Asghar Farhadi in Tehran (Newsha Tavakolian)
CENSORSHIP PRACTICES IN IRAN – FRIEND OR FOE?
by Mariam Habib, Kaveh Daneshmand
The 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran marked a significant year for Iranian cinema. Claiming that the film industry was rife with cultural corruption, proponents of the new regime burned down 185 cinemas across the country. Officials cancelled all screening permits and some filmmakers were even charged with corruption and connection to the former government. A few years later, the state began to employ cinema to propagate its values and belief system, creating tension with prominent critical arthouse filmmakers who espouse more liberal values.
Today, Iranian filmmakers must navigate strict guidelines in order to get approved for production and release. These guidelines are formed around the central aim of forbidding the portrayal of Islam and the Iranian state and society in critical ways. The main authority that deals with censorship is the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Astonishingly, despite, or perhaps because of the forces of censorship in Iran, cinema has become the country’s main channel through which social and political resistance finds a voice.
In practice, censorship in Iran is not based on laws that specifically outline what is and is not acceptable to show on screen. Instead, most decisions are ultimately based on individual preferences and judgements, guided by certain “unwritten laws” which have over time become tradition. Complexity arises from the fact that filmmakers must contend with very few official regulations and plenty of unofficial norms and individual judgements. This makes filmmaking in Iran a very complicated and sometimes risky endeavor.
The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi.
Because of the inconsistent and often arbitrary nature of censorship and approval, films that express political themes and messages in more subtle ways can be approved. “The Salesman”, by Asghar Farhadi, makes a bold yet delicate critique of Iranian society through comparison to a house crumbling due to poor construction. “The Salesman” was not only approved for production and release, it was chosen as Iran’s official entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film and went on to win.
On the other hand, Jafar Panahi’s “The Circle”, a film with explicit feminist overtones and unambiguous critique of the treatment of women in Iranian society was unsurprisingly banned from being released in Iran. The film was distributed to 37 countries and won the top prize at the Venice International Film Festival. Another prominent filmmaker, Mohsen Makhmalbaf received death threats in 1990 during the production of his film “The Nights of Zayandeh-rood,” which depicts a violent and tumultuous revolutionary Iran. Not only was the film banned from release, it was deemed so slandering and blasphemous that it was confiscated from Makhmalbaf.
The Circle by Jafar Panahi
Despite the complex interplay of law and tradition and unpredictable process of censorship, the Iranian film industry has thrived under the Islamic regime. The consequences of censorship have been as complex as the practice. Firstly, the ban on Western films in Iran has protected the domestic market from foreign competition. What’s more, while some argue that censorship has stifled growth in the film industry, others assert that the practice has forced filmmakers to use more creative and symbolic ways to express controversial messages.
The most prominent example of this is Asghar Farhadi, a two-time Oscar winning director whose films are both celebrated domestically and recognized internaIly. Farhadi has learned to “speak quietly in his films” and relies on his audience to “listen for his meanings” (New York Times). As such, some argue that imposing restrictions on filmmakers has enabled progress and honed a level of subtlety that is unique to Iranian filmmaking. In this way, censors have encouraged innovation in storytelling, which has given Iranian cinema a distinct identity and brought the industry success and recognition on a global level.
Asghar Farhadi at the 84th Annual Academy Awards (Jason Merritt- Getty Images).
As we have seen, the number of film festivals showcasing Iranian cinema has been on the rise in recent years. Many films that have been banned in the domestic market have found global audiences- sometimes due to the controversy of their initial ban. Some Iranian filmmakers, unwilling to make compromises in their screenplays and films, are encouraged to seek co-production opportunities in countries with fewer restrictions. This has helped to integrate Iranian cinema into the international market and gain recognition and prestige for Farsi-language films.
Considering these complex implications, FCC is focused on providing support to Iranian filmmakers navigating the intricacies of censorship. We do this by connecting filmmakers across political borders, providing alternate points of access and enabling authentic storytelling. Farsi filmmaking is a bold artistic endeavor, and as such will always intersect with social and political forces. Empowering filmmakers on a global level allows us to overcome such obstacles and strengthen the Farsi film industry worldwide.