Cinematic Nation

A Separation (Farhadi, 2011) is one of the most emotionally affecting films that I’ve seen in a long time. I also found Samira Makhmalbaf’s short in 11’09”01 – September 11 (Makhmalbaf et al., 2002) incredibly absorbing. But outside of these two films, I know very little about Iranian cinema, so it’s time to dive in and explore it a lot more.

What I liked most about both A Separation and the Iranian segment of 11’09”01 – September 11 was their subtlety. They both made me consider how working in a country which suffers artistic censorship forces this subtle, allegorical storytelling; how restrictions can push artists to be more creative in their work.

Iran has a long history of artistic expression. Even under the censorship of the SAVAK (the pre-revolutionary Shah’s secret police) art was supported and valued, creating a vibrant modern art scene. But after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the cultural environment of Iran shifted dramatically. 

University arts faculties gradually closed because of the many restrictions imposed by the new government: depictions of women’s hair, the unclothed human body and anything “immoral” or against religion or politics was forbidden […] The limitations of these new and mostly unwritten laws, combined with the devastation of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, in which more than a million Iranians died, diverted the nation’s attention and changed its artistic priorities. (Issa, 2001) 


The revolution forced a change in government from a pro-Western monarchy to an anti-Western theocratic dictatorship. New artistic restrictions were based on the vociferous application of religious laws by the ruling Islamic clergy. One of the effects of the revolution was that “classical” forms of visual art (like painting and sculpture) were hit hardest. Instead photography and film moved to the forefront of visual expression. But why? The answer seems to be twofold. Firstly, they were (and are) harder to police; it’s much easier to hide, move and reproduce a film than a sculpture. Secondly, in a country suffering such oppression, artists felt a strong desire to document their lives and their treatment. Photography and film enabled them to do this in a way that more traditional forms of art couldn’t. (Behpoor, 2012)

Consequently, post-revolutionary Iran has nurtured a strong photographic and cinematic tradition. Artists who might have otherwise worked in different mediums have been channeled into these more modern, more portable disciplines.

The vibrancy of Iranian cinema has raised its profile in the world of film. But its filmmakers aren’t still subject to censorship and exile. (Dehghan , 2013) & (Dabashi, 2013) 

The closed and constricted nature of Iranian society means that much of its cinema has been used (or at least seen) as a medium of social critique. Feminist film is a particularly strong force within the movement, acting in direct opposition to limitations placed on women by the Iranian government; a clear example of how censorship, no matter how harsh, can feed creativity.

When non-Iranians talk about Iranian cinema we invariably mean the internationally acclaimed artistic and experimental cinema, rather than the popular, state sanctioned, commercial cinema aimed at a young, male Iranian audience. I can only find a little information on these  commercial films, but they seem to mimic populist Indian films in their repeated use of the same actors playing archetypal roles and chaste relationships between the hero and his leading lady. Western films, while available, are often heavily edited before appearing on screen. (Fisher, 2012)  

Despite censorship, the artistic and experimental facets of Iranian cinema are well established.  The Iranian New Wave of the 60’s and 70’s pre-dates the Islamic revolution, but established a culture of auteur cinema with Iranian directors making films in a huge range of styles. Contemporary Iranian filmmakers who’ve built upon this foundation include Mani Haghighi, Maziar Miri, Bahman Ghobadi, Jafar Panahi, Rafi Pitts and Asghar Farhadi. (Srinivasan, 2012)

Post-revolution, women have become a major driving force in artistic and experimental Iranian cinema, despite the restrictions placed on them. Notable female filmmakers include Rakhshan Bani-Etemad , Samira Makhmalbaf, Hana Makhmalbaf, Marzieh Mashkinia and Tahmineh Milani.(Marzouk, 2010)

Another prominent female Iranian filmmaker is Shirin Neshat, who works in exile from her homeland:

Women Without Men (Neshat, 2009) is an incredible looking film (as you would expect from a woman who is as photographer and visual artist as well as a filmmaker). Neshat uses colour and composition as much as dialogue to tell her story. And she keeps her time frames uncertain, the cyclical narrative mimicking one of the themes of the film, which seems to be that nothing ever really changes, that the same tragedies play out endlessly again and again.

The meaning of the film and the events that it portrays are ambiguous. Neshat bookends the story with death, beginning with a suicide and ending with disease and murder. What happens in between is open to interpretation, but it seems to be a meditation on how we must to come to terms with our life before we can truly be at peace in death.

Neshat’s film is an example of feminist Iranian cinema, centering on the lives of four women who have, in different ways, been wronged by men and the male dominated society in which they’re forced to live. She uses a kind of magical realism to create just enough separation between this imaginary world and the one which we inhabit for the audience to suspend our disbelief and accept the allegory which she presents to us.

With the increased visibility of Iranian cinema in the wider world, it’s tempting to see these films as works made specifically for a non-Iranian audience, made to point out to the world that not all Iranians are conservative religious zealots. But this shows our Western bias, patronising Iranian filmmakers by painting them as artists who need the approval of Western cinema, filmmakers who want to be ‘just like us’.  

While many Iranian filmmakers do want their films to be seen outside of their country (just as any filmmaker might) their goals are more complex than simply international approval, and are intertwined with ideas of nationhood. To a certain extent, a nation is whatever its citizens believe it to be. Dictatorships succeed while the people whom they oppress believe that there is no alternative; that the oppression that they suffer is an integral part of their nationhood; that it is what separates them from other nations which they might fear.

Art has always challenged, broken down and reformed people’s idea of what it is that makes their community special, what constitutes their essence as a society. It does this by questioning the traditional views of a society and proposing alternate ones. Iranian cinema is no different. It questions the rules imposed by its rulers; it highlights the dangers of conformity to these restrictions; it shows that non-conformity can be beautiful and doesn’t need to be feared. It shows the audience another way.


In doing this, Iranian filmmakers are trying to reform what it is to be Iranian, what their nationhood means to them. And they do this not just for themselves, but for other Iranians. The Bavand Behpoor’s article on Iranian post-revolutionary visual culture considers how the Iranian theocracy has restricted the ability of its citizens to think by removing all access to representations of culture which don’t fit their rulers’ values:

The outside world was blocked away with a screen full of images. A sophisticated image translation machine was and still is at work. International movies could be watched on national television, but the films were translated into new narratives. The image produced of the world, of the society, and of citizens was and still is unbelievably phantasmagorical. The images of private life do not match what anybody has seen in private, and every possible effort is undertaken to make sure no image in the public realm communicates anything from one individual to another. However, it is ok if such communication happens in private. For the ban is not on the message, but on certain modes of thinking. This is a system that dissects thought and tears apart expression not only by removing words or images through their abundance, but also by destroying their reference points. One can form his own private image (scraps gathered from the public realm), but cannot make this private image public. What is actually eliminated from representation is any idea of a bigger image of the real. There is no other collective bond except the governmental. (Behpoor, 2012) 

Iranian cinema attempts to show its audience that there is an alternative to the officially sanctioned version of Iran, that the rules imposed by the government aren’t the only way to live, that rejecting them will not result in some cataclysmic collapse of society. Iranian filmmakers are trying to spark a change from within their country, by changing the public perception of what it means to be Iranian.

While international acclaim may not be the primary goal of most Iranian filmmakers, that isn’t to say that it isn’t valued. It can bring more visibility to their work within their own country, and it can show an Iranian audience that the outside world doesn’t hate or fear their culture as much as their theocratic leaders might have them believe. By reducing the fear of the ‘other’ that exists both within and outside of Iran, Iranian filmmakers can change their homeland’s concept of its nationhood.


Behpoor, B., (2012) The Aftermath of the Image-Production Revolution in Post-Revolution Iran, Nafas, Available from:  [Accessed on 26 March 2016]

Dabashi, H., (2013) The tragic endings of Iranian cinema, AlJazeera, Available from: [Accessed on 26 March 2016]

Dehghan , S. K., (2013) Iran’s artists warn US and European sanctions are affecting their work, The Guardian, Available from: [Accessed on 26 March 2016]

Farhadi, A., (2011) A Separation, Asghar Farhadi

Fisher, M., (2012) Cropped Modesty: Iran’s High-Tech Tricks for Censoring American Movies, The Atlantic,  Available from: [Accessed on 26 March 2016]

Iran Modern, Asia Society, Available from: [Accessed on 26 March 2016]

Issa, R., (2001) Post revolution, art’s revelation, Times Higher Education,Available from: [Accessed on 26 March 2016]

Marzouk, W., (2010) Cinema Culture Center puts Iran’s female filmmakers in spotlight, Egypt Independent, Available from: [Accessed on 26 March 2016]

Makhmalbaf, S. et al., (2002) 11’09”01 – September 11, StudioCanal

Neshat, S., (2009) Women Without Men, Essential Filmproduktion GmbH

Srinivasan, S., (2012) Iranian new wave, The Hindu, Available from: [Accessed on 26 March 2016]


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