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Bearing witness to the struggles of modern-day Iran

MFA film festival highlights bravery of country's directors

Rarely does the timing for the annual Festival of Films from Iran, which starts Friday at the Museum of Fine Arts and runs through Dec. 14, get any better.

On Dec. 10, the ceremony for this year's Nobel Peace Prize will be held in Oslo, and Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian who has spent her life peeling back the curtain on domestic abuse, will be the first Muslin woman given the prize. The Nobel committee pulled few punches in its statement about the judge-turned-human rights activist: Ebadi has "displayed great personal courage as a lawyer defending individuals and groups who have fallen victim to a powerful political and legal system that is legitimized through an inhumane interpretation of Islam."

The monthlong MFA festival provides a vivid lead-up to the Nobel ceremony, bearing witness to the daily struggles in today's Iran through films made by equally courageous artists based in that country.

Central to the festival are riveting portraits of feminism. "Our Times," by 49-year-old filmmaker Rakhshan Bani Etemad, is a 2002 documentary about the 2001 presidential election in Iran. It follows a group of college girls -- including Bani Etemad's daughter -- who campaigned for a reformist candidate, and it focuses on one of the 48 female candidates in the 711-person field.

Bani Etemad is a leading filmmaker in Iran, and she'll be the recipient of the festival's annual ILEX Foundation Award for Excellence in Iranian Cinema. (She was scheduled to accept the award in person, but will be prevented by illness from attending. Her daughter, actress Baran Kosari, will be present.)

In addition to "Our Times," the festival is showing four of Etemad's other films: "Under the Skin of the City," a drama about a female factory worker; "The May Lady," about a divorced mother incorporating a new lover into her life; "Nargess," about a man caught between two women and trying to leave his criminal past; and her festival favorite from two years ago, "The Blue-Veiled," a sweet story about how affection between a farm worker and the owner of a plantation takes root despite family members' objections.

Like many of today's Iranian filmmakers, Bani Etemad came of age during the 1970s and began making feature films and documentaries in the late 1980s. She records the convolutions of living under post-Islamic revolution fundamentalism with pre-1979 sensibilities.

She is one of the featured artists in the documentary "Iranian Women Filmmakers," which plays here, too. This 2003 film by Hamid Khairolkin and Majid Khabazan addresses the question that nearly everyone asks after seeing even a handful of these films: How did all these filmmakers manage to make such damning work under the watchful eye of the government?

The answer, of course, is that not all do. The MFA reports that earlier this year, the Iranian government confiscated the negatives of "Silence Between Two Thoughts," which tells the story of a prison guard ordered to execute a young woman. Filmmaker Babak Payami, now living outside Iran, reportedly reconstructed the film from his computer files to create the video that will be screened here.

"Black Tape: A Tehran Diary," another underground film, is one of the roughest of the series but also one of the most haunting. Dizzying and often tortuous, it plays at times like a home movie and at others like a store security video catching a horrible crime in its periphery. Its subtitle is "The Videotape Fariborz Kambari Found in the Garbage," and director Kambari's construct is that a young Kurdish bride has begun recording her imprisoned life with her husband, a former military official.

At times the camcorder is tucked under her arm as she runs; at others it sits on a table overlooking rococo furniture and taking in just sound. Played by actress Shilan Rahmani, the young woman looks like Catherine Zeta-Jones and alternates between a synthetic serenity and a poignant feistiness. "All of you make me sick," she says from behind the camera to party guests who are complicit in her near-slavery. Things only get worse.

Lighter, quirky, and eminently likable is "Letters in the Wind," which follows new recruits in the Iranian military as they go through boot camp. These could be American boys: They strut to the whistles of the Colonel Bogey March, carry Adidas bags, and kvetch about smelly feet.

The central character, a young man with a Sean Penn squint, smuggles a Walkman into his barracks and listens to the murmurings of a woman whose call he has recorded. "Hello? You won't die. Talk please," says the soft voice, and the young soldier wiggles deeper into his bunk with a smile. First-time feature director Ali Reza Amini uses lovely imagery and shows how simple fantasies can soften harsh realities.

One of the most epic films this year is Tamineh Milani's "The Fifth Reaction." It opens with a group of friends at a restaurant talking about the ways they say "I love you" to their men. One of their husbands shows up with his secretary; an ugly argument ensues, and the wife breaks with him on the spot. Suddenly the women begin confessing the humiliations they bear at home. The focus shifts to one of them, a young widow whose father-in-law is intent on throwing her out of the house and keeping her away from her children. We end up in a bona fide road movie, as both women take off with the kids. There are flashes of humor as victories come in small, conditional ways.

Jafar Panahi, 43, has turned out movie after movie that has taken festival awards: His 1995 debut, "The White Balloon," which followed a 7-year-old girl intent on buying a goldfish to celebrate the first day of spring, won the Camera d'Or award at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival; his 2000 "The Circle" captured the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival.

His new film is the engaging drama "Crimson Gold," and already it has snagged a jury prize at Cannes. It follows a grim man whose job delivering pizza to wealthy Iranians grinds him down until he snaps. Humiliation is at the story's core, and it is an emotion shared by the director himself. In a letter to the New York Film Festival last August, Panahi explained that he would not be attending the screening of his film because he didn't want to go through the "humiliating treatment" of being fingerprinted upon arrival because of his nationality.

"It's not just George Bush who subscribes to the idea that you are either with us or against us," Panahi wrote. "In my country, too, anyone slightly crossing any red lines is subject to the suspicion of the censors. . . . Here, they interrogate me because I am a socially conscious filmmaker. In America, they fingerprint me, and literally shackle me to kill my national pride, because I am an Iranian filmmaker. This is the kind of purgatory I, and many others like me, find ourselves in."

Iranian films speak where the filmmakers cannot, and portions of this MFA festival will travel for the first time in the event's 10 years. Selected films will move on to Washington, D.C.'s American Film Institute, New York City's Asia Society, and Houston's Museum of Fine Arts in the coming months.

Leslie Brokaw can be reached at lesliebrokaw@yahoo.com.

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