Once Upon A Time, Cinema

Once Upon A Time, Cinema

Iran Inside and Out: Final Weekend

The Freer|Sackler’s annual Iranian Film Festival has made a triumphant return to the Meyer Auditorium after two years at the National Gallery of Art. The festival is our most popular annual film event. Crowds this year have been even bigger than before our renovations, overflowing the auditorium for such films as the Busan International Film Festival Award winner Blockage and Iran’s Oscar entry, Breath.

The final weekend conveniently coincides with the opening of a new exhibition, The Prince and the Shah: Royal Portraits from Qajar Iran. To mark the occasion, we are closing the festival on February 23 with the second in our new series of after-hours events, Freer Film Friday. It’s cosponsored by the Silk Road Society, our membership group for young professionals.

Beginning at 5:30 pm on Friday, you can groove to Persian-flavored music by Radio Javan and enjoy Iranian cuisine from Amoo’s Restaurant and drinks from Tortoise & Hare. You can also snap a selfie before a Qajar-themed backdrop and take tours of The Prince and the Shah with curator Simon Rettig.

Round out your journey to Iran’s Qajar dynasty (1779–1925) through two films by iconic Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf. His short film Images from the Qajar Dynasty looks at changes in visual culture during that time, progressing from paintings to photographs to the first film footage of Iran, which was shot by the court filmmaker.

Images from the Qajar Dynasty
Images from the Qajar Dynasty

Makhmalbaf is a leading member of the generation of Iranian filmmakers who put their national cinema on the map in the 1990s through daring, original experiments with film form. His 1992 feature Once Upon a Time, Cinema, finds him at his most surreal. A fictionalized version of the introduction of cinema to Iran, it features a Chaplin-esque hero known only as the Cinematographer. He fails to impress Nasir al-Din Shah until the heroine of a film (Iran’s actual first talkie, The Lor Girl) emerges from the screen. The shah falls madly in love with her, to the chagrin of his dozens of wives.

From there, Once Upon a Time, Cinema morphs into a madcap romp through the history of Iranian cinema. Footage from famous movies mingles with the story of the shah’s romantic pursuit, and characters seem to leap from one movie to another. It’s a one-of-a kind experience that, due to the vicissitudes of time, has become nearly impossible to see, except this Friday night at the Freer. You won’t want to miss it.

Tom Vick

Tom Vick is curator of film at the Freer and Sackler and the author of "Time and Place are Nonsense: The Films of Seijun Suzuki and Asian Cinema: A Field Guide."

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