A Preview of the 2024 Iranian Film Festival New York


When the first Iranian Film Festival New York unfurled at NYC’s IFC Center in early 2019, its co-founder, distributor Armin Miladi, and I were so surprised and gratified by the signs of the event’s success—lines down 6th Avenue, sell-outs on almost all shows, enough people turned away that we scheduled encore performances of some films—that we could never have envisioned that it would be five years before we managed to mount another edition. But early 2020 brought the event-derailing outbreak of COVID-19, and subsequent years presented a dizzying succession of other challenges and obstacles.

Some of those had to do with conditions in Iran. When I started reporting on Iranian cinema in the early ‘90s, the tensions between the country’s government and other nations, and between the regime and its filmmakers, made each cinema year one full of suspense, surprise and off-screen drama. Remarkably, even when hardliners were in control, the ingenuity and dogged determination of Iran’s filmmakers kept a steady flow of masterpieces rolling into the world’s film festivals and art houses.

But the last few years have brought new waves of change and turbulence to both the country and its cinema. Most notably, the massive nationwide protests that followed the 2022 death-in-detention of young Mahsa Amini—an outburst of pent-up political passions led by women under banners emblazoned “Woman! Life! Freedom!”—provoked a brutal government crackdown that resulted in numerous deaths and summary executions and impacted the film community in countless ways, from the disruption of productions to the further suppression of dissident filmmakers such as Jafar Panahi to the arrest of female movie stars who removed their head covering in public protests.

Given all this flux and turmoil, it’s hardly surprising that some of Iran’s most famous directors and stars stepped back from production in the last year and half, as if to wait out the storm and see what remained after it passed. (Though the possibility of revolution has apparently receded, the protests and the changes in Iran’s political culture they produced are ongoing.) Meanwhile, all the difficulties notwithstanding, movies are still being made.

Indeed, when Miladi and I started looking at possible films to include in this year’s festival, I was surprised at the number, variety and quality we found. We included nearly a dozen titles in the 2024 Iranian Film Festival New York, which runs Jan. 25-30 at the IFC Center, but that number could have been two or three times greater. The line-up includes some exciting works by new or emerging filmmakers, as well as proof an underground cinema that is skirting the strictures of government oversight. This year’s festival also includes a couple of special events that add to the display of new cinema.

Guest of Honor: Mani Haghighi

Cinephiles who attended the 2019 IFFNY will recall that the event’s biggest hit was “Pig,” a riotous satiric comedy about a serial killer who’s killing directors in Tehran’s film community and carving the word “pig” into their foreheads. It was hailed by Richard Brody in The New Yorker and proved so popular that the IFC Center gave it a week’s run after the festival.

That film’s writer-director, Mani Haghighi, is one of Iran’s most acclaimed and original directors of the post-2000 generation. If his name doesn’t mean much to local cinephiles (apart from those who caught “Pig”), critics who cover international festivals can tell you how many important directors and films don’t make it into American cinemas. Haghaghi surely deserves the kind of attention in the U.S. that he gets in festivals like Toronto and Berlin (where his provocative press conferences sometimes equal the entertainment value of his films). 

In Iran, he is known for helping inaugurate a new era of Iranian cinema when, in the early 2000s, he challenged another then-little-known young director, Asghar Farhadi, to reject what Haghighi called the “Kiarostami-Makhmalbaf model” of films by joining him in writing a plot-driven film about middle-class Tehranis that starred well-known actors. Directed by Farhadi, that film, “Fireworks Wednesday,” was a huge hit that proved very influential on younger filmmakers and pointed Farhadi toward his two Oscar winners, “A Separation” and “The Salesman.”. 

If Farhadi overthrew one set of conventions only to institute another, Haghighi has seemed more interested in exploding conventions (especially regarding genre) and then playfully reassembling the pieces in ways that can be simultaneously baffling and exhilarating. His latest work is a great example of that. “Subtraction” is, first of all, a doppelganger story. A woman sees a man that she thinks is her husband, then follows him and sees him with another woman. Naturally she suspects infidelity, but it soon emerges that the guy is a ringer for her husband. And to make things stranger still, it turns out that the man’s wife is her exact double. 

Directed with Haghighi’s consummate visual skill—his rainy nighttime Tehran is worthy of any film noir—the film to me is most fascinating for how it skids between genres without signaling where it may end up. It’s a mystery, a psychological drama, a surreal family study, a romance, a tragedy … it keeps you guessing, not only about the story’s conclusion, but its ultimate genre home. The film’s other most involving aspects are the bravura double-performances Haghighi gets from two of Iran’s most popular stars, Taraneh Alidoosti (who appears in several Haghighi films) and Navid Mohammedzadeh.

On Friday night, Haghighi will appear at the IFC Center to show “Subtraction” and discuss that film, his other work and current conditions for filmmaking in Iran. As the grandson of Iranian cinema pioneer Ebrahim Golestan (who dialogued with Jean-Luc Godard in the recent “See You Friday, Robinson,” made shortly before the two auteurs’ deaths) and a graduate of McGill University in Montreal (he has dual Canadian-Iranian citizenship) Haghighi has a distinctive, uniquely cosmopolitan—and sometimes controversial—view of Iranian filmmaking and world cinema. 

The festival will also help cinephiles catch up with his previous work by screening two of his earlier films over the weekend.

Saturday will bring “A Dragon Arrives!,” a phantasmagorical detective story set in the 1960s and full of political as well as supernatural reverberations. The film is virtually impossible to describe, but I’ll give an A for effort to the Variety headline writer who declared “Mani Haghighi’s bold, bewildering mélange of noir, mockumentary and outright fantasy bends itself one very sexy pretzel.” Tasty, right?

On Sunday, we’ll show “Modest Reception,” which stars Haghighi himself (he has acted in several films) and the great Taraneh Alidoosti as a couple who motor through some strikingly scenic mountains in a Lexus handing out bags of cash to virtually everyone they encounter. Rife with implicit political and symbolic meanings, the cryptic film starts off in a comic register but grows darker and darker as it progresses.

A fourth program involving Haghighi is noted below.

Tribute to Dariush Mehjrui

Daruish Mehrjui, whose murder in October shocked the world film community, was renowned for sparking the Iranian New Wave of the 1970s with his spare, atmospheric 1969 drama “The Cow,” made when he was 27. As I argued here, he was a giant of world cinema “who has never gotten his proper due outside Iran.”

On the festival’s last day, Tuesday, Jan. 30, we will pay tribute to Mehrjui with three programs.

At 4:30, we will screen Bahman Maghsoudlou’s “Dariush Mehrjui: Making the Cow.” Maghsoudlou, who will do a Q&A afterwards, was a critic in pre-revolutionary Iran and currently lives New Jersey, where he has made several films about Iranian cinema. This one was filmed over many years and includes a number of interviews with Mehrjui.

At 7, we will show a restored version of “The Cow,” which is always a pleasure to see on the big screen. It retains all its poetic allure decades after its release.

At 9, Mani Haghighi and I will discuss Dariush Mehrjui’s career. We will also show part of one of the two documentaries Haghighi made about Mehrjui, “Mehrjui: The 40 Year Report.” While most tributes to Mehrjui have focused on the groundbreaking impact of “The Cow,” this event will give us the chance to look at the remarkable expanse of his career.

Other Films at the 2024 Iranian Film Festival New York (in order of their appearance)

Thursday: Beyond the Wall (Opening Night). This searing drama is easily the festival’s most daringly political film. The story has a blind man (Navid Mohammedzadeh, who also stars in Haghighi’s “Subtraction”) hiding a disturbed woman in his apartment. Variety described the film as “overtly critical of the repressive state apparatus, especially its capriciously cruel and violent police forces and merciless justice system.” It comes from director Vahid Jalilvand, whose last film was the gripping “No Date, No Signature.”

Friday: Dark Matter. Director Karim Lakzaheh’s B&W comedy-drama is an example of the underground films that some young Iranian filmmakers are making both to avoid and protest the cinema’s censors, the most obvious sign of that defiance being that women in the cast don’t wear hijab. In the Iranian tradition, it’s a film about filmmaking, though in this case the film being attempted is an underground one.

Saturday: Kiarostami at Work. Seifollah Samadian is a cinematographer who worked with Abbas Kiarostami on “ABC Africa” and other projects. His documentary portrait “76 Minutes and 15 Seconds with Abbas Kiarostami” was one of the hits of our 2019 festival. In this pleasing follow-up he assembles footage by himself and other directors of Kiarostami practicing his craft on a number of his features. 

Saturday: Roxana. The two main characters in Parviz Shabazi’s film are Tehranis in their 20s whose story has a bit of romcom to it but also catalogues lots of the realities and hassles of life in Iran currently, from illegal betting to hiding alcohol consumption to corrupt cops. The tone here is mostly light and entertaining but many of the concerns are serious. The film’s greatest assets, though, are its attractive leads, Mahsa Akbarabadi as Roxana and Yasna Mirtahmasb as Fred. 

Sunday: Iranian Shorts. A selection of recent short works from Iran.

Sunday: Empty Nets. Behrooz Karamizade’s debut film is a personal favorite of mine because it exemplifies some of the virtues of earlier Iranian films, especially in its treatment of poor people, in this case young ones, battling against the barriers society throws at them. Amir, the protagonist here, simply wants to marry his girlfriend, but the money her well-off parents expect propels him into a job fishing in the Caspian Sea, where he’s drawn into the caviar smuggling trade. The film is beautifully made in every respect, with sensitive performances by all the main cast.

Sunday: The Locust. Faeze Azizkani’s astute comedy-drama, based on her own life in the Iranian film industry, concerns a female screenwriter whose life is falling apart on the very day she’s trying see that her new script gets onto the screen without undue interference from other creatives. The kind of film being described here is obviously not the kind that most Iranian films we know are (think Kiarostami et al), but it’s certainly not atypical of independent films the world over. Among the various Iranian films about film, it has the distinction of giving us a female view of a process that has certain challenges especially for women.

Monday: The Night Guardian. Reza Mirkarimi’s gritty drama concerns Rasoul, a 25-year-old guy who can’t make a living in his rural village and so goes to Tehran, where he’s one of an army of the unemployed until he finds a job as s night watchman in one of the scads of new construction projects going up in the city. The sharply crafted film paints a stark portrait of the inequities of current Iranian life.

Tuesday: A Childless Village. The title may not scream “delightfully droll comedy,” but so this is (and it’s the festival’s only flat-our comedy). It might also be termed an ethnographic comedy, as well as yet another Iranian film-about-filmmaking. Set in gorgeous Iranian Azerbaijan, the story concerns elderly filmmaker Kazem, who 20 years before who made a doc that outraged his village by blaming its problem with infertility on its women. Now he’s back aiming to make amends and his new doc blames the men! The film is evidently cast with elderly locals, who are hilarious. Frank Capra would have loved this one.

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