Magic, and More

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In 2018 something unexpected began happening at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival (which I direct): a handful of freedom-loving filmmakers inside Iran discovered our festival and began sending us pleas for a fee waiver. Through the magic of the Internet they could share their films with us, but because of Iran’s oppressive currency regulations, they could not send us their submission fee.

Of course we said yes. Every single time.

Soon the handful turned into a deluge. In the past five years we have received nearly 200 submissions from courageous filmmakers who want the world to know their stories. Inspired by their richly textured stories, we began screening a few of them each year. One of them, Tangle, an exquisitely animated eight-minute short narrative about the unrelenting pull of home after war has made emigration unavoidable, was so emotionally evocative that it won our Grand Prize for short films in 2019.

The stories unfold slowly, with a subtle tension that rises to a moment of unexpected resolution.


These films are so powerful and their artistic quality so good that we decided it was time to create a festival devoted entirely to films from Iran. The Anthem Persian Film Festival premiered March 2–3, 2024. at Chapman University’s Folino Theater and the independent Frida Cinema in nearby Santa Ana to an enthusiastic audience, many of whom were seeing Iranian films for the first time. One filmgoer gushed, “I had no idea Iranian cinema was so good. I am in awe of these films!” We screened 13 powerful films at our inaugural festival, and left the audience begging for more.

What makes Iranian cinema so special? To me, it’s the element of magical realism I find in many Iranian films, along with vivid cinematography, strong storytelling, and mythical allusion. The stories unfold slowly, with a subtle tension that rises to a moment of unexpected resolution. I often use the word “exquisite” to describe them, because that’s what they are.

When I began programming the festival, many of my committee members cautioned against scheduling mostly shorts, but that’s where these filmmakers shine. They’ve mastered the art of the short story. The audience agreed, giving the short films in our festival an average rating of 4.7 out of a possible 5, and awarding the Audience Choice prize to Nicholas Mihm for Bubjan, a remarkable short documentary that combines interviews, found footage, mythology, history, and pen-and-ink animation as well as beautiful cinematography to create a genuine work of art.

The film provides insights into the ongoing political struggles inside Iran through the story of Parwiz Zafari, a former member of the Iranian parliament who dedicated his life to cultivating a progressive, modern, and free society in Iran — before the rise of the Islamic Republic eclipsed those aspirations in 1979, and forced him to leave behind everything he knew. Told from the perspectives of Parwiz and his eldest son, Abarmard Maziar, the film delves into the mythology behind the principles Parwiz learned as a boy, reading and reciting the Shahnameh, a work similar to Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. These principles guided him as a young, idealistic man in government, and continue to guide him as a displaced elder living among the Iranian diaspora.

The final seconds fill us with wonder. Such is the power of magical realism.


Bubjan was the perfect film to follow Coffee with Baba, a black-and-white film reminiscent of Dinner with Andre and directed by Chapman University film student Omid Iranikhah, who also wrote and starred in the film. The conversation between a young second-generation Persian (Iranikhah) and his immigrant father (Shary Nassimi) is witty, insightful, and poignant, as the two spar about politics, culture, and irresolvable differences in expectations. It was the judges’ choice for Best Short Narrative. The young Persian American son is unwavering and impatient in his belief that his father is foolishly out of touch, and the audience agrees, even as we feel a tenderness toward the father. By following it with Bubjan, we surprised the audience with the other side of the story — the highly principled Iranian leader who believes deeply in freedom and human rights and had to leave his homeland in order to avoid arrest, protect his family, and rear his children in the land of the free.

Another crowd favorite was Rayan Farzad’s Hidden, whose masterful cinematographer was the late Halyna Hutchins, killed last year on the set of Rust when the armorer handed Alec Baldwin a loaded gun. Farzad’s sense of heartbreak at losing this skilled cinematographer and friend was palpable as he told the audience, “Halyna and I met in film school at AFI. Hidden was one of her first films, and you can see how talented she was, even as a student. She would have become legendary in this industry if she had lived. What a terrible loss!” Hutchins was set to film Farzad’s next movie when she was killed. Not surprisingly, Hidden won the award for Best Cinematography.

We felt especially proud of snagging as our opening night feature film Maryam Kershavarz’s The Persian Version, which won three awards at Sundance in 2023: the Grand Jury Prize for Drama, the Waldo Scott Screenwriting award, and the Audience Choice award. Keshavarz, who was born in Brooklyn to immigrant parents as one of nine children, tells her family’s story with skill, humor, and insight. The second half of the film is especially rich in cultural and historical background as she reveals her mother’s struggles as a young (oh-so-young) wife and mother in Iran and her indomitable will to succeed as a businesswoman and mother in Brooklyn. Layla Mohammadi, who plays Keshavarz introduced The Persian Version at the festival and provided background on the project.

The film’s allusions create a claustrophobic tension and a desire to escape — a desire embedded in many of our films set in Iran.


Curation is an important element of a successful festival, and we scheduled our Sunday films so that they flowed thoughtfully from one idea to the next throughout the day. We began with an insightful panel on “Magical Realism and the Power of Iranian Filmmaking,” with Chapman professor Michael Moses leading the discussion with filmmakers Mahyar Mondegar, Farbod Ardebili, and Trevor Klein. Mondegar’s White Winged Horse is exquisite — yes, there’s that word again — a beautiful example of myth and magical realism. A man returns to his war-torn village after many years to search for his childhood sweetheart — who once told him that she would go with him if he returned as a white-winged horse. We suspend our disbelief when he returns walking upright in a conservative business suit with a white horse’s head and fluttery white wings to search for his lost love, and the final seconds fill us with wonder. Such is the power of magical realism. We followed that with an elegant horror story, Tooth of a Tree, which the audience began calling “that pomegranate movie” as they discussed it during intermission. The story, about a couple on their way to a vacation resort who become waylaid when they accidentally knock over a cart full of pomegranates, feels like a technicolor episode of The Twilight Zone. Its visual allusions to Hades, Eden, and Persephone create a claustrophobic tension and a desire to escape — a desire embedded in many of our films set in Iran.

Those who attended the Anthem Persian Film Festival agree — after viewing these films in a single weekend they experienced a profound and transformative appreciation for the rich culture of Iran and its filmmaking excellence. We were thrilled by the reaction and plan to reprise the festival next year.

So — where can you see these films? Our tagline for the festival is “Films You Won’t See Anywhere Else. Voices you Won’t Hear Anywhere Else” — because, with the exception of The Persian Version (2023, Sony Classics, 147 minutes, available on Amazon Prime) they aren’t currently available on any streaming services. But ASGStream, one of the sponsors of the festival, has expressed interest in creating a channel on their streaming platform to highlight these films, and we are working to secure permissions from the directors. Watch for updates at You will also be able to see a handful of these winning films at the Anthem Libertarian Film Festival, part of FreedomFest, “the world’s largest gathering of free minds,” July 10–13 at Caesars Forum, Las Vegas.

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