June 14, 2009

A Dangerous Shift in Iranian Cinema

by Vadim Rizov

A few weeks ago, some utterly clueless study was conducted showing that the Romanian films so popular on the festival right now were, shockingly, not box office successes in Romania. Why anyone was taken aback by this is hard to guess. Most country's festival films have always been persona non grata—commercially and sometimes politically—in the places they emerged. (Recall, for example, Tony Rayns launching his war against Kim Ki-Duk by pointing out that his financing was almost entirely foreign, as if that were an automatic demerit.)


From Samira Makhmalbaf's Blackboards

In the late '90s, Iranian cinema was the wave of the art-house future: Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and (grudgingly conceded) Majid Majidi were all enjoying fair success. Their films, too, weren't necessarily commercial hits in Iran (Panahi is used to having his work banned), but then something else happened: the amount of foreign cinematic attention paid to Iran these past few years—with the exception of Panahi's Offside—has been almost null. Kiarostami is off doing art installation-type dares to the audience, Makhmalbaf hasn't seen American distribution since 2001, Majidi continues to tickle the middlebrows with allegorical children and Panahi has to fight to make a film every three years. There is, of course, nothing inherently sinister about a country's cinematic profile temporarily ebbing a bit; certainly, given how the cinematic country du jour seems to change every few years (Iran, Korea, Thailand, Romania), it might just seem like some kind of anomaly. Given current events, that's really not the biggest of concerns right now. But what, precisely, has been going on?

There is, as it turns out, a good reason why much Iranian product has been virtually unexportable these last few years: it's been pretty much comically vile. More importantly, it adds up to a monolithic system of reinforcement for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad; at some point, Iran has developed one of the most efficient cinematic/TV propaganda apparatuses on the planet, on a scale that's frankly kind of mind-boggling. Right now, the man who's shattered every box-office record in Iran is Masoud Dehnamaki.


Profiled in Newsweek nearly two months ago, Dehnamaki's big hit is Ekhrajiha 2 (yes, it's a sequel), an Iran-Iraq war movie based on his time in the service. Dehnamaki also spent time in the '90s in a paramilitary group that raided theaters and harassed women over immoral clothing. Babak Dehghanpisheh, who wrote the profile, claims the Iranian government "has funded an entire genre of movies, called Defae Moqadas or Holy Defense, which show Iranian soldiers as flawless holy warriors." There is exactly zero information about this on Google—the article is literally the only English-language return hit—but it's not hard to imagine how much of this product is floating around Iran. And the thing is, Dehnamaki's films—designed for maximal unity in nationalism—are linked to Ahmadinejad's canny sense of rural populism; even the least reverent portrayal of Iran on-screen is tied to Ahmadinejad.

Americans were appalled when Ahmadinejad landed at Columbia University to deliver his charming beliefs doubting the veracity of the Holocaust's existence. But it's not as if he was coming from nowhere: consider the learned professor at a "film seminar" explaining how "Tom & Jerry" is pro-Jewish propaganda, aimed at improving the image of Jews after the Holocaust. (Everything is a Zionist conspiracy on Iranian TV, apparently: there are similar lectures on Chicken Run, Pirates Of The Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest, and lord knows what else.) For less intellectual adults, there's Black House, a sci-fi TV show (now sadly pulled from YouTube) in which the evil villains are Jews—in space! (It's like a parallel universe Mel Brooks.) For kids, there's a cartoon series called The Child and the Invader, which has to be seen to be believed.

In the '90s, a common tactic for the Iranian arthouse directors was to make allegories with children, thereby clearing themselves of the suspicion that they were being subversive. These days, it seems like it's almost impossible to practice any kind of cinematic culture of dissent even at that level of ass-covering. Even in the USSR of the '60s, directors like Larisa Sheptiko managed to make their films, even if they were instantly shelved for indefinite periods of time to be thawed out during glasnost. Not so in Iran, and the attack on filmmakers has ramped up massively: Makhmalbaf—who has been content in recent years to kick back and let his large family make the movies—had his website virally invaded after publicly getting in the tank for Hossein Mousavi.

This comes only a little while after the release of Roxanne Sabari, the American journalist jailed and released on (in all likelihood) trumped-up charges. Sabari is the fiancée of Bahman Ghobadi, who makes vaguely politicized movies about the Kurds, announced his desire to leave the country, and made a splash at Cannes this year with Nobody Knows About the Persian Cats, a loosely improvised narrative centered around Iran's indie rock scene, which apparently does exist. Even Iran's most prominent, internationally respected filmmakers aren't safe.


Because of directors like Panahi, Kiarostami et al., it was possible until fairly recently to put a bright spin on Iranian film culture—and, by extension, the country. But as the events of the past few days show, that's an increasingly tough, near-impossible sell. In retrospect, Iran's cinematic silence is as ominously symptomatic as any other warning sign; when it's harder to make an underground film in Iran than even China, you know you're in trouble. (In a round-up of ten Iranian films not from the arthouse guild, Abel Karavel's three selections from this decade have all been either banned or unofficially pulled; one of the filmmakers was almost sentenced to death.) And while watching Iranian TV on YouTube, in its own twisted way, can be as hilarious as, say, the worst of Glenn Beck, it's no joke. Right now we're looking at one of the most ridiculously efficient propaganda machines on the planet, one that's shattered a vibrant film culture in under ten years. Ahmadinejad has much more to answer for, but the symptoms were there as much as anywhere else.

PS: For more viewpoints and reports on the situation in Iran from a cinema perspective, check out David Hudson's excellent compilation at IFC Daily.

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Posted by cphillips at June 14, 2009 9:46 PM


This is hyberbolic, and it seems as if it has been cobbled together from various festival reports and articles from the Western mainstream media -- rather than any particular knowledge of the Iranian film scene.

There has always been a split between fare destined for festivals and art houses, and a popular genre cinema, much of which has unsavory political content (not to mention the TV shows--NB: one of those mentioned above is Palestinian, not Iranian-- that have long been vehicles for propaganda).

It may be that there has been something of a freeze. But the circumstances of a few privileged "auteurs" is not necessarily the best litmus test. Makhmalbaf and Kiarostami have their own reasons for working abroad, notably that K's films have been financed by foreigners since the early '90s (cf. Hou Hsiao-Hsien, who has similarly gone from making European-financed films to making European films tout court). And Panahi has long had difficulties making films due to his outspokenness.

In any event, much more--and more evidently informed--information is necessary . This same is true of Western coverage of Iran in general, which indulges alternately in wishful thinking and doomsaying, and could use a lot more fact and nuance.

Posted by: Jonah at June 15, 2009 6:18 PM

Soon after Ahmadinejad's election, I ran into a friend who had been involved with many of the late 90s / early 00s titles that sold internationally, and also were popular domestically. I asked about how the election would change things.

"It's all over," my friend said.

Posted by: Ray Privett at June 15, 2009 7:00 PM

The Iranian lecturer is wrong about Tom & Jerry being producedby Walt Disney, it was produced by Hanna & Barbera. I don't know what religion they had..

Posted by: dirk at June 17, 2009 4:44 AM

You should probably note that the Makhmalbaf who directed 'Blackboards' is Samira, not Mohsen.

Posted by: brendon at June 28, 2009 5:19 PM
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