Iranian Cinema: Expressions of a Country's Soul
By Elaine Sciolino
The New York Times
March 11, 2001
TEHRAN, Iran -- LIGHTS! Camera! Let's go!" Marzieh Boroomand barks
at her crew between drags on a Marlboro. Then she focuses on her star,
a boy of 11. "Don't sit. Just stand. Don't shake your head so much.
Cut, cut, cut!"
At a rundown teahouse rented out on a stiflingly hot afternoon last
fall, Ms. Boroomand is shooting a scene for her latest film, "Sweet
Jam," a low-budget comedy about jars of jam that won't open and the
campaign of a young boy to seek justice from the factory that made them.
Hers is an uphill struggle. She works with only one camera, two klieg
lights, big debts and a cast and crew of two dozen. Curious residents of
the neighborhood, a quiet middle-class corner of north Tehran, wander on
and off the set, and the black flies that call the sticky plastic tablecloths
home buzz in front of the camera lens, distracting the cameraman, who bumps
into cases of empty Iranian cola bottles stacked along a wall.
"I work with old equipment, the wrong kind of film and censorship,"
Ms. Boroomand says as she sips scalding hot tea during a break. "I
can't show a married couple in the privacy of their bedroom, so I stay
away from love stories. Instead, I try to entertain."
Iran's cinema is a world unto itself, the most creative expression of
the country's imagination, so much so that it has earned a reputation as
one of the most vibrant and prolific cinemas in the world. As filmmakers
scoop up more and more prizes at international festivals, filmmaking has
become one of the most popular professions for young people in Iran. They
are buying cameras, writing scripts and competing for both the few places
at film schools and the privilege of working on the sets of famous directors.
Several film magazines and newspapers are published in Iran, including
a slick English-language quarterly, Film International, full of interviews,
reviews, news and four- color advertisements. When Bahman Ghobadi, the
Iranian Kurdish filmmaker, visited the United States last fall to promote
his first feature, "A Time for Drunken Horses," he acknowledged
that his primary goal of the film was to win international acclaim.
For many Americans, the Iranian cinema is the most direct glimpse into
this complicated culture. More than any other medium, film has helped to
break down the dominant Western images of Iran as a country of dour, repressed
women swathed in black and bearded young men chanting "Death to America!"
- as a nation powerless to challenge a ruling class of men in turbans and
cloaks. The popularity of Iranian films is evident in the number being
shown in New York in the next month or two alone. Among them are Jafar
Panahi's "The Circle," which is banned in Iran; "The Day
I Became a Woman," directed by Marziyeh Meshkini; and a retrospective
series, Iran Through the Eyes of Children, beginning March 23 at the Screening
Room in Manhattan.
"Films have been transformative in terms of changing the views
most Americans have of Iran, especially of the negative image from news
reporting of the revolution and the hostage crisis," said Hamid Naficy,
associate professor of film and media at Rice University and author of
several books on Iranian film and television. "These films are very
important in terms of countering the image of Iranians as intolerant and
fanatical, and of capturing universal themes - that it is human to love
your children, that people in Iran face some of the same problems that
other people face."
The cinema is one of several cultural and political battlefields inside
Iran. Along with the press, television, the courts, the universities, Parliament
and even the clerical seminaries, the cinema is a place where an ideological
guerrilla warfare is being waged between those who want to reform the episodically
repressive Islamic system and those who want to adhere to the strict Islamic
interpretation that has prevailed for a generation.
Yet the films are not fully representative of life in Iran. And some
of the films that are most popular outside Iran, including nostalgic renderings
of an idealized past or sentimental films about children, do much less
well at home. "Stereotypical impressions are created, that Iran is
a harsh place where people struggle for the smallest things in life, where
children are prematurely turned into adults," Mr. Naficy said. "Then
there is the use of landscape, in a way that gives a highly romantic impression
of Iran as primarily rural and traditional, when the largest populations
live in urban centers."
Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven," for example, is set amid
flower-filled fields that exist in only a small part of Iran and for only
a few weeks. And despite the tundralike setting in "A Time for Drunken
Horses," it snows hard in Iranian Kurdistan only a few weeks of the
The Iranian cinema has come a long way from the revolution 22 years
ago. Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the father of the revolution, railed
against the cinema, putting it in the same category as theater, dancing
and sexually integrated swimming. The day after he returned from exile
in 1979, he said, "The cinema is a modern invention that ought to
be used for the sake of educating the people, but as you know, it was used
instead to corrupt our youth."
But his lieutenants quickly realized the importance of film for propaganda,
if not for entertainment. In 1982, Iran formally banned films that were
judged to encourage wickedness, corruption and prostitution.
That policy began to change in the late 1980's, when, as part of a scheme
to liberalize the arts, Mohammad Khatami - then the Minister of Islamic
Guidance and Culture, now president - declared that "cinema is not
the mosque." More conservative clerics resisted, and in 1992 Mr. Khatami
resigned, writing that he would rather "fight ignorance and backwardness"
on his own.
But his election as president in 1997 - and his call for tolerance and
the rule of law - signaled an even bolder cultural explosion. In a speech
that fall, Mr. Khatami proclaimed, "Our cinema is a vivid and clear
reflection of the greatness of our culture, people and Islamic revolution."
And although a cultural crackdown a year ago shut down most of Iran's reformist
newspapers and put many of its best journalists behind bars, most of Iran's
filmmakers have been left alone, in part because they have helped burnish
the image of Iran around the world.
Today, Iranian films fall into a number of categories. One is the commercially
popular junk film - the slapstick comedy or adventure film about murders
or mummies. Another is the propaganda film, the kind that is shown on government-owned
Iran Air's foreign flights and that invariably depicts a character gone
wrong who is redeemed through prayer and the power of the Islamic Republic.
A third type is the film about innocent children, often in a rural or
village setting, with a combination of sentimentality, exotica and unreality
that is easy to get past government censors. Jafar Panahi's "White
Balloon" (1995), about a little girl trying to buy a goldfish for
a New Year's celebration, was a breakthrough film, winning an award at
the Cannes International Film Festival and earning nearly $1 million in
its United States release.
Still another kind is the emotionally direct film that explores the
tensions, restrictions and grimness of everyday life. This type deals with
the gritty: suicide, murder, war, mental illness, divorce, infertility,
polygamy, tribal oppression, unemployment, adultery, cross-dressing, social
inequality, mixed-sex parties, drug addiction, wife- beating, child abuse
and, recently, prostitution. Abbas Kiarostami's "Taste of Cherry"
(1997) deals with suicide; Dariush Mehrjui's "Leila" (1997) with
infertility and polygamy (although I have yet to find an Iranian woman
who found this tale of a modern, educated, infertile woman insisting that
her husband take a second wife plausible).
"In some ways these films are mirrors as well as sounding boards,"
said Farideh Farhi, an Iranian-born political scientist who is writing
a book about civil society in Iran. "The act of making them represents
the will to speak the truth about contradictions besieging Iranian society
and reveal in an entertaining way what everyone already knows in their
hearts. The audience goes to these films to bear witness, and to gain affirmation
for their daily experiences."
Each time filmmakers explore the underside of Iranian life, they risk
censorship by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture - or worse.
Last November, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and her crew were forced to flee the
city of Rasht after they were physically threatened by thugs who objected
to her latest film, "Under the Skin of the City," which deals
with drug-trafficking and wife- beating among other issues.
But unlike more authoritarian states, this is a world where there are
few rules governing what is and is not permitted and where filmmakers defy
both the system and their own fears in their quest to create. Still, the
necessity to adhere to "Islamic values" means that on one level,
there remains an unreality about the portrayal of everyday life in Iranian
To comply with the strictures of the Islamic Republic, there can be,
on screen, no public affection between men and women, no dancing, no female
singers, no sensual music. Female characters must always keep their heads
covered and hide the shape of their bodies. Husbands and wives are not
allowed to touch, and parents cannot show physical affection to their children
once a daughter is 9 and a son is 13. It is thought that such actions might
inflame the passions of male viewers.
Yet in reality family life in Iran is extremely intimate. Even the most
religious women unveil in private in the company of close male relatives
and other women. Husbands and wives touch, and parents and children are
affectionate with one another. While Iranians are aware of the distortions
of "Islamic filmmaking," foreign viewers often are not.
Some directors, like Mr. Kiarostami, solve the problem by casting few
women in important roles and having few scenes inside the home. Others
have come up with creative ways to deal with the restrictions. In his 1996
film "Gabbeh," Mohsen Makhmalbaf avoided violating a ban on depicting
a woman giving birth on the screen by donning a skirt and playing the role
himself. Several filmmakers have begun to use actors who are close relatives,
to allow them to show men and women touching.
"The cinema has lots of tricks, and we've had 22 years of the Islamic
Republic to learn them," said Parviz Sabri, as he took a break last
fall on the set of the most recent film he is directing, "Mani and
Neda." "In my last film I was able to show a man and wife asleep
in their beds, but I couldn't put them in their pajamas. I had to put them
in street dress."
Mr. Sabri's assistant director, Shahin Babapour, said he used three
questions to test for every scene: "Is there a scene that can be considered
an insult to Islam? Is there a scene that is insulting to the country's
folk culture? And are the women wearing too much makeup and showing too
The compromises can be particularly frustrating for the actors. "I
once played an aspiring singer in a film called `Help Me,' " said
Mahaya Petrossian, a 30-year-old film star who earns enough money to live
on her own in an apartment (unusual for single women in Iran) and drive
a BMW. "The only problem was that all the scenes of me singing had
to be cut."
In "Unforgiven," in which Ms. Petrossian played a young woman
confronted with her dying father, "there is a scene in which I'm crying
and begging him to forgive me and I couldn't touch him," Ms. Petrossian
recalled. "I had to use my expressions and my voice instead. It dupes
the audience because in real life a father and daughter would touch."
In "Nasreddin Shah, the Movie Actor," a film about the 19th-century
Iranian king, lavish period costumes solved the dress problem.
On another level, Iranian filmmakers are relentlessly testing the limits
of what is permissible in a largely controlled cultural environment. The
Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture, which provides considerable financing
for Iranian films, can be complicitous in the guerrilla war. Sometimes
when a film is banned inside Iran, it is screened at a film festival abroad,
creating pressure on the censors to reverse themselves. (That happened
with "Taste of Cherry" and Ms. Bani-Etemad's "The May Lady.")
Sometimes a film is shown at a private screening once or twice to test
the waters. Or a banned film might be shelved for a few months, then submitted
to a more lenient censor.
"We Iranian filmmakers are like trapeze artists swinging back and
forth without a net," said Mr. Mehrjui, a U.C.L.A.-educated filmmaker.
"One of the great contradictions of our cinema in Iran is that we
have all these films shot in bizarre places with exotic people that are
usually done to hit the foreign market, and they don't do at all well here
because they're absurd fantasies. But the government loves them because
they are filled with innocent children, free of sin, that challenge nothing
Inside the country, the fluidity of Iran's censorship system was evident
one summer evening in 1998 at Tehran's House of Cinema, a private film
club, where an invitation- only screening of a movie about the aftermath
of the Iran-Iraq war was being held. This was no glittery Hollywood party.
No refreshments were served. The auditorium was hot and cramped, the film
shown on a small screen from a noisy projector.
"Siavash," the low-budget film being shown, was the first
feature film by Saman Moghadam. The Ministry of Islamic Guidance had not
approved his film, but it allowed it to be shown just once. The film dealt
with the generation gap between the loyal warriors who sacrificed for the
revolution and the war with Iraq, and their children who longed for happy
lives unburdened by their country's recent history. The film broke a number
of barriers: the hero, a young composer and musician in a rock band, played
the sort of lively music that would not be allowed in a real-life concert
in Iran. And even though the behavior would be technically forbidden, he
openly socialized with his girlfriend, a photojournalist who led an independent
"I tried to show the huge divide between the fervent believers
and the tired, young generation of today that wants a normal, peaceful
life," Mr. Moghadam explained after the screening.
THE censors eventually approved the release of "Siavash,"
and it played in Tehran's movie houses. It was panned. One review called
it "naïve, trite and, worst of all, boring."
The tyranny of tradition in a patriarchal society is also a theme that
resonates deeply with Iranian audiences, particularly women. "Two
Women," directed by Tahmineh Milani, became the biggest box office
hit in Iranian history when it was released in the summer of 1999, and
it was shown as part of last year's New Directors/New Films Series in New
The film tells the story of two college friends, Fereshteh, a poor woman
trapped in a loveless marriage, and Roya, a successful career woman with
a loving husband. After Fereshteh is forced into marriage by her parents,
her husband turns cruel, reneging on his promise to allow her to continue
her studies, forbidding her to read books, locking the telephone and accusing
her of having a lover.
When Fereshteh seeks a divorce, the judge asks whether her husband stays
out all night, beat hers, has bad companions or gambles.
"He humiliates me," she says.
"These are not good reasons," the judge declares.
Never before had the oppression of women by men in authority - whether
husbands or judges - been so starkly revealed on the screen in Iran, and
the film radicalized usually docile women.
Last September, the most popular film in Iran was "Bride of Fire,"
by Khosro Sinaee, the story of a young, beautiful medical student who is
in love with her professor but engaged by her family to a cousin, a rough,
illiterate petty trader in a poor tribal area of south Iran.
When the young woman tries to break off the relationship, her fiancé
tells her: "You have come here and you must follow all the traditions.
It's not you or I who decides your life. It's the law of the village."
After the wedding ceremony, the bride douses the bridal bed and herself
with kerosene and sets the room on fire. At the same time, as the bridegroom
is about to enter the bridal chamber, one of the bride's aunts, who married
a man she didn't love, shouts, "Congratulations! Congratulations!"
as she stabs and kills the groom.
The film, one of the first portrayals of tribal marriage rituals, sparked
protests in Iran's small Arab community, including a mysterious fire in
a movie theater in the southwestern provincial capital of Ahwaz.
During the 1980-1988 border war with Iraq, the Islamic Republic funded
dozens of films and documentaries. Since then, a few filmmakers have dared
to take on the trauma of the war and the inability of the Islamic Republic
to heal the wounds. The unresolved tensions are dramatically captured in
a deeply moving but troubling film screened during Iran's 1999 Fajr Film
"The Glass Agency," directed by Ibrahim Hatami-Kia, tells
the story of Abbas, a soft- spoken war veteran with shrapnel lodged in
his neck. After a doctor tells him his condition is life-threatening, Abbas's
war buddy Haji, a taxi driver, springs into action. Haji raises enough
money for Abbas to travel to London for special treatment. It isn't that
easy. At a travel agency in Tehran, the two men are told there are no tickets.
Enraged, Haji takes the agency - and everyone in it - hostage. He demands
a ticket. Instead of sympathy for the two men, there is resentment of the
privileges war veterans enjoy in Iranian society. At one point, one hostage
remarks that veterans indeed are burdened - by the scholarships, televisions
and refrigerators they get from having served at the front. At another,
the exasperated policeman negotiating the hostages' release tells Haji:
"For a decade we listened to you. It was enough. Now it is a new decade
Paradoxically, the Islamic Republic as a topic rarely filters into the
films. Clerics are seldom featured, except as peripheral characters. "The
cleric is one of the taboo issues we can't touch, unless you make him a
hero," said Mr. Mehrjui. "Tolerance of the clerical class is
so low. One of my dreams is to shoot a film in Qom," the holy city
whose major industry is producing clerics. "I'd love to show the clerical
class, the clerical culture - from the inside," he added. "But
it's a risky job and I'm afraid I could put a lot of energy into it, only
to have it banned."
Elaine Sciolino is a senior writer of The New York Times and the
author of ``Persian Mirrors: The Elusive Face of Iran.''
Through Iranian Eyes
Many Iranian films will be shown in the New York area in the coming
weeks. Following is a selection:
MARCH 23 THROUGH APRIL 5
Iran Through the Eyes of Children: a series of films about children
at The Screening Room, 54 Varick St., including Jafar Panahi's "White
Balloon" and Majid Majidi's "Children of Heaven."
"Friendly Persuasion," also at The Screening Room. A new documentary
about Iranian filmmakers, directed by Jamsheed Akrami.
"The Day I Became a Woman," directed by Marziyeh Meshkini,
about three generations of Iranian women. Loews State, 45th Street and
"Smell of Camphor, Fragrance of Jasmine," directed by Bahman
Farmanara, who also stars as a middle-aged Iranian filmmaker. Lincoln Plaza
Cinemas, 63rd Street and Broadway; Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street; Clearview
Roslyn Quad, 20 Tower Place, Roslyn, N.Y.; Cinema Arts Center, 423 Park
Avenue, Huntington, N.Y.
"The Circle," directed by Jafar Panahi, about the lives of
Iranian women. Lincoln Plaza Cinemas, 63rd Street and Broadway.