This year sees the 3rd Persian International Film Festival in Sydney, a venture started by Amin Palangi and Sanaz Fotouhi in 2012. In addition to screening Iranian and Afghani films, the festival aims to “be a leader in shifting views and misperceptions in Australia by being a forum for dialogue between and amongst Persian and Australian communities”.
What led to the creation of the Persian International Film Festival three years ago? Were you noticing a lack of Persian content being exhibited domestically?
I’m a filmmaker myself, and obviously in love with the Iranian cinema. For us, the fact that there were not festivals dedicated to this rich cinematic culture – we thought, why not start one? So it really started very simply. But then as the idea was developing it became very important for us to have such a program, not only do we like to share and showcase Iranian film and share this culture with other Australian communities and members of the communities, we also like to create a cultural event – Persian or Iranian, Afghan, Persian-speaking people who live in Australia can feel a bit more at home and get a stronger sense of belonging in their new adopted country. So those are the main two reasons for us starting it.
Excellent. Now, although the festival is called the Persian International Film Festival, there seems to be a lack of Afghan content screening this year. Are Afghan films harder to source and do you feel they are underrepresented in international markets?
Absolutely – every year, it is my intention and it is the objective of the festival for us to showcase films from Iran and Afghanistan, and of those filmmakers abroad. But unfortunately this year we were not able to find an Afghani film to include in the festival and I have to say it makes really sad, personally. But I would say essentially because we had to hold this sort of festival this year, in terms of the number of films, and we weren’t able to find an Afghani film. They have a much smaller film industry, but the smallness of that doesn’t really affect the quality of the work. The films they’ve produced over the past few years have been quite incredible as well. It’s a shame we don’t have one this year but it was a simple issue that we couldn’t find a film.
Is it difficult to distinguish your brand from the Iranian Film Festival? Do you find that the two are sometimes vying for the same content?
There is always a competition but I look at it as a healthy competition. We both started at the same time and it was a pure coincidence to be honest. The reason we are not called the Iranian Film Festival is that when I found out about it, I decided to expand our world and change our branding to focus on the language that is shared among these filmmakers. It is still a competitive market for us, we are dealing with the same distributors and the same school of film, so therefore there would be quite a competition. We’re trying to differentiate ourselves by showcasing films that are not just by prominent filmmakers. I go back to Iran every year and I meet with independent filmmakers and try to screen some by going to the underground scene in Iran with no particular backing from the government or no particular distribution. We try to differentiate our programming from the Iranian Film Festival, not just choosing the films by prominent filmmakers. But obviously hats off to the team behind the Iranian Film Festival, they’re doing a fabulous job and since the beginning I always felt “the more, the merrier”. Certainly Iranian cinema deserves and is more than capable of being showcased twice in Australia.
It seems like you guys both came in at the same time noticing the lack of Iranian cinema around.
Yes, and I know the organisers quite well actually. They’re based in Brisbane and we’re in Sydney. I know if we knew that one or the other was starting we wouldn’t have done the same but by the time we found out about each other, we already had plans and advertised our program. I guess both of us want to present a quality festival, and once you start something a lot of work goes into it, so I think it’s hard for either one of us to just leave when we’ve started. And so far, although we might have a bit of competition it’s generally good, I think, for our audiences. We both receive really good audience numbers and the programs are absolutely different, so when you look at the result it doesn’t seem to be that competitive anyway.
Do you feel there’s a duty of international Persian film festivals to screen anti-government content? For instance, Mohammad Rasoulof (director of opening night film Manuscripts Don’t Burn) is awaiting a new sentence.
You know we’re actually the only festival in the world called “Persian”? I think it’s really important for us to present films such as this one, for me personally, because it’s based on a true story and events from an almost forgotten time, and the director is obviously trying to draw a line between that history and what is happening in Iran today. I think we play a role more toward those in the community that are not from Iranian or Afghan backgrounds because we are presenting films that people wouldn’t usually be seeing, or wouldn’t usually have the opportunity to watch. They carry more personal messages from people who are actually living in Iran and dealing with their life there, rather than what they usually see on the media. So I think our role is quite important culturally abroad in terms of how we are presenting and showcasing our culture, and how we present that to the world. I personally don’t intend to have a program that has a particular political angle, we are a cultural program and we just present things as they are and leave the audience to make their own minds up rather than trying to push a particular agenda.
I guess being a filmmaker yourself, you’re trying to present filmmakers voices.
Yes, and I think even when you get a chance to watch Manuscripts then I think you will see that Rasoulof, he gives a very unsentimental and raw presentation of what has happened, it almost becomes documentary in some areas, and I think it is because he doesn’t want to present his take on events rather than the events themselves. I really appreciate that, I find it to be one of the best films produced in Iran and one of the most courageous films produced in Iranian cinema.
Fantastic, I’ll have to check it out. Is there a “mainstream” Iranian cinema – in terms of blockbusters and the like? It seems as though international markets are only exposed to Iran’s more controversial and challenging content, and arthouse fare like Fish & Cat.
I think that’s simply because that’s how the Iranian cinema has been known across the world, and I think that is how they have been presented. There is definitely a very strong popular culture within Iran and the film industry in Iran, in terms of their blockbuster kind of films, is very healthy. They produce around 300 feature films a year and they all get seen by Iranian people. But those kinds of films, due to their cultural specificity and their humour, don’t really travel outside Iran. Obviously within the festival circuit, the film programmers or even distributors are looking for films that have something more to say, and of course from a commercial angle those films are always a big seller, just simply due to where Iran stands today in the world.
What are your thoughts on the theatrical and home video distribution of Persian features? It seems there isn’t a clearly defined market for it here like there is for, say, Hindi content – do you think the market is there and distributors just haven’t quite tapped into it yet?
You’re talking about the market outside of Iran?
Yes, and in Australia in particular.
There are distributors such as Madman for example who have a number of really good films and who acquire films from Iran every year, and from Iranian filmmakers every year. I think the film that made a bit of a breakthrough was A Separation, you can now find that in most of the DVD shops, it is available on iTunes or different VOD channels. So I think definitely although Iranian cinema has been introduced to many and is quite well known among filmmakers, film lovers and film critics, it has yet to break through to your more popular audiences. Maybe either the distributors haven’t really explored those channels or the market hasn’t really presented itself. It took a film like A Separation to reach a more widespread and a more widely received category. So I think with a little bit of both, because obviously with any other cinema culture of the world, not all films are being seen or appeal to a wider audience. I think Iranian cinema is definitely still in that category. With European cinema, for example French or Italian cinema, they are very popular on the festival circuit, but you don’t really find many people, if there’s a blockbuster screening, choosing those films over a film like Batman.
One last question – is there a particular feature that you’re screening this year, or any highlights of previous years that you’d suggest seeking out?
Aside from Manuscripts Don’t Burn, which is my favourite from the program this year, I would strongly recommend Trapped. Trapped was a film nominated by Iran for Oscar nomination, next to Le Passé, or The Past by [Asghar] Farhadi. I would strongly recommend Trapped. Or our closing night film – if you’re an Iranian or if you’re an Australian and you want to have a look at Iran outside of the major cities, and see the traditional families, and have a fun time, I would recommend our closing night film Don’t Be Tired. But if you want to have a look at contemporary film and life in Tehran and the issues that women are dealing with in Tehran then I would strongly recommend Trapped.
Thanks very much for your time, I look forward to checking out some of those films.
My pleasure, thanks very much.