Above: The writer (extreme right) seen here with (from left) Signis member Guido Convents; Dariush Mehrjui, director of The Orange Suit, which won the Interfaith Award; and an unidentified Iranian woman. Below: Typical Iranian bread fresh from the oven at the Tajrish bazaar, a place bustling with activity and colour.

Winifred Loh spent a week in Tehran as part of an interfaith film jury. She shares her experience.

“HUH? You’re going to Iran? Why? Are you sure it’s safe? What’s there to see or do there? What does your hubby think about that?”

Variations of these questions were asked by family and friends, accompanied by worried frowns, when I told them I was to be part of an interfaith jury at the 30th Fajir International Film Festival in Tehran.

My reply was that since this invitation was extended by Australian Fr Peter Malone, a well-known film reviewer and author instrumental in shaping my perspectives on faith and film, I couldn’t turn him down.

Besides I was curious about the contradictions between the romance of Persia in the past versus the nuclear ambitions of Iran in the present.

So with a sense of adventure, I packed two headscarves, two winter coats, an Iran travel guidebook, and the memoir, Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi in my luggage.

I had prepared myself to be culturally adaptable and to remember not to shake hands with Iranian men as there should not be any physical contact between men and women.

Not being used to wearing a headscarf in the Singapore climate, I constantly fiddled with mine in Tehran because I couldn’t keep it up!

THE Fajr International Film Festival was from Feb 1-7. It is an important showcase about life and culture in the country at its present stage of political, economic and social development, a country with its own unique traditions and history within the larger Asia Minor region.

Since 2002, Signis, the World Catholic Association for Communication, has been organising the Interfaith Award to show that everyone, Catholics and Muslims alike, is in pursuit of peace.

Signis was responsible for appointing two of three jury members. One was jury secretary, Mr Guido Convents from Belgium, who is secretary of Signis’ Cinema Desk and editor of Signis Media magazine.

The other was myself, a Signis Singapore member.

The jury president, Mr Jahangir Almasi from Iran, was selected by the festival organisers. He is an actor, writer, director and member of the Iranian Academy of Persian Language and Literature.

2012 is a significant milestone in the history of collaboration between Signis and Iran, marking the 10th anniversary of Signis’ Interfaith Award and 40 years of Catholics promoting Iranian cinema worldwide.

Over four days, our three-person jury watched 23 Iranian films, about a third of the total number of Iranian films produced in 2011! We covered the whole spectrum of life and culture in Iran – from a kids’ show to a concert movie to dramas about nomadic tribes to the stresses of modern-day living.

The jury was able to shortlist the top six films using criteria such as respect for human dignity, solidarity with minorities, care for creation, artistic quality and universal impact.

After a robust debate, The Orange Suit, which deals with environment problems was selected for the award. The movie shows how an Iranian father wants to preserve nature and its beauty not only for his family but also for future generations.

Three other films received Special Commendations. They were: Growing in the Wind, which traces the journey of a nomadic tribe in northwest Iran through innocent, youthful eyes; Days of Life, which deals with the misery of war; and Someone Wants to Talk with You, which deals with relationships and forgiveness.

DURING my stay in Tehran, at no time was I concerned about safety as we travelled between the Parsian Azadi Hotel, the Milad Tower conference centre for the screenings and the Vahdat Hall for the closing ceremony.

Despite all the sabre rattling between the US and Iran, I didn’t see a single soldier with a rifle anywhere.

On my last day in Tehran, I visited the Tajrish bazaar, a place bustling with activity and colour.

I had tasted a meat dish at the conference centre which had a unique sweet-sour flavour, and which turned out to be pomegranate.

I hunted it down at the bazaar, and a friendly customer at the dry goods store, who spoke excellent English, helped me with the ingredients of the recipe.

Travelling is the best education that money can buy, and I learnt more about Iran in one week than I could from studying its history or reading newspapers and books.

The writer is a parishioner of St Joseph Church (Bukit Timah). She was also a Signis Jury member at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2011.

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