Tehran 's annual Fajr International Film Festival came to a close on February 11 with a national awards ceremony that saw the main gongs go to Mohammad Hossein's war drama The Third Day. Despite multiple nominations, critics' favourite The Night Bus, an original take on the war theme by first-time director Kioumars Pourahmad, was largely overlooked.

As expected, the best actress award went to Baran Kosari, for her tour-de-force as a bride-to-be struggling with heroin addiction in Mainline, directed by her mother Rakhshan Bani-Etemad with Mohsen Abdolvahab. The two writer-directors also received the best screenplay award, and best director in the international competition.

Stylised drama Barefoot In Heaven, about a young cleric working in a hospital, alluding to AIDS, took the Crystal Simorgh for best cinematography (for Hamid Khozoei Abyaneh), the best first film prize (for director Bahram Tavakkoli), and also won the Spiritual Cinema competition.

Germany 's Oscar entry The Lives Of Others had taken the main prizes in the international competition earlier in the week, awarded by a jury that included Fortissimo Films' Wouter Barendrecht and Oscar-nominated director Majid Majidi.

Overall, the festival's line-up of new, home-grown films was disappointing. Local distributors and critics were divided as to whether this was simply a dip in the Iranian industry or the result of policies brought in by the Ahmadinejad administration - which, according to directors and distributors, tends to favour conformists and conventional themes.

'We've had more screenings this year, with 16 films from new directors as well films by the first and second generations [of international directors] like Dariush Mehrjui and Rahkshan Bani-Etemad,' countered Farabi Cinema Foundation managing director and festival market chief Amir Esfandiari, speaking to ScreenDaily. 'Overall, if you look at the whole year, we're doing well. And the market is broader, we're promoting all Iranian films now.'

Certainly the tales of urban youth prevalent in recent years were out, in favour of TV-oriented domestic dramas and tales about the Iran-Iraq war and the problems faced by emigrants returning home. Even the highly anticipated Persian Carpet, a 15-part who's-who of Iranian cinema, sold as a single film by Farabi, failed to excite buyers - although contributions from Jafar Panahi and Majid Majidi were a sharp reminder of just how powerful Iranian cinema can be. Dariush Mehrjui's Ali Santoori, widely regarded as the highlight of the festival, was something of a hot potato for the festival management, its screening shifted several times.

Off-festival screenings included Mania Akbari's 10+4, a brave, intimate diary of the actress's battle with cancer, in the style of Kiarostami's Ten, in which she starred. Unfinished Stories, an ambitious but flawed three-part tale of women in Tehran, sold by Sheherazade Media International, shows that first-time independent director Pourya Azarbayjani is someone to watch.

Many buyers and festival programmers left the festival empty-handed, preferring to wait to see new films from directors currently editing or in production, including upcoming talents Mohsen Amiryoussefi, Mani Haghighi and Hana Makhmalbaf.

In this troubled political climate, the number of European and American guests was down on previous years, with Celluloid Dreams and Fortissimo the only leading sellers and buyers present. Many international guests, including Fortissimo chairman and international jury member Wouter Barendrecht, were forced to hot-foot it to Germany for the start of the Berlinale half-way through the festival.

But south-south relations were a constant theme. Zimbabwean producer and film festival director Tsitsi Dangarembga, sitting on the jury for spiritual films, called for more collaboration between Africa and the Middle East. The film festival market, now in its tenth year, featured an increased number of exhibitors and buyers from Turkey, Lebanon and the UAE, plus Japan, Malaysia and Indonesia. Producers from Sudan and Afghanistan also took stands.