By Ahmad Rafat
Ali Ahmadzadeh — an Iranian filmmaker who was banned earlier this year from leaving his country — has won the top award at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland for his movie “Critical Zone” (2023), described as a “scream in the name of rebellion and freedom.”
The movie was denied an official license from the Iranian government because of its refusal to adhere to compulsory hijab laws, so it was filmed covertly in the streets of Tehran. Ahmadzadeh himself was arrested last year after being repeatedly summoned for questioning, and now cannot travel abroad. The authorities of the Islamic Republic had pressured him to withdraw his film from the Locarno Festival.
“Critical Zone,” an Iranian-German co-production, is the story of a lone man and his dog, and is set in the underground world of drug trafficking in Tehran.
Actor Lambert Wilson, who headed the Locarno jury, said the prize was awarded unanimously to “a film that has collectively electrified us, a film that is as immersive and defiant as it is compassionate and tender,” according to Screen Daily.
“This film is a 99-minute scream in the name of rebellion and freedom,” he was quoted by Screen Daily as saying. “With inventive and disciplined photography and sound design, the director draws authentic and audacious performances in spite of an oppressive and dangerous reality.”
The jury of the 76th Locarno Festival included award-winning Iranian actress Zar Amir Ebrahimi, who won the best actress award at the 2022 Cannes Film Festival for her role in “Holy Spider.” The festival ends Aug. 12 with a screening of the film “Sheyda,” starring Amir Ebrahimi and directed by the Iranian-Australian filmmaker Nora Niasari.
Ahmadzadeh’s first feature film, “Mehmuni-e-Kami” (2012), never obtained a screening permit in Iran. His second film, “Mother of the Atomic Heart” (2014), which featured prominent actors such as Taraneh Alidoosti, Pegah Ahangarani, and Mohammad Reza Golzar, managed to get a limited distribution license after major efforts. His third film, “Padideh” (2016), has not yet been approved for release.
In the short films section at this year’s Locarno Festival, two Iranian filmmakers had titles programmed: “As If My Mother Cried That Night,” directed by the Iranian-German director Hoda Taheri; and “Negahban” (“The Guard”) directed by Amir Hossein Shojaei. Taheri won the Golden Leopard award in this category with another short film titled “My Mother Prays Every Day” last year.
The festival’s closing film, “Sheyda,” received the special Audience Award at the last Sundance Film Festival. The film, based on the director’s personal memories, depicts the life of a young filmmaker who migrated to Australia with his mother at the age of five and spent time in a safe house established for women who were victims of domestic violence.
In “Sheyda,” the main character of the film lives in one of these safe houses with her six-year-old daughter, Mona. Sheyda’s husband, an Iranian religious student, continues to exert control over her and their child, applying Iran’s misogynistic laws, even though they are no longer living in the Islamic Republic. When the Australian court permits him to see his daughter once a week, he seizes the opportunity to manipulate Mona.
The festival also programmed a panel discussion was programmed on the women’s revolution, life, freedom, and the status of women in Iran. In addition to Nora Niasari and Amir Ebrahimi, Cate Blanchett, one of the producers of “Sheyda,” was due to attend. Over the past months, the Australian actress Blanchett has expressed her support for the popular uprising in Iran. However, due to the Hollywood strike, her presence in the panel discussion was not confirmed.