After the 1979 revolution, when Islamists affiliated with Ayatollah Khomeini took over political leadership in Iran, a number of religious fundamentalists were determined to shut down Iranian cinema forever. Referring to some pre-revolution movies, they claimed that cinema causes moral corruption and it needs to be dealt with. Although they did not manage to close Iranian cinema down altogether, they managed to gain control over a large extent of Iranian cinema and its people through implementing censorship. Many actors and directors of the pre-revolution Iranian cinema were banned from working in the post-revolution national film industry and many were forced to emigrate from the country. Despite the excessive control and censorship enforced by the government, the religious fundamentalists were still not happy with the outcome. A group called Ansar-e Hezbollah (Supporters of the Party of God) gathered repeatedly in front of various theatres and asked for some of the movies to be removed.
The last instance of this kind of protest by Ansar-e Hezbollah happened for the movie “I am a mother” by Fereydoun Jeyrani. In protest to this movie being shown in theatres, they gathered in front of the Culture and Islamic Guidance ministry and asked for the screenings to be stopped. Yalasarat.com, affiliated with Ansar-e Hezbollah, published articles claiming this movie promotes unlawful, sexual relationships between men and women, wine drinking, and also undermines the Qisas (Islamic retaliation) sentence. (1) A number of Friday Prayer Imams also called for legal prosecution by the judiciary towards the makers of the movie. In his pre-prayer sermon, Ayatollah Abdolnabi Namazi, the representative of the Supreme Leader in Kashan, asked for the halt of the film’s screening and said: “Following the criticisms on the immoral contents of this movie, analysis was done about the contents of ‘I am a mother’ and as a result of these studies, it is clear that not only does the movie have immoral affects [on the viewer], it actually promotes immorality and corruption.” (2)
As the protests against “I am a mother” increased and a number of opponents filed complaints, the Tehran prosecutor announced a case against the movie in the ninth branch of the government workers’ court. The website Alarabiya reported that according to Mehr news agency, Javad Shamaghdari, the head of the cinema organization at the Islamic Guidance ministry, the film’s director Fereydoun Jeyrani, and producer Gholamreza Mousavi were summoned to Tehran prosecutor’s office to respond to the related questions. (3) Also the showing of “I am a mother” has been discontinued in some cities such as Mashhad, Qom and Kashan.
Pressure on independent cinema
It is not the first time that Iranian filmmakers are under pressure and have faced problems for freely expressing their opinions. In addition to the directors that were banned from working after the revolution, there are others who have faced these similar problems. Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a director who himself was a revolutionary in 1979 and was imprisoned during the Shah’s regime for a number of years. He started his work after the older cinema directors were banned from work, with the aim of Islamizing the cinema and production of films to make them more compatible with the more religious factions of the society. Despite all this, he turned to a different cinema after a while and some of his movies were critical of the policies of the ruling elite. This is how some of his films such as “Zayande rood nights” and “Loving turn” were banned and never shown. The pressure on Makhmalbaf went so far that in 2004, he decided to leave the country and continue his work abroad. The Committee of Human Rights Reporters stated that according to RFI, Makhmalbaf described the censorship in Iranian cinema: “Sex, violence and politics have been censored in Iranian cinema, so Iranian filmmakers have developed a poetic style that is very close to the human condition… In order to fight censorship, you have only two ways; you should either make your films outside the country, or you should put the rulers under pressure by talking about censorship.” (4)
However, censorship is not the only tool used by the government to put pressure on independent filmmakers. Famous Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was arrested many times during the post-election unrest in 2009 and was imprisoned. Widely acclaimed, Jafar Panahi has been awarded numerous prizes. In 1995, he won the Palme d’Or of Cannes festival for the “White Balloon.” In 2000, his film “Circle” won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and in 2006 he won the Silver Bear at the Berlin Film Festival for his movie “Offside.” (5) The first time he was arrested was in August 2009, when he had gone to the Beheshte Zahra cemetery to make a film about the people who had been killed during the post-election clashes, and he was released after some days. The second time he was arrested at his own home and he was detained in Evin prison for three months.
When Jafar Panahi was arrested, an alliance was formed between Iranian filmmakers and the rest of the world and in various letters, they asked for him to be released from prison. For example, some famous Hollywood directors and actors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, Robert De Niro and Robert Redford signed a letter which in part reads: “Like moviemakers all around the world, Iranian filmmakers should be respected and instead of censorship and imprisonment, they should be treated better… we stand by our fellow filmmaker and ask the Iranian authorities to release him as soon as possible.” (6) At the 63rd annual Cannes Film Festival, there was an empty chair in memory of Jafar Panahi who was in prison. (7) Following these pressures, although Panahi was released on a 200 million Tomans bail, he received a heavy sentence. BBC Persian reports that this famous cinema director was sentenced to six years of Tazir imprisonment, a prison sentence which is determined by Sharia law, and a 20-year ban from making films, writing screen plays, as well as foreign trips and interviews with domestic or foreign media. (8)
Bahman Ghobadi is another Iranian director who was forced to leave the country during recent years and is currently working outside the country. A while ago he reported that his brother had been detained by agents from the ministry of intelligence and expressed worries about the possibility of a forced confession by his brother. Following this, RSF released a statement calling Bahman Ghobadi a filmmaker in exile and asked for the release of his brother. His last film called “Season of the Rhino” which was made in Turkey, is about the political prisoners in Iran after the revolution, which according to RSF is “considered a forbidden issue” by the Islamic Republic. (9)
But it is not only the directors who are under control and pressure by the Iranian officials. Some cinema actors have suffered the same problems. Baran Kosari, is among the younger generation of Iranian actresses who was recently banned from working. According to the website Saham News, the film “Good Job” was cancelled due to Baran Kosari’s role in it, despite almost 70 percent of the film having been completed. (10) Prior to this, actresses such as Golshifteh Farahani were also forced to leave the country due to limitations imposed by government officials.
Preventing artists from working; a violation of basic rights
Preventing artists and filmmakers from working freely can be considered as a violation of basic human rights. According to article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights “every individual has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the society and benefit from arts and especially scientific advancements.” Also implementing limitations on directors and censoring films and screenplays is a violation of the right to free speech which is stated under article 19 of the declaration. Meanwhile, the ban on work for directors and actors is a violation of article 23 which declares that each individual has the right to work and freely chose their own work. Even according to article 28 of the constitution of the Islamic Republic “every individual is free to choose a job that he likes, is not against Islam and the common good or infringes on other people’s rights”.
In addition to these pressures on filmmakers, a while ago the “Cinema House,” which is a union formed to defend the rights of filmmakers, was shut down. This guild was dissolved and labeled illegal on the order of the minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Despite protests by filmmakers, it was finally shut down altogether by the association of Cultural Affairs at the ministry of culture. (11) This also opposes article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that every individual has the right to create unions to defend his rights or join a present union. Also according to article 26 of the Islamic Republic constitution, the formation of guilds is legal. However, the “Cinema House” which defended filmmakers was shut down and there are many obstacles present hindering the creation of other independent unions. Iranian filmmakers are more than ever lonely and the possibility of making independent films is smaller than ever in the face of power conflicts and censorship within the government.
3. Link of the article on Alarabiya website: http://www.alarabiya.net/articles/2012/12/02/252972.html
5. His Wikipedia page: http://fa.wikipedia.org/wiki/%D8%AC%D8%B9%D9%81%D8%B1_%D9%BE%D9%86%D8%A7%D9%87%DB%8C
7. Photo of the empty chair for Jafar Panahi in Cannes Festival: http://zamaaneh.com/photography/2010/05/post_1300.html
9. A report from Rooz Online: http://www.roozonline.com/persian/news/newsitem/article/copy-1-6.html