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Life in the Fest Lane

Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa doesn't just attend fiml festivals--she collects them.


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By Ted Shen

Documentary filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa remembers attending her first film festival in 1972 in her native Tehran. Iran was still under the shah's rule, and the festival, she recalls, had been established that year to "showcase the boom in local cinema and literature, combining glitz with intellectual rigor." It also included art films from France and Italy--"I saw the latest Rossellini there"--along with more mainstream fare from Hollywood and India. Francis Ford Coppola was on the international jury.

Saeed-Vafa, who was unemployed at the time, was impressed enough by what she'd seen to start writing scripts for short films. Though she had a college degree in business and had worked for the ministry of budget and planning, she soon decided to enroll in the national school of television and cinema. "In a way," she says, "I owe my future and outlook to that festival."

Her experience convinced her of the importance of film festivals to the state of the art; this Friday she's moderating a panel discussion at Columbia College's Ferguson Theatre on the role of festivals in shaping careers and helping filmmakers assert their national identities, as well as in introducing cultural variety to combat the Hollywoodization of art and entertainment. Panelists include festival organizers Michael Kutza (Chicago), Richard Pena (New York), Noah Cowan (Toronto), and Richard Herskowitz (Virginia). "The culture of the festival is a pressing issue," she says. "We can't let it be corrupted by money and celebrity. Festivals should remain major venues for upstart filmmakers to get exposure and money for their next project."

Saeed-Vafa's own nascent filmmaking career was almost derailed by Iran's Islamic revolution, which began in 1979. She had studied for a couple of years at the London International Film School in the mid-70s and was teaching at her Iranian alma mater, but she was going through a messy divorce and felt stifled by the straitlaced artistic climae.

"I was in despair," she says. "I didn't like the 'guidance' issued by the ministry of culture." In 1983 she was in the midst of editing a narrative short, about a young boy whose political activist father gets arrested, when she got a chance to visit her sister in Chicago. She dropped the project and packed her suitcases. She ended up staying here. After getting a graduate degree in film from the University of Illinois at Chicago, she earned a living as a freelance film editor and video producer. Eventually she got a full-time position at Columbia College.

In the late 80s she started traveling to festivals around the world "out of intellectual curiosity." In Toronto in 1988 she was wowed by a sidebar event featuring major works by Iranian filmmakers in exile. "Some of them I knew back in Tehran, like Parviz Kimiarvi, Bahman Farmanara, and Dariush Mehrjui," she says, "and they were at the height of their artistry." When she got back to town, she proposed a similar series to Barbara Scharres of the Film Center at the School of the Art Institute. The result has grown into one of North America's most comprehensive surveys of Iranian cinema.

Saeed-Vafa believes Iran's relations with the international community have been improved by the warm response to Iranian entries at high-profile festivals such as Toronto, New York, and Locarno. "The cultural ministry, which has become more open-minded, uses these cultural exchanges as a way to reestablish contact," she explains. "And it's been loosening restrictions on directors, who in turn take advantage of the freedom." The film festival in Tehran, which was briefly shut down, was resurrected in 1982 under the name Fajr, which is Persian for "sunrise." At first it toed the government's line, but by the end of the 80s it had emerged as a pivotal confab in Tehran's cultural life. "They fly about 90 guests in from all over the world and put them in one hotel--rather unique for a festival," she says. "It's like being in a dormitory with people exchanging cards and ideas all the time." Outside the movie theaters, people queue up "as early as two in the morning for next day's tickets."

Five years ago, at the invitation of the Fajr festival, Saeed-Vafa returned to Tehran after a 13-year absence. "It was a highly emotional time for me," she says, "meeting with family members and filmmakers I hadn't seen since leaving. I found an Iran much better than the one I left. It was more open politically, more tolerant toward women." She's been back a few times since then, partly to work with a government foundation that arranges for new and old Iranian films to be shown in festivals in the West.

In 1995 Saeed-Vafa's feature documentary, A Tajik Woman, nabbed a top prize from the American Film Institute. The film, which gives voice to Afghan and Iranian refugees in the U.S. in the debate over liberalism versus fundamentalism and the predicament of Muslim women, not only helped her find her own identity, she says, but the accolades also "gave me the confidence in my subject and style--not to mention seed money--for my next project." She's been working on a semiautobiographical documentary titled Home in Exile, which she hopes to finish later this year. "Of course I will take it on the festival circuit," she says, "and who knows, it might even get to Tehran, which would complete the circle."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.

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