Festival, Articles, Review, Interviews

Putting on the Iranian film festival is a labour of love - The Australian (Justin Burke)

“Film festivals are a bit like share houses,” says Anne Demy-Geroe, co-founder of the Iranian Film Festival Australia.

In fact, when The Australian first spoke to Demy-Geroe in February to document a year in the life of the IFFA, the festival and her house were for all intents and purposes the same thing.

“We all meet at my place at 7pm each Monday, two of the other people live next door, one of them used to work with me at Brisbane International Film Festival, and one of them is my student — it’s all very incestuous in that regard,” says the former artistic director of BIFF, now a teacher at Brisbane’s Griffith Film School.

“There’s a lot of healthy argument, and occasionally people get grumpy when people didn’t do the tasks they were supposed to do; there’s either green tea or red wine for that.

“It’s got to be fun, or else why do it?”

Indeed, fun aside, why anyone would take on the daunting challenges of presenting a foreign film festival is a good question. The financial rewards are often slim. The administrative and logistic challenges — from programming and catering to newsletters and social media — are onerous.

Yet recent years have seen a proliferation of new foreign film festivals, including Turkish, Czech and Slovak, British, Scandinavian, and Iranian (plus, to complicate matters, a Persian one). They join those that were established from the mid-1990s: Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Serbian, German, Arab, Israeli and Russian film ­festivals; and the more established Greek, French and Jewish ­festivals. During this month and next, fully half of these foreign film festivals will screen across capital cities.

The first and most important decision each year is whether to go again. For the IFFA, it is a decision made between Demy-Geroe and the other co-founder, Armin ­Miladi, a Tehran-born short film and documentary maker. It hinges on how the accounts stack up from the previous year. Because of the political situation in Iran, including the sanctions of recent years, the IFFA does not accept money from the government of its featured country, unlike most other foreign film festivals. Revenues are made up of sponsorship and a share of the box office.

“The hardest thing every year is to make it work financially. Like any arts business, this is a constant battle,” Miladi says.

“To be honest, last year we came out dead neutral due to poor attendances in Canberra,” Demy-Geroe says. “I guess we always expect the festival will go on, just as long as we didn’t end up with huge debt that might force our hand.”

Cost control is paramount, though the topics of disagreement can sometimes be prosaic. “The biggest thing that Armin and I disagree about is that he wants T-shirts for the festival volunteers every year and I said we can’t afford T-shirts — you’ve got all those volunteers, you don’t know exactly what size they are — they seem fabulous but they are not ­essential,” she says.

A compromise of wristbands is suggested; equally good for morale and inexpensive. But during the year, the idea is quietly forgotten. “Well, the fact is everyone has different tastes,” Miladi says diplomatically. “There are always many more urgent things to do to spend the time and budget on, we never got to finalise that idea.”

The serious effort of organising a festival centres on securing films. For the IFFA, this process begins with the Fajr International Film Festival, held in Tehran each ­February. But negotiations are rarely concluded until after the major international festivals — including Berlin, Cannes, Montreal and Busan — so the films can premiere first at an A-list festival. (This is the key reason most foreign film festivals in Australia are held in October and November.)

By May, Demy-Geroe had already been to Iran for the second time this year.

“We have a good grasp on what films are out there now, and we have 35 features we are interested in looking at,” she says.

“I saw (director) Jafar Panahi at his house, and he screened his new film Taxi for me, but the problem will be that it will probably have screened in Australia before us, and there may not be enough audience left to make it worthwhile.”

Another programming complication for the Iranian Film Festival is the Persian International Film Festival, which began in 2012.

“Over the years we have talked to the Persian Film Festival, but they are very interested in the ­diaspora films and Persian-language movies from Afghanistan, so I have agreed we won’t go into that territory. It’s very difficult to be completely open and co-operative, but we do try because I like a conflict-free life.”

Towards the end of the organising process, meeting night has switched to Wednesdays.

Alongside ticket sales, media, planning the logistics of getting the films from one city to another, the focus turns to securing big-name directors and actors as guests. Two of the maybes — actress Leila Hatami and director Ali Mosaffa — have declined because of shooting commitments. “Negotiating for the festival’s guests is always a last-minute thing: if they can’t come because they are shooting, in a way I am happy,” Demy-Geroe says.

Rouhollah Hejazi, director of Death of the Fish, which is screening at the festival, confirmed in the final days while another guest was still under negotiation.

Demy-Geroe is still teaching her Asian-Pacific cinema class in Brisbane in the weeks before opening night in Adelaide. “Part of the art of running a festival is having a panic attack while simultaneously chatting and laughing,” she says. “It always nerve-racking because it can come down to totally uncontrollable things, like if the weather is wonderful people often don’t come to the cinema.”

It’s a good time to revisit one of the first — and perhaps obvious — questions that I asked Demy-Geroe, a non-Iranian, at the start of this year: why Iranian cinema?

“I am intrigued by how Iranian filmmakers manage to work in and around the system and come up with such spectacular films, that often have to work on low budgets, under difficult circumstances, and they don’t have the kind of gear a lot of Western filmmakers had access to, yet they come up with stories which are incredibly appealing and humanistic,” she says.

It’s a description that could apply to the festival. “Our festival as a metaphor for Iranian cinema? That’s probably true,” she says.

The Iranian Film Festival Australia opens in Adelaide on Friday, before touring to Sydney, Canberra, Brisbane and Melbourne until November 2.

(Photo) - Iranian Film Festival Australia co-founders Armin Miladi, far right, and Anne Demy-Geroe, second right. Picture: Lyndon Mechielsen Source: News Corp Australia