The curious paradox of Iranian cinema

The successes of Iranian cinema have been achieved despite rife state censorship, and now there are signs of positive change

Jafar Panahi's The Circle returns to the IFI tomorrow. Its screening serves as a reminder that the relationship between Iran's political and artistic culture remains complex and fascinating.

Iran's Islamist leadership may be distrusted in the West but its cinematic output is venerated. Films such as Close Up, Gabbah, Taste of Cherry, The Apple, Kandahar, A Separation and A Girl Walked Home Alone at Night have won awards and imitators across the world. Jean-Luc Godard once declared that cinema had begun with DW Griffith and ended with Abbas Kiarostami, arguably Iran's foremost director.

Curiously this success has been achieved in tandem with a regime where censorship is rife. Yet such strictures have often led to a particular type of film-making: apparently simple pieces of work that sometimes make potent use of symbol, or sometimes just draw our attention to less explored aspects of life.

In many ways Panahi embodies the paradox of Iran's film success. He worked as an assistant to Kiarostami before making his first feature, The White Balloon, a near archetype of the Iranian new wave in its portrayal of a little girl who is trying to buy a goldfish in Tehran.


His most recent feature, Taxi, won the Silver Bear at this year's Berlinale. However, the 55-year-old film-maker was unable to accept his prize in person. In 2010, Panahi was convicted of committing crimes against national security. He spent time in the notorious Evin prison and went on hunger strike before being placed under house arrest. He has been forbidden from writing and directing for 20 years.

Although the charges were denied, his work had shown increasing engagement with social and political issues. The Circle, his fourth film, is very much a part of this trajectory. It tells the stories of four Iranian women experiencing subjugation. It won the Golden Lion in Venice but was banned in his homeland.

Panahi is not alone in facing such repression. At this year's Galway Film Fleadh the director Mohsen Makhmalbaf described to Kieron J. Walsh how he and his family had to flee Iran for Paris after a series of attacks on their film sets. They have recently had to relocate again to London.

Political narrative

In February the Iranian authorities banned any mention of former president Mohammad Khatami’s name in their media. This had a particular resonance for fans of Iranian film. As minister for culture Khatami’s initiatives in the early 1990s laid the foundation for the Iranian new wave. He is now referred to in his country’s national press as “the fifth president of Iran”.

These events greatly undermine the latest political narrative featuring Iran, the US and their new nuclear deal. In this storyline, the Obama administration, at twilight, finally free to create a meaningful legacy, meets with the reformist-minded president, Hassan Rohani.

The reality is more nuanced. The advent of Islamic State, for example, has greatly strengthened the potential for a US-Iranian entente, while Israel’s continued belligerence towards Obama and Iran has almost forced the two together.

The 2013 election of Rouhani as president is significant, but it would be a mistake to ascribe all credit on the Iranian side to him. Much of the power in Iran lies with the religious authorities, the Council of Guardians and the supreme leader, Ali Khamenei. Middle Eastern analyst and author Dr Neil Partrick says that Rouhani's efforts had "their clear blessing".

Similarly it would be misguided to understand Rouhani as a reformist in the mould of “fifth president” Khatami. Iran came close to seismic political change during the 2009 Green Movement, but Rouhani was careful to distance himself then from its now imprisoned leaders. Khatami, by contrast, sided with them.

There are more basic reasons for Rouhani's success and the nuclear deal. Iran's economy suffered hugely under his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His hawkish foreign policy led to sanctions, which cut export revenues by a third. This, alongside mismanagement, corruption and the collapse of oil prices, shrank output.

The nuclear deal may reverse all that. The supreme leader has set a target of 8 per cent average annual growth for the next five years, up from its current 2.5 per cent, and there are hopes that the country might one day rival neighbours Saudi Arabia and Turkey. Rouhani is seen to be the man to helm this project.

Iran's potential is immense. Its population of 80 million is well-educated, and more than 60 per cent are under 30. The country's oil and gas reserves are vast. It has a rich cultural heritage. There are caveats, however. Frustration with its theocratic system is widespread but qualified. There is real distrust of western values. In 1953, the then prime minister, Mohammad Mossadegh, was overthrown in a coup organised by US and UK agents after he attempted to nationalise the Iranian oil industry. For many Iranians this was the start of Iran's most recent problems.

There are schisms, too, among Iranians themselves, between the religious leaders, their supporters, the wealthy of north Tehran, the middle classes, those living in the countryside and its ethnic minorities.

Such variousness informs and mirrors Iranian cinema. Consider the difference between the relative didacticism of a Makhmalbaf film and the more abstract nature of Kiarostami's work. It is also notable that there are more female directors working in Iran than in nearly all western countries. Not every film-maker operates in a state of oppression. When Asghar Farhadi won his Oscar for A Separation in 2012, he was lauded by the authorities.

This seemed surprising given how the success of other Iranian film-makers has been received, but, as London based film-maker Arash Ashtiani explains, Farhadi has worked for the state broadcaster for years. "He knows very well what to do and the red lines to go around."

Incomplete analogies

It is tempting to liken Farahadi's methods to those of Rouhani, and contrast these to Khatami and Panahi, but analogies are rarely completely useful. A Separation was nearly shut down while in production after its director defended Panahi. There are numerous signs of links between the younger men and their radical predecessors. Rouhani's cabinet is filled with former ministers from the Khatami era, while Farhadi's naturalism and use of child actors is inspired by Kiarostami and Panahi.

Iran, under the leadership of Rouhani, with a new nuclear deal and Oscar-winning film-makers, could be on the cusp of a more central role in global life. In recent days Panahi released a statement on social media urging support for the deal, warning that “war and sanctions bring about crisis, and crisis is the death of democracy”.

A recent report in the Wall Street Journal quoted Hojatollah Ayoubi, the deputy in charge of cinema in the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture, who said that Iranian cinema "which could only enter the world by a window can come in through the front door. We want to encourage all our filmmakers to work, including those who didn't work under Ahmadinejad". Jafar Panahi's situation is less promising. In the same statement Ayoubi described him as a "unique case" and "the only Iranian film director whose problem is a legal one which has nothing to do with the minister for culture or the government".

Panahi remains under house arrest. Support from the likes of Steven Spielberg, Robert de Niro and Juliette Binoche has achieved nothing. In theory he could be forced back into prison to serve a six-year sentence at any time. Yet he continues to make work. In 2010 he smuggled This is not a Film out of Iran on a USB stick within a birthday cake. The footage showed him sitting in his apartment and describing the film he would make if he could.

In Taxi, the director drives a cab around the streets of Tehran and films his conversations with passengers. At one point he discusses making "distributable movies" with a little girl played by his niece Hana Saeidi. In Berlin she movingly accepted the award on his behalf.

His comments on the nuclear deal aside, Panahi has said little in public although a statement released in January this year makes clear his intentions. “Nothing can prevent me from making films since when being pushed to the ultimate corners I connect with my inner-self and, in such private spaces, despite all limitations, the necessity to create becomes even more of an urge.”