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Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami and censorship in Iran

National Public Radio
Morning Edition
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 D'Arcy reports.

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 language)

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 rights.

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 working.

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 tools needed.

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, he says.

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 of today.

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.


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