111 Girls wins Best Film Award at Pan Asia Film Festival

A proud moment for Nahid Ghobadi.

The directorial debut by Iranian film director Nahid Ghobadi (sister of the renowned film-maker Bahman Ghobadi) has been dubbed by jurors Nikki Bedi, Hardeep Singh Kohli - Executive Director of the Iran Heritage Foundation - Haleh Anvari and BBC Diplomatic Correspondent Bridget Kendall, as the Best Film of the Pan Asia Film Festival 2013.

In separate interviews conducted in the first week of PAFF 2013, I asked festival director Sumantro Ghose and Artistic Director Alison Poltock if they felt strongly about a particular film in the line-up. They both said that 111 Girls was their film of choice. Ghose made his preference for the genre of Iranian film very clear and added

If you watch one frame, you instantly recognise it as Iranian. There’s an astonishing beauty which combines melancholy and existentialism… there’s even touches of humour in there as well. Considering what is happening in Iran right now, it’s a real shame to see how Iran is becoming increasingly cut off from global contexts when you have these fantastic film-makers who want their films seen, to engage in a global dialogue.

Despite challenges faced by the organisers of running a film festival on a tight budget, Ghose has emphasised how much the festival has grown each year. They are expanding the screening locations to other cities such as Leeds and Glasgow, have received much more attention from distributors in the British film industry this year. Both Poltock and Ghose stressed their inclination toward independent films over large studios in gaining a more accurate representation of emerging and established talent across the Asian film industry. Ghose added that they travel to international film festivals such as Cannes and Busan (in Korea) to select films for the festival as themes of migration and cultural identity are of increasing relevance as a context of production, the films placed emphasis on multiple cultural identities as a modern social condition on account of the amplifyinhg dialogue of contemporary society with past tradition.

Ghose added, candidly: “You can view the film as a stunningly beautiful cinematic piece one level, but there’s so much in that film that lends itself to deeper interpretations.” He added that the shared experience of cinema, bringing together an audience that spans a wide cultural diaspora “is a real thrill.” I couldn’t agree more.

On a parting note, I think 111 Girls was definitely deserving of the title. It functioned as an insightful, contemporary take on Iranian geopolitics - especially due to its setting in Iranian Kurdistan which has been imbricated in the recent events that have taken place in Syria, and it is a remarkable cornerstone for the growing Ghobadi legacy.

Inside the theatre. Image Courtesy: Film Culture 360
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Putin's vote-winning trick? He makes power personal

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular. Yet President Putin is immune to voter's discontent.

A week before Russia’s parliamentary elections, the central square in Ekaterinburg – the fourth-largest city in Russia, a thousand miles east of Moscow – was packed with people, huddling close on a wet September night. They faced a stage decorated with a poster imploring the crowd to vote for “ours”, meaning United Russia, Vladimir Putin’s political party.

Yet it wasn’t politics for which thousands of people had braved the rain – it was music. During the perestroika and glasnost years of post-Soviet openness, Ekaterinburg was the cradle of the Russian rock scene. The home-grown bands Nautilus Pompilius, Chaif and Agata Kristi sang about freedom and change. Thus, this free concert to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the legendary Sverdlovsk Rock Club was bound to draw a crowd, and United Russia latched on to that.

A message from Dmitry Medvedev, the United Russia leader, praising local rock bands for their bravery “in those days when freedom was in deficit”, was read to the assembled fans. If freedom was a powerful word thirty years ago it has little impact on Russians today. Turnout in the election on 18 September was less than 50 per cent (and only 41.5 per cent in the Ekaterinburg region), a sign of the general political apathy. Before they went to the polls, it was hard to find anyone who was enthusiastic about voting.

“Why should I bother with voting? The result is clear: United Russia will, as always, win,” says Vyacheslav Bakhtin, who owns a small construction company in Ekaterinburg. He added: “Elections are the last thing on my mind. My business has been suffering for the last two years. We couldn’t even afford to go on a family vacation this summer.”

The Russian economy is struggling because of low oil prices, trade embargoes and geopolitical concerns. There have been public spending cuts, and the free float of the rouble led to currency devaluation and high inflation (7 per cent in August). Unemployment is rising and the base interest rate is 10.5 per cent.

There are many reasons for Russians to want a change in government, yet it appears that people do not see the link between their daily struggles and Putin’s policies.

Anna Mikhailova has recently returned from a tour of the Golden Ring of Russia (a circuit of medieval cities to the north-east of Moscow), where there is a stark contrast between the restored onion-domed churches and the crumbling villages.

“People live in poverty in crammed kummunalki [Soviet-style communal flats with several families sharing one kitchen and bathroom],” she tells me. “But they still talk about Putin the Saviour, standing up for Mother Russia.”

Apart from United Russia, 13 parties were judged eligible to stand, but the range of choice was an illusion. Olga, who requested anonymity for her own safety, explained. “We have one party – United Russia – a few pseudo-opposition parties, the Communists, the LDPR and Fair Russia who support Putin’s cause, and a bunch of nobodies that people don’t care about.”

Indeed, Gennady Zyuganov, who has led the Communist Party since 1993, campaigned under the slogan “Ten Stalinist punches against capitalism”. But although he criticised Medvedev, he didn’t touch Putin. The populist leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia (LDPR), Vladimir Zhirinovsky, another political dinosaur, actively endorses Putin’s foreign policy.

If there is discontent among voters, Putin is immune to it. On the eve of the elections, United Russia’s popularity slid to just 30 per cent of total respondents in one poll, though it scored 50 per cent among those who said they were definitely going to vote. Medvedev’s own approval rating fell to 48 per cent. His message to the elderly that state pensions wouldn’t increase, and his advice to teachers to get jobs in the private sector if they weren’t happy with their state salaries, might have had something to do with it. Yet Putin’s popularity remained consistently high, at 82 per cent, according to independent pollsters the Levada Centre.

Alexey Volkov, a 40-year-old business manager, says he voted for the Communists. “I voted against United Russia, the apparatchiks stifling the president,” he explains. “Putin, on the other hand, is the best ruler since Alexander III [Russia’s emperor at the end of the 19th century].”

Representatives in the Russian parliament, the Duma, have long been unpopular and considered ineffective by the Russian people. Over the past 16 years, presidential power has expanded hugely. Since Russia adopted its new constitution in 1993, successive presidents have introduced legislation to stretch the office’s authority. In his first term as president, Putin acquired 219 new rights and duties, and as his successor Medvedev enjoyed an additional 114 responsibilities. These range from educational appointments to federal government decisions.

As predicted, United Russia topped the ballot with 54 per cent of the vote. Putin’s party claimed 343 of the 450 seats (up from 238 in 2011). The same four parties will form the Duma. The Yabloko and PARNAS parties, seen by voters as a token gesture of protest against the Kremlin, gained negligible support, with 2 per cent and 0.7 per cent, respectively.

It is ultimately Putin’s victory. In the eyes of the majority, he has restored Russia’s strength abroad, revived the defence industry and army, and reinvigorated the country with patriotism. The latter was accomplished via manipulation of the media, which has reinstated the West as the enemy and focused attention on foreign affairs at the expense of the social and economic agenda at home.

Still, with the low turnout, only 26 per cent of eligible Russians voted for Putin’s party. Though that was enough to tighten the president’s grip on the Duma, nationwide the elections paint a picture of a dejected Russia just beginning to feel discontent with the status quo. It is not yet enough to unseat Putin, but as the old Russian saying goes: a drop of water can cut through stone.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times