‘Do not go gentle into that good night’; FIFF celebrates free, fighting spirits

TEHRAN, Apr. 22 (MNA) – Although Fajr is not a themed festival, some movies in this year’s lineup for the intl. competition share something in common: strong characters, mostly women, who resist an outside force bent on changing them, and use their free, fighting spirits to change the force instead.

The 37th edition of Fajr International Film Festival, Iran’s biggest cinematic event dedicated to world cinema, opened to avid festival goers on Thursday, screening from morning to midnight noteworthy productions from near and far – distance or culture wise – from Russia, Turkey and China all the way to Egypt, Norway and Argentina.

The overall screening program, comprising 11 sections, has as many as 109 titles from 75 countries. The international competition section, called ‘Cinema Salvation’, includes 15 feature films and 15 short films, with a jury panel of seven notable figures in the film industry.

After watching three films in the international competition, and one in the Festival of Festivals (Cup of Divinations), it became apparent that the selected movies in this year’s lineup, unlike the previous edition, enjoy a more coherent structure, with solid executions, breath-taking cinematography, award-worthy acting, and most importantly, thought-provoking, smooth-flowing subject matters, which make them both ‘festival-worthy’ and ‘audience-friendly’.

While FIFF is not a themed festival, more focused on diverse representation instead, it was difficult to ignore some shared characteristics between the selected movies in the international competition: all three had ‘resistance’ and ‘resilience’ at the core of their stories (with women being mostly the driving force behind it), and children played a significant role in introducing a fundamental change into the lives of the protagonists (even the film, ‘As I Fall’ from Norway in the Festival of Festivals section dealt with the positive change in a young addict’s life when he started to take care of his son and be a responsible father).

The main characters of these movies, mostly women, all faced a challenging situation that threatened to take something fundamental away from them. Instead of giving way under the pressure, and submitting to the outside force that sought to change, or at times, destroy them, the characters mustered up their free and fighting spirits to turn their situation into their own favor by any means necessary.

This attitude is a fresh and welcome perspective for the Iranian audience who are mostly used to watching home-made dramas in which a conflict is introduced and goes on to turn the lives of the characters upside down, but there is no way out of the situation, no solution, only a bleak realization that this is your life, you might as well get used to it, all in the name of ‘realism’.

Joel (2018 | Argentina) by Carlos Sorin

Rating: 7.5/10

This simple, yet emotionally-complex, adoption drama, directed by Argentine film veteran Carlos Sorín, is easy on the eyes, introducing the audience to a snow-covered small town in Patagonia, deceptively tranquil and quiet under the muting blanket of the snow, hiding away ugly, festering wounds of prejudice, discrimination, selfishness, insecurity and the fear of the ‘outsider’. The narrative sets a slow pace with silence at times revealing more truths than words, but the expected boredom is countered by great acting, beautiful cinematography, and the smooth execution of the complex moral issue that leaves the audience in a constant struggle between ‘it’s not worth the trouble,’ and ‘it’s worth to fight for it.’

The story revolves around a young couple, piano teacher Cecilia (Victoria Almeida) and her forestry worker husband, Diego (Diego Gentile) who have registered for adoption. When the call finally comes, they are told that the child is older than they expected. They still go through with the adoption program, although with some reservations, and find the 9-year-old Joel (Joel Noguera) to be quiet and withdrawn. The problem arrives when the school notifies Cecilia that the parents do not wish for their children to be in the same class as Joel, who is apparently more talkative among his peers, telling them wild tales about his adventures of doing drugs and threatening a man with a knife.

While Joel becomes the role model ‘hero’ of his class, parents are worried about the mental as well as physical well-being of their children and team up in a teacher-parent meeting that soon escalates into a heated argument, to force the headmaster to expel Joel, the outsider.

The movie is a cautionary tale about the consequences of isolating and rejecting the outsider, and subtly invites a celebratory welcoming of it.  ‘Joel’, in the first steps, shows how the arrival of the child sets the family against the whole community, how the child isolates the mother among the people she used to know and be friends with, but gradually the very same child becomes for her a motivation to resist against a system that wants to dissolve and integrate her, a reason to strive for what she feels is the right thing do, even if it clashes with conventions and comfort.

The movie ends with Cecilia finally making her decision, and leaves the consequences of her decision to the audience’s imagination.

Wackersdorf (2018 | Germany) by Oliver Haffner

Rating: 8/10

Much like ‘Joel’, Oliver Haffner’s ‘Wackersdorf’, set in a peaceful yet financially-challenged rural district of 1990’s Germany, deals with a significant subject matter, maybe even more so, as it involves the environment and the future of the next generations. The build-up is slow, and it takes a while to understand the various characters in their own unique set of behavioral and moral patterns. It is based on a true story, even infused at times with actual footage from the archives, which lends the story a heavier mood and more urgency. Resistance again is key here. Resistance against what is expected of you, from those above you and sometimes those around you, because your conscience has decided that some things are worth more than wealth and power, which are transient and unreliable at best.

In this small rural district of Wackersdorf, where widespread protests went on to make history, commissioner Hans Schuierer (Johannes Zeiler) strives for bringing back jobs, and hence prosperity, to his area, having an eye on the next election. Desperate for a way out and backed by his comrades and party members, he hastily falls for the plan for a nuclear reprocessing plant, promised by some Bavarian top-brass politicians and traders. Ignorant, at first, to the possible environmental hazards of this project and then awakened by harsh crackdown of the central government on the burgeoning local protests, the Commissioner’s conscience, alongside his family, set him on the path to side with protesters against the state. The continued local protests then turn into an organized movement and finally force the Bavarian government to back off its plan. Today, the unfinished Wackersdorf nuclear reprocessing plant is just an industrial site.

Erased (2018 | Slovenia, Croatia, Serbia) by Miha Mazzini

Rating: 10/10

My personal favorite of the titles I have watched at the FIFF so far, ‘Erased’ is a novel adaptation by the same writer, Miha Mazzini, published in 2014. The movie, with its gorgeous cinematography, gets its name from Izbrisani (Slovene for The Erased), which refers to a group of people in Slovenia that remained without a legal status after the declaration of the country's independence from Yugoslavia in 1991. According to reports, some 26,000 people were affected by the erasure, losing their residence rights, with no possibilities for work and social protection.

The movie’s protagonist is a kindergarten teacher, Ana (Croatian star Judita Franković Brdar), who gives birth at a local hospital, only to be told that her files are missing and she has been erased from the system. What follows is a highly-tense and breathtaking narrative of a young woman’s struggles with a Kafkaesque bureaucratic system to keep her baby and her identity. ‘When everything’s fine, living alone is so easy,” Ana says. “It’s when things go to sh*t that you realize how dependent you are on others,” and there’s a bitter tone to her voice when she says it. Her situation has forced her to reconnect with her parents and the father of her child whose name she did not even put on the forms at the hospital.

One of the most powerful moments in the movie occurred during the ‘wallet scene’. Ana and her divorced husband, who has connections with higher-ups and later helps her to make a live appearance on TV to talk about her situation, are sitting on a bench in this beautiful, autumn-themed, foggy park. The husband is cynical about the severity of Ana’s problem. She asks him for his wallet, and begins taking out various cards – ID, insurance, driver’s license, bank cards – and throwing them one by one on the ground. All gone. “This is all you,” she says with bitterness, motioning to the wallet. Then she takes out a small fragment of her broken ID, which barely shows her face, and says, “and this is all that’s left of me.”

Although her fight to take back her stolen identity is motivated by her need to protect her baby, who is put up for adoption, Ana and her resolve to be visible and her fighting spirit to expose the cruel consequences of what Slovenia’s Ministry of the Interior had done to thousands of its citizens, becomes an inspirational, moving story. Much like ‘Joel’, the movie ends with Ana grabbing her baby and turning on her heels to leave the hospital as police sirens fill the air. We don’t know if she could make it out with her child, but we would all like to think that she did.

The 37th Fajr International Film Festival is underway in Tehran until April 26. 

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