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 – http://www.farhang.gov.ir/en/home). 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