Belgian directors Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, French filmmaker Alice Diop and Romanian director Cristian Mungiu have demanded that Iran’s Fajr International Film Festival remove their films from the line-up of its current edition, running from February 1 to 11.
The filmmakers said in separate statements that they discovered by chance that their respective films Tori And Lokita, Saint Omer, Rebel and R.M.N. had been included in Fajr’s selection without their personal permission.
“We have just learned that our film Tori And Lokita is in the selection of the Fajr festival in Tehran,” the Dardennes said in a statement on Thursday.
“We demand that the film be withdrawn immediately from the program of this festival which is a showcase for a dictatorial and murderous religious regime that we condemn.”
Saint Omer director Alice Diop said she had been alerted to her film’s inclusion by exiled Iranian filmmaker Mehran Tamadon, whose My Worst Enemy will world premiere at the Berlinale later this month.
“It’s completely inconceivable that my film can screen at the heart of an event organized by a regime that for years has run a campaign of violence and repression against its people, and where directors are imprisoned for daring to exercise their right to freedom of expression,” she said.
Rebel and Bad Boy For Life filmmakers Arbi and Fallah and their producers at Brussels-based Caviar said showing their film in the festival would be akin “to ignoring the struggles of oppressed people of Iran for their rights”.
“We stand in support with Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who was arrested on July 20th in Teheran and is still incarcerated to this day,” they said, referring to the dissident filmmaker who announced this week that he was going on hunger strike in protest at his illegal imprisonment.
Paris-based sales Wild Bunch International which handles the titles said their inclusion in the Fajr line-up was also a surprise to them.
Two other WBI titles have also made their way into the selection, comprising Rachid Bouchareb’s Our Brothers and Kamila Andini’s Before, Now & Then. Both filmmakers have asked for the titles to be withdrawn.
WBI said the films were made available to Fajr without their authorization or knowledge, through a local agent working with long-time MENA distribution partner Front Row Filmed Entertainment.
They have asked Front Row to enforce the removal of the films from the selection. Front Row has now made multiple requests for the films to be dropped and is awaiting a reply.
Titles by other international filmmakers are also believed to be in the situation.
Launched in 1982, the state-backed Fajr International Film Festival is Iran’s main international film festival and takes place in Tehran. Although is overseen by Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, it has traditionally not been subject to the country’s wider strict censorship laws.
For many years, the festival was regarded as a window on the world for local audiences. It was also the event where Iranians could see films by local directors such as Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Asghar Farhadi as well as regional and international arthouse titles, before they were censored, or even banned.
The local film community has always had a complex relationship with the event.
Many film professionals used to attend to keep independent cinema culture alive, even if they had conflicting feelings about its state connections and some of the government-backed productions it also showcased.
International sales agents and regional distributors would also make their films available to the festival, which previously took stands at major markets like Cannes and the European Film Market and was not regarded as a pariah event to the outside world.
The situation has changed in the wake of the crackdown last summer on freedom of expression and arrest of creative professionals such as directors Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-Ahmad, followed by the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protests prompted by the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.
Local film professionals, some of whom had already distanced themselves from the festival prior to these events, are now calling for an outright boycott.
They say its continuation is an attempt by the authorities to pretend that things are normal, at a time when more than 500 protestors have been killed by security forces, another 20,000 people have been arrested, four demonstrators have been executed and at least another 100 detainees are believed to be on death row.
A number of film professionals still living in Iran with films screening in the festival are also openly boycotting the event, saying the titles have been included against their will.
London-based Persian news channel Iran International reported that Fajr had kept the line-up for this year’s edition a secret up until the last minute so that filmmakers and producers would not demand the removal of their films.
The channel said tickets for screenings were being sold without any information on what film would be shown.
It added that the opening night on February 1, the same day Panahi declared his hunger strike, had been a flop, with the theater venue hosting the event, virtually empty aside from government ministers and media outlets affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards.
Front Row is open about having worked with the festival in the past but said it was clear the situation had changed.
“We have always used the film festival to give a voice to talents from the region as well as the international ones in a country which craves for international cinema but is often limited to mainly local films,” the company said. “It was always about contributing to the filmmaking society in the hopes that one-day things would open up in every sense. It’s always been a way to bridge cultures… and this is what we’ve always done.
“Obviously, the situation has escalated. Our official position is very much clear: We support the local and international film community and vocally support freedom of speech and human rights in all their shapes and forms and for this, we have officially demanded to pull all films which we represent in the MENA region from the Fajr Film Festival.”