Flying into Tehran, I began to feel that certain tingle one gets when gearing up to taste a kind of “forbidden fruit.” Even though I had met literally dozens of Iranians over the past few years, and considered several of them good friends, this was the country that had dubbed the U.S. the “Great Satan.” Anyway, false alarm. After a quick, smooth passage through customs and passport control, I was met by the smiling faces of friends from the Farabi Cinema Foundation—the organization that represents Iranian cinema internationally—and whisked off to my hotel. I had expected Tehran to be something like Cairo: explosive, manic, intense. In fact it has little to do with any other cities I had previously visited in the region. Although the traffic could certainly rival Cairo's, it's a much more low-keyed, subdued place, a sprawling metropolis with no real city center that I could discern; no wonder so many Iranians have settled and thrived in Los Angeles. Several foreigners whom I met remarked that the city had rebounded remarkably since the dark days of the Iran-Iraq War.

I was in Tehran for the 17th International Fajr Film Festival, the major annual showcase for Iranian cinema and, for the last few years, a competitive international film festival as well.

About fifty or so invited foreign guests, roughly a third of them from Japan (where Iranian films have been very successful), were in attendance—mainly festival or cinematheque programmers but also an impressive number of distributors, including representatives of Miramax and New Yorker Films. The Iranian showcase consisted of about twenty films, all making their world premières; each day they were screened for us, two film in the morning and two in the afternoon, with simultaneous translation.

Everyone who came was hoping that this year's Fajr would include the première of the new Abbas Kiarostami film, The Secret Ceremony, but alas it wasn't ready in time, and recently its première has been announced for Venice. There were, however, a number of interesting works on display. The big winner, in terms of not only festival prizes but also popular response, was surely Majid Majidi's Color of God. The story of a blind boy and his frustrated, widowed father, the film has a haunting, lyric quality, as well as an amazing ending in river rapids that would do D.W. Griffith proud. Once again, Majidi (The Children of Heaven) manages to elicit a remarkable performance from a young nonprofessional. Some found the film overly manipulative, but even its harshest critics had to admit it was masterfully done.

My personal favorite was Sweet Agony, a new film by Ali Reza Davud Nezhad, whose The Need was seen widely years ago. Two teenagers, betrothed since childhood, discover that their parents have other plans for them. The problem is, the kids really do like each other and want to be together. Retelling an incident that happened in his own family, Davud Nezhad casts all the actual participants in their own roles; since actual husbands and wives are playing husbands and wives in the film, there's a wonderful ease of being together and even some physical contact. I was fortunate enough to see Sweet Agony at a public screening with some Iranian friends; even with intermittent translation, the warmth and the wit of the film came through, and it was quite clear that the Iranian audience—which interrupted the screening several times with applause—was having a great time.

Another highlight was Two Women by Tahmine Milani, perhaps the most outspoken member of a increasing number of female directors. Featuring a wonderful performance by Niki Karimi, the film recounts the divergent fates of two classmates at the college of architecture. The film was unsparing in its portrait of the brutality suffered by women who question traditional roles (several people knowledgeable about Iranian film noted that there was an overall increase in violence in this year's films). Hampered perhaps by a somewhat incredible ending, this is still Milani's most impressive film to date. Ebrahim Hatamikia's The Red Ribbon seemed to be a great favorite with many of the Iranian critics whom I met, yet fared less well with the foreign guests. It's a dense, highly metaphoric drama involving three characters and set in a tank graveyard in the no-man's-land between Iran and Iraq. Our response was no doubt hindered by problems of translation; it reminded me a bit of some of the later absurdist dramas by Fernando Arrabal and others. Still, Azita Hajian, who won the award for best actress, does give an extremely intense, amazingly physical performance.

One of the happiest events at this year's Fajr was the return to feature filmmaking of Parviz Kimiavi, one of the great directors of the pre-1979 Iranian cinema (The Mongols, OK Mister). His Iran Is My Homeland follows a young man who travels to Tehran to publish a history of Persian literature; along the way, five major poets—Sa'adi, Rumi, Hafiz. Omar Khayyam, and Ferdowsi—appear to him and offer their advice and wry observations. There's a wonderfully loose mixture of fantasy and contemporary Iranian reality, as well as some great visual gags. The running theme of the film is the relationship between the legacy of Persian/Iranian culture—which, as seen in the quoted passages of these poets, was rife with the celebration of wine, women, and the life of the senses—with Iran in 1999. Again, I happened to see this film in a public screening, and the long and sustained applause at the end by the very young audience made it clear that the message had hit home.

Finally, although the competition for children's films had taken place before I arrived, I did manage to see one of the winners: Son of Mary by Hamid Jebeli, a touching, gentle film set in the northwestern Azerbaijan region that depicts the relationship between a young Muslim boy and an older Armenian priest. When the priest has an accident, the boy travels to the nearest city to find his brother. Presenting, indeed celebrating, the multi-ethnic and even multi-religious character of Iran—something rarely known or appreciated in the West—the film points to a possible new direction for one of the most fertile national cinemas today.