As A Separation competes for Oscar glory, a new local event celebrates the diverse storytelling of Persian-language cinema. 
17 Feb 2012 - 11:23 AM  UPDATED 17 Feb 2012 - 11:23 AM

With a remit to challenge Western perceptions of the term 'Persian', the organisers of Australia's inaugural competitive Persian International Film Festival have set the bar high for their start-up event. For Amin Palangi and Sanaz Fotouhi, the husband and wife team co-directing the event, the region's cinema has begun to embrace a contemporary view, so what better time for Australian audiences to evolve along with it.

Opening February 23 in Sydney with Tina Gharavi's Iranian/UK co-production I Am Nasrine, the festival will present films from Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan – countries that have forged unique film profiles over the last two decades. Fotouhi is careful with her definitions (“I don't want to use the word 'orientalism', but...”) yet pinpoints some overly-familiar traits that have helped particular films find global audiences, such as playing to established beliefs. “The dusty villages and the children and the poverty, things like that,” she says.

2012 Persian Film Festival: Reviews ]

The festival, though, has grown from the same fresh perspective that's emerged in Persia's film culture of late. “Over the last couple of years, there has been a different kind of film coming out, one that shows a different aspect of life [in the region],” explains Fotouhi. Examples reflecting this new modernism have specifically been programmed, like Majid Barzegar's coming-of-age urban drama Rainy Seasons, Shalize Arefpour's challenging cross-cultural love story Heiran (pictured), and Shahram Mokri's blackly-funny crime caper, Ashkan, The Charmed Ring And Other Stories.

Inspired to become a filmmaker by Majid Majidi's landmark 1997 film Children of Heaven, Amin Palangi was determined that his festival should honour the fortitude of Persian filmmakers in their dedication to their craft; they thrive in spite of relentless government scrutiny and strict censorship laws. “Whatever they say has to be approved by certain organisations, but these restrictions have added to the complexity of the subject matter,” says Palangi, whose own directorial efforts (Waking with Martyrs, Hidden Generation and A Witness to Horror) have afforded him close ties to the Iranian film community. “Their films manage to manoeuvre around the censorship and still keep their voice alive.”

Quite often, this thematic and structural creativity doesn't present itself to the untrained script reader, but onscreen it can be readily apparent. Palangi recognises that this is both a help and a hindrance to his colleagues. “Every year, we have so many films getting produced that are seen internationally but are banned within Iran,” he says. “Quite incredibly, many get a cinema release [in Iran] for a week but then get banned when the subject [that the script] was referring to is seen on the screen. Our filmmakers are doing an amazing job of keeping their voice.”

Palangi is quick to stress, however, that it would be happier for all involved if the censorship did not exist. “I want it to be clear that I am not saying that the restrictions have improved the quality of our cinema! Had the restrictions not been in place, I think we would have flourished a lot more.” He also points specifically to the no-budget short film sector being of a “strong, independent” vision; these filmmakers' ability to exist outside the scrutiny of the censor's scope allows them freedom to explore subversive themes and styles that their feature-film counterparts could never embrace. The event's short film sidebar will introduce patrons to the works of festival favourites Nasser Zamiri (Bitter Milk; Best Short at 'Third Eye' Asian Film Festival in India), Kazem Mollaie (Delete; Best Short and Audience favourite at Tehran's International Short Film Festival) and Abbas Nezamdoost (Mr Mazaffari's Somewhat Simple Life; Grand Jury Special Prize recipient at 2011's Sooreh Film Festival).

No celebration of the Persian cinema could ignore the contributions of Asghar Farhadi. Though originally slated to present his international hit A Separation as the closing night showpiece of the event, the film's Oscar nominations means Farhadi will now be in Los Angeles as the festival unfolds. Regardless, Amin Palangi and Sanaz Fotouhi are thrilled to be able to present it prior to its Australian theatrical season in conjunction with a retrospective of Farhadi's entire directorial catalogue: About Elly (2009), Fireworks Wednesday (2006), Dancing in the Dust (2003) and The Beautiful City (2004).

“Asghar Farhadi has changed the way global audiences view Iranian cinema,” Fotouhi enthuses. He believes the director has shifted the focus, both internationally and domestically, from the traditionally dour films of Iran's past. “He has taken stories that are quite popular in Iran and helped them travel to the international stage; to take contemporary issues (impacting) Iran and present them, and have them embraced, by non-Iranian audiences.”

“Iranian cinema has always reflected a certain style and has been pocketed,” agrees Palangi, “but the Oscar nomination this year helps to break down the stereotypes, the pre-conceived ideas about Iranian cinema.” He is convinced that A Separation, like all great films, transcends its origins. “It is being recognised not as an Iranian film, but just as... a film. A film like A Separation speaks to so many nations; it is just a human story.”