Nearly 60 films are being screened from 57 countries including Iraq, Bahrain, Turkey, Egypt, Morocco, Malaysia, Latvia, Brazil, Germany, and Russia (Crimea), but the dominant country is Iran, where cinema is clearly flourishing. There are documentaries about a female Yemeni photographer – The Eyes, about the near-impossible task of filmmaking in Kurdish Iraq – Border, and toilet cleaners and rock musicians and refugees. And there is a wonderful range of feature films, from a road trip with old Lebanese men in Brazil, to a kidnapping thriller set in Belarus. The festival jury is made up of five men, but I counted fifteen other women directors. The selection team seems passionate about opening up debate about women in Islam and determined to include my film on a subject utterly taboo for Muslims.
As anyone who travels the world knows, social etiquette can be a minefield, especially mixing with people from countries which operate any degree of gender separation. One Iranian refused to shake my hand, explaining carefully that it was because he is a Muslim. I carefully explained that I was not offended, but that I have many male Muslim friends who do shake my hand. A Bahraini director was happy to shake my hand but stopped short at a peck on the cheek, while a Moroccan director was happy to do the two cheek-kiss ritual that’s virtually de rigeur at international film festivals.
The blockbuster film of the festival, playing to two packed cinemas simultaneously, is the Tatarstan-produced “The Kurban Novel”, a morality tale of star-crossed lovers, and the attempt to save a sick girl by sacrificing a sheep during the Muslim festival of Eid al-Adha. It was amazing to see the audience, many of the women in hijabs and the men in short boxy Fez-type hats, watching rapt as an erotic sex scene played out, admittedly with no nakedness but raunchy nevertheless. Afterwards, the production team was applauded and cheered, and thanked for making the film which showcased Kazan so beautifully. One elderly women in flowing red robe and a golden headscarf came right down to the front to shout her appreciation at the director.
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