I can’t say much for George W. Bush’s timing. Just three days before I was to leave for Iran’s annual Fajr Film Festival, he all but declared war on my second favorite country. Nor were the terms he used any less idiotic than the declaration itself. Axis of evil? Give me a break. Did the president think he was writing videogame copy for testosterone-addled 13-year-olds? No doubt, though, it would be hard to set the nation’s sabers rattling by identifying Iran, along with Taiwan and Denmark, as, say, part of an “axis of cool cinema.”

But so it is. Since the late 1980s, Iran has produced what even a staid establishment publication like Time calls the world’s most vital national cinema. During a period when American movies have grown ever more brainless and puerile, addicted to mammoth budgets and saturation TV advertising, Iran’s micro-budgeted films have been hailed for retaining what much of the cinematic world seems to have lost: intelligence, poetry, and a profound sense of humanity and compassion.

Indeed, the image of Iran conveyed by films like The White Balloon, Through the Olive Trees and Children of Heaven is so at variance with the familiar U.S. news image (fist-shaking , flag-burning fanatics) as to reveal the essentially propagandistic nature of the latter. Still, no single image comes close to capturing the daunting, protean whole. Iran, as I was reminded again in February, is a country and a culture undergoing the sort of convulsive flux that gives both friends and enemies reasons for concern.

This was my third visit to Fajr–and my fifth stay in Iran–since 1997, and the setting was at once comfortingly familiar and oddly changed. The festival is a citywide event that draws huge crowds of Iranians to an array of mostly foreign films; the top attractions this year included Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic, Alejandro Amenábar’s The Others and Takeshi “Beat” Kitano’s Brother. Fajr, though, also plays host to a few dozen “foreign guests” (as we are invariably called), who include mainly European festival programmers along with a few journalists, all here to sample the latest crop of Iranian cinema.

Due perhaps to Bush’s remarks, it seemed to me that there was an undercurrent of uneasiness in the foreign contingent this year. Housed at a large midtown hotel, we spend most of our days going to screenings at the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art, which is a 10-minute walk away. Most of us usually take the pleasant route, through spacious, well-manicured Laleh Park. It’s the way I’ve gone in all past years. This time, a couple of days into the festival, the Fajr staff instructs us seriously to take the street and avoid the park, and to move in groups whenever possible. Since I’m accustomed to moving unescorted across Tehran and Iran, I ignore the advice, but it makes me wonder: Is there something wrong here?

One day, there clearly was. A film that had been a likely candidate for Fajr, Women’s Prison, was banned shortly before the festival. On the quiet, its makers arranged for a handful of foreign guests to see it in a private screening. A few minutes before we were to leave the hotel, though, the film’s director, Manijeh Hekmat, ran across the lobby weeping. We soon learned that she’d just received a call from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance warning that she would immediately be arrested and sent to women’s prison if she screened the film. No one was sure how the authorities learned of the showing, but some foreign guests automatically assume that most phones are tapped.

Such heavy-handed authoritarianism stands in sharp contrast to the quiet revolution that seems to be underway in Laleh Park and Tehran’s streets. An enormous amount about Iran has changed in the five years I’ve been coming here. Cell phones and the Internet, rarities in 1997, are now ubiquitous, and young Tehranis seem far more connected to outside fashions and attitudes than they are to their revolutionary forebears of 1979. Waiting in line for movies or lounging in the park, couples have their arms around each other, the women with their head scarves pushed back far enough to reveal chic, insouciant hairstyles.

Even a couple of years ago, the morality police would have put a halt to such scenes instantly. Today, though, these Islamic enforcers still shut down loud parties in well-to-do suburbs; their public, daylight presence has largely evaporated. The lovers of Laleh Park radiate a casual defiance that signifies in many areas of Iranian society. As a friend observes, “The women of Tehran could rip off their scarves and chadors and march down Azadi Avenue–what could the regime do?”

Yet such loosening, even playful attitudes ride atop a huge wave of frustration and anger. When the courtly, erudite reformist cleric Mohammad Khatami was elected president by an overwhelming majority in 1997, many Iranians gave him the benefit of the doubt, hoping he could recast and save Iran’s entire Islamic system. After five years of obstruction by the conservative clerical establishment, however, Iran is in a dire economic and social mess, systemic corruption threatens to strangle the country from the top, and most educated Iranians are beyond fed up–they’re furious.

Indeed, having experienced some of the lingering idealism associated with Iran’s Islamic revolution, I wouldn’t have believed the extent of the current anger if I hadn’t heard its expressions myself. But I heard them everywhere. I could hardly say a bad word about Bush. With a kind of desperate glee, people would shout, “We love Boosh! He is wonderful! His State of the Union was genius! Tell him to come bomb us now! Don’t wait! Please, don’t start with Iraq! Start here!”

On Farsi call-in shows (the calls come from Iran, the shows are beamed in from outside), caller after caller would say things like, “Let the American bombs start falling! I don’t care if they kill millions, if they kill me and my whole family, as long as they get those bastards”–one of the more printable epithets now being applied to the country’s beturbaned rulers.

Such remarks touch on something the U.S. media seldom tell us: Iranians love Americans. Even the rural hoi polloi who are bused into Tehran for the big “Death to America” rally on Feb. 11 (they are given free meals and raffle tickets to win new cars) will tell you they are only demonstrating against the U.S. government; American people they adore. Concomitantly, Europeans are more and more distrusted by educated Iranians, because their governments offer various forms of support for the Islamic Republic.

Even the most fervent bomb-us-now enthusiasts, though, realize that Bush’s rhetoric is almost surely just that. Sadly for them, Iran’s rulers are not likely to be suddenly dislodged by saviors from the skies. The current quagmire can only grow worse in the near term, and the actions of the country’s seething, disenfranchised under-30 generation will continue to bolster a statistic recently reported by the International Monetary Fund: With its future scientists, professors and engineers fleeing en masse to places like Southern California and Canada, Iran now has the worst case of “brain drain” in the world.

Most of the pro-U.S., anti-regime talk one hears comes either from the educated young or the business class, Iran’s equivalent of conservative Republicans. It’s only among the equivalent of liberal progressives, over-40 writers and intellectuals who supported the revolution in their youth, that one hears kind words for the benevolent, well-intentioned President Khatami, and hopes that reforming the current system, though glacially slow, might still work. Yet such people are now faced with the cruel irony that, in mid-February, one branch of the country’s extralegal security forces began questioning artists and journalists; the same thing happened three years ago just prior to what are called the “serial murders” of intellectuals by shadowy government operatives.

Those crimes were referenced in several films on display at the 2002 Fajr Film Festival, which showed Iran’s filmmakers pondering their society’s woes through variations on a dominant theme: hopelessness. Indeed, Bahman Farmanara’s A House Built on Water, which concerns a disaffected doctor facing such hot-button issues as AIDS and heroin addiction, takes its title from the saying “a life without hope is like a house built on water.” It won the Iranian competition’s Best Film prize.

The festival’s big audience favorite, meanwhile, was Ebrahim Hatamikia’s Low Altitude, a wild, extravagantly stylized comedy-drama about a man so desperate for work that he takes his extended family and hijacks a plane out of Iran. As the family leaves to board their ill-starred flight, the terminal’s TVs erupt with CNN images of the Sept. 11 disasters. And when the protagonist, having learned that Iran’s Arabic neighbors would extradite him, considers steering the plane to Israel instead, he’s told, “Lots of Iranians would like to be with you on this trip!”

Watching Low Altitude with the other foreign guests, I could only imagine the cheers and whoops that line would evoke from an Iranian audience. And I could only wonder how much longer the winter of Iran’s discontent can possibly last. EndBlock

The above column was written from Tehran. Godfrey Cheshire will introduce three Iranian films in Chapel Hill this week. On Monday, March 4, at 7 p.m. in UNC-Chapel Hill’s Student Union Auditorium, he will talk about current Iranian cinema and introduce Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror. In the same location on Tuesday, March 5, at 7 p.m., he will introduce Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh. And on Wednesday, March 6, at 7 p.m. in the Hanes Art Auditorium at UNC, he will introduce Abbas Kiarostami’s Close Up. For more information about these showings, consult the “Special Showings” listings.