The first ever Australian festival of Iranian cinema is set to kick off this August.  
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18 Jul 2011 - 5:21 PM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:09 PM

Looking at the program of eight films that make up Australia's 1st Iranian Film Festival, Armin Miladi sees, perhaps unsurprisingly, a deep sense of rebellion fermenting in the Zeitgeist of the country's national cinema. “Of course this is because there is so much censorship surrounding Iranian culture,” Miladi told SBS, who is co-directing the IFFA, with Anne Démy-Geroe, former director of the Brisbane International Film Festival. Both are experts on Iranian cinema: Miladi is a filmmaker and critic and Démy-Geroe is completing a Phd in Iranian cinema at the University of Queensland. “A [spirit] of rebellion is a very big part of all Iranian art,” he says, “and of course film. Any Iranian artist will show in as many different ways possible those aspects they [wish to reform].”

Read SBS Film reviews of 2011 Iranian Film Festival films

Miladi talks a lot about the risks Iranian filmmakers take, both at home and in exile. As is well known now, two of the country's finest filmmakers, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof, were gaoled in Iran for 6 years in 2010 and each were banned from making films for 20 years. The New York Times, quoting an official source, wrote that these filmmakers were accused and found guilty of “assembly, collusion, and propagandizing against the regime.”

The political mood in Iran, a low overhead and a dedication to maintain artistic and curatorial independence moved Démy-Geroe and Miladi toward an elegant design for the festival, modest but at the same time offering scope and depth. “The festival really is only myself and Anne; there is no big budget and no big support staff,” he says smiling. They opted for a low key launch for their first festival, travelling only to Canberra, Brisbane (where the IFF is based) and Adelaide. One crucial point he says was to keep the festival “high impact” with every film selected important, significant and essential viewing. “From the beginning, the plan was to do something manageable and we didn't want to compromise and have a large number of films and screenings.” They looked at 40 films, made in the last few years. “Unfortunately, some of the older films weren't available.”

Miladi is diplomatic and supportive of the local major players in distribution and exhibition, but, he says, whenever the big operators get involved, “they want to have their say in the program.” So the IFFA will play in indie venues like the Powerhouse in Brisbane, the NFSA's Arc cinema in Canberra and the Mercury in Adelaide. Official collaboration with Iranian state officialdom, he says, was perhaps available, in theory, but at a cost Démy-Geroe and Miladi weren't prepared to consider. “It's true that, informally, certain individuals in government would likely be enthusiastic about the IFFA,” he explains. “But officially they would need to control it so we elected to by-pass their involvement. And they certainly would not have approved of certain films we want to show and they have already, in similar circumstances elsewhere, made that plain.”

Two of Rasoulof's films are in the festival: Iron Island (2005) and The White Meadow (2009). As film art, Miladi says, they're exquisite expressions of magic realism, but in terms of their deep core content, they cannot be mistaken as anything but pointed and barbed political allegory. “They are great examples [as a rule] of how a lot of Iranian artists work,” explains Miladi. As art, they are personal, rich, human, and humane, “but [at the same time as enjoying their incidental pleasures as cinema] if you are familiar with Iranian society you get a sense of what is happening in the culture.”

The program has been carefully formed Miladi says to reflect the changes in Iranian and Iranian produced cinema since the '90s. “Since then there's been real interest from European producers in co-producing films in Iran,” he says. “I think it was the interest generated by the success of Abbas Kiarostami that created that situation.” Kiarostami won the Palme d'or in 1997 for Taste of Cherry.

“We have two films in the festival that reflect this [kind of production situation], The Hunter and Circumstance (pictured).” Rafi Pitts' The Hunter is an upscale revenge thriller represented by Euro sales agent heavy hitter, The Match Factory.

Circumstance is set in Tehran and covers the youth underground there and the action deals with a lesbian relationship. It's already been a big success on the festival circuit and was this year's winner of the Sundance Audience Prize. Miladi says that first time writer/director Maryam Keshavarz, an Iranian-American, had to shoot the film in Lebanon. “The story is really confronting and I don't think she ever would have been able to make that film in Iran,” he says. “I don't think there have been any films made to date in Iran that explore same sex relationships, though there have been a few documentaries [exploring that theme].It's very polished and one reason why we programmed it was because it is very different from the movies being produced in Iran.”

Miladi says that part of the point of the program was to offer audiences the chance to sample filmmakers who “have all come from very different backgrounds and different kinds of filmmaking.” Filling out the program, he notes, for instance, the minimalism of There are Things You Don't Know from director Fardin Saheb-Zamani; the human low key comedy and bittersweet tenderness of Homayoun Asadian's drama Gold and Copper, about a husband who undertakes domesticity to the scorn of his pals; and there's even a sort of 'teen movie' in Rainy Seasons from director Majid Barzegar, which the festival directors frame in the notes as the “closest thing to western cinema” in their selection.

Also included in the festival is the already widely seen A Separation, a major prize winner in Berlin and Sydney and it's perhaps why the IFF have only scheduled it for Brisbane play dates. Director Asghar Farhadi is a festival guest.

Iranian cinema has been big with serious cineastes worldwide for arguably 20 years says Miladi yet, still in Australia, it's a cinema that's been neglected both in the art house circuit and in festivals. The IFFA hopes to change that. They're already planning next year's festival. “It will be more ambitious,” Miladi promises.

The 1st Iranian Film Festival Australia opens runs in Brisbane, 4-7 August, then Canberra 11-12 August and Adelaide 13-21 August.For more information visit the festival website.