Politics and the Decline of Iranian Cinema

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Nowadays you hear about Iran in almost every news agency. Organized suppression, torture, arrests of religious and sexual minorities, arrests of lawyers and human rights defenders and civil and labor activists are just a few examples of the crimes of the Islamic regime of Iran. It is almost impossible for any human being to share his thoughts in opposition to the system and live in that space. They have never been and never will be responsive to any human rights organization. The only thing they do is deny.


Iran is in a critical economic situation due to US sanctions. Embezzling, high level of corruption between government officials, and bribery have made the situation even worse than what it seems. This places pressure directly on the shoulders of the people, so that the poor stratum of society is rapidly being eliminated. Many factories and small businesses have been shut down. The lack of access to medicine and medical treatment, jobs, inflation, unemployment, unpaid salaries, environmental crises, increased crimes, and forced migrations are the results of the corrupt system of the Islamic Republic of Iran.

In light of everything mentioned above, it is not difficult to imagine the current situation of Iranian cinema. But irrespective of economic impacts – which are the results of recent events – I intend to outline the state of cinema after the Revolution of Iran and explain why I think we are facing an anti-art and anti-culture system.


Revolution of 1978

Apart from its different aspects, the revolution of 1978 was an ideological revolution that was supposed to sell paradise. It misused religious beliefs, including the belief in the world hereafter, to support its objectives. One of the changes that happened with the Islamic Republic of Iran was the replacement of Iranian culture with Iranian-Islamic culture. At the beginning, everything was suspended and disorganized, and many things were not clear. Executions, revenge, the prohibition of famous cinema figures predating the revolution, migration and seclusion of some producers and directors sunk Iran’s cinema into silence. The Supreme Leader Khomeini came up with the “We are not against cinema, we are against prostitution” slogan and endorsed the revolutionaries who were burning cinemas in those days.


Formation of Farabi Cinema Foundation

The regime needed an advertising system to introduce and develop its values. That is why the Farabi Cinema Foundation was established to promote Islamic and revolutionary values. Offices were established under the title of “Young Cinema Offices”. The directors of the Farabi Foundation and the Ministry of Ershad, who had an idealistic view of cinema rather than as an industry, formed their “greenhouse cinema” by relying solely on government funding.

Government funding earmarked for film production was directed toward the prosperity of the Islamic cinema. A plan was adopted to rate the films. Grade A films received many advantages, and as the grade of films decreased, these advantages were diminished too.


First Fajr Festival

But soon enough red lines became clear, especially after the first “Tehran” Festival, which was renamed the “Fajr” festival. The atmosphere divided films into two groups: those films that are “from us” and those “not from us”. A shadow of censorship was cast over the cinema.

At that time, it was enough to simply label a film “filmfarsi” or “leftist” or “royal” for it to be confiscated. Different institutions, from Bonyad Mostazafan [“Foundation for the Oppressed,” a government charitable organization] to revolutionary committees and courts were interfering with various revolutionary-religious excuses. Cinematic works of great filmmakers like Bahram Beyzaie and Masoud Kimaii were banned.

As Iran was engaged in war in the 1980’s, the government’s focus was also on war and control of the country’s political situation. Films promoted by the government tended to center on war and Islamic values. The presence of women in films became a sensitive issue, and films deemed controversial were easily banned from media.


End of the War and the Presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani

The presidency of Hashemi Rafsanjani coincided with the end of the war and ruination of the country. The war finally finished and it was rebuilding time, but for not culture and art. Censorship increased at a rapid pace, even faster than before. A new concept called “NEGATIVE LIGHT” was introduced to the Iranian cinema at the time. It was forbidden to mention the plight of society, otherwise, they would be labeled “NEGATIVE LIGHT” and banned.

At this time women had become much bolder in cinema, but censorship was casting its heavy shadow. Audits at that time were monitoring the cosmetics of women before production began in order to avoid any provocative images. Filmmakers favored by the regime in those years tried to slowly shift the red lines. This trend continued until filmmakers, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who were considered religious filmmakers became the censorship protesters.

This trend led to the appearance of other groups under the title of “plainclothes” alongside government censors. When the censors did not edit a film that the plainclothes considered objectionable, the plainclothes put the government under pressure by burning down cinemas and protesting the film.


Reform and Presidency of Seyyed Mohammad Khatami

After the victory of Sayyid Mohammad Khatami in the elections, the 1990s became Iran’s “reform decade,” and the situation got better. Cinema kept some distance from the previous politicized atmosphere. The rating system changed. Movie scripts no longer needed to be approved before production, only afterwards, so filmmakers had to pay close attention lest their movies become edited without their knowledge. During this period new films were produced in different genres. The way actresses dressed, their make-up and hairstyle, provocative dialogue between boys and girls, expression of love and affection, and many other things of this kind began to grow during this period. Good critical movies were made at this time.  Yet one would not be able to figure out why a movie like Lizard could be released and at the same time, films from directors like Kianoush Ayari, Mohamed Rasulov, or Jafar Panahi were banned. The closest argument we could make was that there were no specific meters and criteria for censorship. But the relatively open atmosphere of those days had changed with the coming of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad


Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s Presidency

Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s era as a fundamentalist was the time of severe repression in Iranian culture and cinema. With the support of conservatives, he sought to avenge the eight-year open political space from all segments of society. Statistics show that more than 70 films were confiscated in the first four years of Presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Films were severely censored, banned, and those categorized as problematic films were treated harshly. Films were divided into two categories: “healthy” and “unhealthy”. Naturally, films that were close to the government’s viewpoints were “healthy” films. Films that did not follow the red line were punished by not being allowed to participate in festivals, or they were either not allowed to be screened or else completely banned. However, with the development of the internet and digital cinema, independent filmmakers were able to make low-cost films and upload them.  Unfortunately this also makes it easier for them to be arrested and being punished.


After Rouhani Presidency

Before Hassan Rouhani became president, avant-garde and constructive films were less likely to make it to cinema screens because of the closed space and the mafia of cinema. When Rouhani came to power, the “Art and Experience Cinema Group” was established. In this model of cinema, non-box-office, documentary, and avant-garde films found the opportunity to reach their audiences. But this did not mean that censorship was absent from Iranian cinema.

With a brief look at the ups and downs of Iranian cinema, one can rightly conclude that Iranian cinema has been heavily influenced by the various presidencies and administrators.  The purely personal opinions of non-experts and organizations have also been and continue to be a problem throughout this period. The Islamic Republic has spent billions of dollars from oil revenues to make vain and worthless movies according to their taste, and they have imprisoned or killed reputable filmmakers.

Saying everything about the systemic cruelty to Iranian cinema would take days and can’t be covered in this short article, so I have tried to avoid mentioning and referring to specific events as much as possible.




Benyamin Farnam is a Iranian documentary film maker and editor. He currently lives in Norway as an ICORN guest writer.



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