Iranian cinema relishes actor’s Berlin award

February 28th, 2008 - 11:43 pm ICT by admin  

Tehran, Feb 28 (DPA) From playing in provincial theatres in northwestern Iran for more than four decades to winning the coveted Silver Bear Award for best actor at the Berlin Film festival, a fairly tale has come true for Iranian actor Ali Naji. “This Bear is not mine but belongs to Iran, Iranians and Iranian cinema,” said an overwhelmed Naji at the premiere of Majid Majidi’s “The Song of Sparrows” (Avaze Gonjeshk-Ha) in Tehran.

The Berlin prize was the first-ever prestigious international award for a home-based actor in Iranian cinema history.

Iranian-American exile Shohreh Aghdashloo - living in the US for almost 30 years - received an Academy Award nomination, for best supporting actress in the 2003 movie “House of Sand and Fog” but did not win.

“There are definitely less stressful jobs than being an artist in Iran,” an Iranian film critic said.

After the 1979 Islamic revolution and implementation of strict Islamic rules in society, namely obliging women to wear gowns and headscarves to hide their body contours and hair in public, the cinema industry, too, had to change its criteria drastically.

Love stories could hardly be shown anymore, as men were simply not allowed touch women.

Other dramatic scenes - even a mother embracing her son or a father his daughter - are forbidden. Even a simple scene showing a woman going to sleep became awkwardly artificial, as she had to go to bed in a gown and headscarf.

“We had to create our own way of drama - for example, showing love through a decent look and a more decent smile - that might in the meantime be understandable for our Iranian audiences but in no way for foreigners,” a local film producer said.

This is why many Iranian filmmakers prefer to stick to scripts that deal mostly with children. In that case, both script and film have a better chance to escape the red pen of the cultural watchdogs in the ministry of culture and Islamic guidance.

Local film experts, however, say that the quality of Iranian films has drastically improved since the Islamic revolution, reflected in the success that filmmakers like Majidi, Abbas Kiarostami, Tahmineh Milani or Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and his two daughters, have gained in international film festivals worldwide.

In movie theatres at home, public interest in Iranian artistic films is rather modest and Iranians prefer to privately watch Western-made films, which are easily available in the black market as pirated DVDs for about $2.

“Success in international film festivals is definitely a positive thing for Iranian cinema, but still these films are primarily made for Iranians,” said Majidi, one of the most successful Iranian filmmakers, whose film “Children of Heaven” was even nominated for an Academy Award in 1998 but lost to by Italian filmmaker Roberto Benigni’s “Life Is Beautiful”.

At the premier of “The Song of Sparrows” in Tehran, Naji was in seventh heaven, stealing the show as he proudly displayed his Silver Bear to guests and press.

Naji was born in 1942 in Tabriz, capital of the northwestern Iranian province of Azerbaijan, which borders Turkey and where the people mainly speak the Turkic tongue of Azeri rather than Farsi, Iran’s official language.

“Very soon I realized my love for acting and joined theatre groups in Tabriz,” said Naji, who like others from his region speaks Farsi with an Azeri accent.

He was discovered by Majidi in 1997 and since then has played in four of the filmmaker’s projects, including “Children of Heaven”, and eventually became one of the surprise winners at this year’s Berlin film festival.

The moderator at the premiere of “The Song of Sparrows” pointed out that Irish actor Daniel Day-Lewis won the Oscar this week in Hollywood for his role in the film “There will be Blood”. “But the same Daniel Day-Lewis was also at the Berlin festival but lost to our Reza Naji,” the moderator proudly added, sparking enthusiastic applause by the more than 500 guests at the premiere.

Asked whether he would really consider himself better than the double-Oscar winner, Naji replied: “At least the jury in Berlin, a mixture of film experts’ elite, found me better. And if I had been nominated in Hollywood?”

He smiled: “Then I would have robbed him the Oscar as well.”

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