- Hooman Razavi
The 5th Edition Of Cyrus International Film Festival
Updated: Apr 5, 2020
By: Hooman Razavi
Introduction: The necessity of an Iranian film festival, showcasing the newly released and acclaimed movies from Iran and Iranian diaspora was always felt outside Iran’s borders. Since the 1979 revolution in Iran, and specially the new millennium in 2000, global audience became more familiar with Iranian Artistic Cinema, directors and themes. Directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Asghar Farhadi and Mohammad Rasoulof, have all impressed the spectators across the world with their unique aesthetic styles, covert and delicate depiction of social and existential issues, and deservedly winning awards in international film festival scenes. Presented by Kantium Development & Construction, the fifth annual festival held in November 2019. To address the need of an organized and inclusive film festival reflecting the diversity, talents and challenges emanating from Iranian national cinema, a group of film enthusiasts and volunteers kickstarted a new festival in the city of Toronto, originally presented as “Cine-Iran Film Festival” which renamed to “Cyrus International Film Festival” in 2019. The festival not only attracted Iranian-Canadians residing in Toronto, but also the Iranian cinema film personalities from Iran and also honorary guests including film critics, diasporic film stars and budding talents. Additionally, it has expanded its networks and outreach, and now partnered up with companies in British Colombia and other jurisdictions promoting Iranian culture and cinema. The festival venues, since its inception, have been TIFF Bell Lightbox and Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO); the choices which, not only have proved the stature of the festival, but the intention of the festival organizers to present the best of Iranian cinema in the most appropriate format. Moreover, apart from regular screenings, the festival has been allowed an open exchange of ideas by accompanying films with lively and robust Q&A sessions, workshops and opening ceremony Galas to allow the participants to mingle and see how the art of cinema can be unifying, and a force to break the cultural and geographic borders. Planning & Invitation: The plannings to hold the festival started in August, four months prior to the commencement. The initial meetings were set up, and the volunteers met and divided tasks. To everyone’s amazement, the meetings took place at a large undecorated location at North York. Some volunteers left during the process, due to the differences in program planning, and eventually, after the official establishment of various teams and units, the work started with planning on our tasks and the invitations. This year’s major mission was to ensure that our honored guest, Mr. Behrouz Vossoughi, would accept our invitation, since this invitation and subsequent agreements should have been executed in the most delicate way possible. In this period of time, the support of festival's partners (Dream Art Company, Aram Development and Global School of Excellence) were very instrumental to get him on board and arrange his trip and plans.Moreover, the film requests and selections were not smooth, as expected. Some filmmakers agreed with their screenings and attending, some declined due to the nature of the festival, perceived to be political. The other consideration was to balance the schedule to ensure that local artists were not left out. Overall, mobilizing the volunteers, organizing the teams and inviting the dignitaries and artists were ongoing and not an easy task, even until the very first day of the festival and Gala night. Guests & Themes: The festival planners have always had the enthusiasm to invite the legendary actor of Iranian cinema Behrouz Vossoughi. After his confirmation; this in turn changed the whole dynamic and made the festival to focus on celebration of his artistic works and his contribution to the Iranian cinema. Correspondence with filmmakers in Iran was ongoing as the previous years, even though not as many accepted to attend due to the tense political climate and repercussions of attending while Mr. Vossoughi has been named as the honorary guest. Nevertheless, the other special guests were Sepehr Mikaeilian who directed a documentary on Behrouz’s life, and well-known directors such as Tahmineh Milani, Bahman Farman-Ara, Safi Yazdanian who directed Suddenly a tree and Arasalan Baraheni, a local director whose film Actor of God was screened in the competition section as well. The festival originally intended to embrace the theme of diversity, and the plan was to invite films by non-Iranian directors such as Tomyris, a film production by Akan Satayev depicting the life of Iranian legendary king “Cyrus the Great”; but due to delays, the film screening rights could not be secured. The other themes of change, social tension, upheavals among families and Iranian society in transition were also evident and portrayed by directors from all stripes and backgrounds. Interestingly, the festival was able to screen the local film produced by Festival president Amir Ganjavie delving into Iranian-Canadian family issues in Toronto, and also the Tunisian-French co-production starring Golshifteh Farahani, the well-known Iranian actress living abroad. Selected Films: The selection team, made of four members, watched over forty films submitted by Iranian directors. The team used criteria such as aesthetic values, audience impressions and the release date, to make decision on their final list. Finally, twenty-three films were selected. Among the films, two were in the special screening section celebrating the works of Behrouz Vossoughi, 18 were from Iranian national cinema; 15 of which in the competition section, two films by Iranian-Canadian filmmakers and one by Manele Labbe, the Tunisian director. Among the final list, there were a few films which had won awards in the other festivals; for instance, Reza Mir Karimi’s last film Castle of dream, the winner of the Best Actor award in the Shanghai film festival and the best director award in the Antalya Golden Orange Film Festival. Additionally, the festival was able to finance and present the restored digital copy of Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s masterpiece Nasereddin Shah: Cinema Actor which screened as the festival’s finale. Audience Reception: This year’s festival was heavily impacted by the contentious polarized environment in which the festival took place. Almost a week prior to the beginning of the festival, an unrest took place in the streets of Iran, in which 1500 people were killed. This tragic incident left a very bad influence on the psyche of Iranian audience, which was referred to at the opening and closing events, and during the festival days. But on a positive note, the attendees enjoyed the screened films, and this was evident in their passionate questioning in the Q/A section and the conversations with the film personnel at the end of the screenings. In some instances, especially with Behrouz Vossoughi at the screening of The Deer, a passionate line of questioning ensued showing the level of interests and engagement among the audience. Best Films: The jury team of three industry experts, including Toronto film critic DeMara, film scholar Khatereh Sheibani and well-known filmmaker Bahman Maghsoudloo, deliberated and announced the award winners in seven categories. Additionally, an award for the Audience Choice Film was also announced on the last night of the festival. Best Film: “The Oath” by Mohsen Tanabandeh Best Director: Mona Zandi Haghighi for “African Violet” Best Script: “The Oath” by Mohsen Tanabandeh Most Popular Film: “Motreb” by Mostafa Kiaie Best Actor Award: Hamed Behdad for “Castle of Dreams” Best Actress Award: Fatemeh Motamed Aria for “African Violet” Festival Grand Prize by Organizing Committee: “Iro” by Hadi Mohaghegh Festival in Review: There are many angles to appraise the festival and its performance and reception compared to previous years. On the grand-scale, the invitation and the celebration of Behrouz Vossoughi’s life achievements was itself both a monumental task and an overwhelming success. The festival took upon itself to provide all the means and the venue to recognize his artistic achievements and the strong and popular character that he had built in the heart of Iranians residing in the country and diaspora. This was evident by the range of response received in the festival’s social media, clips that were submitted by the artists residing in Iran such as Parviz Parastoui, and outpouring of fans in the Gala night and the screening of his films. As previously alluded, comparing to the first four years, the festival was heavily impacted mainly due to the sociopolitical environment. However, the festival team accepts that the outreach can always become stronger, and the Public Relation team and Social Media teams shall act more proactively in the following years; as such this is one of the areas the organizers plan to make investment on. Lastly, in terms of diversifying the films and the scope of the festival films, the discussion leading to the planning of the screened films, was to not only invite the best filmmakers and celebrities in Iran, but also to reach out to the other artists; diasporic, local and young filmmakers with Iranian background. The task as much as well-planned and wished for, did not get executed as many films by these artists were already selected for other festivals or not available due to the latency in approach by our side. Overall, it can be argued that on some fronts such as invitations and Mr. Vossoughi’s reception, the festival did a decent job, and in other fronts, such as outreach and internationalization of the film pool and selections, it could satisfy its own targets. What comes next? The collective experience by the whole team who ran the festival this year was the valuable understanding of the organizational strengths and weaknesses, work with volunteers, guest invitations, film requests and outreach campaigns. The one key lesson is that Cyrus film festival cannot be run as before, exclusive to Iranian audience and showcasing the Iranian cinema despite its variance. The organizing committee has acknowledged the breadth of the outreach, artistic depiction and community engagement, but there is more to imagine and operationalize. The one key proposal for the festival in 2020 is to broaden its appeal, artistic outreach and mandate. This could mean changing the whole agenda to make the festival international or conversely to reach out to filmmakers from Iranian background but from a more diverse pool. Furthermore, another circulating idea is to make the overall themes of the festival to present and give voice to marginalized movements and currents in Iranian cinema-less under radar among the Western audience. The whole aspiration of the Cyrus Film Festival family is to make these ideas and new plans to happen and elevate our standing.