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Annalisa Monfreda - reporter


reportage > Iran, November 2007

Geo Italy - n. 23

Iran, takes on freedom
An army of 90,000 producers, directors
and cinematographers. A production of 100 films per year. Mile-long lines at the box office late into the night. In a country that used to gag journalists and demonize music, cinema is the most prevalent form of expression. An industry financed by oil.
That has found its own free space.

«The cinema is an instrument of God. The best way to transmit his message to people». Sunglasses, long beard, hat pulled down over his forehead, his face severe. Davud Mirbaqeri is the ayatollah's favorite director, an ascetic of the movie camera. But this does not prevent him from adding: «The religion that I am speaking of is the true face of Islam: a private matter that should not get mixed up with politics, as happens in Iran». Then he turns and shouts: «Durbiiiin... (camera) Sedoo... (sound) Harekat! (action)».

The signal resounds over an expanse of scorched earth, over date palms that reach defiantly toward the sky and land mines that still blow people sky-high. We are in Abadan, a city on the Persian Gulf that was pounded by Iraqi bombers during the 1980-1988 war. Today it is the set of Mokhtar-nameh, a film about a hero of the past, but also the greatest Iranian cinematographic production: four years of shooting for a TV series of 40 episodes that are also bound for the big screen. In the 8th century, the Mokhtar who today provides work for 200 actors and 1,500 technicians was the leader of the Shiite people's great revolt against the martyrdom of Hossein, Mohammed's grandson. The message it sends to the Iranian people? «Mokhtar is a great politician because, when the revolution is over, he chooses a path of moderation», director Mirbaqeri says. «Radicalism», he pronounces slowly, «leads to death».
Though he is speaking of a man who lived centuries ago, the harshness in his voice betrays the allusion to a president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who shouts death to Israel. Who shuts down the last reformist newspaper published in Iran and resumes the demeaning floggings in public squares. And yet, in this Iran, there is a story that still remains to be told. Its protagonists are men and women like Davud Mirbaqeri, endowed with gold by the Islamic Republic, yet free to inscribe their way of thinking on film. The free territory in which they live is called the film world: one of the most prolific and independent forms of expression of this populace.

In 2006, Iran produced 100 films, 200 TV serials, and 2,400 shorts and documentaries. For years, it has been the foremost cinematographic industry in the Middle East and Africa. The seventh in the entire world. A bizarre fact for an Islamic State that, as such, discourages the representation of the human image. Born of a Revolution that as its opening act burned down 180 movie houses, transforming many of them into prisons or silos. And that thundered against Hollywood: «Either cinema or paradise». Well, Iran has chosen both of them.

In 1981, the same ayatollah Khomeini who two years earlier had covered women in veils, silenced music and gagged writers, stated that the cinema would be his country's university: «A modern invention that must be used to educate the people». His exact words. The Iranians did not make him repeat them a second time. There they stand, waiting in line at the box offices for hours, even if it means getting tickets for the last showing of the night. Packed into the bazaars, picking through piles of DVDs, sold for 50 euro cents each. Begging for the autograph of the actress of the moment. In Iran, the only stars who are "tolerated" are those of the cinema. «If only because we sign autographs for the same men who by law must keep an eye on these forms of veneration», Fatemeh Motamedarya, Iran's version of Sophia Loren, says with a wink. There's hell to pay if you make a false move however: the eyes of the regime are always waiting to pounce. Several years ago a video filmed at Fatemeh's house fell into the hands of the mullahs: in it the actress appeared tackling a parody of a war song. Two years of exile in Paris was the price paid for this intemperance.

«Durbin... Sedo... Harekat!»
Another location, another take. In a bedroom overheated by the breath of 15 technicians and makeup artists, a father nurses his sick daughter. In the next room, a 50 year old man, freshly shaven, observes the scene on a small screen. Kamal Tabrizi is one of the Iranian public's best loved directors. In this apartment on Sarve street, in elegant north Teheran, he is shooting his new film, There's Always a Woman Involved, in great secrecy. It is the story of two young people who divorce and later, after extraordinary adventures, get back together again. Subject to arrest soon afterwards, guilty of cohabitation without being married.
The examination Committee of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, charged with reading scripts before production permission is given, did not like the story. And that is not surprising, since the Sharia, the Islamic legal code, provides for 100 lashes for anyone who engages in sex outside of matrimony. «They forced us to rewrite the story», Tabrizi recounts. «So we presented the same subject using different words. At that point they discouraged us from shooting the film, denying us any economic support. But we went ahead just the same, reducing the budget and… tolerating a 'watchful eye' on the part of the Ministry», he says, indicating a bearded gentleman who is wandering around the set, perhaps in search of disheveled veils and a "wrong" word in order to stop the shooting.

This is only the first step along the path of censorship obstacles. When the filming is completed, the examination Committee will have to view the film before issuing the projection permit. A go-ahead that will not insure against a third censorship, that of the people: there are pressure groups - deputies, religious fanatics, conservatives - who succeed in blocking a film even after it has been released. «It happened to my film Marmoulak (The Lizard) in 2004, that lasted only a week in the theatres, before being blacked out», Tabrizi tells us. It was enough time to clean out the box offices: the story of a thief who escapes from prison by disguising himself as a mullah, and commits all sorts of outrageous acts in that guise, amused even the most bigoted public. They say that even former president Mohammad Khatami arranged a private viewing of it.
«I am on my eleventh film and I still have not stopped fighting the censorship», Tabrizi says. «But it is not an insurmountable problem. If the main road is blocked, one can manage to express his thinking by finding other roads. And I am sure that the viewers, unlike the censors, always understand what the director is trying to say». Producer Jamal Sadatian explains: «In other countries they think that in Iran there is less freedom than what we actually have. Out of a production of 100 films, only 4 or 5 encounter censorship problems. That does not mean that all the others are "in conformity", but simply that directors have become masters of self-censorship».
An art applied by Iranian artists even in the time of the shah. And refined over the course of a history studded with tyrants and invaders. Even Firdusi, the Persian Dante, who lived between the Xth and XIth centuries, managed to obtain the economic support of Islamic rulers for a work, the Shahnamah, that was an epic of pre-Islamic Iran. How did he do it? By passing it off as an important recovery effort to reclaim Iranian history and the Iranian language. An expression of cultural nationalism, in short, that is the mission which invests filmakers today. Tolerated because they are ambassadors of the Country's identity. «Kiss the king's hand, if you cannot cut it off»: the words of the thirteenth-century poet Sadi have never been so true.

«We directors are like petty lords: we construct a fiefdom and we form the right relationships, maybe with a mullah who helps us get through the censors». Kiomars Pourahmad, born in 1949, utters these words without a shred of circumspection. Tall and thin as a rail, with long, tapering fingers and snow-white hair, he has just been given an award at the foremost Iranian cinematographic festival, the Fajr. His film, Night Bus, deals with the Iran-Iraq war, but does so from a not very orthodox perspective. Depicting, that is, the human relationships between Iranians and Iraqis. «I get financing from the State, I endure its 'psychological tortures', but in the end I always make the film that I have in my head», he says. «The reason is that faced with the greatness of the cinema, the ultraconservatives can only surrender. Therefore everyone wants to make films: it is the only place where you can express your ideas, where you can find a way to get your thinking across». But with the election of Ahmadinejad, in 2005, things have changed a little. Last June, Parliament approved a law stipulating the death penalty for producers of pornographic films, where by porno is meant any image that depicts intimate parts. «The greater the pressure, the greater the desire to make films», Sadatian says.

«Durbin... Sedo... Harekat!»
Another take, shoot! In the outskirts south of Teheran, the sumptuous palace of an Egyptian pharaoh is concealed behind the façade of an abandoned theater. A fiberglass masterpiece created by 18 set designers in six months' time. Farajollah Salahshor is filming the final scenes of Youssef (Joseph), a Biblical colossus for Iranian television destined also for the great screen: 150 main actors, 250 technicians, two and a half years of shooting. For the actresses, it is one of the rare occasions in which they can appear before the camera without a veil. But only because the veil is brilliantly replaced by wigs. Inevitable, instead, is the historical fallacy of the costumes: «In the time of the Egyptians, they were not so sober-minded as to cover every inch of bare skin», jokes wardrobe manager Jaleh. After lunch, a mullah summons the actors together for daily prayer. At the behest of the exceedingly religious Salahshor, who has a clear vision of his craft: «The director is a messenger of God and the only films worthy of being made are religious ones».
Youssef, along with Mokhtar-nameh, is one of the 15-20 productions entirely financed each year by the Islamic Republic. The others receive some economic support however. Because the cinema, in Iran, is a State art. Not by law but in fact, given that a producer cannot count on proceeds from the box offices (there are too few movie theaters: 350 in a Country of 70 million inhabitants) nor on DVD sales (in large part illegal). «If I had to make a living from films, I would not be here any more», jokes Jamal Sadatian, one of the few independent producers who can afford to make films without State support. His secret? «I live on other means entirely. The money that I invest in films is earned in the building industry». This does not mean that the films produced in Iran are only propaganda films. «It is one of the marvelous paradoxes of our Country», Sadatian continues. «To make films that are on averge free using the money of the ayatollahs».
State funds are distributed through Cima, a television production company, and Farabi, a semi-governmental cinema foundation established in 1983. «The magnitude of the financing? It depends on the quality of the script, on its originality and on the values transmitted», says Amir Esfandiari, the man in charge of Farabi's international affairs. Those who want to make films for children can count on support from another public institute, Kanoon. While for beginning directors there is the Experimental Center for Cinematography and Documentary. «Doctors, engineers, housewives, truck drivers, writers: in Iran, everyone sooner or later slings on a camera and shoots their own film», says Shirin Naderi, who runs the Experimental Center. «Every year, at least 200 young directors submit their first feature film to us and another 400 propose plans for short films. Our committee reads the scripts, estimates the budget and determines the type of support, economic or technical».

Following the Revolution, the Islamic government not only saw to subsidizing productions, but also created an absolute army of producers, directors and cinematographers. The Institute of Young Iranian Cinema is a kind of free, public school with sites spread throughout the Country: 55 centers, 6,000 students per year. «Since 1985, the year it was founded, at least 90,000 young people have studied script writing, production or photography in our Institute», says Akram Varshochi Fard. And it was in one of these very institutions that Asghar Farhadi picked up a Super 8 for the first time. «It was 1984, I was 12 years old», he recalls. «I lived in Isfahan and I worked in a photographer's shop: there the passion for images was born in me. So I enrolled in the school in my city and two years later I made my first short film. It was a love story between young people my age. I even won a prize: a bicycle». For those who believe that these young people become the creative arm of government propaganda, Asghar is an opposite example. His film Fireworks Wednesday, presented last year at the Locarno festival, generated as many hassles with the censors as ovations from the Iranian public. «Do you want to know the truth?», he chuckles. «The Islamic Republic offers young people the education and the tools to become its opposers». A paradox that is even more true for women. After veiling them, the Revolution needed their vote and their minds, therefore it let them out of the house, it allowed them to become emancipated, not knowing that it was fostering one of the most shattering forces in the society.

The result is that 60 percent of those enrolled in the university are members of the gentle sex, just as the film that has earned more than any other in Iranian history - Cease Fire of 2006 - bears the signature of a woman: Tahmineh Milâni. A director who in 2001 opened her way to prison by shooting a film, The Hidden Half, about the conflict between secularism and fundamentalism during the Revolution. Interceding for her release was then-president Khatami.
Why on earth did the Islamic Republic orchestrate the rise of the seventh art? «The cinema is an extraordinary propaganda weapon», says Asghar Farhadi. «What better mechanism to erase the negative image that Iran had in the world after the Revolution? They wanted to create an Islamic cinema. But the cinema got out of hand. It has become so powerful that no one can stop it».

«Durbin... Sedo... Harekat!»
Action! Amplified by the megaphone, the signal rebounds between the dunes and reverberates for hundreds of meters. A powerful explosion chokes off the echo, raising a cloud of sand. It feels like being in battle. And instead we are a few kilometers outside of Tehran, on the road to Qom. Twenty-five hectares of land where, 15 years ago, the Revolutionary Guard brought hundreds of tanks. It assembled tankers, guns, explosives. It planted date palms and had the terrain leveled. Until a City for war films was created: a set available to directors who wanted to shoot films about the Iran-Iraq conflict, without having to go to Abadan. In the past year, the number of films on the subject has increased inordinately. «What is there to be surprised about?», asks Majid Sadeghi, 30 years old, manager of the studios. «The Second World War has been over for 60 years and you still have not stopped making films about it. We do not want another war: if we make so many films it is so that the tragedy will not be repeated».
These films obtain the financial backing of the government, but do not win the hearts of viewers. And how could it be otherwise, in a Country where 70 percent of the population is under 30 and scarcely remembers the war of 1980-1988? «The Iranians love films that address everyday problems and stories with which they can identify», explains film critic Antonia Shoraka. «It is not easy to produce them, with a censorship board that imposes continuous falsification on you. Starting with the veil: in front of the television camera, women must wear it even in the home. A husband and wife cannot touch each other even when they are alone. Not to mention taboo subjects like religion or protected categories such as nurses, doctors, policemen and laborers, who may not portrayed as negative characters».

The mesh of censorship becomes even tighter for television, that is viewed by 80 percent of the population: «A lock of hair that slips out of the veil can pass on the big screen but not certainly on the CRT», says Mohammadreza Abbasian, manager of Cima, the state television production company. And the government's interference does not tend to be subtle. Last year, paralleling Ahmadinejad's address at the UN on the nuclear issue, a new positive character appeared in Narges, a TV serial of great success. His job? Employee in a nuclear power plant. Who engaged in lengthy monologues on the utility of that energy and how greatly it was needed in Iran. «Because of the censorship, the distance between what happens on the screen and what takes place in real life is notable», director Tabrizi says. «That is why, when a director succeeds in showing the truth, his film is a success». To prefer social themes and those of customs and mores does not mean staying away from political issues. «In Iran everthing is politics, even a love history, even the way one dresses», says Asghar Farhadi. «Here we all have political ideas. I would say that we are obsessed. All you have to do is take a taxi, and in three minutes' time an argument begins. Even now… you don't really think that we are talking about cinema?».

Text by Annalisa Monfreda © Geo Italy, November 2007
Photographs by Stefano De Luigi
English Translation by Anne Milano Appel