There's an underlying theme that seems to connect most of the films in the 25th Annual Houston Iranian Film Festival: coming-of-age stories, young adults trying to find their way in the world despite long-held traditions and — believe it or not — sex. Which doesn't always go over well with Iran's thought police.
Marian Luntz, the film and video curator at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, tells us that Tehran Taboo, directed and co-written by Ali Soozandeh, won't even screen in Iran. It's an edgy film done in rotoscoped animation where one character is a prostitute and another is a musician who has a one-night stand.
In some of the films it's suggested that a woman has had her first sexual experience, which causes problems in a culture where virginity is so highly-prized by the parents. "The young women are seeking to have some sort of medical procedure to eliminate the evidence of that because of the traditional marrying off by the parents," says Luntz.
Disappearance (Napadid shodan), directed and co-written by Ali Asgari, shows a teenage couple freaking out throughout the film. "It isn’t clear in the beginning, but we come to suspect they have a romantic encounter that needs to be quote unquote reversed; they find a doctor who is doing things illegally but they are stymied because their parents’ permission is required," says Luntz.
"In Ava, nothing has happened but the mother embarrasses the daughter to have it verified," says Luntz. "The performances by the young actresses and actors are riveting. What she’s going through is universal, a coming-of-age story. We can see conflict with the friends, the parents together, the parents separately, a budding interest in boys. These are themes that we have seen played out in American cinema and television; in Iran there are so many more restrictions."
Another theme seems to be emerging this year: Out of the half a dozen films being screened at the MFAH, four were directed by the writer or co-writer. It seems that gone are the days when a screenwriter was content to hand over a project, allowing another director to bring that script to life with his or her own vision.
"I think this is a trend in emerging cinema, in young directors that we have seen from different countries," says Luntz, about the 30- and 40-something directors who pulled double duty. "An individual might come from other disciplines or outlets and tries to be a director. It’s that individual's story and they feel that they have the best vision."
The film festival even has an Oscar contender. "Breath is the one period film that we are screening; it's our opening night film. It's set in the late 1970s and Iran is still under the rule of the Shah, close to the revolution that happening in 1979. We see this amazing, spirited young girl in town living with her father, grandmother and several siblings. She’s creative, likes to read books, and this is frowned upon." Luntz labels the grandmother "a piece of work," constantly telling the girl that she shouldn't be reading so much, that it isn't good for her. It's a riveting film that blends live action with animated fantasy sequences.
With a nod to Hollywood blockbusters is Negar, an award-winning thriller directed by Rambod Javan and starring his wife, Negar Javaherian. "His wife gives an amazing performance. This is a different type of film than we have seen in Iranian programnming cinema because it plays on the genre of action films," says Luntz. "This young woman is trying to find out how her father died. The style of the film keeps you guessing: You’ll see a scene and then realize she was dreaming; then you see scenes from the point of view of someone else."
There's also a bittersweet screening of 24 Frames, the last film for Abbas Kiarostami who died in 2016 of gastrointestinal cancer. "Abbas was a photographer and filmmaker and a mentor to not just young filmmakers in Iran but was celebrated internationally," says Luntz, adding that the festival has come full circle in its 25th year, with Kiarostami's films having screened in the festival's early years.
"Towards the end of his life, [his films] weren’t as traditional in terms of storytelling and narrative, but instead more impactful visually. It combines his interest in photography and filmmaking, animals and nature. He takes an image and animates it with computer animation. It really captivates you."
The MFAH and Rice Cinema have worked hand-in-hand throughout the 25 years of the Houston Iranian Film Festival, and Luntz says it's fascinating that some film fans have attended every year of the festival. "In some cases we have original audience members and children or grandchildren so it’s a bit of a reunion every year." This year the programming has been expanded to include an offering at Asia Society Texas Center on January 21.
Professor Hamid Naficy, a film scholar who specializes in Iranian film cinema, was instrumental in helping to form this festival in Houston. Now on faculty at Northwestern University, he'll be in town on January 31 to give a lecture at Rice Media about what has happened in Iranian cinema over the past 25 years.
Since the festival's start 25 years ago, the MFAH has also become very involved with Iranian art, both contemporary and historic. In addition to its permanent collection, "Art of the Islamic Worlds," the special exhibit, “Bestowing Beauty: Masterpieces from Persian Lands,” remains up through February 11.
Friday, January 19
7 p.m., Breath (Nafas), in Farsi with English subtitles, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7515, mfah.org/iff, $8 to $10
Saturday, January 20
7 p.m., Ava, in Farsi with English subtitles, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7515, mfah.org/iff, $8 to $10
9 p.m., Tehran Taboo, in Farsi with English subtitles, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7515, mfah.org/iff, $8 to $10
Sunday, January 21
2 p.m., Window Horses: The Poetic Persian Epiphany of Rosie Ming, Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore, asiasociety.org/texas, $5 to $10
Friday, January 26
7 p.m., Disappearance (Napadid shodan), in Farsi with English subtitles, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7515, mfah.org/iff, $8 to $10
Saturday, January 27
7 p.m., 24 Frames, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7515, mfah.org/iff, $8 to $10
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Sunday, January 28
5 p.m., Negar, in Farsi with English subtitles, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet, 713-639-7515, mfah.org/iff, $8 to $10
January 31 (lecture)
7 p.m., "Iranian Post-Revolution Cinema: From Iconoclastic Destruction to Emergence of a Global Cinema" with Hamid Naficy, Rice Media Center, 6100 Main, 713-348-4853, vada.rice.edu/rice-cinema/rice-cinema-events, free
7 p.m., 24 Frames, Rice Media Center, 6100 Main, 713-348-4853, vada.rice.edu/rice-cinema/rice-cinema-events, free
7 p.m., When God Sleeps, Rice Media Center, 6100 Main, 713-348-4853, vada.rice.edu/rice-cinema/rice-cinema-events, free