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When the curtain went up this week at Iran's most prestigious international film festival, cinemagoers heard and saw something they had probably never experienced before: Israelis.
Arab and Jewish Israeli actors are among the stars of a film called Private which competed against 21 other films at the 28th annual Fajr International Film Festival in Teheran. The festival was organized by the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and held on the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
Private was directed by Italian Saverio Costanzo and produced by an Italian crew. Criticized as being anti-Israeli when screened at a film festival in Haifa, it has not been distributed here.
On the Iranian festival's Web site it was described as an Italian film. Neither the director nor the Israeli actors had any idea that they had been seen on an Iranian screen.
"Really, in Iran?" asked Lior Miller, a leading actor in the movie, chuckling over the phone when The Jerusalem Post told him he's made it to the big screen in Teheran. "All I know about Iran is that they aren't nice, and that's an understatement... Too bad they didn't invite us to come."
The film is about a Palestinian family which refuses to leave when Israeli soldiers take over their house. The soldiers agree to let the family stay on the bottom floor and visit the second floor, but they cannot enter the top floor which is reserved for the soldiers. Miller plays the young officer in charge of the unit.
The film is based on the true story of Khalil Bashir and his family, who live in the southern Gaza Strip. Soldiers commandeered their home as an outpost from 2000 until last year's disengagement.
Muhammad Bakri, who plays the father of the family, was equally astounded to hear he was on a screen in Iran. "Iran? Really Iran? Iran of Khomeini? What do you say?" he marveled. "I didn't know that. Wow!"
Bakri said that Private "can give greater depth and explain things" about "the occupation and what it's like to be under occupation. He added that it also shows the humanity of the soldiers as well as the difficult situation they are in.
"The film explains that the soldiers are victims of a situation they didn't choose," said Bakri, who has won three best actor awards for his role. "The family and the soldiers are in the same pressure cooker, and both are more or less victims of a political situation."
The film, shot in Italy in 2003, has been screened in numerous other film festivals and garnered many awards. Considered controversial in Israel, it has not been bought by any distribution company.
"There were screenings in the Haifa Film Festival which caused some people to get angry," said Miller. "They said that it helps the Palestinians. But if you look at it objectively, you can say this is what happens. It tells that you can't win with violence."
After a moment's pause, he added: "I'd be happy if the president of Iran would see it. Then maybe we can talk over coffee afterwards."
Fajr is considered the most important film event in a country famed for its filmmakers. The festival's objective, the Web site says, is to "discover and screen films that deal with man's unique capacities and capabilities and his position in the universe."