Iranian independent cinema at the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival
A significant number of Iranian films were screened at the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival, which was held in the Czech Republic from June 30 to July 8, 2023. Generally, these films were made with personal funds or with the support of private institutions and foreign studios without regard to mainstream Iranian film patterns. The Crystal Globe Competition screened Empty Nets by Behrooz Karamizade, the Proxima Competition screened Dark Matter by Karim Lakzadeh, and Another Birth: Iranian Cinema, Here and Now screened nine films by young and talented Iranian filmmakers. Additionally, there were Iranians present at the festival who directed films produced by other countries. An example of this was Fremont directed by Babak Jalali, which won the Best Director award.
In this article, Hamed Soleimanzadeh will discuss and analyze some of the Iranian films screened at the 57th Karlovy Vary Film Festival and examine how these films demonstrate independent film production from idea to execution.
Keywords: Karlovy Vary Film Festival; Iran; Independent; Another birth; Dark matter
Karlovy Vary International Film Festival is one of the most renowned film festivals in the world and takes place in the city of Karlovy Vary, located in the northwest of the Czech Republic. The festival was founded in 1946 and is considered the most prestigious in Central and Eastern Europe. At the Karlovy Vary film festival, about 200 films are screened each year, a number of which are screened for the first time and attract reputable distributors to further their international distribution. In order to qualify for the competitive sections, all films must be screened for the first time in the Czech Republic.
There are two competitive sections at the Karlovy Vary Festival: Crystal Globe and Proxima, as well as several non-competitive sections that introduce new films from around the world. In the Crystal Globe Competition, feature films produced the previous year and not yet entered into international competition sections of other festivals are screened. By introducing contemporary world cinema and focusing on discovering new and unconventional talents, the Proxima competition complements the Crystal Globe competition. Non-competitive sections of the festival include concept sections, retrospective sections, and tributes to great filmmakers.
A remarkable and successful selection of Iranian independent cinema was evident at the 57th Karlovy Vary Film Festival, both in the competitive and non-competitive sections. Three Iranian films competed in this year’s Crystal Globe and Proxima competitions, and Empty Nets directed by Behrooz Karamizade was awarded the Special Jury prize. Babak Jalali, another Iranian filmmaker, also won the Best Director award for Fremont, which was produced with US funding. The Proxima competition had eleven films from different countries competing, including Dark Matter, directed by Karim Lakzadeh.
Among the most relevant sections for Iranian independent cinema was Another Birth: Iranian Cinema, Here and Now, which was well-received by critics, filmmakers, and festivalgoers. Films from this section, with their remarkable diversity in theme and form, introduced a new field of independent and modern Iranian cinema to the world.
Another Birth: Iranian Cinema, Here and Now
The 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival featured a special section devoted to Iranian cinema’s independent, daring, and progressive works. Nine films made by young Iranian filmmakers during the last four years were presented in the section Another Birth: Iranian Cinema, Here and Now. A common feature of all these works was their diversity of genres and creative forms of narrative. An Iranian female poet, Forugh Farrokhzad, wrote a poem entitled “Another Birth” which was the inspiration for the title of this section. Her poems deal with subjects like death, decline, despair, hopelessness, pessimism, loneliness, homelessness, simplicity, and yet hope, struggle, and tirelessness. There were a number of films in this section that had themes similar to those in Forugh’s poetry, so choosing this title for the special section on Iranian films made a lot of sense. In addition, the selection of this title signifies an attempt to introduce the new generation of Iranian filmmakers who have produced bold, progressive, and independent films despite all the limitations and hardships. No End by Nader Saeivar (2022), The Locust by Faeze Azizkhani (2022), Zapata by Danesh Eqbashavi (2023), The Skin by Bahram Ark & Bahman Ark (2022), Dream’s Gate by Negin Ahmadi (2023), A Trip to the Moon by Mohammadreza Shayan-Nejad (2021), Black and White River by Farzin Mohammadi (2019), Creation Between Two Surfaces by Hossein Rajabian (2019) and K9 by Vahid Vakilifar (2020) were among the films screened in this section.
No End by Nader Saeivar stood out as one of the most popular films in this section. In the film, a man who works for the municipal density department dreams of owning his own home. Having learned of his brother-in-law’s intention to return from Germany, he tries to prevent him from returning with a lie, but faces consequences he didn’t anticipate. As one of the dominant formulas of social drama, this film explores the relationship between the government and the people. Its first sequence, and the spark hidden in it, provide a unique introduction to the film’s story capabilities. In the first minutes of the film, the audience is shocked by the desperate movement of a middle-aged man in the messy basement of an old house and his attempt to commit suicide after a violent fight. In some ways, this sequence predicts the fate of the protagonist at the very beginning, similar to the prologues of Greek dramas.
Throughout the film, lying and its violent consequences play a central role, but by taking intelligent turns, No End transcends a mere moral drama and becomes a successful socio-political drama. There is a clear connection between this film and political dramas due to the role of intelligence-service officers and the way they deal with the main character. Through the experience of numerous interrogations by intelligence-service officers, the main character of the film becomes a self-defeating being, unable to make decisions and continue to live. While the film has a slight decline in the middle and follows the aesthetics of TV works, it has an impressive beginning and end. Decoupage of interrogation scenes, staging in appropriate locations, and acceptable performances, including Vahid Mobsari’s portrayal of the main character, make the film successful.
Zapata, directed by Danesh Eqbashavi, was another notable film in this section. It tells the story of a young boy and girl who decide to make a movie about their personal lives, but on their journey, they encounter surprising and weird adventures. As a result of the action and purpose of the two main characters, the film is largely reminiscent of the life of Emiliano Zapata, who led the Mexican Revolution against Porfirio Diaz’s dictatorship. He was a freedom-loving leader who was killed on his way to his goal. He believed it is better to die standing than to live on your knees. In order to attain their goal, which is to obtain a budget for their new film, the young protagonists start a semi-armed struggle with the rich, and want to somehow reclaim their occupied territory.
The film is a social drama filmed with cell phones, GoPros, and VHS cameras. A highlight of this film is its form. As Walter Benjamin stated, “content and form in art are one and meaning is the outcome of the experience.” (Benjamin, 2021: p. 40). Zapata connects form to content in an appealing way, and the director’s and his crew’s lived experience creates the meaning of the film. The structure of the film is influenced by the events that the characters encounter on their way to their goal rather than by presuppositions or narrative patterns that have been predetermined. One of the most important aesthetic features of this film is how the camera plays a role along with the human characters. As a result of the actors themselves determining the angle of view and camera position, the film’s decoupage is smooth and spontaneous to the point that the film has an expressive advantage due to the variety of camera angles and quality of the images produced by the use of various cameras. Through direct face-to-face communication with the camera, the characters create an invisible effect while remaining visible to the camera and promoting the idea of the film. The role of Reza Masoudi as a boy is also an important performance point in the film. His easy acting and use of an Iranian southern accent enhance the wit of the film’s dialogue and make his performance stand out.
Most film critics and audiences pointed out the use of innovative ideas and progressive forms in other films in this section. In Locust by Faeze Azizkhani, feminist issues are explored in a social and satirical context. Throughout the film, two female characters, who intend to make a film as screenwriters and directors, challenge the male-dominated society. Social issues and concerns about women’s rights are highlighted in the film’s dialogue, which blurs the line between reality and fiction. A fantasy, and an innovative horror film, The Skin by Bahram Ark & Bahman Ark (who previously won Cannes Cinéfondation with Animal) combines classic elements of horror films with legends and native and local elements of Azerbaijan, Iran.
Dream’s Gate by Negin Ahmadi portrays the life of a female militia group in the Kurdish region of Syria. A searching camera captures exotic and moving moments among women fighters, captured with an indescribable amount of courage. Mohammadreza Shayan-Nejad’s experimental film A Trip to the Moon is a unique and single-location work. The experimental basis of the film’s idea is the characters’ fantasy and dream-like motivations, such as building a device to record invisible movements, traveling to the moon, and encountering unknown forces.
Another experimental film in this section is Black and White River by Farzin Mohammadi. This film, which is set in a rural area and narrates the life of a young man trying to regain lost time, combines crises, hope, and search as its central idea. In Creation Between Two Surfaces by Hossein Rajabian, a young deformed man creates a spiritual universe from his isolated world. A major strength of the film is its monologues and dialogues, which are written in a complex yet poetic style. Vahid Vakilifar’s K9 is an experimental science fiction film. This film’s narrative path and style are shaped by the opposition of good and evil, love and hate, despair and hope, and darkness and light.
Finally, Another Birth: Iranian Cinema, Here and Now presented another area of Iranian independent cinema to the world, which, according to curator Lorenzo Esposito, cannot be decoded with standard decoding tools.
Dark Matter: Bright Matter
Dark Matter by Karim Lakzadeh was one of the brilliant, remarkable, and daring Iranian films in the Karlovy Vary Film Festival’s Proxima competition. The film’s plot revolves around a young girl and boy who fail an acting audition and decide to make their own film with the help of another young director. However, to implement their idea and secure funds, they steal.
According to French writer and filmmaker Alain Robbe-Grillet, the essence of art is to disturb the audience, and creating a new piece of art is a crime. In its capacity as a sacred object, the artistic object can disrupt the orderly and conventional state of the audience’s mind and define a new order based on the existing disorder. As a performance and as an idea, Dark Matter commits a crime. Almost all of the actors in this work are Iranian residents, and it was made without paying attention to the mandatory hijab laws inside Iran. This work is a protest film from a substantive point of view because of their disregard for existing and customary rules in Iranian film production. Dark Matter challenges and negates censorship in Iranian cinema in this way.
The film form, however, is another crime. A form that weaves together a simple reality but elevates it to the level of magic. It follows the patterns of French New Wave cinema and the works of Godard, Truffaut, Rivette, and Chabrol in terms of expression. Dark Matter is characterized by its unique mise-en-scene, many jump cuts, anxious camera, non-classical narration, and the elimination of stars. Many audiences were drawn to the film’s cinematography due to its dark lighting, various lens choices, and appealing combination of backgrounds and foregrounds. A creatively designed mise-en-scene in the film’s opening scene reminds us of the characters’ interconnectedness and fate. There is a special harmony in the acting of the film’s actors, and their performances are extremely fluid and surprising. The film’s title refers to the topic of astronomy and cosmology. Dark matter is matter that is not visible even with a telescope, and in this sense, it is called dark matter since it does not react to light. It is a metaphorical choice to give the film this title. It can be said that the conditions of the young people in the film are a dark matter that the government and society cannot see, but they exist and are advancing their interests.
Dark Matter is ultimately a bright matter that, while not visible, everyone knows about and cannot deny the existence of.
With smart selections from the collection of new and independent Iranian films, the 57th Karlovy Vary International Film Festival showcased poetry, courage, and genius of filmmakers with limited budgets and bold ideas. In the competition sections of Crystal Globe, Proxima and Another Birth: Iranian Cinema, Here and Now, thirteen Iranian films were screened. This provided a unique opportunity for filmmakers to demonstrate their skill and ability in presenting films of diverse genres, styles, and productions.
Independent cinema in Iran is now gradually expanding beyond well-known names like Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Asghar Farhadi, and others in international festivals, and the emergence of filmmakers who, with the knowledge and awareness of the style of their advanced filmmakers, can develop a new way to produce independent films.
Benjamin, Walter. (2021). One-Way Street: And Other Writings. Verso: USA.
Edited by Robert Horton
© FIPRESCI 2023