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Iranian film festival reflects a changing society

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Above: Reza Kianian (on the left) and Fatemeh Motamed Aria, coordinators for the Fajr International Film Festival, in Teheran.

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Above: Director Oliver Stone at the festival, where he was the guest of honour.

Teheran

AS the veteran American director took the stage recently at Iran's Fajr International Film Festival, the audience stood up, clapping and cheering.

Young men wearing round sunglasses and women with purple dyed hair peeking out from under their compulsory headscarves watched as scenes from Platoon, Midnight Express, JFK and Any Given Sunday appeared on the screen. The clip ended with the introduction of the guest of honour: "American writer and director, Oliver Stone."

"You make it seem as if I'm dead already," Stone, 71, joked.

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Typically, Iranian hard-liners try to prevent prominent Americans, even harsh critics of US policies like Stone, from obtaining visas. But in his case other forces had prevailed. Iranian politics are divided by those opposing any approach to America and those who feel there should be an outreach.

Now, the American was the guest of honour at an event that, like Iranian society, has undergone major changes in recent years. Established to celebrate the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, the festival has grown more independent, riding a wave of international prizes for Iranian films, including two recent Oscars.

More than 350 foreign guests, selected from hundreds of applicants, travelled to the Iranian capital in April to see 35 films that had premieres at the festival, held in a modern shopping centre in downtown Teheran. There were Russians, Indians, Georgians, Europeans, Iraqis, Syrians and others. Concerts of film music were held at some locations. Some people visited Teheran's Cinema Museum or an exhibition of French art by the Louvre, while others made a pilgrimage to the city's sprawling cemetery, where they paid respects to the martyrs of the Iran-Iraq war.

"We want to show people that we are not North Korea," said Reza Kianian, a top Iranian actor who is a festival ambassador. "When our guests walk on the streets they see a church, a mosque and a synagogue all in the same block," he noted. "This is not the country you think it is."

Iran's award-winning cinema is another example, Kianian said. Two of the director Asghar Farhadi's films have won Academy Awards for best foreign language film - A Separation in 2012 and The Salesman in 2017. "With the festival and inviting so many foreign guests we also want to show that while we have hard-liners, most of our artists are not like this," he added.

Iranians often suffer from the image presented by "death-to-America" shouting hard-liners, an extremist view not shared by the majority of Iranians.

Unlike Hollywood, where movie stars walk the red carpet and wave to their fans from behind velvet ropes, the stars of Iranian cinema mingled freely with ordinary people at the festival.

Fatemeh Motamed Arya, one of the grande dames of Iranian cinema, mingled widely, chatting, taking selfies and directing visitors to cinema halls. "Cinema is a place of dreams," she said. "I want to show that I'm not from another planet, and make them believe in themselves."

Motamed Arya said that because Iranian censors banned sex, violence and alcohol, the country's film industry had developed differently from most. "Many of our films," she said, "are about kindness and humanity."

Censorship was also a topic during a class in directing with Stone. "If you face red lines and censorship, find another way," Stone told his audience, all members of the festival's Talent Campus, a group of 60 young international filmmakers. They had been flown in to participate in a week of workshops and classes by Iranian and foreign filmmakers.

"Hollywood is finished," Stone declared. "The future is for international cinema." He added: "Nowadays, everything is shot with cellphones, and this is radically changing the industry worldwide."

For many years, foreign guests were shunned. When the revolutionary ideology was at its stifling height, even the smallest criticism could offend one or another of Iran's leaders.

With Stone, even the most conservative cleric would have been hard-pressed to find something objectionable. He called US President Donald Trump "Beelzebub", and the United States "an international outlaw". He dismissed Emmanuel Macron, the French president, as "a young man without much sense of history".

How can all his movies be so critical of the US, Nour Bahri, a 26-year-old filmmaker from Syria, wondered. "Are you perhaps secretly a part of their system?" she asked. "You think I am an agent for the Central Intelligence Agency," Stone replied. "I could never be that, but the top of Hollywood and the CIA are definitely in bed with each other." NYTIMES