Prague festival shows new face of Iranian cinema

A festival of Iranian films held in Prague this week brings over two dozen feature films, shorts and documentaries to audiences in the Czech capital. Entitled Iran: A Different Reflection, the third edition of the festival focuses on contemporary Iranian cinema, featuring films such as The Past by the Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi, and A Cube of Sugar, the country’ official candidate for this year’s Academy Awards.

'Modest Reception', photo: archive of the festival
The film Modest Reception was screened on the festival’s opening at Prague’s Světozor art cinema on Wednesday night. A gripping road movie, it follows a couple travelling in the snowy mountains of western Iran with a trunk full of money that they randomly give away to people they meet on the road. A study in the power of money and the uneasiness that can arise when giving and accepting, Modest Reception was introduced by its director, screenwriter and star, Mani Haghighi.

“This film has been travelling on the international festival circuit for over a year now, and people seem to think it’s about … you’d think they would say it’s about money or a clash of classes, and things like that. But that’s fortunately not the case.

“People think of it in terms of honour and making promises that you have to keep, and the pressure of charity, how charity is a two-faced practice. On the face of it seems like a good-will mission but it can have a dark side. And the emergence of the dark side is what makes the whole think dramatic.”

Do people in Iran see it in a similar way? Do audiences there find similar things in your film to people elsewhere?

“More or less, yes. The film apparently explores some universal themes that people have similar reactions to. But different cultures have also reacted differently to this film. The most amazing reactions came from the Swiss in fact. As you know, money is not only a big theme in Switzerland but also a big problem apparently.

“I didn’t know this before but when I went there to promote the film, it seemed like the film was speaking to the Swiss soul in a very particular way. When I asked the audience why they were so affected by the film, it turned out that will all the dirty money stored in Swiss banks and the interest from it driving the Swiss economy, the Swiss seem to have a very peculiar relationship to the idea of having money. So that led to an interesting discussion.

Mani Haghighi, photo: CTK
“Another place that was really interesting was India for exact opposite reason. In Switzerland, the audience seemed to be thinking of themselves as the two protagonists of the film while in India, people thought of themselves as the recipients. So in every culture, the focus of attention shifts from character to character, and that’s what makes it really interesting.”

Your film touches upon several sensitive issues such as the smuggling of alcohol and drugs into Iran, crossing the borders illegally, and so on. Did you have problems getting theses into the film?

“Yes, I had a lot of problems. When the first was finished and presented to the censorship board, we were asked to cut out 35 minutes of the film. Fortunately, there is a culture of negotiation with the censorship board, and we’ve become quite adapt at doing this.

“So I was asked for a revision of this which involves a face-to-face discussion with a member of the censorship board. Given this opportunity, I managed to convince them, scene by scene, why every single point they made was misunderstood by them. In the end, we only had to cut out six seconds of the film. So yes, we had problems but we solved them.”

What was in that six-second shot that you had to cut out?

“At the end of the film when these motorcyclists come to take all money away, the huge number of them had to be reduced. There were hundreds and hundreds of them, and you saw this long shot of them coming like Mongolian invaders or something.

That seemed to really upset the authorities for very specific cultural reasons that would be too difficult to explain. But we agreed to cut out one shot that showed their entirety. So now there is only like 20 or 30 of them.”

Coming back to the festival in Prague, you said you were glad that it was focusing on contemporary Iranian filmmaking. How is the new wave of Iranian cinema different from the past?

“I would say that primarily, the new generation of filmmakers is focusing again on story-telling as their main tool of getting the audience’s attention. For a long time, the minimalism that ruled over Iranian cinema really set aside narrative, plot devices and story-telling, focusing instead on emotions and a very minimalist, simple approach. That’s reason why they usually dealt with children and their simple world.

“After a while, though, it has become tiresome for us and now we are dealing with themes of middle-class, urban life, with marital problems, with adults and a more complicated world. That requires us to be better and more suspenseful story-tellers. So in a sense, we are moving away from that innocence which became oppressive to us, and which was the face of Iranian cinema for so many years.”

The theme of the festival is Iran: A Different Reflection. The festival’s artistic director and co-founder Kaveh Daneshmand elaborates.

“The whole idea came from one our good friends and member of our jury, Zuzana Kříhová who is an expert on Iranian literature. She suggested that it was nice to show an image of Iran that you usually don’t see on TV here and don’t read about in the papers. We would show an image of Iran that’s different. So most of the films we are showing this year are taking place in urban environment, some of them are even about middle- or upper-middle-class families.

“So what you will see is very new compared to the last edition of the festival which offered a review of Iranian film history. It also brings images that are shocking; some people in the audience were like, ‘Oh, we didn’t know Iran looked like this’.

For the first time, the festival features a competition section with seven films including Iran’s official candidate for the Best Foreign Language Oscar, A Cube of Sugar by Reza Mir Kamiri, The Wedlock by Rouhollah Hejazi, and Parviz by Majid Barzegar. Mr Daneshmand explains why the festival decided to introduce a competition this year.

Kaveh Daneshmand, photo: CTK
“It’s a great excuse for us to acknowledge Iranian filmmakers who make movies under very difficult conditions. In one sense, we wanted to wanted to set up a jury that comes from different fields; we also wanted to involve our audience more in the festival. That’s why the festival exists.

“We have this amazing audience which we wanted to be part of it, not just clients but part of team. We also wanted to acknowledge Iranian filmmakers; we wanted to find an excuse to thank them for what they are doing in Iran at this time.”

The festival’s jury consists of former artistic director of the Karlovy Vary International Film Festival Eva Zaoralová, expert on Iranian literature Zuzana Kříhová, Spanish filmmaker Diego Fandos and director Mani Haghighi.

His Modest Reception is one of two feature films shown at the festival out of competition, the other being The Past by Oscar-winning director Asghar Farhadi.

The festival also offers more than a dozen documentaries and short films. The event’s artistic director, Kaveh Daneshmand, says that in his opinion one documentary in particular stands out.

“This year, we have screenings in the Bio Oko cinema, and it’s our immense pleasure to have them involved. We have a very special title screening in Bio Oko called My name is Negahdar Jamali and I Make Westerns. It’s play on the famous sentence by John Ford, and it’s an amazing film. I saw the movie, and as an Iranian filmmaker myself, I could not believe it.

'The Past', photo: archive of the festival
“I can image if Czechs see it, they will be extremely surprised. It’s about a person making films under very strange circumstances in a village in Iran. I would say that’s our most special film this year.”

The festival runs in the Světozor and Bio Oko cinemas in Prague until Sunday. More details can be found at