Islamic Republic -- not Iranian -- cinema
June 6, 2001
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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