Truth be told, this year’s Houston Iranian Film Festival couldn’t have come at a more awkward time.
Just a couple of weeks ago, president Trump ordered the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the commander of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) Quds Force who ran the country’s military operations across the Middle East. That led to Iranian protests and retaliatory attacks on Iraqi bases where Americans are stationed. Now, Iran is in turmoil after its government admitted to accidentally shooting down a Ukrainian passenger plane bound for Kiev.
But the 27th annual festival will continue as planned, ready to give audiences the latest and greatest in Iranian cinema. “I think, as happens every year, we will have a combination of people from Houston’s Iranian or Persian community and general art-film lovers, coming out to see the films,” says Marian Luntz, film curator for the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. “This is always quite popular for us.”
The MFAH is one of several screening locations for the festival, which starts Friday. The museum will be playing most of the films, showing such recently-released selections as the opening-night film “Just 6.5,” an action thriller that’s also one of the of the highest-grossing films in Iranian history, and “Finding Farideh,” a documentary which was Iran’s entry for this year’s best international feature film Oscar.
The main centerpiece for this year’s fest is the Koker Trilogy, a trio of films named after the northern Iranian village where the films are set and made by the late, acclaimed filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami. The first film, “Where is the Friend’s Home?” will be shown at the MFAH on Saturday, while the 1992 follow-up “And Life Goes On” plays Sunday at Asia Texas Society Center and the 1994 finale, “Through the Olive Trees,” plays next Friday at the Menil Collection. Says Luntz, “I thought, to me, showing the Koker Trilogy, in these beautiful restorations, is impactful and gives people a sense of Kiarostami and his influences and how influential he became.”
While Kiarostami films have been previously screened at the festival (his final film “24 Frames” was shown in 2018), the fest got the Koker Trilogy thanks to a Kiarostami retrospective that has been touring around the country for the past year. Film critic and Iranian film scholar Godfrey Cheshire (who also served as a consultant on the retrospective) feels people could learn a lot from watching these. “At a time of rising tensions between the U.S. and Iran,” says Cheshire, “Houston cinephiles should look to the Kiarostami retrospective for proof of Iran’s great cultural richness and contributions to world cinema.”
The Koker Trilogy won’t be the only thing from the Kiarostami canon the fest will be playing. On the weekend of January 31, Rice Cinema will screen eight films — two documentary features and six shorts — from Kiarostami’s earlier years making films at the Institute for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) in Tehran.
27th Houston Iranian Film Festival
When: Friday-February 1
Where: The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, 1001 Bissonnet; Asia Society Texas Center, 1370 Southmore Blvd.; The Menil Collection, 1533 Sul Ross St.; Rice Media Center, 2030 University Blvd.
Details: $10 ($8 MFAH members, seniors, students with ID); 713-639-7515; mfah.org
Rice Cinema programmer Charles Dove says these films initially captured what Kiarostami would eventually expand on when he began his famed, breakthrough trilogy. “The first in the Koker Trilogy is about children in school and all those other things that he’d been making documentaries about for about five years prior, and those are the films that I’m showing,” says Dove. “There’s a certain coherence to it as a whole.”
Ultimately, as Luntz tells it, this festival is and will always be an occasion when Houstonians can see films from different generations of Iranians — from the masters like Kiarostami to the young men and women working in different genres — and take in more about Iran than what they usually get from the news or your grandparents’ Facebook posts.
“Of course, you get to see the country and the experiences of people living in Iran and the various circumstances that the films present them in,” says Luntz. “So, you get a sense of the country. You also get a sense of the interest of the filmmakers, in spotlighting issues that are important to them.”
Craig Lindsey is a Houston-based writer.