The 41st edition of the annual International Fajr Film Festival, the most important cinema event in Iran, is to be held from February 1 to 11.
The organization of the event has faced serious challenges in attracting distinguished films or prominent cinema figures amid a bloody state crackdown on more than four months of protests demanding more freedoms and women’s rights.
The name of the members of the festival’s selection committee was announced on January 18, something that traditionally happens in the last week of November. No women or distinguished figures are among these committee members.
And the names of the participants and the films in competition remained unknown 10 days prior the festival’s kick-off.
This unprecedented situation is being handled by Mojtaba Amini Armaki, who was appointed as secretary of the festival in 2021.
Armaki is a controversial figure who became known to the public for producing the TV series Gando, a 30-episode hymn to the Intelligence Organization of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC-IO).
From playing a “true believer” to producing spy TV series
Amini traveled an interesting road to arrive at a position where he could produce a series meant to undermine the administration of former President Hasan Rouhani (2013-2021) while attracting praises from supporters of Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei.
Amini’s first venture in cinema was a short appearance in the 2008 movie Heartbroken, in which he played a “true believer” in the clerical regime. In a few scenes, the actor admonishes the heroine for her wearing a “bad hijab.”
Amini then produced the 2011 movie Africa, a low-budget film by director Houman Seyyedi that tells the story of three young criminals who are ordered to keep a girl inside a house until her brother pays his debts.
Amini produced a few other movies, but the filmmakers he was working with were not favorites of the Islamic Republic’s cultural bigwigs, so he started engaging in activities which were more in line with his beliefs.
Amini was among the hundreds of pro-regime protesters who stormed the British Embassy in Tehran in 2012. Before they launched their assault, the attackers held a prayer led by Amini.
This move apparently allowed him to receive a huge budget for the next movie he produced. The 2018 film Fascination Steps, directed by Hamid Bahmani, had a budget of 1.2 billion tomans, a considerable sum at the time. However, the movie was a box office flop that was booed at the Fajr Festival. It tells the story of a woman who works for the US military and tries to submit some secret documents to her reporter friend.
Foreign Minister Zarif’ s Complaints
In 2016, Amini was elected to the board of directors of the Martyr Avini Arts and Media Organization, a powerful IRGC cartel that produced Gando two years later. The first episode of the TV series, aired in June 2019, claimed that foreign intelligence services had infiltrated the Iranian team that negotiated the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers. It frequently referred to then-Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, without naming him, as an infiltrator who provided intelligence to foreigners.
Members of President Hassan Rouhani’s administration protested, with Zarif writing a letter of complaint to the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei asking for the series to be canceled.
These protests were not enough to prevent a second season from being produced. After all, the first season was inspired by Khamenei’s repeated warnings about the “enemy infiltration” of the nuclear negotiating team.
Gando can be seen as a product of the complicated power structure of the Islamic Republic. IRGC was created shortly after the 1979 Islamic Revolution whereas Iran already had a powerful army. And, even though the Islamic Republic had an Intelligence Ministry, the IRGC’s Intelligence Organization was created in 2009 and it is now as powerful as the ministry, if not more. Gando was clearly aimed at undermining the Intelligence Ministry and Rouhani’s government.
“Lies, from beginning to the end”
The second season of Gando went on air in April 2021 during Nowruz festivities marking the start of the Persian New Year, so that this series financed by the IRGC would have the biggest possible audience.
Khamenei’s Nowruz speech once again criticized the 2015 nuclear agreement, giving a boost to Gando, at least among his supporters. The airing of the second season triggered renewed protests by Rouhani’s administration.
One of its main themes was the accusations against Abdolrasoul Dorri-Esfahani, a member of the nuclear negotiating team. In July 2016, media outlets affiliated with the regime reported that he had been arrested and charged with espionage.
Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said in October 2017 that the counter-intelligence department of the Intelligence Ministry has established that Dorri-Esfahani was not guilty of espionage. But the producers of the TV series could not care less about what Rouhani’s minister was saying.
In March 2021, Zarif asserted that Guando was spreading “lies, from beginning to the end.”
More Power for Amini after the Presidential Election
In response to widespread protests by members of Rouhani’s cabinet, state TV stopped broadcasting the series in April 2021, while 160 members of parliament issued a statement praising Gando.
The series was broadcast again after the presidential election in June of that year that brought Ebrahim Raisi to the presidency.
Amini was the head of cultural affairs of Raisi’s campaign and was later appointed secretary of Fajr film festival, becoming one of the most powerful figures in Iranian cinema.
Every year around this time, most media outlets in Iran publish reports and speculations about the upcoming edition of the festival, but not this year. Reporters and critics usually argue about films that have not been selected for the festival.
Not this year.
Amini has been uncapable of releasing a preliminary list of films that will be screened.
And according to one of the few reports published about the event, people are buying tickets without knowing what movies they will be watching.
With a secretary aligned with the Islamic Republic’s security and intelligence agencies, this year’s festival is very likely to be highly disappointing.