Iranian Cinema: Art, Society and the State
By: Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Summer 2001
Following the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the inauguration of the Islamic Republic, many predicted that new restrictions would kill off Iran's cinema. But Iranian film has survived, undergoing remarkable transformations in parallel with the wider changes in Iranian culture and society. Today, Iranian cinema is recognized as one of the most innovative and exciting in the world, and films from Iranian directors are being screened to increasing acclaim at international festivals. The key to resolving the apparent contradiction between Iran's repressive image and the renaissance of Iranian cinema is to understand the relationship that developed between art, society and the state after the Islamic revolution.
The popular nature of the revolution, and the factionalism within the Islamic Republic, gave the public and artists an opportunity to engage the state in extended processes of negotiation, protest, cooperation and defiance. Contrary to prevalent views, the principal contenders do not fall neatly into opposing camps, with the state on the one side and artistic community on the other. Rather, most filmmakers, helped by liberal segments of the government, have exploited divisions in the regime to confront the cultural conservatives and the segment of the state apparatus under their control. Women and romantic love -- time-honored themes of Iranian film -- became the main focus of this confrontation. Soon after the revolution, women and love were forced into the strait jacket of strict interpretations of feqh (Islamic jurisprudence), which allowed little room for social realities like feelings between boys and girls. With the imposition of hejab (the Islamic dress code) and sexual segregation, the public presence of women and the expression of romantic love became highly restricted. For a decade, Iranian filmgoers could hardly see women and love depicted on screen. The subsequent story of Iranian cinema parallels other post-revolutionary developments in Iranian society: a constant stretching of the limits imposed by feqh-based ideology.
Art of Ambiguity
Before the 1979 revolution, the clerics in Iran rejected cinema, or at best ignored it. Films were among the forms of art considered forbidden (haram), and for many pious families going to the cinema was tantamount to committing a sin. The main reason for this was that cinematic representations of women and love upset the delicate dualism which had long attended these topics in Iranian culture. Love has always been the main theme in Persian poetry, but it is seldom clear whether the writer is talking about divine or earthly love, or (given the absence of grammatical gender in Persian) whether the "beloved" is male or female. Both the Persian language and the poetic form have allowed writers to maintain and even work with these ambiguities. The art of ambiguity (iham), perfected in the work of classical poets such as Hafez, has spoken to generations of Iranians, including the present one. But such ambiguity cannot be sustained in the performative and graphic arts, where both the language and the form demand greater transparency and directness in the depiction of women and love. Among the traditional solutions adopted for this problem were the complete elimination of women, as in ta'ziyeh, the religious passion plays, where women's roles have always been played by men, or idealized and unrealistic representations, such as the "neuter" figures depicted in paintings of the early Qajar period, which were embodiments of how the "beloved" was described in classical poetry. By the late nineteenth century, with the advent of photography, the representation of women had become more realistic. The drive for "modernization" under Reza Shah, and the corresponding takeoff of cinema as public entertainment in Iran, reinforced this tendency. Not only had Iranian women's public roles and status changed, but women and love stories were integral to the film industry from the start.
The nascent Islamic Republic was thus faced with a dilemma. Aware of cinema's power, the Islamic authorities could neither reject nor ignore the medium as the clerics had done before. On the other hand, feqh had nothing to say about film, apart from imposing its rules of halal and haram on cinematic images and themes. Khomeini's regime made a concerted attempt to bring cinema under the domination of state ideology and subject it to a process of Islamization. But the Islamization process has failed, as filmmakers, like other artists, have gradually managed to free their art from feqh injunctions and state ideology.
Trying to Islamize Art
The three phases of the relationship between cinema and the state correspond to socio-political phases of the Islamic Republic. The first phase, now referred to as the First Republic, lasted for a decade, beginning with the creation of the Islamic state. "Liberals" and "moderates" confronted "radicals" and "militants"; the latter, supported by Ayatollah Khomeini, won the struggle to control the post-revolutionary state, and excluded the former from power. This first phase, dominated by the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), saw the ascendance and almost undisputed power of feqh-based Islam and the suppression of reformist and modernist visions of Islam. Attempting to bring culture and art under its control, the regime created the Committee for Cultural Revolution. The Ministry of Culture and Art became the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), with a mandate to Islamize all kinds of art and cultural activities.
Through its various organizations, the regime promoted the creation of a distinctively Islamic cinema in the early 1980s. In those years no quality film was produced, and women and love were almost totally absent from the screen, though women were present behind the camera, even working as directors. In the absence of women, love and human emotions could be channeled through children, so stories based on children dominated the screen. In the mid-1980s, the grip of feqh-based ideology gradually loosened, and a period of qualitative growth started. Iranian cinema started to attract international attention once again.
Toward the end of the first phase, Islamic intellectuals and artists such as Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohsen Makhmalbaf -- disillusioned with the policies of the Islamic Republic -- began to voice objections to the regime's feqh-based Islam. There are parallels between the emergent "new religious thinking" of Soroush and the new cinema associated with Makhmalbaf. For Soroush, religion is "bigger than ideology."  For Makhmalbaf, the same is true of art: art can free an artist and it cannot be contained in a strait jacket of ideology.
New Round of Factionalism
The end of the war with Iraq in 1988 and Ayatollah Khomeini's death in 1989 brought about a shift in the power structure. With Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i as Supreme Leader and Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani as president, a new phase started, referred to as "reconstruction" and marked by an increased tension between the different visions of Islam and between the two ruling factions within the Islamic Republic: the so-called "rightists" and "leftists." The strategic alliance of "radicals" and "militants" within each of these two factions now started to break down. The leftists, who had dominated under Khomeini, now gradually lost their ministers from government, their parliamentary representatives and their influence in the judiciary. This new round of factionalism focused on art and culture. The notion of "cultural revolution" gave way to that of "cultural invasion," which became the right's ideological tool for discrediting and eliminating the "enemy within" -- their leftist opponents. These included some of the early militants and radicals, who were gradually breaking away from absolutist ideologies, and were developing a more moderate and liberal outlook. This group was later joined by some of the "moderates" and "liberals" (now referred to as "religious nationalists," melli-mazhabi) and secularists (the "different thinkers," digar-andishan) whom the radicals had overcome in the early years of the revolution. Together they became the backbone of the reformist movement that emerged in 1997.
The rightist faction concentrated its attacks on the MCIG. Mohammad Khatami, the minister since 1982, had laid the foundation for the growth of a domestic cinema and an independent press as part of his general contribution to the development of open cultural policies. The Farabi Cinema Foundation, a semi-governmental organization, put a partial ban on the import of foreign films and provided financial support for filmmakers. At first Rafsanjani sided with Khatami, but since cultural development was not among his priorities, he abandoned him and Khatami had to resign in 1992. By then the rightist faction enjoyed the support of the Leader, and its hold on power was almost complete. This meant the end of the open cultural policies of the late 1980s, and a renewed attempt by the rightists -- dominated by conservative clerics -- to impose their vision of feqh-based Islam on cultural and artistic production.
Cinema as Social Critique
But it was too late. The old taboo topics of women and love had already come out of the shadows. Mohsen Makhmalbaf's film A Time to Love (1991) marked the beginning of a new approach. It dealt with the forbidden subject of a love triangle (one woman, two men), and the relativity of human conditions and judgments. A Time to Love was shocking, not only because it revealed a change of position by a filmmaker committed to Islam, but also because he chose such a sensitive storyline -- a tale of romantic love -- to convey his message. Shot in Turkey, the film was shown in Iran only at the Fajr Festival, not in public cinemas, though it was passionately debated in the press for some time. During this phase, women film directors broke away from the male vision and started to produce films dealing clearly with female characters and love. Notable among them is Nargess by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (1992), another love triangle story (two women and one man), which won the main 1992 Fajr Festival award.
In the absence of a free press, cinema came to provide a kind of social critique. Its favorable critical reception meant that it also reached outside audiences, putting it in a unique position as the alternative face of Iran to the world. The conservative policies of the rightist faction, which now controlled the MCIG, politicized the filmmakers. During the 1997 presidential election, for the first time filmmakers made their implicit political tendencies explicit. Almost the entire cinematic community came out in support of Mohammad Khatami. His campaign commercial was produced by filmmaker Seifollah Dad, and a number of other filmmakers spoke in support of his candidacy.
Medium for Reconciliation
With Khatami's unexpected election, the MCIG was freed from the control of those (now called "conservatives") who still adhere to a feqh-based definition of social reality, and came under the control of "reformists" who advocate more tolerant cultural polices. This new phase -- a "Third Republic" -- has brought a breakthrough for Iranian film, with women and love publicly rehabilitated in releases like Tahmineh Milani's Two Women (1998) or Bani-Etemad's Lady of May (1998). One feature of this phase is the emergence of younger voices demanding personal freedom and questioning the whole notion of feqh-based gender relations. These voices are heard in films that deal openly and critically with gender roles and have love as their main theme. Meanwhile, international acclaim for Iranian cinema in the 1990s has helped the Iranian diaspora to renegotiate their relationships with the land they left. For many Iranians living abroad, film was the only thing coming from Iran of which they were not ashamed.
This new phase is still unfolding, and it is too early to say anything definite about its direction. What is certain is that the marriage between art and ideology has proved to be as problematic in Iran as that between religion and politics. Today Iran is in a transition from theocracy to democracy. The radical discourse dominant in the 1980s has been challenged by a more pluralistic one, which is forging a more tolerant political atmosphere. Cinema -- like other cultural and artistic products -- has come to play a central role in this transition. Not only does it continue to provide a new social critique, it has also become a medium for reconciliation between Iranians inside and outside the country.
Sussan Siavoshi, "Cultural Policies and the Islamic Republic: Cinema and Book Publication," International Journal of Middle East Studies 29 (1997), p. 509.
Peter Chelkowski, ed., Ta'ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran (New York: New York University Press, 1979).
Afsaneh Najmabadi, "Reading for Gender through Qajar Paintings," in Layla Diba, ed., Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785-1925 (London: I. B. Tauris, 1999).
The first Iranian talkie, The Lur Girl (Ardeshir Irani, 1933), was a love story with a woman in the leading role.
The Committee's task was to Islamize universities, which basically meant purging teachers and students who did not conform to the state's ideology. In an interview, Abdolkarim Soroush has openly talked about the early activities of this committee, and the disputes and confusion in its ideology. The interview is posted at: http://www.seraj.org/far1.htm and http://www.seraj.org/cultural.htm.
Amir Naderi's The Runner was an isolated case. See Houshang Golmakani, "A History of the Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema," Chicago Film Center's 10th Annual Festival of Films from Iran (1999), http://www.webmemo.com/iran/articleview_2.cfm.
Hamid Naficy, "Veiled Vision/Powerful Presences: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema," in Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika Friedl, eds., In the Eye of Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994).
The best-known instances include Amir Naderi's The Runner (1984), Bahram Beyzai's Bashu: The Little Stranger (1985) and Abbas Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House (1987).
The title of one of his many books. See Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Islam and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999), ch. 7.
See Lloyd Ridgeon, Makhmalbaf's Broken Mirror: The Socio-Political Significance of Modern Iranian Cinema (Durham Middle East Paper No. 64, 2000); Hamid Dabashi, "Dead Certainties: The Early Makhmalbaf," in Richard Tapper, ed., The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity (London: I. B. Tauris, forthcoming).
For a discussion, see Siavoshi, pp. 516-19.
See Naficy, op cit., and Sheila Whitaker, "Rakhshan Bani-Etemad," in Rose Issa and Sheila Whitaker, eds., Life and Art: The New Iranian Cinema (London: National Film Theatre, 1999).
Hamid Naficy, "Islamicizing Film Culture in Iran -- A Post-Khatami Update," in Tapper, op cit.