Film as a Political Tool: Tracing the History of Cinema in Iran

Artistic Production In Iran

When Ayatollah Khomeini declared that his reservation was against promiscuity, not film, the ban on cinema eased. The movies produced after the revolution, however, were distinct from their pre-revolutionary counterparts. Today, many Iranian cinemas have been critically acclaimed and are celebrated by a global audience for their artistic genius and universally compelling stories. But the same films that garner the world’s praise are hushed within Iran’s border. This article will explore the relationship between contemporary Iranian film and the Islamic political authorities intent on molding the nation’s cultural life.

A Brief History

The Iranian revolution in 1979 drastically altered the course of Iran’s politics and culture, bringing back a sense of religious fundamentalism. Citing that depictions of women dancing on screen, relations between men and women, and a range of other themes were a Western import designed to “keep [Iran] backwards,” heavy restrictions were imposed on the types of stories and scenes that filmmakers could present. Harsh punishments were imposed on filmmakers who violated these codes or made films without the authorities’ permission. 

Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance

Established in 1986, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance was designed to regulate cultural production within Iran’s borders, centering a strict interpretation of Islamic Law. In addition to imposing laws that banned dancing, music, and women riding bikes, the ministry also formulated strict regulations for filmmakers, often ensuring that films complied with state standards for morality, decency, and Islamic values. Physical contact between men and women (even married couples) and women wearing heavy makeup or showing exposed hair were strictly prohibited.  

 Filmmakers are placed under the oversight of the Ministry at every step of the production process, from drafting the script to final edits. Cinema often became a vessel for state propaganda rather than independent artistic expression. For example, the production of films with nationalist sentiments was celebrated by the regime during the Iran-Iraq War. A range of films fueling anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments continue to be awarded generous funding and state support. Films in line with the authorities’ political agenda are known as “commercial films.” These are films that oftentimes are produced with funding and cooperation from the government. While commercial films run freely in theaters, they rarely captivate a large audience within and outside of Iran. 

The Choice Film Makers Must Make: How Filmmakers Continue To Tell their Stories  

Today, filmmakers who seek to tell authentic stories that challenge the narrative boundaries imposed by the state have two distinct options. As Jamsheed Akrami, a professor of film at William Paterson University put it, “as an Iranian filmmaker your most prized possession is your ability to undermine the censorship codes and find ways of getting around them. Your artistic gift is like a secondary requirement.” 

Filmmakers who wish to have their films play in Iran’s theaters must adapt creative approaches such as alluding to their intended message without offending the sensibilities of the government. In his interview, Akrami goes on to explain that narrative methods such as telling stories through the lens of children or using rural village settings are tactics that have been employed by filmmakers in the past. A distinct example is the movie “Children of Heaven,” which, on the surface, tells the simple story of a young boy on a journey to find his sister’s lost shoes. While the film hints at themes of poverty and suffering, there is also space to interpret the film as a teacher of Islamic family values. Furthermore, employing children to be the main actors added a veil of innocence to the film and allowed the filmmakers more leeway with regard to dressing style and physical contact.  

Other films utilize strategic ambiguity, not only to carry out a narrative vision but also as a strategy for evading the ministry’s accusations of shedding a negative light onto life in Iran. Abbas Kiarostami’s film, Taste of Cherry, which tells the story of a man driving through Tehran on a quest for an accomplice for his suicidal intentions, is a prime example. The film already drew the ire of the Ministry due to its discussion of suicide, often considered sinful. But persisting through heavy scrutiny at every stage of production, Kiarostami brought this film to the Cannes Film Festival. In doing so, he introduced, for one the first time, Iranian film to a global audience. 

Other filmmakers opt for a bolder, more explicit approach, even at the expense of severe backlash and threat of punishment from the government. Ali Abbasi’s 2022 film “Holy Spider” is based on a true story of a journalist in the city of Mashhad tracking a serial killer on a mission to cleanse the streets of its female sex workers. Not only does this film hint at attitudes towards women within law enforcement but it also depicts scenes of a woman’s bare legs or or uncovered hair. While banned in Iran, this film has been celebrated at several notable film festivals throughout Europe and has claimed numerous awards. In a recent interview, Abbasi recounts the numerous hurdles faced during production. The actress, for example, originally set to star in the film backed out at the last minute due to a fear of imprisonment for the crime of appearing on screen without her hair covered. Barred from filming in Iran, the crew filmed the movie in Jordan. Abbasi further explains the great lengths the team went to in order to ensure that the settings resembled the streets of Iran as closely as possible.

In Conclusion

In a time when protests are sweeping Iran with swaths of the population demanding political, social, and economic change, an examination of the interaction between artists and the Islamic Republic comes into focus. For a Western audience, Persian film provides rare insight into what daily life in Iran looks like. For the Iranian audience, these films perhaps depict a relatable message or become sites of contestation. Regardless of what angle one examines Iranian film, there is no denying that the global applause is well deserved, even to the dismay of the Islamic Republic. 

Guiding Questions: 

  • How is film distinct from other forms of storytelling or art? How do these differences open up a unique set of challenges for filmmakers?
  • What is the role of film in political and social resistance movements?


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