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Success shmuckcess
Islamic Republic -- not Iranian -- cinema

June 6, 2001
The Iranian

A film festival dedicated to works by filmmakers from the Iranian diaspora has been organized in Canada and will be playing in New York June 9, 14, 15, and 16th. The celebrated filmmaker and actor Parviz Sayyad wrote a letter to the organizers taking issue with the way in which they are representing the festival in relation to recent films from Iran. He also asked the letter to be translated and distributed as widely as possible. Mr. Sayyad will be speaking after the showing of his film "Mission" on Saturday June 9th in New York City. For information on the festival go to: www.alwan.org/nyc. The letter was translated by the New York festival coordinators. Also see Setareh Sabety's reply, "Canary in a cage."

Dear Friends, Organizers of the Festival,

I hope you are well. You've picked an appropriate title for the event you are planning. It reminds me of the first symposium of Iranian filmmakers in exile (October 1993, Gutenberg). There, the suggestion was also made that instead of using the word "Exile" (Tab'id) we use terms like Diaspora (Ghorbat) or "Immigration" (Mojaherat), etc., in order to be inclusive of all the work done in cinema and television made exclusively outside of the filmmaker's birthplace or homeland.

Ofcourse, at that time, for those present at the symposium -- myself included ­there was still a glimmer of hope that the cinema in exile could function as an antidote to the deceptive cinema of the Islamic Republic. But the passage of time proved that those less hopeful were right and that in this100-year experience of cinema, no "diaspora films" of any immigrant group let alone ours has been able to last. Despite that, without doubting your good intentions, I'll share my concerns with you here frankly.

The underlying problem in this effort is the comparison that will be drawn, intentionally or not, by both Iranian and non-Iranian audiences, between the body of work you will show and the work the "Islamic Republic" has been producing for its export cinema. This creates a competitive basis for assessing these films which works against the weaker party -- the cinema of exile.

You certainly have the right to call the recent showings of the "Islamic Republic" films "successful" and even to use this "success" to the advantage of the exiled filmmakers by drawing the attention of non-Iranians to them. But I do wish you had not used this tactic in your invitation letter in order to convince me to submit my film The Mission and In Der Fremde (Far From Home) made by the late great Shahid Saless [P. Sayyad acted in the latter film.].

Your use of the term "success" in relation to the "Islamic Republic's" films in an attempt to render me "eager" leads me, instead, to firstly inform you officially in writing of my stance vis-à-vis this issue, and secondly, to request that the showing of the two films be incumbent on your distribution of this letter at the festival.

The fundamental disagreement I have with your position is that you wish to place the credit for "success" on "Iranian cinema" where I would place it on the "Cinema of the Islamic Republic". I don't intend to be argumentative, but as the saying goes, I am dead and you, alive! When this regime finally takes its last breath, you will see, eastern and western critics alike will certainly term the films from this period as the "Cinema of the Islamic Republic".

No attempts on your part or mine to defend Kiarostami, Beizai, and other respectable filmmakers in Iran will be of any use in changing this. Let's not forget that since the first century [in Islamic calendar, ie., 7th century AD], after the Arab invasion, until today, although we've never had an official Islamic government with the supervision of the Velayat-e Faqih [system of clerical rule], historians world-wide appropriated all of our cultural creations to "Islamic art", not even giving a break to Hafez and Beihaghi. We have not even settled the dispute amongst our own historians and academics over the works of Farabi, Biruni, Abu Sina, or Zakarriya Razi (who discovered alcohol) as non-Islamics!

It is understandable that we, Iranians, now scattered all over the world, have fulfilled our need for national pride, at times, with the victory of our football team, and at other times, with the success of exported films to international festivals. But these do not mean we should lose touch with reality! The big difference between these two arenas is that, as opposed to sports (which is a national issue), cinema is a purely state-run enterprise -- there is no middle ground. Every production, from beginning to end, is subject to the "guidance" or interference of the regime. You can say: "such-and-such a filmmaker is a master at his work." You are absolutely right! Or "such-and-such a film is certainly a masterpiece."

There is no denying that! But what do all of these films do, ultimately, other than to gain legitimacy for an illegitimate government in the international cultural arenas? Some say that in some of these films there is a certain kind of resistance to the government, and others show downright criticism of the regime. That's even worse, because these films show that one could criticize the regime! ... or resist it and stay alive! and even go on to "shine at international festivals"! This is the great lie that the good films from the "Islamic Republic" have been telling the world about this regime.

These "good and alternative" films, produced with the support of loans and credit from the state, are made with the intention to be exported. Even if they do not receive permits to be shown inside the country, they are promoted for export abroad. They are in fact a form of hush money, paid by the religious fascists ruling Iran to international film festivals and cultural centers starting back in the early 90's with the sole aim of obscuring their crimes.

It is only in these intellectual settings that there is discussion about the "Islamic Republic" because of its government-sponsored films on display, without any reference to its continual human rights crimes and support of international terrorism that the regime is accused of year after year. And who knows, perhaps the "Islamic Republic" is even commended -- though indirectly -- for supporting and presenting such films.

A seriously critical film like "The Circle" shows the oppression of today's Iranian women trapped in the corrupt clutches of the "system", and even though it does not have a permit to be shown in Iran, there was, nonetheless, barely a single international festival that did not show the film. Believe me, even if they lift the ban on its showing in Iran, still the number of public screenings it receives in Iran will not even come close to what it receives in the land of the "Big Satan" known as the US.

The production and wide distribution of such a film outside of Iran -- at a time when repression has hit an all-time high, and a new round of arrests have been carried out -- is a sign that the ruling regime (more appropriately, the empire of lies and deception) has discovered the utility of cinema (which is itself ultimately a phenomenon of deception and fantasy) in its foreign policy.

At first, the Islamic regime turned its head from cinema especially after the burning of movie theaters in the heat of the revolution, but eventually it came to realize how, with the creation of "Islamic cinema", it could brainwash the younger generation. A government-sponsored film industry with the correct ideological-political slant making up 90% of the films produced -- those meant for internal consumption ­ is still closely aligned with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance.

The remaining 10% of films produced are those exportable films that work as hush money to gain legitimacy and open the doors of friendship for the regime abroad. The government has learned these tricks thanks to the help of international film peddlers and a cadre of intellectuals inside Iran.

The success of these same films -- which you are promising to be profitable to people like me -- has dulled the sensitivity of intellectuals and freethinkers outside of Iran in assessing the true and deeply anti-cultural essence of the "Islamic Republic". It is hard to make these same intellectuals understand that the living conditions and the rights of our people is, by many degrees, even more shockingly inhumane than the former system of apartheid in South Africa, whose cultural products and athletes were banned and boycotted around the world.

The success of these films, and that of the mass-deceptive posturing of the Tehran regime (as exemplified in the "Dialogue of Civilizations", or the conditional freeing of Googoosh from a 20-year old captivity) have become an obstacle for people across the world to understand that the Islamic regime in Iran is in essence no different than the Taliban in Afghanestan. The difference may only be that the Afghanis, perhaps fortunately, do not have brilliant and accomplished filmmakers, as we do, who would attempt to imagine the slow death of that country as an endurable kind of "living", and to give life to this lie through exotic and poetic films.

And why should we assume that the Afghanis don't have accomplished filmmakers? Why do we perceive ourselves as being so special? It may be closer to the truth to say that accomplished Afghani filmmakers have not been discovered yet -- or that the foreign profiteers, with the help of internal intellectuals, have not yet shown the profitable uses of "alternative" cinema to Mullah Omar.

It would seem that we Iranians, even more than the film critics and specialists in the West, have been fooled by the enchanting lies of the advanced Cinema in Iran. This has prevented us from understanding that we do not even have a real "Cinema". What we do have is a "film-making industry". This is because we make films without having enough the cinemas to show them at.

We've forgotten the fact that cinema, the most popular and populist phenomenon of the 20th century, has been out of reach for the general public in our country. From the 420 active cinemas before the revolution which serviced about 30 million people there now remain 170 run-down cinemas for a population of 65 million people! This means that in some cities in Iran with a population of a few million, there is not even one cinema -- or if one exists, it is at a prohibitive distance for most to use.

Our respectable filmmakers try to save face on their highly esteemed international trips and usually say nothing about the lack of theaters at home. Somehow they truly believe that the goal of filmmaking is simply to make films, not to show them to the people -- who are deprived of the simple right to go to their local cinema with their spouse, lover or fiancé without any interference, as they are deprived of other benefits of contemporary society.

Our more worthy and accomplished filmmakers have discovered that their goal -- if they have one -- should be to produce "alternative" films. That is "alternative", non-commercial, festival-pleasing films ... that are in fact commercial in a different kind of way, since, outside of the country, a "market" has been developing for them. "Alternative" films -- whose difference with commercial cinema is a certain non-chalance towards the box office -- is incumbent on the flow of government loans and credit. After all, it is only governments that are capable of making films that have no audience.

These films follow in the legacy of the previous Soviet Republics, Hungary, Romania, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, before the fall of the Berlin Wall. On one hand, it was these countries, in the 60's and 70' s, that provided films for that festivals that aimed to counterweight the western commercial, particularly Hollywood, cinema. On the other hand, this cinema fed the chains of small art theaters which depended on intellectual, non-commercial films for their sustenance. In the second half of the 80's, the countries that previously had exported state-sponsored films, all gave their seats to the "Islamic Republic", which emerged as one of the only countries that produced alternative and non box-office-oriented films.

Of course, China and Cuba still had state-sponsored cinema, but the former didn't care enough to gain legitimacy from artistic cinema and the latter didn't have the resources to carry out such ends. In this way, only the "Islamic Republic" was able to exploit the huge market for alternative cinema. Soon, the annual Fajr Film Festival, located in the Islamic heartland [Tehran], became high competition grounds between various blue-eyed businessmen and blonde Islamically correct, rag-headed (lachak be-sar) businesswomen, who were competing for those "alternative" films that had escaped the hatchets of Islamic and state censors.

Slowly, the situation became such that the film authorities, who previously had no qualms against giving away silk rugs and caviar as gifts, began to put demands on festivals and conditions on the Western profiteers. "You want Makhmalbaf? ... Well, first you need to add these other films to your festival," or "You want Kiarostami, or Beizai, or Mehrjui?.... Well, you must take a dozen other films and do a week-long retrospective that we arrange for you!... And, by the way, we have filmmaker sisters for you as well!" This last claim was made to dispel any doubts that the "Islamic Republic" does not provide felt caps -- rather, head-rags -- for women filmmakers to wear as well.

But let us be fair! This purely cultural and noble bartering is not without value. In this exchange our esteemed filmmakers, who are really working hard inside Iran, have achieved fame and "international success". Do you still think, out of this "success" a felt cap could be made for likes of me? Do you not see my own worn-out cap well fit?

"The Mission" was made in 1982, well before what you have stated as the "recent success of Iranian cinema". Maybe some people, upon seeing this film, can understand that its filmmaker can not, and should not, look to gain anything from an association with the cinema of the "Islamic Republic", a cinema which he has never seen as legitimate.

In the midst of all kinds of superstition, I must admit that I still yearn for the fortune-telling powers of Hafez. I just opened the book - see what it taught me:

I care not for the jewel of Solomon's ring
That at times, bears in it, the workings of evil

Parviz Sayyad

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