Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and censorship in
National Public Radio
May 8, 2000, Monday
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BOB EDWARDS, host: As the government of Iran was closing several reformist
newspapers and arresting their editors last month, Iranian filmmaker Abbas
Kiarostami was in the United States accepting a Lifetime Achievement Award
from the San Francisco International Film Festival. The international press
helped give Kiarostami the stature he has today. Critics consider his movies
some of the finest of the last 10 years. Kiarostami's movies have not been
critical of the Islamic regime in Teheran, but he says he's concerned about
the Iranian government's new restrictions of freedom of expression. David
DAVID D'ARCY reporting: Abbas Kiarostami's latest film, "The
Wind Will Carry Us," opens in US theaters in July. It's typical of
his work. It features a man on a journey, a young child and not much of
what might be called action. It's a meandering tale about an urban filmmaker
who travels to the country to study local mourning ceremonies, only to
find that the woman whose funeral he expected to attend is holding on to
life. (Soundbite of "The Wind Will Carry Us," spoken in foreign
D'ARCY: The film ends with a poem by Omar Khayyam exhorting viewers
to live their short lives to the fullest. In San Francisco, Kiarostami
said that recognition of his works by Americans was a victory for all filmmakers
who resist Hollywood's world domination.
Mr. ABBAS KIAROSTAMI (Filmmaker): (Through Translator) I do actually
believe that to a great extent the recent success of Iranian cinema and
the degree to which it has grown is a result of the restriction of the
import of American films and American cinema in Teheran, that it's given
a chance for its own film to develop.
D'ARCY: Kiarostami is anything but a dissident. He maintains that censorship
in Iran has had other positive results. The Teheran regime has restricted
the use of technology, he says, forcing filmmakers to learn how to make
movies simply and cheaply. The ban on violence and sex and on the depiction
of certain domestic situations in films has also helped rather than hurt.
Mr. KIAROSTAMI: (Through Translator) In some ways, the limitations imposed
on the content, as far as violence and sex, I do think have had a positive
and beneficial effect on encouraging a focus on other subjects and other
explorations within the cinema.
D'ARCY: Kiarostami calls himself a minimalist and says his films would
have been no different even if government censorship had not existed. Yet,
the director's had his own problems with Islamic hard-liners. Three years
ago, they attacked his film "Taste of Cherry," whose main character
considered suicide, and Kiarostami was condemned for allowing the French
actress, Catherine Deneuve to kiss him when "Taste of Cherry"
shared the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Now Kiarostami foresees
troubles for all Iranian artists with the government's closing of 16 newspapers.
Mr. KIAROSTAMI: (Through Translator) I'm sure it will have an influence.
I'm sure there are going to be repercussions. Everything beings with newspapers,
and I have to say that I'm sorry to see this happening after 20-odd years
where people are merely expecting their most preliminary and permissive
D'ARCY: This director may have no special interest in defending the
Iranian press, which hasn't defended his work. Hossain Hosaroja(ph), an
Iranian writer living in San Francisco, says Iranian film critics of all
political persuasions have taken shots at Kiarostami.
Mr. HOSSAIN HOSAROJA (Iranian Writer): Formerly, they're attacking Kiarostami's
cinema for a cinema that's not able to tell a story. It's a cinema that
does not use professional actors. It's a cinema that structure is very
arbitrary, that visually is not very pleasing to the eye. It's a cinema
that's so individual, that's totally self-indulgent. I could go on for
hours, because I have been reading all those magazines and suffering.
D'ARCY: But the ultimate critic is the government, says Abbas Kiarostami,
who now expects filmmakers to rein themselves in so that they can continue
Mr. KIAROSTAMI: (Through Translator) Naturally, there can be repercussions
on film. With a newspaper, it comes out every night. A film takes months
to create. There's going to be a need for production tools, for negatives,
for films, stock, for money, and all these are provided, to some extent,
by the state. Therefore, controlling those resources and tools is a fairly
simple thing to do. Those means can be restricted or limited. What effect
it will have is probably sort of self-imposed restrictions by the filmmakers
in the face of the possibility of not having access to the money or the
D'ARCY: Iranians have known censorship under regimes that proceeded
the current Islamic republic, and suppression of legal media just drives
information underground, says Abbas Muallen(ph), who writes for the Teheran
magazine Picture World(ph). Closing legal newspapers is one thing. Shutting
down the country's many underground film magazines will be much harder,
Mr. ABBAS MUALLEN (Picture World): In a country with all the limitation
of press, there are probably more than 20 magazines and newspaper only
specialize in the movies in a country that officially you can't have satellite,
you are not allowed to have the videos, open market. And there are 30 magazines
that they are publishing the most recent events in international movie
business, especially, you know, American movie business. The people they
are reading and reading, and they buy and it's really costly. It's very
expensive prices. Buying a magazine in Iran, it's not something cheap.
D'ARCY: So far, movie magazines have escaped the government's campaign
against independent newspapers, which are associated with new political
parties rather than culture. For now, Abbas Kiarostami says, the casualty
is legal access to information.
Mr. KIAROSTAMI: (Through Translator) The journalistic trade has a mission
that is perhaps more important than the cinema. It has the possibility
of creating change and bringing about information that makes change possible
within any society. The society today has a need for immediate and detailed
and precise information, and film is a means that is slow, measured and
profound, and hence, it may not be of such succor to the urgent matters
D'ARCY: Today, Abbas Kiarostami is himself a journalist. He's making
a documentary about children orphaned by AIDS in Uganda. Even before the
recent crackdown on newspapers, such a film would have been impossible
to make in Iran. It's commissioned and funded by the United Nations. For
NPR News, I'm David D'Arcy.
EDWARDS: This is NPR's MORNING EDITION. I'm Bob Edwards.