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Focus On Iran As Prague's One World Film Festival Kicks Off

The poster for "Women In Shroud," a documentary about the violent injustice in the Iranian legal system, particularly towards women.
The poster advertising the opening of Europe's largest human rights film festival shows a 20-something brunette in leather pants ready to lasso, cowgirl-style, the attention of potential attendees.

She's also wearing a green jacket. It's a good fit for the festival's opening film, "Green Days," by 21-year-old Iranian filmmaker Hana Makhmalbaf. Makhmalbaf's documentary also kicks off the focus on Iran-related film offerings in this year's One World Film Festival, which is sponsored by the Czech NGO People In Need.

People In Need human rights and democracy director Marek Svoboda says that because his group was involved in "a series of grassroots happenings" in Prague following the disputed election of Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad in June 2009, the festival's emphasis on Iran this year is "a very natural extension of something we were already involved in."

Protests erupted in Iran after Ahmadinejad's election, with thousands of people taking to the streets in the greatest social unrest in the country since its 1979 Islamic Revolution. With the support of organizations like People In Need, Iranian opposition groups throughout Europe have also held solidarity demonstrations.

"Green Days" director Hana Makhmalbaf, the daughter of famed Iranian director Mohsen Makhmalbaf, won the Venice Film Festival's bravery award in September for her documentary on the days leading up to the election.

The film follows Ava, a young Iranian theater director living in Tehran in the days surrounding the election. The documentary includes numerous cell-phone videos capturing the violence and mayhem of the time, including the now-infamous death of Neda Agha Soltan, a 26-year-old woman shot in the chest while watching the protests.

WATCH: The trailer for "Green Days":

Makhmalbaf believes her film depicts an experience shared by thousands of Iranians whose lives were changed by the election. "Many were imprisoned. Many were tortured. Some were raped even while being detained. Some were killed and many had no other choice but a self-imposed exile, and we [the Makhmalbaf family] are among those," she says.

"Until June 12, the world knew Iran by the name of Ahmadinejad and they thought his words reflected the will of the Iranian nation. But today I am happy that the world's perception of Iranians has changed."

Art As Politics

Many of the Iranian films showing at One World, including Makhmalbaf's, were made in Iran without official permission -- often at the directors' personal risk.

Hana Makhmalbaf in San Sebastian, Spain, in September after the screening of "Green Days"
Because producing a film inside the country is so challenging, some are quick to praise any film coming out of Iran. Others caution, however, that the situation in the country is so volatile it could be abused by filmmakers who see the highly charged issue as an opportunity for self-promotion.

Iranian filmmaker and theater director Ayat Najafi won the Berlinale's Teddy Award for his 2008 film "Football Under Cover," which followed a female German soccer team's match in Tehran.

Responding to Makhmalbaf's "Green Days," Najafi suggested the film was too heavy-handed in its use of explicit material like the Neda video, saying that sometimes it's better to take a more metaphorical approach to politically charged events and let the audience fill in "some lines themselves."

"I don't say, OK, now Neda Agha Soltan has died, so I bring a scene in my show, and she has died," he says. "That can be a good action in front of the United Nations, in front of the Iranian Embassy. And it's great, and people did it in Paris, in Vienna, in so many other cities. That's great, you know? But I don't call that artwork. The artwork should come, for me, should have something behind the scenes. It should have a deeper message."

Death By Stoning

Another Iranian film being screened at One World is "Women In Shroud" by Farid Haerinejad and Mohammad Reza Kazemi, which documents the death by stoning of women in the Islamic republic. Kazemi says it was so emotionally stressful to produce the film that "even now" he finds it difficult to watch the completed documentary.

While working on the film, Kazemi met children left orphaned after their mother, a single parent, was stoned to death in the remote eastern Iranian town of Mashhad. Two of the children were in primary school at the time of their mother's death, and the state did not provide for them after she was killed.

"They were telling about their nightmares, about their memories about their mother," Kazemi says. "About the horrible experience as they heard the news that yesterday the mother was living, talked to them in the prison, and the next day, where is she? She is buried. How? She was stoned. And they were asking, 'Where? We cannot believe it. Where is she?' It was horrible."

WATCH: Trailer for "Women In Shroud":

Now in its 12th year, the One World Film Festival is known for promoting films that champion freedom throughout the world.

At the festival opener in Prague, People In Need will present two Iranian students with the organization's Homo Homini human rights award. The students, Majid Tavakoli and Abdollah Momeni, were imprisoned for participating in election protests and will receive the award in absentia. Momeni was released a few days ago but Tavakoli is still in prison.

One Wide World

Although Iran plays a prominent role in the festival, the One World film offerings are quite diverse. Viewers can learn about Prague's first mass bike ride in the lighthearted "Auto*mate" or travel to a remote Kyrgyz village with director Tomas Kudrna in "All That Glitters" (see full program here).

The festival received over 1,500 entries this year, and the 101 selected films will be shown in Prague theaters before traveling to 29 other cities in the Czech Republic.

Organizers have also set up panel discussions with the some 100 directors and human rights advocates in attendance. A number of the films will also travel to Brussels next month for the fourth annual "One World Brussels."

And for the first time this year, viewers can vote for their favorite films out of a selection of festival offerings. In the new program "How do you get the world's attention?" One World will unlock the screening rights on films that receive the most votes. Individuals will then be invited to host their own public screenings around Prague.

Several documentaries are being streamed free online until March 28.

RFE/RL's Radio Farda broadcaster Hannah Kaviani contributed to this report