The Salesman 2

"The Salesman," by acclaimed Iranian director and screenwriter Asghar Farhadi tells the story of a husband and wife in crisis. 

Habib Majidi cinematographer/Courtesy of Cohen Media Group

UW-Madison graduate student Hamidreza Nassiri has long been proud of the films coming out of his native Iran. From filmmaking giants like the late Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi to newer filmmakers like Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi (“A Separation,” “The Salesman”), Iran has a long and rich tradition in cinema.

Nassiri said that for years he toyed with the idea of starting an Iranian film festival in Madison. But that idea gained a sudden urgency in 2017.

“In the midst of all this talk of war and hostility, cinema is capable of portraying a true image of people far from what politicians would present,” he said.

In February, Iran was one of seven Muslim-majority countries that President Donald Trump imposed a travel ban upon. The courts blocked that ban and a subsequent one attempted by the Trump administration, and Farhadi declined to travel to the United States to accept an Oscar for “The Salesman” out of protest.

Saturday kicks off the Wisconsin Iranian Film Festival, a free festival of Iranian films over two weekends at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1308 W. Dayton St. The festival is presented in collaboration with the UW Persian Student Society and Middle Eastern studies program.

The GoFundMe page that Nassiri set up for the festival raised over $4,000, just short of the $4,600 he was asking for, and is still accepting donations.

Nassiri said he wanted the series to present a range of movies to appeal to every taste.

“Don’t see them as Iranian films,” he urged. “See them as films, and enjoy them!”

This weekend’s offerings include a screening of the Oscar-winning “The Salesman” (5:30 p.m. Saturday), which also played at the Wisconsin Film Festival. Also screening will be “I’m Not Angry” (3 p.m. Saturday) a drama about an expelled college student who rejects his society’s expectations for the sake of love.

“It shows a very modern picture of Tehran and how the young people are actually living there, with the same struggles as everybody else in the world, as well as their own unique struggles,” Nassiri said.

At 2:30 p.m. on Sunday, the festival will pay tribute to the late Kiarostami with a double feature of his last completed film, the short “Take Me Home,” and a new documentary about the filmmaker.

The following weekend brings the crime thriller “A Dragon Arrives” at 11 a.m. on April 22, and the fantastical film “Breathe” at 2 p.m. At 2:30 p.m. on April 23, the festival will conclude with 1972’s “Downpour,” made before the 1979 Cultural Revolution that ousted the Shah from power and put Iran under theocratic Islamist rule.

Nassiri said Iran’s strong filmmaking tradition is rooted in the country’s love of storytelling.

“We’ve had storytelling for thousands of years or so,” he said. “The other thing is that a great cinematic heritage started before the revolution, especially with Iranian New Wave filmmakers. Then it continued after the Revolution, and because it started to bring prestige to Iran, more and more people got to become filmmakers.”

While the films made in Iran are made under government censorship, Nassiri said filmmakers like Farhadi have learned to make their points subtly and indirectly in their films so as not to alarm censors. More provocative filmmakers, like Panahi, have been banned by the government from making films, but have still been able to make movies surreptitiously and smuggle them out of the country to the West.

Nassiri said he wants the Iranian Film Festival to become an annual event, and hopes to see a big turnout for this inaugural year.

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Rob Thomas is the features editor and social media editor for the Capital Times, as well as its film critic. He joined the Cap Times in 1999 and has written about movies, music, food and books.