?

Things may be a bit different this year. In cultural circles everywhere, you hear the same refrain: boycott or not? So far, a number of notable Iranian actors and directors have declined to join the judge's panel, citing other commitments but not openly acknowledging the boycott: Asghar Farhadi (director, About Elly) announced that he would be in Serbia to participate in a film festival there; Ezatollah Entezami (actor) said that he would be unable to participate due to illness; Fatemeh Goodarzi (actress) first announced that she would be unable to join due to travel commitments, but later agreed to serve as a judge; Abbas Kiarostami (director) never publicly declared why he declined the offer to judge this year; and Minoo Farshchi (writer) also bowed out.

In an interview with Chelcheragh magazine, Dariush Mehrjui was asked if he would be willing to serve as a judge this year. "Of course not!" he was quoted as saying. "I served as a judge years before, when things were better. A festival that is as poorly done as this one needs judges to match. Really, this festival is so awful that we should not even waste our time speaking about it."

He was asked whether boycotting the festival might harm the movie industry and artists. "The festival has nothing to do with the work of these artists," he replied. "These artists and cinematographers will do their own work and make their own movies." The reporter followed up by asking, "What then is the purpose of the festival?" "Nothing," Mehrjui said. "A group of people will gather in a room and applaud themselves and give themselves prizes."

The boycott campaign, which has its own Facebook page with nearly 6,000 members, is administered by students in Iran but includes members from all over the world. They feature a letter by Ken Loach, the acclaimed British director, who has also refused to participate. According to the Independent newspaper, "Ken Loach and the British theatre director Peter Brook are among leading Western artistic figures who have informed the Islamic regime they are pulling out in protest at its brutal crackdown on the opposition, which includes torture, prison rapes, countless killings and Stalinist-style televised show trials of reformists." Other important foreign no-shows were noted by a Los Angeles Times blog.

The list of artists who declined to participate grew so rapidly that up until the day of the festival, the organizers withheld the list of judges. In a statement posted on the festival's official Web site, officials said that the list "would remain a secret."

Opportunity knocks

Despite some early successes, this boycott campaign may be ineffective because some artists were faced with an opportunity they didn't want to pass up. Ebrahim Hatamikiya (pictured to the right), a leading director and writer popular for his depictions of the Iran-Iraq war, announced his decision to participate in Fajr this year after his movie, The Color Purple, which has been banned for five years, obtained a permit to be shown at the upcoming festival. Much to the dismay of those calling for a boycott, Hatamikiya followed through and appeared at the opening ceremonies on Saturday (more photos here, here, and here). Writer and director Ghotbeddin Sadeghi, director Shahram Asadi, actress Ladan Mostofi, and actor Dariush Arjmand were also among those present as well. Even so, the number of big names present had considerably diminished this year.

In the view of other artists attending, including a director with whom I spoke yesterday (she has asked to remain anonymous), this was an opportunity. As a director who has been working for only the last five years, she believes this applies to other younger writers, directors, and artists like herself, who lack the stature of their elders.

Since the Ministry of Culture (that is, the government) is the ultimate arbiter of their work, she said a boycott would only serve to limit their activities even more than it already is. "If the ban on the work of these artists is lifted in order to woo audiences and artists to the festival, why not use this opportunity?" she asked. "What use will it be to artists in the long run if they add to the limitations imposed on them by the government?"

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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