Cultural Censorship: Cinema and Iran, A Separation
Film censorship has been prevalent in Iran since the early 20th century; but, despite the impediments, Iranian filmmakers found innovative and creative ways to continue getting their messages across. Now, however, restrictions are increasing and the industry is engaged in a race to the bottom.
- In early December 2012, I am a Mother - a film about the ‘immoral’ effects of forbidden relationships, alcohol and drug use - sparked protests by the conservative group Ansar-e Hezbollah, who called for it to be pulled from cinemas due to its depiction of ‘illicit sexual relations’. The film tells the story of a woman who is raped by a drunk family friend, becomes pregnant, and kills the man in retaliation; however, instead of allowing her daughter to go to prison for the crime, her mother takes the blame.
- The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, although castigating Ansar-e Hezbollah for trying to force their hand, ceded to their demands and censored the ‘questionable’ scenes. This is the first time the Ministry has succumbed to pressures from conservative protesters and censored a film already showing in theatres.
- In November, there had been a previous incident: the film A Respectable Family, which had shown at both the Cannes and Abu Dhabi Film Festivals, also came under attack from Ansar-e Hezbollah and an IRIB representative. This film, which depicts domestic violence within a family during the hardest years of the Iran-Iraq War, was described by the Iran-Iraq War Department in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance as “disgusting”.
- Pro-government filmmakers joined in this new wave of pressure on filmmakers who critically examine topics instead of taking a standard, state-approved line. Hardline director Farajollah Salahshour denounced A Respectable Family’s crew as traitors for this negative depiction of Iran; furthermore, he demanded that an example be made and called for the “execution of several artists who have offended the Islamic regime”.
- There have always been red lines in the Iranian cinema industry both before and after the revolution; however, it now seems that the space in which to make films is shrinking even further and this is having disastrous effects on the industry and the future of Iranian cinema. Although by no means all, many films are becoming popular today in Iran not because of their quality, but merely because they have been banned or heavily censored. A trend is emerging in which quality is being overshadowed in importance by the tabooness of the topic addressed.
Historical BackgroundFilm came to Iran at the turn of the 20th century, during the final stages of the Qajar Dynasty, and mostly in the form of newsreels of the Royals. The first Iranian feature film, Abi va Rabi, was produced in 1930. In 1938, Reza Shah Pahlavi, recognising the power and potential of this medium and being infuriated by films that depicted Iran ‘negatively’ (e.g. showed poverty, hardship, and the lives of ordinary Iranians), put a bill to parliament that outlined strict censorship of the film industry. The punitive measures in this bill, which was passed by the Iranian parliament, included: “Filming, painting and sketching any subject deemed contrary to the interests and dignity of the nation is strictly forbidden” (Sadr 2006: 22). As Hamid Reza Sadr explained,
“These regulations resulted in alienating people from the cinema and transformed the industry into the disseminator of either escapist fantasies or state propaganda.” (Sadr 2006: 22)
- After the abdication of Reza Shah in 1941, his son, Mohammed Reza Shah, took the throne. The new shah kept in place the strict censorship of the cinema instigated by his father until he was deposed in the 1979 Iranian Revolution.
With the establishment of the Islamic Republic, cinema again came into the government’s crosshairs. While Ayatollah Khomeini stated that he was not opposed to cinema but to “prostitution” (referring to how women appeared in films), even more fanatical forces equated cinema with the decadence of western culture. The aim at this time was clear, Islamicisation of the cinema, and that was enforced primarily through the representation of women on the screen and the censorship of any political and ‘moral’ themes not in line with the government’s ideology.
- “Between and 1979 and 1983, a plethora of films were made that never saw the light of day, due to tightened censorship rules and internal quarrels at a time when a purely political perspective overshadowed all considerations. These films were rejected for their ideological confusion, irreligious themes, communistic influence, darkening of reality and threatening revisionism.” (Sadr 2006: 185)
- Examples of films banned during this time include: Mr Hieroglyph (1980), which was censored for “clashing with Islamic principles” among other things; The Battle of Tara (1981), which was banned because its female actors did not wear the veil on screen; and Whirlpool (1982), which was banned for “promoting indecency”.*
- Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the same policies held true and were enforced with ebbs and flows. However, despite the effect that censorship inevitably had on the industry, this period also produced some of the most celebrated Iranian films, including Jafar Panahi’s** White Balloon (1995) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997). Filmmakers in Iran learned how to respond to censorship creatively and continue to make films with impact.
Fight BackThe Iranian film industry is currently facing a renewed and sustained attack. In addition to the controversies surrounding I am a Mother and A Respectable Family, Hozeh Honari, an organisation that owns and runs numerous cinemas in Iran, has implemented a new policy of only screening so-called "valuable" films. This policy has forced numerous cinemas (including Azadi Cinema, one of the most important in Tehran) to the brink of closure. Fortunately, these assaults have not gone unchallenged. Several exceptional, coordinated push-backs have occurred:
- • Members of the Iran Cinema Association called for counter protests to the anti-I am a Mother Ansar-e Hezbollah demonstration, which were staged;• The head of the Association of Iranian Directors accused the Ministry of foul play, stating that protests against I am a Mother were premeditated and with the Ministry's approval: "The Ministry is, itself, creating this crisis";• In response to Hozeh Honari’s policy, the Association of Iranian Directors released a statement criticising the recent attacks on cinemas, which stated: "All movies that are granted a license from the Screening Council should be allowed to screen in every cinema across the country. It is the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s responsibility to compel various authorities, such as Hozeh Honari, to obey this regulation, not the filmmakers’";• 6 directors protested Hozeh Honari's decision not to screen their films. They accused Hozeh Honari of having the "wrong approach and letting personal issues" dictate their policy.
- Aside from policy decisions, cinemas across the country are also at risk of closure due to increased fees, and bills relating to cinema owners’ financial problems have been stalled in parliament. Out of desperation, the Chairman of the Association of Cinema Owners threatened to close cinemas in response to mounting fees and government inaction. However, in a move that could portend the government’s true intention, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance responded: “We are not concerned about cinemas closing. We have other options, like TV.”
ConclusionDespite all the impediments, both contemporary and historically, Iranian filmmakers have responded with creativity and innovation in order to continue making affective films. However, the limitations placed on the film industry today are creating a different result. Although films are still being made that make waves in the international film arena - such as Asghar Farhadi’s Oscar winning A Separation - the effect of renewed censorship is having a drastically different impact on the majority of films produced; it is actually skewing the quality of Iranian films downwards.
In addition, in order to avoid being censored or banned, the new generation of Iranian directors are trying to circumvent these ‘red lines’ by telling their stories more abstractly and opting for less controversial topics. Minimalising dialogue and sending their messages covertly, wrapped in multiple layers, new films are becoming more similar to each other and employing the same themes. As the Fajr International Film Festival (January 31-February 10) screens the latest in Iranian cinema in Tehran this week, we shall see what the future will hold.
*Please see for more information: Sadr, Hamid Reza (2006), Iranian Cinema: A Political History, I.B. Tauris & Co.: New York.
**It should be noted that in December 2010, Jafar Panahi was given a 20-year ban on making or directing movies, writing screenplays, or leaving the country due to his support for the Green Movement.
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