The UCLA Celebration of Iranian Cinema, an annual two-week event highlighting the best in contemporary and classic cinema from Iran, has been a fixture on the Los Angeles film festival calendar for nearly 30 years.
Put on by the UCLA Film & Television Archives, and supported by the Farhang Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to the promotion of Iranian culture, this year’s slate included a dozen diverse and provocative films that together reflect the complexities of life in contemporary Iran and for the millions living abroad as part of the country’s vast diaspora.
The sophistication, creativity and deep roots of Iranian filmmaking are also abundantly on display.
The May 6 opening night curtain raiser was a screening of Life and a Day, the big winner at last year’s Fajr Film Festival garnering eight awards that are roughly equivalent to our Oscars.
The highlight of the festival was a two-day tribute to Abbas Kiarostami, one of Iran’s preeminent and internationally prominent directors, who died last year at the age of 76.
Life and a Day from first-time director Saeed Roostae is an intense exploration of the emotional fissures and financial stresses of an impoverished family in Tehran.
Two of the brothers are struggling with drug addiction — a widespread scourge in Iran today but usually a taboo topic as a movie subject.
Meanwhile the youngest daughter is torn over whether she should leave to marry a rich Afghan stranger for pecuniary reasons, or to stay and continue her mostly futile attempts to mend her broken family.
The homage to Kiarostami included two very different films from the eclectic and often enigmatic filmmaker — Ten, a feature from 2002, and a short, Take Me Home, his final film.
In Ten, a woman drives through the streets of Tehran with various passengers. They include her sister, her charmingly obstreperous young son, a hitchhiking prostitute, and a jilted bride.
The film is composed of ten conversations during her journey, hence the title.
Take Me Home is a black and white film that tracks a soccer ball lyrically bouncing down endless flights of stairs.
Also shown was a documentary, 76 Minutes and 15 Seconds, directed by acclaimed photographer Seifollah Samadian, a long-time collaborator of Kiarostami.
Samadian used years of of accumulated behind-the-scenes footage to portray their close relationship.
Kiarostami first gained recognition as one of the world’s most notable directors when his film A Taste of Cherry won the Palme d’Or, the top prize, at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival.
Over the years he received generous accolades from his peers. “He was one of those rare artists with a special knowledge of the world, put into words by the great Jean Renoir: ‘Reality is always magic,’” said Martin Scorsese. For me, that statement sums up Kiarostami’s extraordinary body of work.
Other films screened at the Iranian Film Festival:
— Lantouri, by writer-director Reza Dormishian, a blistering critique of Iranian society set against an attack on a political activist.
— Radio Dreams, winner of the top prize at last year’s Rotterdam International Film Festival, which is a comic culture-clash mash-up about a Persian-language radio station in San Francisco which is eagerly awaiting the imminent arrival of superband Metallica.
— Breath, by writer-director Narges Abyar blends animation and live action in a story of humor and hardship.
— Starless Dreams is an award-winning documentary by Mehrdad Oskouei about young Iranian women struggling at a detention facility.