In September 2011, Iran arrested six of its major filmmakers for supposedly collaborating with the BBC Persian service on a documentary about Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Though the BBC dismissed such accusations, it’s the latest attempt by Iran to attack the news channel and is symptomatic of a much greater rejection of western institutions in Iran.
As a result of pressure from pro-government supporters, Iran’s Council of Public Culture declared the House of Cinema (the country’s largest filmmakers’ guild) illegal at the end of December 2011. Naturally, cineastes from within the country and around the world raged against the decision; the Iranian government hid behind a smokescreen of bureaucratic bullshit and claimed that the House of Cinema had illicitly amended its charter and therefore warranted closure.
Then last week, the Iranian government announced its replacement: The Organisation of Iranian Cinema. Shrewdly, they publicised it in concurrence with the 40th Fajr International Film Festival (FIFF) which also celebrates the anniversary of Iran’s triumphant 1979 revolution. If Iran wanted to make a jingoistic exhibition out of this announcement, they’ve done it here. But behind the elaborate declaration lies a heated and stifling political system which is restricting positive liberty in Iran – its filmmakers are to only make films which portray the country in a winning fashion or face censorship, banning and imprisonment.
The music scene in Iran has already virtually moved underground. In Bahman Ghobadi’s film No One Knows About Persian Cats, he showcases the flourishing underground Rock scene which has been suppressed in Iran for its ‘offensive’ lyrics and opposition to Persian classical music as well Iranian government itself. Music arguably faces greater restriction than film in Iran, as historically it was equated to sin by the clergy and even images of musical instruments were banned as they were seen to be promoting evil (a law which remains today).
It’s worth pointing out however that freedom of speech does not exist in Iran. As the country is a political theocracy, blasphemy trumps sovereignty and films which speak out against regimes, religion, the government and law are often prohibited. Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten and both Jafar Panahi’s Offside and The Circle are banned in Iran as they explore the position of women in society. Kamal Tabrizi’s The Lizard was particularly covered up as it satirised most aspects of everyday Iranian life, from the clergy to women’s freedom. These are the films which must be seen if we are to understand how the infrastructure of Iran has suppressed and controlled its populace.
These facts won’t come as a surprise to many people; academics and journalists have been writing on censorship in Iran for decades, but with the advent of the Internet it has provided both new challenges and opportunities for government. Iran has the fourth largest community of bloggers in the world (some 60,000 blogs are now published) and currently has the second largest online population in the Middle East with 20 million people now connected (Israel has the largest). Yet in 2008, Iran blocked access to more than five million websites around the world. The country is also one of the world’s largest monitoring states; Nokia Siemens Network installed an interception centre which relays data back to the Iranian government for inspection and artists’ homes are regularly raided and their possessions confiscated as a result. This demonstrates the difficulty Iranian filmmakers face in leaking their films online as an intensifying state limits the capacity for file sharing, media outsourcing and DVD piracy.
Iran bans any film which criticises Islamic law outright
Articles appeared at the start of this year, notably in The Guardian, about Iran’s plan to make a ‘national Internet’ in the run-up to the parliamentary elections in March. This has been branded as a ‘halal Internet service’ which would create a system similar to the Intranet in North Korea that is sealed from the outside world and could block all incoming and outgoing traffic. It will simply provoke the online community further and, if anything, will unite filmmakers and bloggers who both use the Internet as a form of external communication and liberated activism. While it almost seems alarmist to call for online revolutions to oust government control of the virtual world, this proposal surely calls for drastic measures.
Iranian cinema managed to claw its way back into the headlines last year with Asghar Farhadi’s prominent, invigorating film A Separation. It deals with an Iranian middle-class couple who attempt to file for divorce and the preventative measures that come from the existing political yoke. Fortunately, it was allowed to feature at last year’s FIFF and afterwards went on to win the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival and Best Foreign Language Film at the Golden Globes. What’s refreshing is that this kind of film hints at Iran’s established and thriving cinematic history. The grounding of the story in human relationships nods towards the early romantic films of the 1930s while fusing it with the type of political commentaries seen in the Iranian New Wave movement of the 1960s.
But even though this type of film flourishes internationally and hints at Iran’s extensive cultural history, it’s still a dismal misrepresentation of film as it romanticises censorship. It causes its audiences to sit and think “even though censorship is rife in Iran, isn’t it amazing to see films like this make it through to the international community?” It’s tame in comparison to the items we don’t see. Secret gigs, illegally leaked films, censored blogs and banned articles are the items we must get access to, as to generate a comprehensive picture is to draw from the widest possible cultural and political sources. Iran bans any film which criticises Islamic law outright; not only has this resulted in the abolition of many western films but has created internalised struggle within the Iranian film community. How are we to appreciate this kind of oppression if we only see films which deal primarily with middle-class friction?
We know Iranian cinema is fruitful and significant; it reflects lifestyles which can change in an instant at the hands of unpredictable politics. America, the UK, the Netherlands and Australia all host Iranian film festivals – the Filmhouse in Edinburgh is currently hosting a Middle Eastern Film Festival with a focus on Kurdish cinema – so we know there is demand and respect for it. The Iranian film community must find ways to both pressure and avoid censorship if it is to truly prosper (admittedly easier said than done), and we must look at ways of assisting that if we are to engage with the issues at the heart of it all.