Razor’s Edge: The Legacy of Iranian Actresses in the competition at 27 Festival International du Film d’Histoire

Posted by By at 1 December, at 13 : 53 PM Print

Founders, Films, Food and a Fascination with History|

A. Founders

Pessac, with a population of almost sixty thousand, is a small, but beautiful city, a suburb of Bordeaux, France.

Having participated in over one hundred first and second tier film festivals, including some quite small ones, I consider the Festival International du Film D’ Histoire at Pessac to be one of the best of the latter group of festivals, featuring an annual theme that makes it that much more special.

The city milieu, the festival’s organization, with its efficient, passionate and hardworking staff, the variety of programs, the hospitality, the food, the distinguished guests, filmmakers, producers, film critics, historians, and above all, the vast participation of students and the populace were amazing.

The center of the festival is a three-floor cinema called the Jean Eustache (named for the individualistic French filmmaker who died tragically young and who was born in Pessac), featuring four screening salons of, respectively, 55, 135, 150 and 335 seats, a bookstore, a cafeteria on the third floor, a restaurant and another salon used for a program of debates.

The festival was founded in 1990 by historian and socialist Alain Rousset, who was then mayor of Pessac (a position he held until 1998), along with a few of his distinguished friends, including Mr. Pierre-Henri Deleau (General Delegate of the “Quinzaine des Réalisateurs” at Cannes Festival at that time), Jean-Noël Jeanneney (Historian and former Communication’s Secretary of State), the historian Anne-Marie Cocula, and the producer Jean Labib.

Mr. Rousset, the president of the festival, is also currently an active member of both the Socialist Party and Parliament. Traditionally, he opens the festival and always says a few words at various events. Another distinguished historian, Mr. Jean-Noel Jeannine, was the honorary President at this year’s festival and delivered several interesting short speeches at dinners and events.

The festival currently has a budget of roughly half a million Euros and attracted 30,000 paying attendees this year.

B. Films and Programs

The festival has an annual theme, this year’s being Culture and Liberty (past themes have included China in 2014 and the Middle East in 2015).

In total, the festival screened 157 films from all over the globe in both fiction and non-fiction categories spread out over six different programs.

The festival opened on November 14, 2016 and ended on November 21.

  1. Fiction competition; Mr. Francois Ayme, the distinguished French critic and the festival’s director, was in charge of selecting the fiction films, choosing eleven interesting films for the competition. Among them was Afterimage, the last film by acclaimed Polish director Andrzej Wajda before his death, Pablo Neruda by the Chilean director Pablo Larrain, Alone in Berlin by Swiss actor/filmmaker Vincent Perez, The Birth of a Nation by Nate Parker from the USA, and finally, Land of Mine by Danish director Martin Zandvliet, who won the sole jury prize. Land of Mine is the story of young German soldiers who, as prisoners of war, had to extract almost two thousand mines from Denmark’s seashores. It was a very moving, skillfully directed film.
  2. Documentary competition: Pierre-Henri Deleau, who was the director of the Director’s Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival for thirty years (1968-1998) has been General delegate and selector of this section for years. He selected fourteen feature documentaries for this year’s section: eleven from France, one from Romania, one from Angola, and my film, Razor’s Edge: The Legacy of Iranian Actresses from Iran and the USA. As with the Fiction section, the jury consisted of five professionals. They presented the sole prize to La Passeuse des Aubrais by French filmmaker Michaël Prazan. I had a chance to see most of the French documentaries. Although I enjoyed a few of them, I must confess, I did not sense any innovation or complexity, and felt there was a general lack of affection for the audiences. Most of them were composed primarily of archival films and stills, with a few historians or critics stuffed in between as talking heads, all of it slathered with narration that never stops to give a second of release in order for the viewer to be able to absorb the tons of information.

Fortunately, Razor’s Edge was widely praised by French, Swiss, and German critics, and was also given a significant mark of approval by the audiences, which included many students, who watched it at two screenings that were followed by Q&A sessions.

  1. Culture and Liberty: For this very rich and outstanding section, Mr. Deleau had selected 92 films, both fiction and documentary, short and long, from all over the world.

There was a wealth of biographies of artists (Camille Claudel, both versions (1988 and 2012), Caravaggio, Frida Kahlo, Goya, Klimt, Picasso, Pirosmani, etc.), writers (Camus, Sartre, Dalton Trumbo, Howard Fast, etc.), musicians (Mozart, Charlie Parker, etc.), along with one scientist (Galilee) and one poet/filmmaker (Pasolini). There were a few films by Sergei Paradjanov and François Truffaut (including Fahrenheit 451), one about writer/politician Vaclav Havel, and many more. Iran had its own share: two documentaries, Iran, Resistance of an Oppressed People by Jamshid Golmakani (2003)

and No Land’s Song, a very good film by Ayat Najafi (2015), and two fiction offerings, Persian Cats by Bahman Ghobadi and This is Not a Film by Jafar Panahi, the film notorious for having been made secretly inside Iran, smuggled out on a flash dive hidden inside a cake, and subsequently selected and honored at the Cannes Festival in 2011. Panahi, who is courageous, clever, independent and innovative, has always been critical of censors and the treatment of women by Iranian regimes, and the fact that he still finds different ways to make films, despite having been forbidden from leaving the country or engaging in cinema in any form at all, gives all of us who cherish freedom of expression hope for the future.

I wish I had had enough time to watch more of this section, but alas, I could only attend so many screenings. One surprising film was a screening of one of my favorite films, The Fountainhead, a masterpiece by King Vidor starring Gary Cooper and Patricia Neal.

  1. Panorama: Twelve documentaries on recent history were screened in this section, among them films on Boko Haram, the two film pioneers Charles Pathe and Leon Gaumont, Hitler in Berlin in 1936, and Nadia Comaneci, the famous Romanian ballerina.
  2. Special screening: This was a section for premiering a couple of films coming fresh out of the lab, Jack London: An American Adventurer and Bashar. The first one was a bad documentary-fiction film and the second one was about Bashar al-Assad’s war in Syria, presented without any discernible point of view.
  3. Debate: Culture and Liberty: This ongoing section began on the opening night with a lecture by Chahdorrt (Shahdokht) Djavann, the president of the jury for the fiction competition, as well as an Iranian essayist and writer, about how the theme of the festival related to Persian literature and poetry. The program subsequently continued with other historians, philosophers and intellectuals speaking on such subjects as Culture Under Occupation, Artists and the War in Spain, Stalin and Artists, etc. In total, more than forty debates were held, most of which were very informative and interesting.


The French are famous both for food and for talking. The festival’s organizers proved both of these premises without any doubt.

Almost 140 directors, producers, journalists, philosophers, historians, festival founders, distributers of art films, top rank management of Arte and more were in attendance. Most of the directors were there for two nights and others for up to six. Fortunately, I was among those who received an invitation in full. The hospitality was the best. We had lunch at the restaurants inside the cinema, and every night, they took about fifty to seventy guests on buses to different châteaux for full course meals of delicious French food accompanied by the best Bordeaux wines.

Fascination with History

The Pessac Film Festival was founded by historians around the very idea of history, and history suffused every aspect of the proceedings. This went to my very heart, since, truth be told, I have been in love with history and the researching thereof since my childhood. That interest was key to developing my own critical eye and has informed all of my books and film productions.

From the opening night, which featured two hours of lectures about Culture and Liberty, to the end, history was a constant subject. Even at every lunch and dinner, some sort of speech or introduction was part of the menu, although that talk was pleasant and enjoyable.

Hungarian Trio

While I had had good expectations, I must admit I did not expect to experience such a fabulous small festival with such an excellent selection and variety of films from all over the world, efficiently run by a very small and yet exceptionally devoted personnel. Having founded two Iranian Film festivals in New York and been vice president of two ABU film festivals in Iran, I understood the task very well and could not have admired the organizers more.

My best moment came when I met Istvan Szabo, the great 78-year-old Hungarian director, who was a member of the jury for the fiction competition. His films Mephisto, winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Films in 1981, and Hanussen (1988) were among my favorite films screened at the festival. This introduction was particularly meaningful because it meant I had now made the acquaintance of all three of the post-World War II Hungarian masters. I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing Miklos Jancso for my television program Tasvir va Sayeh-ha (Pictures & Shadows) during his retrospective at the Tehran International Film Festival of 1975, and I had hired Karoly Makk, the third Hungarian auteur, to direct maestro Anthony Quinn in The Last Station, a late- ‘90s project that went unfilled project owing to Quinn’s sudden death.

Bahman Maghsoudlou, New york



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