HTS 2041: The Modern Middle East

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Censorship in Iranian Cinema

In 2004, Babak Payami had just finished filming “The Silence Between Two Thoughts” in the mountains of Iran, using natural light to frame his story of an executioner who is ordered to marry and rape a female prisoner before executing her, so that she is no longer a virgin and will not go to heaven upon her death. Payami felt he had created a masterpiece. Unfortunately, the Iranian officials did not agree. They seized the master copy of the film and banned it for its portrayal of religious zealousness leading to ruin. After a brief period in jail, Payami patched together a second version of the film from the materials he had left, then smuggled the film to the Venice International Film Festival, much to the chagrin of the Iranian government.


Image from “The Silence Between Two Thoughts”

The exact laws of Iranian censorship are hard to pin down. The government body that enforces the censorship laws is the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, whose English website is sadly uninformative on the subject (though for those who are interested, the website is interesting in many other respects and is worth a look – According to an article from The Guardian, filmmakers are prohibited from “showing couples touching, or a woman without Islamic garments that hide her hair and body shape,” to name a few of the restrictions. Directors are also required to get permits approving every portion of the film, from the script to the actors. And the censorship laws have only gotten harsher in recent years.


Screenshot from “Offside”

The effect on filmmakers has been noticeable. Many prominent directors have worked for months or years on films, only to have them be prohibited from being released in Iran. One of the more drastic examples is that of Jafar Panahi. Panahi created numerous controversial films, including the 2006 movie “Offside,” which tells the story of a female soccer fan sneaking into a stadium to watch a match. (In Iran, women are not allowed at sporting events.) In 2010, Panahi was sentenced to six years in prison and was banned from making films for 20 years. He is currently under house arrest, and the government ban has not stopped him from making films: With his phone camera and a digital camera, he shot “This Is Not A Film” and smuggled a USB drive with the film on it out of the country in a cake. Other directors have been limited to lesser extents, with the government banning their films or forcing them to cut certain portions.


Poster for “This Is Not A Film”

Filmmakers have responded to this censorship in a variety of ways. Some filmmakers see it as their duty to change their country and use their films to communicate political messages to their audiences. Often the public must acquire copies of the films through the thriving black market, because the directors’ flippancy towards the censorship laws often leads to the banning of their films. Mohsen Makhmalbaf, a prolific director, said, “People of my country are killed, imprisoned, tortured and raped just for their votes. Every award I receive means an opportunity for me to echo their voices to the world, asking for democracy for Iran and peace for the world.” Jafar Panahi wore green to the 2000 Venice Film Festival in support of the Iranian Green Movement and asked others at the festival to do the same.


Mohsen Makhmalbaf supporting the Green Movement

Other filmmakers take a different approach: Abbas Kiarostami, another prominent Iranian director, has criticized directors who make films without government permission and has reproached those directors who chose not to live in Iran while still claiming to represent it, asking, “On what basis do you give yourself permission to ridicule the efforts of filmmakers who stand with the oppressed people?” Kiarostami’s films push boundaries, too – “Ten” follows a woman driving a car who gives rides to various other women, including a prostitute and a woman who removes her hijab  – but Kiarostami strives to remain within censorship boundaries, possibly so that his films are more accessible to his audience.


Screenshot from “Ten”

What do you think? Should Iranian filmmakers use their place in the spotlight to advance the causes they believe in? Or should they focus on creating art within the confines of the rules of their homeland? Is it hypocritical for filmmakers to leave their homeland, leaving behind the people they are trying to liberate? How much say should the government have in the arts? Keeping in mind U.S. censorship (for instance, of nudity and cursing), when does censorship become “too much”? Does that limit vary based on the culture of the society in which the censorship exists?

– Katie Ledbetter




  1. jdowling6 says:

    I enjoyed this article very much! I can’t believe it is possible to create a film even under house arrest, let alone re-create a masterpiece that was destroyed, from a prison cell. The questions you ask at the end, I believe that filmmakers definitely should use their spotlight to advance their cause. The messages of these films must be critically important if the government of Iran is frantically trying to censor it. That doesn’t go to say that more ‘conservative’ films are not trying to send messages (would be more difficult to do so), they are OK I guess but that is going to restrict the freedom of a lot of peoples’ expression. As far as leaving their homeland to make films, definitely, YES! A director with a message for his fellow citizens can keep the non-violent protests up by being safe. A good director who is silenced doesn’t really help his own cause I guess. Once again, good piece.

  2. tnatoli3 says:

    I am in a global cinema class and we talked about this a few weeks ago. We watched the movie Offsides during our screening period. What I found interesting is that from an outsiders perspective, we view Iranian cinema as the cinema that is played at various film festivals and not movies that the citizens watch because of censorship.

  3. akranc3 says:

    If the message or content in a movie is anything which the government does not like, I see that movie being banned. To advance your cause under such a repressive government, you are going to have to be incredibly subtle with your messages. In regards to publishing their movies outside of Iran, people take shortcuts. Directors inside Iran shouldn’t criticize those outside. It is all means to an end.

  4. kolson223 says:

    Very interesting read. Even though there are forms of censorship in the United States, though subtle, they do not even come close to those in other countries. It is crazy to see people go to such extent to get their work out, but I guess the more that gets out the more people will see that it really isn’t that bad and the government is being very repressive.

  5. marymsherman says:

    Interesting read. From an international standpoint, we really only hear about the Iranian movies that have international appeal. These are inherently controversial and do not fully represent the Iranian film industry on a whole. The oppressed get a lot more attention from outsiders than the ones abiding by the laws. We see these civil freedoms and liberties as a right, while others would treat them as privileges. While I think censorship is silly personally, if a government is arresting people for breaking censorship laws, then move out of the country. A dying film industry could sway government officials more than illegal films being smuggled out.

  6. I am also from a country with harsh film censorship (although much looser than Iran according to this blog). As a result of the strong censorship, Chinese film industry has been in a low status for years. There can be no good film made under strong censorship, even if there are so many topics to make into films. Just like in Iran, I do not know if there is any good topics to make into films except those hero stories and Qur’an stories. I hope these countries with strong censorship can become looser, so people can actually enjoy watching native movies, and learn the insight of the society.

  7. mitch7991 says:

    There may be a point to where censorship does become a little excessive, but I believe for the most part this censorship is not a bad thing. We can look at America as a comparison. Back in the day, American films were nowhere near as provocative as they are now. The content of films can easily get out of control if they’re are not kept in check. And this is absolutely necessary in a country that wants to abide by Islam.

  8. I really enjoyed this article as well! I had no idea the censorship was so strict! I do not think it is hypocritical if filmmakers leave their country to make or distribute a film, I believe in today’s age with the internet, almost anyone can download a movie for free, so if the filmmakers want to communicate messages to the people of their country, now is the time it can be done. (This is assuming Iran does not censor their internet).

  9. jbholleman says:

    It seems like the censorship is somewhat backfiring on the Iranian government in that it drives many filmmakers to make movies that criticize it. Creative people are always trying to push boundaries, and I believe they should be able to. Censorship goes too far when people are not allowed to fulfill their creative visions. In the US, even though there is censorship, people are allowed to create most anything they want as long as it doesn’t violate human rights. Of course, “out there” films that push boundaries will have trouble getting funding and an audience, but their creators are still allowed to make it.

  10. trishapintavorn says:

    I don’t think it’s hypocritical for people to leave their country and continue fighting for issues in their home country; however, I have to admit I usually automatically judge someone’s opinions as less valid when they talk about their home country based upon on how long they have been out of the country. You’re just not going to be as in touch with the issues if you’re an expat. These filmmakers are brave and I think they should keep doing what they are doing.

  11. mcharles6 says:

    Although I do think that the extent of Iran’s censorship is a little much, I understand their reasons for doing it. It was mentioned earlier in the comments that films in the U.S. used to be much more censored than they are now. It shocked the entire nation when Rhett Butler used “the D word” in Gone with the Wind. Now, most people don’t even consider this word a curse word. In that respect, you almost have to applaud Iran for keeping up their censorship. On the other hand, I feel like Iranian censorship is probably much more political than it is in the U.S., and again, I think that’s a little crazy.

  12. shaimsn says:

    Your blog and the class discussion we had last friday led me to read about the history of film censorship in the US. It’s actually pretty interesting.
    The wikipedia article is concise. I certainly did not expect the history to have happened this way (“motion pictures are commerce, not art”):

  13. mnicholas6 says:

    I believe Kiarostami’s approach allows room for the biggest impact. It seems like there can be some balance of challenging the system while playing within the rules. As a consumer, I know I wouldn’t rush to pick up some banned movie on the black market. I would however go see a slightly controversial movie in theaters. Hopefully the latter approach is able to spark the discussion necessary for change.

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