One of the chapters in The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity (Tapper, 2002) is titled Perspectives on Recent (International Acclaim for) Iranian Cinema. Writer Azadeh Farahmand focuses on the most recent era of Iranian cinema, from the end of the Iran-Iraq war in 1988 to the present day, and looks at how state censorship and international diplomacy has influenced Western views of Iranian cinema.
Farahmand begins by discussing Iranian film censorship, noting that it’s not a recent phenomenon:
While Iranian cinema has undergone inevitable changes since the 1979 Revolution, it has inherited and maintained the legacy of state control. Film censorship has a long tradition in Iran. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p88)
She gives examples of pre-revolution censorship, but finds that this censorship has only increased since the Islamic revolution:
The post-1979 continued to apply the tradition of dubbing, cutting, re-editing and banning of films inherited from the previous era, and combined this with such practices as painting over imported films which showed parts of women’s bodies that should be covered as part of Islamic religious codes. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p89)
She also notes that:
The pre- and post-rovlutionary governments displayed a similar concern to suppress themes of political criticism and social dissent, a continuity that demonstrates how ruling governments recognize the power of cinema. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p89)
However, Farahmand is keen to point out that the post-revolutionary government didn’t want to shut down film production completely; film production was actively supported provided it portrayed Iran as the government wished it to be seen:
Indeed, after 1984, measures were drafted to encourage it. More positive developments included social security for filmmakers and entertainers, a decrease in municipal tax on local films and a tax increase on foreign films, long-term bank loans for film production and the sponsorship of films in international film festivals. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p89)
Despite the support offered to filmmakers by the ruling regime, films still required government approval and were subject to censorship if this approval wasn’t granted. The post-revolution regime maintained a tight control on local film production by exerting control over all aspects of film production, from script approval to loans and subsides, equipment hire and the allocation of film stock, the distribution of films and ticket prices, the export of films to foreign markets and the submission of films to international film festivals. Such was the extent of this state control that it bred a culture of self-censorship in which filmmakers were afraid of raising controversial issues for fear of the damage that it might do to their career and livelihood. Farahmand quotes filmmaker Bahram Beyza’i:
Stopping the filmmaking process means the bankruptcy of those involved in production, stopping the distribution means having to endure the heavy burden of loans, and resistance means witnessing your entire future career melting away. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p91)
Farahmand moves on to look at how changing economic conditions in the early 1990’s and the removal of government subsides drove Iranain film makers to seek international funding via international festivals. This remained problematic, because Iranian filmmakers aren’t able to submit their films to festivals independently, the process must be handled by the Iranian government. However, those who did succeed in reaching an international audience found that favourable exchange rates meant foreign backers were not difficult to find:
For example, the funds that MK2 put into Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Gabbeh (1996), which would have been enough to make a 15-minute film in France, produced and feature film which has been exhibited worldwide, to which MK2 now owns the rights. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p94)
Farahmand makes clear that the financial winners of Iranian cinema’s rise to prominence on the international festival circuit are the American and European production companies which funded the films. Farahmand also links the popularity of Iranian cinema in Western film criticism to recent attempts to develop diplomatic ties and promote cultural exchange, especially between Iran and the USA. Farahmand notes that film can be used as a medium for diplomacy, linking the showing of The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, 1997) at the Cannes film festival to the ping pong diplomacy incident in 1971 (Griffin, 2014). She also references a quote from the Report of the Planning Meeting on US-Iran Cinema Exchanges:
Participants agreed that film can be a powerful and effective means to bridge differences and increase cultural understanding between Iran and the US. Participants recognized that American and Iranian film festivals and programs have, for years, showed films and invited film personalities from each other’s countries. What is new is that a window of opportunity is now open, making possible cinema activities of much higher impact. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p96)
However, Farahmand finds that this cultural exchange is selective and perfunctory, because it has only been extended to a few Iranian films:
Only a select few have has their films endorsed for entry in international film festivals, and are showered with publicity and honoured with retrospectives which tour the world, which others whose work is equally compelling are excluded. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p97)
Farahmand singles out director Abbas Kiarostami for analysis as a case study of one of the most celebrated directors in modern Iranian cinema. She compares Kiarostami’s work to that of Sohrab Shahid-Saless, an Iranian filmmaker who worked in pre-revolution Iran. She notes that while Kiarostami’s work is strikingly similar to Shahid-Saless’, the latter achieved little domestic or international success in comparison to Kiarostami. Farahmand suggests that this was because the time wasn’t right for the world to appreciate Shahid-Saless’ work at its release; she believes that commercial and critical success has less to do with talent and art than diplomacy and money.
In writing about Kiarostami’s work, Farahmand suggests a cause for the use of rural locations in his films, which is perhaps a more pragmatic reason for the repeated use of non-place in Iranian cinema, which I’ve written about before:
Additionally, village themes and location shooting in rural landscapes not only take viewers away from urban politics, but also reinforce the exotic look of Iranian films – and increase their marketability abroad. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p100)
Having watched Ten (Kiarostami, 2002), a film which is centred entirely around the role and treatment of women in Iranian society, I found Farahmand’s comment on Kiarostami’s portrayal of women interesting:
Kiaraostami’s films bypass the most highly censorable theme, such as political or social criticism; as for the portrayal of women, he simply avoids the issue, thy using only a few female characters. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p99)
The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity was released in 2002, the same year as Ten, so it’s highly likely that Farahmand hadn’t seen the film when she wrote this comment. I wonder if her opinon would be different if she had? It certainly makes me want to go back and watch some of Kiarostami’s earlier work for comparison. I wonder if Kiarostami didn’t feel able to tackle such a politically sensitive subject until he felt more secure in his international reputation?
This touches on a question which I’ve pondered before, is it (at least partially) the responsibility of filmmakers to fight censorship and oppression? Farahmand discusses her own thoughts on this question and the place of censorship in driving creativity:
I am not suggesting that creative activity and critical expression are only possible in the absence of (self-)censorship, nor do I hold it to be the duty of filmmakers to be politically conscious and openly critical of society in their work. Tight circumstances often have the ironic blessing of further motivating artist to invent indirect means of expressing their ideas and creatively to seek metaphors and allusions […] This, however does not mean that censorship is good because it makes artists more creative. A discussion of creativity under censorship should be accompanied by an emphasis on its inherently repressive logic. Furthermore, filmmaker may with not to deal with politically of socially sensitive matters in their work, regardless of the presence or absence of censors […] However, because filmmaking is an expensive art and depends on the support of either the private or the public sector, it can often be caught in a situation in which filmmakers are led to avoid sensitive subjects if their careers are to survive. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p92-93)
Linked to this, Farahmand also hints at the effects of Western recognition on the reputation of Iranian filmmakers in their homeland, noting that Kiarostami is not well liked and accused of making films for foreigners, “This situation underscores the problem of maintaining the “nationalness” or a national cinema in the context of this trans-national accessibility” (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p103).
Farahmand’s final comments are ones of caution:
The recent recognition gained by Iranian cinema has overshadowed the remarkable Iranian film tradition of the past, and ignores the current crisis facing the industry. This crisis involves issues such as the ongoing battle with censorship, the scarcity of film theatres compares to the high rate of local film production, deteriorating acoustic and optical conditions in the theatres, low box-office returns, a continuing surge in production costs and a rating system that obstructs, among other things, channels of communication between films and Iranian audiences […] In the midst of this artistic battlefield and economic chaos, festival recognition and support from international distribution and production companies provide some hope for filmmakers. However, exported films still find it difficult to be subversive of the hegemony of Iranian society when they must also cater to festival tastes and strive to be commercially viable for international companies and markets interested in Iranian products. (Farahmand in Tapper, 2002 p102-103)
Griffin, N., (2014) Table for Two (Countries), The New York Times, Available from: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/03/books/ping-pong-diplomacy-by-nicholas-griffin.html?_r=0 [Accessed on 20 April 2016]
Kiarostami, A., (1997) The Taste of Cherry, Abbas Kiarostami Productions
Kiarostami, A., (2002) Ten, Abbas Kiarostami Productions
Makhmalbaf, M., (1996) Gabbeh, MK2 Productions
Tapper, R., (2002) The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, London: I. B. Tauris