Since the installation of Iran’s more moderate president Hassan Rouhani in 2013, things seem to loosen up, both domestically and internationally. Filmmakers hoped that this seemingly more liberal climate granted them more artistic freedom as well, as during Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s reign, severe censorship prevailed. But what did Rouhani’s inauguration really do for them in terms of stretching the freedom of expression?
Writing on Iranian cinema is basically impossible without discussing censorship. In the brief cinematic history of Iran, the relationship between film and the state has always been problematic or complicated. Before the Revolution, the pro-Western monarch used film to spread a positive image of Iran. Films that portrayed a different or negative image of the country were banned. After the Revolution, for a while there seemed to be no place for cinema at all. Hardliners and clerics loathed the medium for imposing immoral Western values. Eventually, ayatollah Khomeini stated that there should be a place for cinema in the Islamic Republic of Iran. Its task would be to teach Islamic values to the people.
Throughout the decennia after the Revolution, under several conservative and more progressive presidents, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance gave filmmakers a bit more freedom, and then again reinforced the restrictions. During hardliner Ahmadinejad’s term, which lasted from 2005 until 2013, filmmakers experienced a period of severe oppression. Some filmmakers decided to leave the country, others got arrested. Several films did not get production permits, and films that were made on the sly were banned.
When moderate president Rouhani got elected in 2013, filmmakers hoped the cultural climate would take a turn for the better. Rouhani’s statements promising greater tolerance on cultural issues, made filmmakers optimistic about the future of Iranian cinema. Were things finally about to change?
In the first few months after his inauguration, Rouhani reopened the House of Cinema, which was closed almost two years ago under the presidency of Ahmadinejad. A first indication of the new president’s support for film. At the first edition of the Fajr Film Festival (Iran’s most important film festival), under Rouhani’s presidency, it seemed that the policy indeed became more progressive. Some previously banned films got a release, the international film industry was interested as never before, and the production of films increased impressively. Optimism prevailed at the festival. However, this optimism was not shared by everybody. Critical acclaimed filmmaker Jafar Panahi, who can be seen as a figurehead in the struggle against censorship, expressed his displeasure in an open letter to Rouhani.
Between the first and the second Fajr International Film Festival, Rouhani’s progressive cultural policy got highly criticized by conservatives in his country. This resulted in two so- called yellow cards to the address of Ali Jannati, Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance. A third yellow card can mean Jannati’s impeachment. A situation similar to the period under more progressive president Khatami, when the cultural policy of Minister Ata’ollah Mohajerani’s got the same type of critique. This led to an accusation of permissiveness, and eventually Mohajerani departing the Ministry.
After a promising start, it seems that Jannati and Rouhani are called back by hardliners this year. Their cautiousness in screening films at the 33rd Fajr festival seems to be a way to avoid further confrontations. We should not forget that the true leader of Iran is ayatollah Khamenei. If he does not agree with a policy, he has the possibility to veto. Also, the members of the parliament that mostly consists of conservatives are in the position to use their yellow cards. A minister that has received three cards can be impeached. With Jannati having collected two already, certain cautiousness is not incomprehensible.
After a good start and widespread optimism in Iran’s film climate, it seems that changing a censorship system at work already since the early days of cinema, is awfully difficult. Khamenei being the Supreme Leader, and the Parliament consisting of mostly conservatives, makes changing the cultural climate a difficult task, even for a president with presumably good intentions. The film industry senses a certain kind of support, but in fact, not much is changing in Iran. As Bahman Ghobadi, director of the famous underground movie No one Know About Persian Cats puts it:
‘It is as if there is a big tank of water but only a glass to empty it with. You don’t see any change but you feel like something positive will happen’.