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Taste of censorship
It is still not too late for Iranian film-makers to shoot off a few letters in defense of Marjane Satrapi

July 7, 2007

Ten years ago the Islamic Republic of Iran, in what many regarded as a charade, 'mulled' barring director Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry from the Cannes film festival. The film went on to become co-winner of the Palme d’Or, arguably buoyed by the publicity Iran’s threatened withdrawal generated.

Ten years on and another Iranian film, this time funded by French money, is co-winner at Cannes of the Jury prize – France ignored the mullahs’ protests and the film was allowed to take part.

The 2007 Bangkok international film festival, which kicks off this month, however, was not so bold. Last month, in a coup for Iran’s Islamist censor, Thai authorities agreed to withdraw Persepolis, the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, from the festival.

“[The filmmakers] tried to make Iranian people sad and upset with the Islamic revolution, which is not true,” a spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Bangkok told AFP last week. (Charmingly, he identified himself only as ‘Mohammed’.)

He added: “We appreciate that the Thai organisers understand, and now we are trying to introduce other good award-winning Iranian films.”

This last statement is worth note because it confirms the fact that the Islamic Republic believes in the PR value of its film output, even if Iranian directors are reluctant to accept they might be acting as facilitators in this regard.

Most are long-dogged by the complaint that they fail to use the high profile afforded by the international festival circuit, to talk about the elephant in the living room of atrocities under the Islamic Republic. Their stock response is that art operates above, or separately from, politics.

But while that’s academic, one thing is clear: Iran’s directors have signed no letter to any newspaper in Marjane Satrapi’s (and co-director Vincent Paronnaud’s) defence, condemning the decision to ban Persepolis in Bangkok.

They must be asked, is the plight of Satrapi’s film a political issue they cannot touch or simply a matter of cinema, the medium they so often, in romantic terms, claim to adore? (“Oh, the lights! How I used, as a boy, to cherish Uncle Hasan projecting Murnau’s Nosferatu onto the side of our house in Tehran for all our neighbours to see. Even Ali the butcher was enthralled by the magic of the lights! Oh, cinema!”)

Satrapi is important because she is one of few Iranian artists operating outside the Persian language sphere, who is scathing about the Islamic Republic and the US government in equal measure, while offering a sophisticated window on the culture of her homeland.

It is still not too late for Iranian film-makers to shoot off a few letters to the press in her defence and get the Thai authorities to overturn the decision to bar the film on the grounds of what the mullahs claim is the 'Islamophobic' thrust of its narrative.

I believe the international film community should boycott the Bangkok film festival and that Iran's acclaimed directors should speak out for Satrapi and Paronnaud. Otherwise we can expect more festivals to follow Bangkok's example and toe the Islamic Republic's line. Comment

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