My Top 10 Films by Female Directors

This is my first blog post in a long time that hasn’t been a shameless self promotion of one of my own films, and I’m writing it because I think a really important step towards ratifying the dearth in female … Continue reading

Iranian Cinema: The Censorship Issue

So I have been a little too lazy to do film reviews lately with college work weighing down hard and the preparation for making my student film (which is done now, phew!) so I’ll just leave this here instead… A pretty thought provoking topic I wrote about for another college essay.

 

 

Before the 1979 Islamic revolution Iran was governed by the Mohammad Reza Shah, who had become very unpopular with the Iranian people due mostly to how he used his secret police to control the country. A strong opposition began to grow towards this Shah monarchy, an opposition led by a man called Ayatollah Khomeini who distributed his anti-Shah messages through cassette tapes smuggled into Iran [1]. This was the beginning of the Iranian revolution which led to an Islamic republic (declared by Khomeini) after an overwhelming victory in a national referendum in which only one question was asked ‘Islamic Republic: Yes or No’ [2]. Once this republic had been voted in Khomeini set about writing up a new constitution that reflected his ideas for Islam, making a distinct move away from Westernism and towards a fundamentalist Islamic state. Film began to be seen as a threat in Iran, a symbol of Westernism, and hundreds of cinemas around the country were burned to the ground after Khomeini came in to power.

By 1982 very strict rules of censorship had been introduced by Khomeini, who was now Iran’s spiritual leader or ‘Valy-e-Faqih’, that applied in particular to all kinds of media and aimed to “ensure that they conform to the requirements of a new, purified culture” [3]. Anything that he deemed powerful enough to reach even a small audience, (for example print media, television, music, the internet and of course film) was forced to censor its content and also undergo many phases of censorship before it could be approved for public consumption. After looking at the script proposed for a film and making sure that it adhered to their laws, that it didn’t show any part of a woman’s body other than her hands and face (to uphold the newly enforced ‘women’s modesty laws’), that there were no same sex exchanges, no critique of the family unit or state, no coarse language or foreign words, no tight clothes on the women, no foreign music and even making sure that there were no negative or evil characters with beards (!) the censorship board could then request significant changes or simply ban the film altogether. It is remarkable that filmmakers continued with their art at all under these severe circumstances, but post 1979 Iranian film’s soon became highly regarded at festivals around the world for the incredibly creative ways in which they began to express their opinions with subtle imagery and metaphor to slip by the censorship boards and still make the impact that they desired to make, they found a way of circumnavigating censorship through visual metaphor.

The Iranian government began to take note of the power and popularity of its film culture around 1983, they reconsidered the benefits of the art form and started to fund film companies again. The film industry flourished within Iran as it was protected completely from international competition, becoming the most popular form of entertainment in the country. The president of Iran at the time, Khatami, attempted to make censorship laws more flexible, but this would prove to be a long arduous process and when a new president came in to power he immediately made these laws more hard-line once again. Consequentially, Iranian films operate under these strictly enforced censorship laws to this day. Although it may be hard for Western audiences and filmmakers to understand how these writers and directors can stand to work in such conditions many of Iran’s finest in the field actually find that censorship forces them to be more innovative and creative in their work, it drives them to find new and more artistic and subtle ways of expressing themselves which many find challenging and rewarding.

Censorship has made a huge impact on women’s art and films in Iran, and female filmmakers often have conflicting ideas when it comes to censorship and it’s effect on their films. For instance, female Iranian filmmaker Mania Akbari, who started her film career as a director of photography and later went on to predominantly direct documentary films, believes that the fear an artist lives in when trying to adhere to these laws and slip hidden meanings in to their films undetected “can be repressive and it can ruin the whole atmosphere” and states that ideas generated in this hostile environment cannot in her opinion be ‘genuine art’ [4]. On the other hand, Samira Makhmalbaf, daughter of one of the darling’s of Iranian cinema art Mohsen Makhmalbaf, would disagree with Akbari’s opinions on censorship. Makhmalbaf has been making film’s since she was seventeen years old, becoming the youngest director in the world participating in the official selection of the 1998 Cannes Film Festival with her first film ‘The Apple’ and she believes that the censorship laws have actually forced her to be a more creative filmmaker, claiming that “sometimes limitations can make you think harder and seize any opportunity that comes your way to express yourself” [5]. A vivid demonstration of this philosophy can be seen in ‘The Apple’, based on a true story about two Iranian girls who were locked away and deprived of social contact by their father for eleven years. There were no actors in this film, the roles were played by the real people who were involved in the case and Makhmalbaf took a very objective stance on the subject, not passing judgement on the situation depicted or making the film seem biased in any way. She states that it is far more interesting to have sympathy for people and try to listen and understand their situations through the medium of film than to be judgemental [6]. The film seems to subtly comment on how much freedom the average woman in Iran actually has, rather than accentuating the ways in which she is trapped, another philosophy of Makhmalbaf’s who believes that Western women are in many ways less emancipated than Iranian women, forced to wear short skirts and low cut tops rather than a headscarf. Somehow that sentiment resonates with me, especially in relation to the world of film. It is perhaps ironic that we in the ‘free’ West struggle to find female directors in the mainstream, whilst Iranian female filmmakers seem to be highly regarded in their country and in many ways welcomed far more warmly to the platform.

For great examples of how visual metaphors are utilised in Iranian cinema to present allegories for the censorship of artists and Iranian culture as a whole I’d like to discuss the work of Abbas Kiarostami. Many critics state that Kiarostami uses the veiled female form of the Iranian woman as an allegory for Iranian post-Revolutionary film [7], this allegorical imagery is particularly effective in his 2002 film ‘Ten’ which challenged critics and audiences to endure a feature solely consisting of conversations in a mini-SUV between its driver (director Mania Akbari) and various passengers that she picks up whilst driving through Tehran. Although many found the film too tedious to endure, the shocking final sequence in which a woman removes her headscarf to reveal a shaved head proved worth the wait for its powerful visual statement of defiance in the face of the modesty and censorship laws. One critic writes that ‘Ten’ seems to appear as Kiarostami’s “reflection on his own filmmaking culture” [8], that the films form (the conversations cut between a numbered countdown reel) almost gives the impression that this film is made up of scraps of film reel that would usually be edited out by the filmmaker or censors, in the same way that the modesty laws attempt to edit out the true humanity of women from Iranian culture. Kiarostami absented himself from the set of this film as he believed that to show women as central characters in a film “means absenting the male director altogether” [9] to uphold the post-Revolutionary modesty laws. The censorship laws have made such an impact on this filmmakers’ art that they penetrate deep into the conceits of his films and often emerge as their main subject matter. Perhaps the best example of this can be seen in ‘Close-Up’, in which Kiarostami chooses to show the filmmaking process candidly (for example in the court scene when we suddenly see the crew and all the camera equipment in the middle of the scene) to highlight how the art form is reduced to a mechanical process under censorship.

Another interesting case to look at when exploring the pros and cons of censorship and its effects on Iranian cinema is that of film director Jafar Panahi. Panahi’s films have been lauded and acclaimed at festivals throughout the world, but remain banned in Iran today due to these strict censorship laws. His 2006 film ‘Offside’ is broadly considered to be one of the bravest and most groundbreaking films to come out of post-revolution Iran, and although Iran’s censorship laws have stopped the film from being screened within his own country, one could argue that this incredibly moving and intelligent film wouldn’t have been as powerful if not for the restrictions imposed on filmmakers by censorship laws, and the innovative ways in which they must circumnavigate these restrictions. I believe this for two reasons, firstly, that the gravitas of the film is due largely to the invigorating sense of an almost punk rock ethos being at play in the guerrilla filmmaking style of the piece and the fact that it so blatantly defies the censorship laws in the same way that the women at the match themselves are defying the social laws in place in Iranian culture. Secondly, the entire vocabulary of film has been altered in Iran due to censorship making it almost impossible to remove an Iranian film from the context of artistic censorship. A film like this could not be made anywhere but Iran, its subtlety and complex exploration of humanity from many angles is a breath of fresh air to the Western viewer, and the artistic ingenuity and metaphorical imagery that has become synonymous with Iranian film, due almost completely to the challenges created by censorship that artists were forced to overcome,  is clearly demonstrated in ‘Offside’.

What I loved most of all about Panahi’s ‘Offside’ was its exploration of the richness and strength of humanity in the face of power and oppression. Panahi nurtures the viewer’s empathy for these women, whose only wish was to be able to watch a football match in the stadium, by placing us in their position through his use of visual metaphors. The fact that we are never shown footage of the match is in itself a visual metaphor, and forces us to long for that right in the same way that the women do. A beautiful visual statement is made when one of the women asks a guard why they are not allowed to watch the match in the stadium and he replies that it is wrong for men and women to sit together, but the lines are spoken whilst these two people sit side by side with the bars of a barrier separating them. A beautiful, melancholy visual metaphor depicting just how ridiculous the ‘women’s modesty’ rules can be.

One can’t help but wonder if the censorship laws that made Panahi feel so oppressed as an artist helped him to empathise with the women at the football match. The artist is trapped within the confines of these laws in the same way that the female football fans become trapped in the makeshift jail, overhearing at all times exactly what they desire to be a part of but never getting to take part, almost like an Iranian artist who has an idea that they want so badly to express but must veil it in subtlety rather than screaming the message out, like a fan at a football match. ‘Offside’ is in no way a film that was made to please the censorship board and along with other offences to the fundamentalist regime landed Panahi in prison and banned from making films for twenty years, a huge blow to Iran’s film culture and cinema audiences worldwide.Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, stated that the sentence showed Iran’s leaders could not tolerate the arts. “This is a catastrophe for Iran’s cinema” he said. “Panahi is now exactly in the most creative phase of his life and by silencing him at this sensitive time, they are killing his art and talent” [9]. It seems so strange that such a talented filmmaker could create such a masterpiece under the pressures of censorship, and have his career ended, creativity quelled and his art banned in his own country under the very laws that forced him to flourish in the first place.

The issue of censorship in Iran is a complex and multi-layered one. In one sense it’s extremely restrictive to the artist and his/her ideas, but in another it is strangely motivational to creative filmmakers and forces them to perfect the artistry of filmmaking in order to make their statement. These directors have created a cinematic vocabulary to circumnavigate the censorship laws that has given birth to some of the most breathtakingly thought provoking and visually stunning films of the past thirty years, so perhaps the saying is true that necessity is the mother of invention, if you restrict an artist they will evolve to grow around these restrictions and draw incredible defiant energy from their oppression. Ironically, post-Revolution Iranian cinema portrays the pure humanity and multiplicity of its culture (and in particular its women) better than any other national cinema. So, in some strange way, the government restrictions on artists in Iran have created an environment in which the very ideas that censorship attempts to suppress can subtly bloom.

References:

[1] – Iranian Chamber Society. (2012) History of Iran. ‘Islamic Revolution of 1979’. Retrieved 24/2/12 from: http://www.iranchamber.com/history/islamic_revolution/islamic_revolution.php
[2] – ibid

[3] – Mottahedeh, Negar. (2008, p.8) Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema. ‘National Cinema, a Woman’s Cinema’. Duke University Press. London.

[4] – Cousins, Mark. ‘Iranian Cinema’. Retrieved 26/2/12 from: http://vimeo.com/11855731
[5] – ibid
[6] – ibid

[7] – Mottahedeh, Negar. (2008, p.138) Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian  Cinema. ‘Cleansing Vision’. Duke University Press. London.
[8] – ibid
[9] – ibid

[10] – Kamali Dehghan, Saeed. (2010) The Guardian. ‘Iran jails director Jafar Panahi and stops him making  films for 20 years’. Retrieved 24/2/12 from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/dec/20/iran-jails-jafar-panahi-films