The Post-Revolution Iranian Cinema: A Tale of Cultural Resistance

Islamic perspective over Cinema sprints through choked valve as it is concieved as a foreign product in many Islamic traditions. In the words of Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini, cinema is deemed “Westoxified” and through Cinema, the West is trying to erode the moral values of Islamic Iran.

         The Cinema of any society is a reflection of its present, its past, and a possible indicator of its future to be. It is a way of understanding the changing ground realities in society augmented with stories, views, and opinions of the people about the socio-economic and political nature of the society that they want to portray. Moreover, through audio-visual translations, one now has greater access to a particular social culture that speaks a different language. It is an evocative way to explore and understand one’s culture.

        Cinema creates images in our heads through visual representation. Apart from entertainment, it takes difficult questions in a more critical and indirect way that creates controversy and dissension, which leads to an exchanges of words within a society, making it relevant for the society depending on nature of subject expatiated by the Cinema. It not only tries to match or alter the stories drawn from society but it affects the psyche of society in manner that leads to retrospect the current order. In other words, cinema is a form of communication that comes from society, and it not only tells where the society currently is but also in which direction the society is moving.

           American Flim theorist, David Borewell theorizes the Cinema as art and the ultimate contour behind making this art is to understand the political and ideological affairs. Cultural ideology along with Political ideology plays an important role in the making of cinema.

        Cinema has become a more effective form of cultural resistance in authoritative societies such as Iran. Iranian cinema underwent major changes after the revolution and became more realistic in its form to withstand the state censorship in line with Islamic laws.

       Italian neorealist Screenwriter Cesare Zavattini rightly assessed that wars and liberation movements always have a deep impact on filmmakers. These important events help them to see and appreciate the beauty and richness of realism and also encourage them to understand the importance of current events that have a profound influence over society.

          In this genre of Iranian films, filmmaking is done through the pseudo-documentary style where non-professional actors are cast as protagonists. Films are shot at actual locations, and such films are edited in a very limited manner. The main theme is about contemporary issues of everyday life. Therefore, making such films in Iran is a political statement in itself because it shows that everyday life is influenced by the very Islamic nature of the state. The films are subtle, simple, and yet have a profound and socially realistic representation of Iran.

          When it became an Islamic republic after the Iranian revolution in 1979, many believed that Iranian cinema would not survive in such a restrictive environment. However, Iranian cinema has not only managed to survive through such a regressive situation but has also been recognized as one of the most innovative and artistic, internationally.

         Films by Iranian directors are being screened at prominent international film festivals. While living in Iran or exile with a realistic approach, this is the new generation of directors who explore social issues. In addition, the upcoming younger generation is also politically and aesthetically more bold than those of post-revolution generation.

         Pictures from Iranian cinema are replacing oppressive images of Iran in the perception of the world community. To make sense of this paradoxical relationship of Iran with the renaissance of Iranian cinema, it is important to look at art’s relationship that developed with the state and society after the revolution.

        The nature of the revolution was cultural but politically induced, provided the directors an opportunity to engage the state in the process of negotiation, protest, cooperation, and defiance rather than being restrained under the state. Thus, cinema, a more developed and easily accessible form of art and most important it is an integral part of non-violent resistance. It also plays the role of social critics in a society where freedom of the press is very limited.

        Interestingly, post-revolution Iranian cinema is inspired by nationalism. In her book “Iran Cinema and the Islamic Revolution”, Shehla Meerbakhtiya argues that this post-revolutionary Iranian cinema endeavors to search and reshape the national identity.

However, through their story line, the films also address inter-related issues of Iran with other national identities. For instance, Afghan refugees in Iran are facing the socio-economic problems and dilemma of their Islamic identity in relation to Iran. The films raised questions about the representation of Kurds within Iran’s national community and, in the broader context, within regional geopolitics.

     The post-revolution Iranian cinema manifests religion and gender-relations at large finely drawn over lines like the concept of romance, the representation of children, Islamic identity, censorship, economic representation, the gap between the understanding of young and old generation in relations with the dominant family values, nativism, social and behavioral aspect of individual and Iran’s ambivalent relations with the West essentially have influence of Islam on each topic, indeed on every aspect of life in Iran as it is the basis of the post-revolution Iranian state and morality.

       As Ziba Mir Hosseini, an Iranian anthropologist, writes on “Iranian Cinema – Art, Society, and State” unboxing different phases corresponding to the political era in Iran. Moreover, each phase brought a variety of challenges and opportunities for the filmmakers correlating with changing political life of Iran.

captured during Iranian revolution, representing women becoming part of identity discourse.

The First Phase: Islamization of Iranian cinema

              Islamic perspective over Cinema sprints through choked valve as it is concieved as a foreign product in many Islamic traditions. In the words of Ayatollah Ruhullah Khomeini, cinema is deemed “Westoxified” and through Cinema, the West is trying to erode the moral values of Islamic Iran. Along with other forms of art, cinema was considered “Haraam”.

         After the revolution, the role of women and the concept of love fall under “Fiqh” or Islamic jurisprudence, where emotions such as love between man and woman were not allowed to be publicly displayed. Imposition of compulsory dress code “Hejab” on women had sexually segregated women from public life.

       There has been “the concept of dualism” in Persian culture related to women and love. The Persian language is written in the manner that it becomes difficult to understand that whether the writer is talking about divine love or worldly love. In Persian poetry, love has always been gender-neutral. Hence the concept of “Iham” or “art of ambiguity” remained among the traditional forms of art.

        In addition, in drama and graphic arts, the role of women was either played by a male, called “tazizheh”, or the representation of women as “neuter” figure, similar to the depiction in the paintings of the early Qajar period.

       During the Reza Shah regime, in the process of modernization, the traditional role and status of women in the public sector changed. In addition, the advent of photography gave representation to women in a realistic way. Therefore, the cinematic representation of love, especially with women, in pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema disturbs this notion of dualism.

         However, Khomeini considered cinema as a tool to educate people; thus, like other forms of art, it was also employed in the service of Islam.

          The nascent regime attempted to bring cinema under state’s ideology to form an Islamic cinema. To provide guidelines for Islamic cinema, the Republic established the Committee for Cultural Revolution, where culture and the arts fall under the state’s control.

       In 1982, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) and its executive arm Farabi Cinema Institute (FCI) was established. The MGIC mandated twelve restrictive guidelines for Islamic cinema. It took several steps to revive the film industry. The role of directors is considered central, so they were encouraged to make films through various measures.

        In the absence of women from the screen, feelings were transmitted through children. Therefore, stories based on children were dominating the screen. For instance, in Abbas kiarosatami’s movie “Where is my Friend’s Home?” or Majid Majidi’s movie “The colour of Paradise”, the children represented emotions such as innocence and the value of friendship. However, the character is never depicted as perfect and as a moral being. Interestingly, the term “poetic realism” in relation to French cinema is also used in Iranian cinema. Hamid Nafisi, wites “Islamizing Film Culture in Iran”, calling it “Post Revolution Moralist Cinema”.

     However, cinema was instrumental behind a political propaganda to promote and spread uproar during the Iran-Iraq War. In his book “Iranian Cinema: a Political Cinema”, Hamid Reza Sadr examines the history of cinema as a tool of political doctrine in Iran. As it has been clear from the beginning, when the authorities understood the enormous impact of cinema in society, they changed their views about it.

      The end of the first phase led to disillusionment with Islamic rule. The reason was that it had failed to provide a better life after the revolution and in addition the war with Iraq brought an economic brokerage. With these changes, the new generation of directors began to raise their voices against ideologically based Islamic rule.

        Mir Hosseini argues that the filmmakers, like other artists, began to free themselves from Fiqh and state ideology. This was the beginning of the failure of the Islamization of cinema.

   The intellectuals and celebrated artists like Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohsen Makhmalbaf made an important distinction between religion and ideology through their writing, arts and cinema making it one of the reasons for the emergence of the “new religious identity”. Makhmalbaf’s cinema was parallel to this new dimension, he reiterated that art should also be free from the state ideology. His film “A Time to Love” was the beginning of a new approach in Iranian cinema where he made a film on a taboo subject like love which was a story about a love-triangle.

    The era has arrived when filmmakers started attacking social and economic problems directly. There was also the rise of new female directors who freed themselves from the dominant male perspectives and began to construct their own narratives. For instance, “Nargees” by Rakshan Bani-Etemad won the award at the Fajr Festival.

A scene from color of Paradise, directed by Majid Majidi

The Second Phase: Cinema after death of Ayatollah Khomeini

          After the death of Ayatollah Khomeini, there were change in power relations in Iran and tension between two different views of Islam got visualized. The so-called right-wing Islamic Republic launched a “cultural invasion” and in doing so, it attacked the Ministry of Culture and the Islamic Guidance leading to politicization of the filmmakers. For the first time, they began to show their political instincts through their films. During the 1997 election, almost all of the Iranian cinematic community came together to support the candidacy of Mohammad Khatami.

        The emergence of the Do-e Khordad movement had played a central role. It was not only a group of 18 political parties of the reformist front, but anyone who was supportive of Khatami’s reforms was part of it. Filmmakers on large scale spoke out in favor of him, and his campaign commercial was produced by filmmaker Seifulla Dad. The Khatami Presidency liberated the MCIG that came under the control of moderates and reformists.

       Their inclination was to open up the cultural, social, and political environment. Therefore, his major contribution was the growth of an independent press and the development of domestic cinema. He established a quasi-government organization named the Farabi Cinema Foundation that provides financial assistance to filmmakers. It is a major base for launching new Iranian cinema and also to promote Iranian films at well-known film festivals. The policies of open culture were the contribution of his presidency.

         This phase of Iranian cinema where films such as Tehmina Milani’s Two Women and Bani-Etmad’s Lady of May brought back the concept of love in relation to women.

       Abbas Kirostami’s famous film, “A Test of Cherry”, deals with suicide, a human act considered a sin in Islam. A middle-aged man is trying to find a person who can bury him under a tree and perform Islamic funeral rituals. In a conversation with an Afghan student, he even called such an act a religious duty to help someone. Through this, he highlighted important theological debates in Islam about suicide. This debate is related to the interpretation of Sura 4, Aayat 29, that whether this refers to suicide or intra-Muslim conflict.

        His style of direction also raised questions related to Muslim identity and further complicated the politics around it. This is compelling because of how binary distinctions are made within identity.

      In another of his films, “Ten”, a young woman is driving a car, which confining a liberating space, around in Tehran and picking up female passengers and interacting with them. It talks about the struggles of their daily life and the choices they have to make to live on their own terms.

       In a bold scene, she removed her headscarf and showed her shaved head. This radical representation of women raises very difficult questions. In Iran, a woman is required to wear a hijab in public places and in the presence of men rather than to her close family members. The car becomes a personal space of expression. Therefore Abbas challenged the legal status of the act through some complex questions such as whether the stationary car is a public or private place.

      As Farouk Mitha, in “the film of Abbas kiarosatami: framing the burd of contemporary muslim identity” analysed some serious question such as Is the veil still important when a woman shaves her head? What would be the legal status of such cinematic representation where women are only expressing their grievance in the presence of another woman? Through such representations the filmmakers force us to think about the position of women in society and how they have rebelled against their adjusted existence.

      Such questions are important because when the Iranian Republic wants to return to its traditional values, these remind us that living traditions are always present in relation to the notion and status of modernity.

       The conflicting nature of traditional values ​​and modernity is still tangible in Iranian society. The filmmakers effectively asked such contradictory and controversial questions despite the authority’s rigid control. Through his film “Leila”, Dariush Mehrjui shows a complex element where one woman is oppressing other women. The character of Leila’s mother-in-law represents the patriarchal system. And despite being a woman, she does not ensure the equal rights of other women. The other question raises how far a woman can resist traditional expectations.

a scene from 'Ten' directed by Abbas Kiarostami questions Iranian Patriarchy.

The Third Phase: Beginning of New Cinematic Order under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad

         Began with the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, this phase is still unfolding. The new era was marked by Asghar Farahdi’s film “A Separation”, a family drama, changing the perception of what Iran could offer. This new era cinema was more conflicting with Political aspirations of Iranian leadership.

       However, this period was filled with political upheaval. Film making became more restrictive during the Iranian Green Movement. This was related to the 2009 election controversy where protesters are demanding the removal of Ahmadinejad from office.

         Female director Hana Makhmalbaf made a documentary, “Green days”, about the movement. The tussle between the authorities and the artists came when Jafar Panahi was arrested for his political activism during the Green Movement. He was sentenced to six years in prison and banned for making films for the next 20 years. He directed a film called “Offside”, a film about girls who are trying to watch the Iranian World Cup qualifier in the stands.

         Another surprising work, “The Circle,” represents a continuous cycle of oppression of women, which is endless. The title of the film represents the main theme of the film. It shows the oppression of women through smoking a cigarette, a simple act that is impossible to do for women. These women could not travel alone, could not afford a room for themselves, and could not have abortions without men. But the desperation of not smoking showed a clear example of foolish bias due to gender.

         The role of the family is primary in Iranian society. Family hierarchies put men and elders at the top, and their permission is important to the younger generation in every aspect of their life choices. It is the duty of each to protect family honor. Therefore, the framework of social behavior is further elaborated.

       However, the changing demographic realities show a departure from such notions. The largest voters are the younger generation, who are less conservative than the older generation. This generation is not satisfied with the restrictive nature of society.

Green Days Directed by Hana Makhmalbaf begged "Best Director Award" From Human Rights International Film Festival, Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan 2010

         The thriving cinema in Iran proved one thing that film production can survive despite being subject to restrictions. In a country like Iran, the filmmakers showed what kind of influence cinema could have. The filmmakers embrace new possibilities to express their grievences regarding the ongoing Iranian societal relations with its Islamic identity. As Daniela Angelucci highlights in her work “Cinema and Resistance”, the art of resistance is dynamis where power is always approached with power not to, which is one of the main elements of the modern cinema image, especially in context of Iran. 

       However, the way the West has interpreted it raises some questions about the Iranian Cinema and the role of its government in promoting it. Nevertheless, it has played an important role in highlighting the major social issues of Iranian society. Despite this, cinema still remains a political tool for the Islamic regime that continues to evolve. One cannot ignore the role of Iran’s

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