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Censorship in Iranian Cinema. How the issue of censorship has shaped the cinema of post-revolution Iran.

Censorship in Iranian Cinema. How the issue of censorship has shaped the cinema of post-revolution Iran.

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An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Megan Fox. Originally submitted for Film, Literature and Drama at Dublin Business School, with lecturer John Gunning in the category of Modern Cultural Studies
An essay for the 2012 Undergraduate Awards Competition by Megan Fox. Originally submitted for Film, Literature and Drama at Dublin Business School, with lecturer John Gunning in the category of Modern Cultural Studies

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Published by: Undergraduate Awards on Aug 30, 2012
Copyright:Attribution Non-commercial

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04/19/2014

 
Abstract
Iranian films have for many years now enjoyed worldwide acclaim at festivals across theglobe, from Cannes to Sundance, for their exquisite visual metaphors and stunningsubtlety. They are broadly regarded as some of the most refreshing and moving pieces of cinema art that critics and audiences have ever enjoyed, but at what cost are these beautiful and innovative pieces produced? My essay delves deep in to the history of Iranian censorship and explores its positive and negative impact on some of the countriesleading filmmakers. I am especially interested in censorship’s effect on femalefilmmakers in Iran, as a young female director myself I found great inspiration in thework of cinema artists such as Samira Makhmalbaf and Mania Akbari, two darlings of Iranian cinema who manage to circumnavigate the strict censorship laws imposed ontheir work to produce breathtaking documentaries and allegorical portraits of Iranianculture. My favourite case study in the essay is that of controversial Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi’s contribution to the national cinema with his hugely popular feature‘Offside’, which presents a clear revolt against the censorship laws in contrast to many of the other case studies in which these laws have been abided by, but cleverly undermined.By using examples of some of the greatest masterpieces of film to come out of thecountry, I explore how the Iranian film vocabulary has changed due to censorship, andhow the laws have altered and shaped the cinema of this region. With interesting insightsfrom film directors such as Makhmalbaf and Abbas Kiarostami alongside quotes fromHamid Dabashi (a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University) my essay tracksthe progress that Iranian filmmakers have made to overcome the restrictions placed uponthem by government censorship.
Censorship in Iranian Cinema. How the issue of censorship has shaped thecinema of post-revolution Iran.
Before the 1979 Islamic revolution Iran was governed by the Mohammad Reza Shah,who had become very unpopular with the Iranian people due mostly to how he used hissecret police to control the country. A strong opposition began to grow towards this Shahmonarchy, an opposition led by a man called Ayatollah Khomeini who distributed hisanti-Shah messages through cassette tapes smuggled into Iran [1]. This was the beginningof the Iranian revolution which led to an Islamic republic (declared by Khomeini) after anoverwhelming victory in a national referendum in which only one question was asked‘Islamic Republic: Yes or No’ [2]. Once this republic had been voted in Khomeini setabout writing up a new constitution that reflected his ideas for Islam, making a distinctmove away from Westernism and towards a fundamentalist Islamic state. Film began to be seen as a threat in Iran, a symbol of Westernism, and hundreds of cinemas around thecountry were burned to the ground after Khomeini came in to power.By 1982 very strict rules of censorship had been introduced by Khomeini, who was nowIran’s spiritual leader or ‘Valy-e-Faqih’, that applied in particular to all kinds of mediaand aimed to “ensure that they conform to the requirements of a new, purified culture”
 
[3]. Anything that he deemed powerful enough to reach even a small audience, (for example print media, television, music, the internet and of course film) was forced tocensor its content and also undergo many phases of censorship before it could beapproved for public consumption. After looking at the script proposed for a film andmaking sure that it adhered to their laws, that it didn’t show any part of a woman’s bodyother than her hands and face (to uphold the newly enforced ‘women’s modesty laws’),that there were no same sex exchanges, no critique of the family unit or state, no coarselanguage or foreign words, no tight clothes on the women, no foreign music and evenmaking sure that there were no negative or evil characters with beards (!) the censorship board could then request significant changes or simply ban the film altogether. It isremarkable that filmmakers continued with their art at all under these severecircumstances, but post 1979 Iranian film’s soon became highly regarded at festivalsaround the world for the incredibly creative ways in which they began to express their opinions with subtle imagery and metaphor to slip by the censorship boards and stillmake the impact that they desired to make, they found a way of circumnavigatingcensorship through visual metaphor.The Iranian government began to take note of the power and popularity of its film culturearound 1983, they reconsidered the benefits of the art form and started to fund filmcompanies again. The film industry flourished within Iran as it was protected completelyfrom international competition, becoming the most popular form of entertainment in thecountry. The president of Iran at the time, Khatami, attempted to make censorship lawsmore flexible, but this would prove to be a long arduous process and when a new president came in to power he immediately made these laws more hard-line once again.Consequentially, Iranian films operate under these strictly enforced censorship laws tothis day. Although it may be hard for Western audiences and filmmakers to understandhow these writers and directors can stand to work in such conditions many of Iran’s finestin the field actually find that censorship forces them to be more innovative and creative intheir work, it drives them to find new and more artistic and subtle ways of expressingthemselves which many find challenging and rewarding.Censorship has made a huge impact on women’s art and films in Iran, and femalefilmmakers often have conflicting ideas when it comes to censorship and it’s effect ontheir films. For instance, female Iranian filmmaker Mania Akbari, who started her filmcareer as a director of photography and later went on to predominantly directdocumentary films, believes that the fear an artist lives in when trying to adhere to theselaws and slip hidden meanings in to their films undetected “can be repressive and it canruin the whole atmosphere” and states that ideas generated in this hostile environmentcannot in her opinion be ‘genuine art’ [4]. On the other hand, Samira Makhmalbaf,daughter of one of the darling’s of Iranian cinema art Mohsen Makhmalbaf, woulddisagree with Akbari’s opinions on censorship. Makhmalbaf has been making film’s sinceshe was seventeen years old, becoming the youngest director in the world participating inthe official selection of the 1998 Cannes Film Festival with her first film ‘The Apple’ andshe believes that the censorship laws have actually forced her to be a more creativefilmmaker, claiming that “sometimes limitations can make you think harder and seize anyopportunity that comes your way to express yourself” [5]. A vivid demonstration of this
 
 philosophy can be seen in ‘The Apple’, based on a true story about two Iranian girls whowere locked away and deprived of social contact by their father for eleven years. Therewere no actors in this film, the roles were played by the real people who were involved inthe case and Makhmalbaf took a very objective stance on the subject, not passing judgement on the situation depicted or making the film seem biased in any way. Shestates that it is far more interesting to have sympathy for people and try to listen andunderstand their situations through the medium of film than to be judgemental [6]. Thefilm seems to subtly comment on how much freedom the average woman in Iran actuallyhas, rather than accentuating the ways in which she is trapped, another philosophy of Makhmalbaf’s who believes that Western women are in many ways less emancipatedthan Iranian women, forced to wear short skirts and low cut tops rather than a headscarf.Somehow that sentiment resonates with me, especially in relation to the world of film. Itis perhaps ironic that we in the ‘free’ West struggle to find female directors in themainstream, whilst Iranian female filmmakers seem to be highly regarded in their countryand in many ways welcomed far more warmly to the platform.For great examples of how visual metaphors are utilised in Iranian cinema to presentallegories for the censorship of artists and Iranian culture as a whole I’d like to discussthe work of Abbas Kiarostami. Many critics state that Kiarostami uses the veiled femaleform of the Iranian woman as an allegory for Iranian post-Revolutionary film [7], thisallegorical imagery is particularly effective in his 2002 film ‘Ten’ which challengedcritics and audiences to endure a feature solely consisting of conversations in a mini-SUV between its driver (director Mania Akbari) and various passengers that she picks upwhilst driving through Tehran. Although many found the film too tedious to endure, theshocking final sequence in which a woman removes her headscarf to reveal a shavedhead proved worth the wait for its powerful visual statement of defiance in the face of themodesty and censorship laws. One critic writes that ‘Ten’ seems to appear asKiarostami’s “reflection on his own filmmaking culture” [8], that the films form (theconversations cut between a numbered countdown reel) almost gives the impression thatthis film is made up of scraps of film reel that would usually be edited out by thefilmmaker or censors, in the same way that the modesty laws attempt to edit out the truehumanity of women from Iranian culture. Kiarostami absented himself from the set of this film as he believed that to show women as central characters in a film “meansabsenting the male director altogether” [9] to uphold the post-Revolutionary modestylaws. The censorship laws have made such an impact on this filmmakers’ art that they penetrate deep into the conceits of his films and often emerge as their main subjectmatter. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in ‘Close-Up’, in which Kiarostamichooses to show the filmmaking process candidly (for example in the court scene whenwe suddenly see the crew and all the camera equipment in the middle of the scene) tohighlight how the art form is reduced to a mechanical process under censorship.Another interesting case to look at when exploring the pros and cons of censorship and itseffects on Iranian cinema is that of film director Jafar Panahi. Panahi’s films have beenlauded and acclaimed at festivals throughout the world, but remain banned in Iran todaydue to these strict censorship laws. His 2006 film ‘Offside’ is broadly considered to beone of the bravest and most groundbreaking films to come out of post-revolution Iran,

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