Hollywood delivered at Iranian doorsteps
By Scott Peterson
Christian Science Monitor
July 18, 2000
TEHRAN, IRAN -- Illegal movie video dealers here are not usually given
to philosophy, but after five years on the job Ali Sufi - not his real
name - knows how his clients' tastes have changed since the election of
President Mohammad Khatami three years ago.
"Khatami came and started to give freedom and space to talk and
to think," Mr. Sufi says, as he rifles through an anonymous black
leather briefcase stuffed with video tapes.
"Since Khatami, people started to want much more sensitive films
- they are tired of arguing," he says. "Iranians have powerful
feelings. They want to be loved, and want to love something, so they prefer
this to action or sex movies."
Unapproved films are illegal in Iran, but that hasn't stopped Iranians
from enjoying foreign releases within days of their premières -
sometimes taped by a camcorder during "first showings." "Titanic"
was a blockbuster here. And so was "Saving Private Ryan."
Hard-line clerics have railed against all things Western, and right-wing
morality police have raided homes to confiscate videos.
In rejecting Western films, officials here have not gone as far as Afghanistan's
Taliban - who decorate checkpoints with unwound video tapes.
But in a country where satellite dishes are illegal purveyors of Western
culture take certain risks.
"It's very difficult and dangerous to bring these in," says
Sufi. "But outside Iran, there is definitely a mafia behind it, and
inside some police and customs officials are in the pay, too."
Before the advent of DVD and CD technology for films, smugglers used
to carry video spools without their jackets past custom officials. Foreign
travelers, flight attendants, and pilots have been couriers, too.
Being caught in Iran usually means a fine, like the $200 charge Sufi
paid when police at a checkpoint opened his trunk and found his stash of
But the risks are worth it, and customer satisfaction ranks high. Sufi
works for one of the seven biggest illegal movie outlets in Tehran, which
rents some 3,000 films a week.
The club keeps just 1,200 of the most popular titles in its archive.
Each video costs less than 50 cents per week to rent and is delivered at
the door by salesmen like Sufi.
Sufi calls himself a soldier for Khatami's reforms. "I believe
that everybody is on the frontline of this war, because almost everybody
wants reform," he says and plops down copies of "Galdiator,"
"The Flintstones II," and "Music of the Heart," as