Visions of Iran: Film festival tells stories from a country of contradictions

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Poets of Life by Shirin Barghnavard

After studying literature in Paris, Shirin Parsi moved with her husband to the Shanderman Rural District in Iran, where they produce organic rice. Shirin is also an activist for a local women's rights NGO. The film Poets of Life, directed by Shirin Barghnavard, follows Parsi as she pushes for social and environmental change.

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The Story of Boulevard by Davood Ashrafi

In his documentary, filmmaker Ashrafi offers an artistic exploration of the history and political symbolism of Tehran's central Keshavarz Boulevard. The documentary reveals the pulse of this vibrant street, tells the story of the major events that unfolded there, and portrays the boulevard's district as an area of collective nostalgia.

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Wedding: A Film by Mohammadreza Farzad

Following his break-up with his wife, filmmaker Farzad goes through his wedding video as well as the videos of other couples, trying to find signs of preexisting unhappiness that could later lead to separation. Farzad's personal and poetic documentary moves on from his personal story to explore the entire concept of matrimony and its social meaning.

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Iran's Arrow by Shahin Armin and Sohrab Daryabandari

Along with Kehavarz Boulevard, the history of another urban phenomenon from Iran is revisited in film: the cult car brand, the Paykan (English: "arrow"), which was built from 1967 to 2005. The story of the car also reveals the cultural history of modern Iran.

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Mother of the Earth by Mahnaz Afzali

The documentary focuses on Haydeh Shirazi, an Iranian who has returned from Germany to her home country and works to preserve agricultural land, eliminate waste and combat pollution. Shirazi has managed to convince the city of Kermanshah to recycle its trash. Filmmaker Mahnaz Afzali follows her as she further campaigns for the creation of recycling centers in Iran.

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24 Frames by Abbas Kiarostami

This film, completed after Kiarostami's death in 2016, again demonstrates why the director of Taste of Cherry is a great master of Iranian cinema. In 24 Frames, Kiarostami animates old photos and paintings, the deeply spiritual work emerging through the meditative, repeated imagery. The director spent the last three years of his life on this experimental work.

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Moft Abad by Pejman Teymourtash

The theatrical film debut of the documentary director and author Pejman Teymourtash tells a story in real time, set almost exclusively inside an apartment shared by five young men in the Tehran district of Moft Abad. Through the characters' hardships, Teymourtash portrays the problems faced by Iran's urban youth.

While most of the films shown at Cologne's Visions of Iran film festival were created by filmmakers born after the Islamic Revolution, it also features the final work of Iran's late cinematic master, Abbas Kiarostami.

Even though the country has been largely cut off from the western world since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, a growing number of people are interested in Iran's history, culture, cuisine — and film.

The country's rich cinema tradition, which dates back to the beginning of the 20th century, continues to build on its strong reputation, with Iranian directors repeatedly winning major prizes in international film festivals —  Jafar Panahi's "Taxi," for instance, won the Golden Bear in Berlin in 2015.   

Despite dealing with government restrictions, Iranian filmmakers continue to create powerful and very personal stories that feel universal.

Read more: Road movie against patriarchy: Jafar Panahi's Three Faces in Cannes

Revealing unknown aspects of Iran

The Visions of Iran film festival held in Cologne has been showcasing the country's best cinema since 2013.

"The heart of Iranian cinema is its special perspective on social conditions," festival director Amin Farzanefar told DW.

Filmfestival Visions of Iran in Köln

The film festival Visions of Iran takes place from May 31 to June 3 at the Filmforum NRW in Cologne

The focus of Visions of Iran this year is documentary film.

"Iranian documentaries are particularly strong when they work directly with the protagonists," said Farzanefar, who strongly values young talent and aims to address a wide variety of topics with his program.

"What is the social reality of Iran today? What are its contradictions? Which aspects of it are entertaining?" are some of the questions the films on show will answer, Farzanefar said. Panel discussions and film Q&As will also allow festival-goers to more deeply explore these questions about Iran.

An old master — and a tragic anniversary

In addition to the Karestan series that focuses on different entrepreneurs who aim to improve social and environmental conditions in Iran, the festival will also screen 24 Frames, the last film by master director Abbas Kiarostami's before his death in 2016 that bridges his cinematic and photographic work.  

Related Subjects

This year's festival also commemorates a tragic chapter of the Iran-Iraq war, with two films and a documentary portraying the Iraqi poison gas attack on the Kurdish city of Halabja that killed 2,000 people in 1988.

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Breaking with tradition

This also means challenging perceptions. Feminist issues are less the focus of the exhibition than a questioning of the relationship between body and space. The works especially deal with the exploitation of history and identity in a globalized world.

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Arwa Arboun: Family history

Libya-based multimedia artist Arwa Arboun breaks with traditional image motifs and chooses a very personal approach. For the diptych "I'm sorry/I forgive you," she portrays her parents in two photographs that reverse the power relations between the sexes.

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Lamina Joreige: Fragments from the war

While living in Lebanon, the artist examines the relationship between individual stories and collective history. Launched in 2002, the "Objects of War" series explores the possibilities in visual representations of the Lebanese civil war. In addition, Joreige shows print stills from Marta Herford's 2006 essay film, "Nights and Days," produced during the war in Lebanon.

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Sama Alshaibi: Stories from the desert

"Silsala" (connection) is a photography project by Sama Alshaibi that is inspired by the expeditions of the 14th century Moroccan scholar, Ibn Battuta. The US-based Iraqi-Palestinian artist took the images while traveling to various desert regions and oases in the Middle East and North Africa over seven years. "The desert is an interesting metaphor for modern society," she says.

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Saba Innab: How to build without a land

Saba Innabs works express the complex situation of stateless Palestinians. On a wall that brutally separates the exhibition space in two parts, one can see a delicate abstract line, retracing the Jordanian, Syrian, Lebanese and Egyptian border with Palestine - seen from the opposite side of Palestine. To dwell (arabic. "sakan") seems impossible without limits.

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Moufida Fedhila: The transformative power of art

For her short film, "Hors-je," the Tunisian artist worked with children in Ettadhamen City in the capital, Tusis. "This is a neighborhood from which many jihadists go to fight in Syria after they were radicalized or became criminals," said Fedhila. "I try to offer an alternative viewpoint. It's about participation, the core of democracy. I believe in the transformative power of art. "

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Mounira al Solh: Irony and amgibuity

The versatile work of Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh can currently be seen at Documenta in Kassel and Athens, while in 2015 it was displayed at the Venice Biennale. The artist, who lives in Holland, makes videos and video installations, drawings and paintings, embroidery and performances.