Hazem Saghieh

Is It Time to Bid Farewell to Iranian Cinema?

On 6/18/2021, we all got a glimpse of four of Ebrahim Raisi's front teeth. The man who does not giggle giggled. He had been elected president of Iran. Artists and filmmakers held their breath: the hero of the 1988 executions has become president. Around five thousand men and women were executed that year, with their bodies disposed of in various unidentified locations. The little he has said about his views on jurisprudence exacerbated their fears.

Something else heightened filmmakers' panic: the portion of everyday life that could be considered neutral has disappeared. The economic crisis has left nothing that could be filmed tolerable to the state. Children and nature, for example, two of Iranian cinema's prevalent themes, have become difficult to address while papering over the ramifications that the crisis has had on them.

The fears were affirmed faster than expected: last May, a few days before the Cannes Film Festival kicked off, a considerable number of documentary filmmakers were detained. In July, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Al-Ahmad were arrested; when Jaafar Panahi tried to inquire about his two colleagues, he joined them. All three are among Iran's most prominent filmmakers, winning numerous international awards, but they were not always capable of receiving them because they had been put on a travel ban. Why were they arrested? Because they wrote an open letter decrying the corruption and incompetence of the authorities, which had been manifested in the collapse of a building in Abadan that left 49 people dead. The letter demanded that those responsible be held accountable and called on the security forces to "lay down the weapons" that they had directed at mass fury. Last August, an official "list" of filmmakers banned from working in cinema was issued for the first time in Iran.

Cinema is of particular significance. Only two of Iran's investments that concern the rest of the world have succeeded: onen is evil, Hezbollah, and the other is good, cinema.

This, in any case, did not come easy.

In fact, the 1979 revolution began with a cinematic event. Following in the footsteps of the Reichstag fire (2/1933) in Germany and the Cairo fire (1/1952) in Egypt, the Cinema Rex in Abadan (8/1978) was burnt down, killing at least 377 people and as many as 470. The common wisdom of revolutionaries is that stirring panic, anxiety, and confusion paves the way for the illegitimate seizure of power. The despised who were offered in sacrifice are: the parliament in Germany, which would swiftly be ruled by Hitler, the city in Egypt that would swiftly be governed by the ‘Free Officers,’ and cinema in Iran, which would soon fall under Khomeini's control.

Iran, before the revolution, did have a film industry. In 1930, this industry's first silent movie was made, but it was in the seventies that the industry crystallized and matured as the "New Wave," which replicated the original French (Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol...) version, emerged. Then, in 1973, an international film festival was inaugurated in Tehran. The censorship of the Shah’s regime was stringent, but measured up against that of the Islamic Republic, it seems like child play.

The revolution despised cinema because it was "immoral and Western." Nevertheless, it did foster the production of short propaganda films against the "Great Satan" as it faced off with the United States after taking Americans hostage, and then again during the war with Iraq, when a smaller, Iraqi "Satan" was added to this modest cinematic agenda.

Meanwhile, as Canadian journalist Shane Smith tells us in his documentary on Iranian cinema, something unexpected happened: while Khomeini was watching television one evening, a movie called ‘The Cow’ popped up on his screen. It was among the few films from the monarchic era that had been allowed to remain. A movie about the real problems that the poor struggle with, it features none of the themes that repulsed Khomeini. He commented saying that he was not against cinema but promiscuity. His uttering this statement was enough to allow cinema in Iran to take off.

Iranian cinema then was allowed to develop and progress, so long as it avoided several taboos: everything tied to the state and the security services, which is a lot of things. Everything linked to "morality," physical contact between opposite genders, and depictions of exposed bodies. Everything that does not seem aligned with the dominant interpretation of Sharia. Shooting inside homes and rooms, and in nature, is thus advisable...

In 1983, the authorities began backing the film industry financially. Iranian films were screened at international film festivals in the eighties and nineties, and Iranian luminaries started winning prizes. During Mohammad Khatami's term (1997-2005), the scope of freedoms was expanded. Early on in that term, Abbas Kiarostami's ‘Taste of Cherry’ won the Palme d'Or at Cannes. A year later, Samira Makhmalbaf's ‘The Apple’ became renowned across the globe... The world celebrated both Khatami and Iranian cinema, and the latter became bolder, with oppressed women, soldiers who had fought the war with Iraq, the poor, and Afghan refugees among its new themes. Women's participation in the film industry increased, with rising numbers of them becoming actors, writers, producers, and directors.

During Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's time in office (2005-2013), the scope of freedom shrunk again. However, pirating movies and the prevalence of satellite TV in Iran hindered the effort to cut Iranian audiences off from foreign films. Iranian refugees and immigrants, scattered between London and Los Angeles, ensured that their relatives remained aware of what had been happening around the world. In 2009, a Hollywood delegation was allowed to visit Tehran but an “apology for offending Iran” was demanded.

After Ahmadinejad's term drew to an end, American directors, actors and film judges were invited to Tehran. However, not much progress was made under Hassan Rouhani (2013-2021). True, he did reopen Iran's 'House of Cinema' after it had been shut down for twenty months while Ahmadinejad was in power, but the overarching pattern remained: one step forward and two steps back, then one step back and two steps forward, and so on…

Today, with Raisi, a regrettable conviction is becoming increasingly compelling; the flourishing of Iranian cinema has been a bizarre anomaly. Its death, under such a regime, is the predictable rule.