Írán:ci Film Festival cofounder Kaveh Daneshmand on escape, boundaries and ‘Z-movies’

‘Castle of Dreams’, photo: archive of Írán:ci Film Festival

The ninth annual Írán:ci Film Festival, this year under the theme of ‘Escape”, gets underway on Wednesday. Ahead of the opening, I spoke to festival cofounder and artistic director Kaveh Daneshmand about how the event has developed over the past decade, what to watch out for this year, and filmmaking in Iran before the revolution and in troubled times today.

“I was studying [directing and filmmaking] here in Prague back in 2009, exploring life here, and noticed that there were many small, interesting festivals. I went to a festival of Indian films, a Bollywood festival, and saw one of the great works of Ritwik Ghatak in Lucerna cinema. I was so amazed by the experience and thought this should also be done for Iranian cinema. So, it started like that.

“I have very close Czech friends who helped a lot. Together we put together the first edition of the festival. It just started spontaneously. The reception from the audience was so warm, we were almost overwhelmed. So we thought, okay, we have to continue.”

How many films and shorts did you have that first year and how has it grown and changed in character? I know that you find an overall theme for each year...

“Well, the number of films has not changed dramatically. But the first edition was in Světozor cinema only, in the big and small hall, and we had around 17 films – short and long documentaries, and feature films.

“This year, we’re in many cinemas and in many cities [Prague and Brno in the Czech Republic, and Bratislava and Košice in Slovakia]. We’re still keeping it at a manageable scale, though the number of films has grown to nearly 25.

“There are also a lot of side events – exhibitions, theatre performances, and industry programme, co-production meetings, film seminars…”

And also a food festival, if I’m not mistaken.

Kaveh Dashemand | Photo: Barbora Linková,  Czech Radio
“Yes, there is always very nice Iranian food catering, which will happen this year as well.”

Could you tell us a bit about this year’s programme? What the theme is, whether there are any first-time directors to watch out for and so on…

“This year the theme is ‘Escape’. Strangely, we noticed that most of the films we liked were about protagonists who were trying to find an escape from their current situation – either emotional situations or actual physical confinements.

“It was interesting for us how the Iranian society, Iranian artists are all examining the topic of getting past the limitations confining you. Of course, I have my favourites, but I think that the documentary section is pretty strong. Also, the opening film, ‘Castle of Dreams’, I think is a great small film.”

Speaking of limitations, there is a perception that maybe is not quite fair about limitations on Iranian filmmakers…

“You know, besides restrictions that are related to film industry, such as financing and finding the right producers, there are other limitations, including the mind-sets that are ruling the cultural scene in Iran. There are a lot of requirements, a lot of frameworks, a lot of dos and don’ts.

‘Castle of Dreams’,  photo: archive of Írán:ci Film Festival
“If you are the kind of artist who doesn’t want to follow those, you’re going to have a lot of trouble. But the independent films from Iran usually try to challenge it. And we always try to find those films – not those that are staying in the safe zone but those that explore boundaries and the limitations trying to stop them from doing something extra, doing something new.”

One film poster in particular that caught my eye was for the documentary ‘Filmfarsi’, which I understand has an unexpected meaning; that it’s about B-movies...

“Well, ‘Z-movies’, I would say – really, really bad movies. It was a term given to the genre of cinema by a well-known Iranian film critic as a way of belittling them; having the implication that they are cheap.

“It’s a very interesting film because it’s not only about the films – though a huge chunk of it is definitely about those films. You will see some of the most unbelievable images from Iranian cinema that even to my eyes are surprising, beautiful, funny, absurd – all of that together.

‘Filmfarsi’,  photo: archive of Írán:ci Film Festival
“But also you get to understand the mentality of society and the people watching those films. So you get to understand something very peculiar about Iranian society before the revolution [of 1979].”

Is there anything I haven’t asked you about that you’d like to add, for an international audience?

“Well, I think it’s a very strange time now in Iran, which is very well reflected in media around the world –unfortunately making headlines not for good reasons.

“There are so many people with questions about what’s really going on in Iran and how people perceive it. And I think it’s an interesting challenge to see how much a film can reflect the society. It’s a question I have myself.

“I think it’s an opportunity for people who are curious about what’s really going on in Iran to come and see it through the eyes of some really fine artists, putting their own worries, concerns and thoughts about the current situation of Iran into film.”

The Írán:ci Film Festival is organized in cooperation with the Toronto-based Farsi Cinema Center with Czech Television being its main media partner. The festival focuses on Iranian arthouse cinema and also screens some works from Afghanistan. While many films have already screened at international festivals, most are making their Czech premiere. The Prague leg of the festival runs from January 15 to 19, with screenings at Světozor, Bio Oko and Screenshot. For a full listing, see www.iranci.cz/en/9th-edition-2020/