The young festival is doing its part...

--by Craig Mathieson for SBS Film--

_DSC3138-FYphotography-LS copy.jpg

Film can create a different image for a country and that’s one of the things I’m trying to do with the festival

Armin Miladi, co-director of the Iranian Film Festival Australia, doesn’t just believe that the cinema is a way to remove barriers put in place by forces as daunting as politics, race or religion – he knows it.

“When I moved to Australia a few years after 9/11, the environment wasn’t very nice for people coming from the Middle East, especially with Iran being part of the Axis of Evil and all that, but the first place I was welcomed and where it was good to come from Iran was among filmmakers and film circles,” recalls the 34-year-old. “People would hear I was from Iran and it was actually a positive thing. Film can create a different image for a country and that’s one of the things I’m trying to do with the festival.”

With its third year looming, the Iranian Film Festival Australia has made steady inroads in a country where the film festival calendar is already bulging. Without a major corporate sponsor or a long history of even arthouse releases to broker anticipation, Miladi and fellow director Anne Demy-Geroe now have the festival in five cities with an impressive line-up that easily fills four days of screenings with approximately one dozen titles.

It’s an exciting prospect, but also demanding. Just a few days prior to opening in the festival’s hometown, Brisbane, the appreciation of movies has been shunted aside by the practicalities of staging the event: Miladi is dealing with corporate partners, consulting on menus and making sure that prints and projection files are in place. 

“I'm getting better at it. There’s so much to do not related to film – film is just the fun part of it,” he says with a laugh. “We’re still a small festival, but we’re trying to run it well at this level instead of expanding it and losing control.”

A year ago Miladi was confident that the breakthrough success of Asghar Farhadi’s searing domestic drama A Separation, which won the 2012 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Feature, would have a flow-on success for the profile on Iranian cinema, and the success of the second Iranian Film Festival Australia vindicated his belief. The festival’s audience is widening beyond expatriate Iranians and film buffs.

This year’s program opens with the international premiere of Snow on Pines, the directorial debut of Payman Maadi, the male lead in A Separation and a guest at the first opening night in Brisbane. Maadi, who has been acting in several projects in America opposite the likes of Kristen Stewart and Robert De Niro, will bring his film to Australia before taking it to Europe for further festival screenings.

Miladi has been talking to the actor and director for several months about making a festival appearance, and it’s a reminder that Miladi has deep connections with Iranian cinema. A graduate of Tehran University who became a film critic, he subsequently studied at the Australian Film Television and Radio School and has made three shorts here since 2008, although he’s prioritised establishing the festival over pursuing his own debut feature.

“When you program a festival as opposed to making a film or critiquing a film, you wear a different hat. Sometimes I have to put my personal preferences aside,” explains Miladi. “I might not choose my favourite because I have to pick what works for the audience and what works for the mix we have. I have to remove myself partially from the equation.”

Other titles selected for the 2013 program include: Jafar Panahi’s unsettling Closed Curtain; Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Gardener (pictured); the just finished restoration by Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation of Bahram Beyza’i’s landmark 1972 realist dramaDownpour; and Parviz, the second feature from Majid Barzegar, a young filmmaker Miladi believes will be at the forefront of the next generation of Iranian directors.

“The aim of the festival is to promote Iranian culture and cinema so as to provide a space for people both Iranian and non-Iranian people in Australian to start a new type of dialogue. People who don’t know about life in Iran can learn about the reality of life there, because Iranian cinema is very close to what is happening,” notes Miladi. “There’s a not so positive image about Iran in the mainstream media and that’s changing gradually, so the cinema of Iran helps that and our festival helps to promote that.”

If Iranian cinema is attuned to the country’s complex changing social circumstances, then the Iranian Film Festival Australia is alert to changes in the country’s often restrictive and deeply conservative political structure. The June election of the comparatively progressive Hassan Rouhani as Iran’s President led to the appointment of Dr. Hojatollah Ayoubi as the new head of state cinema in Iran.

In a country where filmmakers have been banned from working and threatened with imprisonment, and scripts have to be read and approved by the government’s screen bureaucracy, the former cultural attaché has reopened a key cinema and started a ripple effect that will flown down to the filmmaking community.

“After the election the environment is changing,” Miladi says. “It’s been a difficult few years for the Iranian film industry with lots of crackdowns and some people not able to work, but as soon as the President changed, the person who is responsible for the film industry changed, and after that, the managers of different production companies will change as well. Hopefully, we’ll see a more open situation in the industry.”

If that’s the case, the Iranian Film Festival Australia will be among those more than happy to benefit from a loosening of the means of control. The festival is non-aligned politically and has no ties to the Iranian government – its only loyalty is to the best movies and those who make them.

“In the last 20 years Iranian cinema has been a driving force in keeping Iranians united around the world and presenting a good image of the country internationally,” emphasises Miladi. “The cinema of a country can open a space for people to see what is really happening.”

The Iranian Film Festival screens in Brisbane (10-13 October), Sydney, (17-20 October), Canberra (17-20 October), Adelaide (25-27 October), and Melbourne (7-10 November).