By Ryan Keating-Lambert
At this year’s Írán:ci Film Festival, happening throughout the Czech Republic and Slovakia until January 31st, I was fortunate enough to meet Farsi Cinema Center founder Amir Endalah and project coordinator Marisa Sittheeamorn to discuss their INCREDIBLE work with the non-profit non-partisan platform, dubbed FCC, and how they bring Farsi film industries with Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan together with the rest of the world.
The centre has shown tremendous support for the Czech-based Iranian film festival for the last six years and have also created the remarkable branding design of the event, and even this year’s trailer, directed by Amir himself.
It was an absolute pleasure to sit down and not just discuss, but learn about the extraordinary world of Farsi cinema. From the B-movie Bollywood inspired Filmfarsi genre of the past to Iranian New Wave, these films have become surprisingly popular in the Czech Republic – a country with one of the lowest Farsi speaking populations in Europe! Check out the interview below for more.
How did the Farsi Cinema Center (FCC) come to be?
Amir: Well, we started as a non-profit to help filmmakers whom work in the Farsi industry from Iran, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. The number of film productions coming out of these three countries are mainly from Iran, but we realised there are a lot of good filmmakers in Afghanistan as well. And on top of that, when you look at all the demographics and Europe and America, there are A LOT of Farsi speakers living in these countries as well – so that’s a big market, and it comes at a time when countries are trying to desensitize these differences between immigrants. So it’s very important for them to see content and content creators living in this three countries or those who have moved to Europe or North America.
So basically, we launched a platform focused mainly on art-house cinema. It’s a neutral market and we’re trying to change that. We’ve also been involved in co-productions and creating networking opportunities for Farsi filmmakers, and we’re also the only organisation that is writing about Farsi cinema and filmmakers in English on our blog.
We had a small presence in TIFF last year and we’re also taking our film catalogue to Cannes this year for the first time – it’s a kind of market we’d love to be a part of. Same with Berlinale – they always pay special attention to Iranian cinema.
For those who aren’t too familiar, can you tell us a little bit more about the Farsi and Iranian film genres?
Amir: Well, before the Iranian Revolution, we had a lot of cultural exchange with Europe and then they put severe restrictions in place. I would personally compare to what you could see in Eastern Europe during communism. There are people – intellectuals, artists, and filmmakers that really wanted to tell stories. They really wanted to talk about what’s happening in society but the governments didn’t want to publish those stories, so they’d find other ways.
In the case of Eastern European movies, mainly we saw a lot of animation and black comedy, and they talk about the big issues which kind of helped them have one of the strongest animation industries at the time.
I think in Iran, it was more on the poetic side. It’s really hard to fit Iranian films in any certain genres. It’s a mix of different things, they have a lot of metaphors, and a lot of myths and stories. They try to fool the people in charge of cinema censorship using art… but under the surface they’re really showing westerners another side of the country.
One of the movies that really started this movement was The Abadanis (1993) – the story is set around the time that the war broke out between Iraq and Iran, and Abadan was like the Dubai of today back in the ’60s and ’70s – it was flourishing. And when the war began it was one of the cities that was hit the hardest, because of their big production of oil. So a lot of people from there moved to Tehran. There wasn’t enough space to accommodate them so they took over these massive luxury hotels in the capital. I remember reading an article at the time that the head of Cannes saw the movie and fell in love with it. So they said that this was one of the first movies that started the Iranian New Wave of cinema – you could see another side of Iran which was never seen before.
It’s interesting that you can draw parallels between Iranian New Wave and Czechoslovak New Wave. Perhaps that could be one of the reasons why Czech audiences really enjoy the Írán:ci Film Festival?
Amir: You see a lot of similarities with the big messages they’re tackling. They’re all very universal too.
‘Essentially, we’re all very similar – we’re all human. We all eat the same way, we love the same pleasures. We express both love and hate in a very similar way.’
We actually grew up with Eastern European content on television in Iran. When the revolution happened, the government thought – ‘Well, we don’t want east, we don’t want west!’ …and what was between east and west? Czechoslovakia! You know, the western content was very capitalistic and the eastern culture was not necessarily well explored at the time. We used to watch a lot of movies from Czechoslovakia and other countries in Eastern Europe. They’re all talking about people that are struggling, poor, but they’re all heroes of their societies.
Looking at the FCC blog and your collaboration with different countries, I understand that diversity and inclusion is a big thing for your center. Could you tell me a little bit about that?
Marisa: I guess just generally the Farsi speaking community and the diaspora is just such a large community and the film’s we’re representing are not just coming from the country but from people that have moved abroad like Amir and Írán:ci director Kaveh. Within that there are so many explorations and similarities with different cultures, so that’s really big with us. In terms of just being a community that is not always looked so greatly upon and propagandised and discriminated against. It’s really important for us to open up our doors and include everyone.
And as someone who is half Thai, half Canadian, and has lived in cultures that are not my own, I have personally always felt like the stories I saw on the big screen, were not representative of the experiences I had lived. We ensure that stories that haven’t been told and need to be told are given the platform that they deserve.
Amir: I just want to add something to that too. As an Iranian, I think that the Farsi territory is very diverse. If you look at the history of that region, at some point Farsi was a language from East China all the way to Eastern Europe. It shrank obviously at some point but I think they saved and kept parts of the culture in a country where we have 72 different dialects. On its own its very diverse so specifically diversity was a big issue for us when we were picking up – we didn’t want to be limited by political borders. There are also a lot of Farsi speakers that live in other parts of the world. Like for instance in Canada, where we’re based, we have over half a million speakers, in the US we have over two million, and in Europe three million. Which put together is over ten million… which is like the Czech Republic!
And tell me a little bit about diversity regarding the LGBTQ community. There are actually a couple of films in the Iranian Film Festival that have queer themes this year. Can we expect to see more of this in the future?
Amir: From the production point of view when talking about these three countries, obviously, based on the government guidelines, there are not that many LGBTQ related stories coming out but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist – they do exist. They live in those countries and to my taste, I think if they tell their stories, they’d be the most amazing stories because it’s still such a sensitive issue in these regions.
A lot of Farsi films or more particularly Iranian films over the last few years, they started talking about their LGBTQ community and their issues which is great, but they cannot tag themselves as an LGBTQ film because of the consequences they might face. We as a center would love to cover more of these films or stories.
That’s great news, and one last thing – which films are you looking forward to seeing this year at Írán:ci?
Amir: This year we have a very good selection of films – definitely Castle of Dreams, Fireflies looks like a very interesting film, Cold Sweat, The Warden. And of course, Filmfarsi – this documentary about Farsi films before the revolution – very entertaining to watch. Kabul: City in the Wind is a very very interesting documentary – European production happening in Kabul, Afghanistan.
- The 9th Írán:ci Film Festival will finish in Prague this Sunday the 19th of January, but will then move on to Brno and Košice and Bratislava in Slovakia, wrapping up on the 31st of January
- For more programme and ticket details, visit the official festival website
- For more information of the Farsi Cinema Center or to request their film catalogue, visit the official website
Feature photo: Vaiva Ka Bezhan