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By Cary Darling Jan. 17, 2019 Updated: Jan. 17, 2019 6 a.m.
Scene from the Iranian film 'Feast of Sorrow'Photo: Museum of Fine Arts Houston

* * * Many Americans with only cursory knowledge of Iran may think they know what they’re going to see at the 26th edition of the Houston Iranian Film Festival, which begins Friday and runs through Jan. 27 at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
The prize-winning films of Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation,” “About Elly,” “The Salesman”), beautifully rendered but downcast portrayals of men and women often at odds with each other and the ruling religious bureaucracy, may have set the tone. But Pourya Azarbayjani’s “Feast of Sorrow” (playing Jan. 26), despite its title, is somewhat lighter in tone, execution and subject matter, following four intersecting stories linked loosely by the characters’ obsession with Instagram.
It presents a world whose inhabitants are just as tech savvy as their Western counterparts with only the head scarves to tell you it’s Tehran, not Toledo. Another unexpected element: the presence of a Chinese family.
But there’s also a sense of longing to travel — to Paris, to Italy — to somewhere, anywhere.
Houston Iranian Film Festival
Friday through Jan. 27

Director Pourya Azarbayjani who made "Feast of Sorrow"

* * * Museum of Fine Arts Houston
1001 Bissonnet St.
Houston
$10 general admission
The films: “3 Faces” (7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Jan. 27) — The latest from Jafar Panahi, who’s banned from traveling outside Iran, is about three actresses from three generations. It was a Palme D’or nominee at Cannes.
“Looking for Oum Kulthum” (6 p.m. Saturday and 7 p.m. Jan. 25) — An Iranian woman in exile is obsessed with the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kulthum.
“Pig” (8 p.m. Saturday) — This is a comedy about a director who gets upset when a serial killer is hunting down filmmakers seems to have no interest in him.
“A Man of Integrity” (5 p.m. Sunday) — Mohammad Rasoulof has made an intense drama about a man in a small town who just wants to be left alone by the system but finds that impossible.
“Sly” (9 p.m. Jan. 25) — Kamal Tabrizi’s comedy chronicles the life of a struggling politician who finds himself in the middle of a political whirlwind.

Scene from the Iranian film 'Feast of Sorrow'

* * * “Feast of Sorrow” (7 p.m. Jan. 26) — Pourya Azarbayjani’s semi-comedic drama looks at how social media is making an impact on contemporary Iranian society.
I conducted an interview with Azarbayjani via email about his film. He now lives in Boston, where he’s writing an English-language script for a film to be shot there.
Why did you want to make this film? What was the genesis for this story?
I feel that technology is rapidly replacing human relationships, which means that human beings become more alone. Perhaps this is the reason why I use fewer social networks myself and the reason why we (me and Mona Sartoveh) thought to write this story. The story about people who not only live with the social networks but they live for the social networks. The people they don’t feel alone but they are too alone. We just wanted to put a mirror in front of them. The mirror that doesn’t hide their problems.
Why make it four intersecting stories?
The Instagram logo is a quadrangle square, and if you take a look to the people that use Instagram in Iran, you can find out four main things as the main functions. The first one is personal branding. Many people are using Instagram just for personal branding. They are showing off a fake nice, cool or different character of themselves there.
The second one is marketing. This is a very good place to make money in very different ways, so many people use that for marketing and business. The third one is following. This is a very simple way to follow famous people. Many people follow others and change their life just based on what others do.
The fourth is living with a fake character. Many people in social networks have a different identity and this is not easy to find out which character is original and which one is not.
We made these four tales based on these four functions however it doesn’t mean we can see just one of those functions in each of the tales.
How is social media changing Iran?
In Iran, most people spend many hours on social networks. People who have not had the opportunity to express their opinion because of the censorship for many years now are a bit freer.
Think of a table full of food in front of hungry people. The advantage is that they will eat, but the problem is that they may be in pain for eating too much. Some may also eat the share of others because they think it will be finished and they have to earn more and some will blame others for their eating habits.
Due to media constraints, social networks have had a positive impact on informing people, but in many cases, people are in trouble due to misuse.
What I liked about the film is that it gives viewers outside Iran a different view of the country than most of the Iranian films that gets released here. The country feels more contemporary and urban than the American stereotype. Was that part of why you wanted to make it?
I just tried to show the current reality in Tehran. I feel that Tehran is more like a beautiful postcard, but if you want to know the reality, you should read the behind of the postcard!
The presence of the Chinese characters I found interesting. How big is the Chinese presence in Iran today and how are they perceived?
Many Chinese people have already come to Iran, who are likely working in development projects and industrial projects. We do not have Chinatown in Tehran, but a small Chinese community lives in Tehran.
In other Iranian films that get popular in the U.S., like the work of Asghar Farhadi, the heavy hand of government and religion is everywhere. That’s less present in “Feast of Sorrow,” despite the title. Those first scenes of the roommates almost seem like a sitcom. Do you feel you needed to portray a different, lighter side to Iran?
Think of a bitter complexity in a chocolate package. This is my picture from Tehran today, and I think this picture is in the film. A bright image, sometimes with a comedic atmosphere that ultimately has a bitter taste.
At the same time, there is a sense that the characters want to be somewhere else (Paris or Italy, for example). Is that the case for many, especially younger, Iranians?
Many young people in Iran want to leave the country looking for more freedom. At the same time, many graduates are trying to continue their studies in other countries. Many have not created their mental image of their future inside Iran but just some of them can emigrate legally, and many of them choose dangerous illegal ways for immigration.
There’s also the sense that things are sort of falling apart — the water being turned off, the elevator not working. Are those moments indicative of that?
Somehow, yes. The postcard is beautiful, but actually, this is just a piece of a poor cardboard. This is my definition of a society that deals only with appearances.
How long have you lived in the United States? Was it the desire to make films that brought you here?
This is just 11 months that I made a decision to stay here, and this will be the next step of my life. I want to start this new step by trying storytelling without the censorship. I believe life is short, so I want to spend this short time to make my own stories without any censorship.
How is it being a filmmaker in Iran?
This is so complicated. You have to censor yourself based on the government’s red lines, but at the same time, your work will be censored by the government or other religious powers. On the other hand, many unskilled people are working as producers who can change the fate of your work.
cary.darling@chron.com
Cary Darling joined the Houston Chronicle in 2017 where he writes about arts, entertainment and pop culture, with an emphasis on film and media. Originally from Los Angeles and a graduate of Loyola Marymount University, he has been a features reporter or editor at the Orange County Register, Miami Herald, and the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. In addition, he has freelanced for a number of publications including the Los Angeles Times and Dallas Morning News.

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