Challenging the Censorship in Iran

By Parviz Jahed

this-is-not-a-film-jafar-panahi.jpgThis Is Not A Film, 2011

On 20 December 2010, Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi was handed a six-year jail sentence and a 20-year ban on making or directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving any form of interview with Iranian or foreign media, as well as leaving the country. All of which led to much media attention and outcries from the public and international film community. In 2011 his latest film This is Not a Film (In film nist, 2011) made during that house arrest and smuggled from Iran to Cannes in a data stick hidden inside a birthday cake – received the Carrosse d'Or from the Cannes Film Festival.

This interview was conducted before the occurrence of his condemnation by the Iranian government, in his apartment in Tehran on a wintry day in 2008 during the Fajr Film Festival, an event in which his films were – more often than not – prevented from being screened due to allegations of inappropriately political or subversive content.

Parviz Jahed: You were recently part of the jury at Rotterdam, can you tell us about the event, where there any films that caught your interest?

Jafar Panahi: Rotterdam is rather more like a "souk" for films than an event that places importance on the competition aspect in the vein of Berlin or Cannes. But they do have a section for competition between the top films, and I was the head of the jury and we would grant three prizes of equal value, two of which were given to films from East Asia and one or two European films. While I have been to various festivals throughout the world, I can determine that Rotterdam is in the same league as the Toronto festival, for example, it's a market for film people where different fields of the cinema try to get in and watch the films and inevitably choose which films they wish to buy and invest in.

PJ: Were there any films from Iran in the line up?

JP: There were one or two in the more minor categories. But in the category I was judging, there was nothing from Iran.

PJ: There seemed to be a time when every festival featured a film from Iran, but recently the presence of Iranian cinema has become somewhat faded.

JP: That's the inevitable case in every country; you could look at the current state of national cinema in Japan or Mexico for example. They might have a golden age and then there might be a downturn. Just this year Majid Majidi's film [The Song of Sparrows, 2008] was shown at Berlin and won the Silver Bear for best actor and I am sure that we will have a representative from our country at Cannes. We shouldn't regard this as something alarming, as would those who are opposed to cinema in Iran, who would want to celebrate the early death of Iranian cinema. It is currently very clear to everyone that Iranian cinema is facing a downturn, but it's only noticeable more recently. In the past there was little expected from Iranian cinema, it had its modest attraction, whereas recently a lot more is expected from it and these expectations are growing every day, and the cinema must try to do something to overcome these setbacks, and I'm sure it will be able to shake it off and continue to rise. And of course the situation of the film industry and the decline can't stray too far away from internal matters whether political or economical they have a substantial effect, and Iranian cinema is interlinked with, and reliant on, such factors.

PJ: Recently Iranian filmmakers wrote a letter in protest of Iranian government's policy towards cinema. I believe you are one of them, who signed the letter, and you were in protest of the words of Mr Jamal Shorjeh [extremist filmmaker] against Iranian independent filmmakers.

JP: When I was in Rotterdam, I was informed that such events had occurred in Iran and I looked it up on the internet and I found a petition was formed and I gave my signature to it, and when I returned [to Iran] I found out in more detail what was going on and there I heard they had withdrawn Bahman Farmanara's film from participation at the Fajr Film Festival, which did not come as a surprise. This goes back to two years ago when Mr Saffar Harandi, the Minister of Culture and Islamic Guidance, in his initial interviews in regards to cinema said something like, "We must supervise a film project from beginning to end, from the screenplay to production." And then, I remember, at that moment I wrote an article and did an interview, which were published in Shargh [newspaper] at the time, pointing out that with this way of thinking, the situation for our cinema is going to get worse every day. And I can't comprehend how someone else could keep track of the thoughts, or an idea of a scriptwriter or director, when it is something that may come to you at any moment on the street or in your home or in your bed... how would they be able to monitor what you're thinking then and how are you going to develop your ideas. And this way of thinking inevitably leads to – like it has this year for example – the way that they are using Fajr Film Festival to account for how uncooperative filmmakers are, and how they can best quench this defiance they will face from independent filmmakers. Mr Harandi has given his own description of what he expects of Iranian cinema, the "permissible cinema" [Cinema-ye Mobaah] as he called it, something that could causes no transgression or benefit, no advantage nor disadvantage, and it mustn't have a critical outlook towards anything, and the audience should be left with nothing to think about when leaving the movie theatre. They would want a cinema that is consistently neutral, that has the static effect of nothingness. This is a template which is suggested by Mr Harandi, and any film which deviates from this, however slightly, will cause offence to them. And we could see their way of thinking through the people who have spoken on their behalf.

offside-jafar-panahi.jpgOffside, 2006 

PJ: But on the other hand we hear slogans about the idea of a "national cinema", a worthwhile cinema with a national or religious serving and one which is meaningful in this sense.

JP: Well, the notion of a national cinema is a different discussion. They would never use the adjective "national" unless it was for the purpose of mass deception – we would see time and time again, they would label a cinema to be anti-Iranian. Their understanding of cinema is not something that I would approve of as the definition of a "national" cinema. When we look at football we don't have a national team, we have a team that represents the Islamic Republic, the Parliament of the Islamic Republic or Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcaster [Seda va Sima-ye Jomhuri-ye Eslami], or anything else of the like. But the only thing they were unable to stick this adjective to, was cinema... it doesn't even roll off the tongue. So their only understanding of it is something that is aligned to the ideologies of, and one that is in service of, the regime. I have been unable to provide a sufficient description, other than something seen through the prism of ideology in service of the regime and its goals. If you make a film that doesn't correspond to this type of viewpoint, or even their current description of it, then an event like this would occur.

PJ: What is, in your opinion, the most critical problem with Fajr Film Festival?

JP: The Fajr Festival is actually one of the most politically orientated festivals in the world. We don't see any other event which is so utterly governed by the political will and expression in the same way, where the influence exerted is the ultimate factor when it comes to anything. The judgement panel is interlinked with the method that they use to select films, which is through politically driven decisions; everything about the selection is thus motivated. I was only a member of the jury once in Iran and that was seven or eight years ago at the Isfahan International Festival of Films for Children and Young Adults, I only accepted to be juror on the condition that there would be no involvement on the censors' part, and in the jury panel there wouldn't be anyone else present, just the jurors. And it was so that I became part of the jury, and on the last day when we were coming to a decision, one of the authorities came in and I told him that "until you leave the room we won't commence" and so he left the room. After that, I was not asked to be a juror again. They want to decide for themselves who deserves the awards as opposed to basing their opinion on the film's merits. If the film doesn't cohere to their way of thinking, then it must be boycotted. Just this year we had the jury being shuffled and changed, films are put in an unimportant category or not included in the festival at all, we don't see anything of the like in other festivals. And so neither is the selection committee esteemed, nor are the censors' own opinions, which are prone to being changed whenever they feel like it. At other festivals, if someone has been chosen to rank the films, they've been chosen as the jurors, no one but them is in charge of making such decisions, their judgements aren't to be supervised or changed to suit the government's, or anyone else's inclinations.

PJ: What do you think constitutes as the deciding factor for the selection of the jury at the Fajr Film Festival?

JP: There are some things that must be in accordance to their ideologies and such, but really there is no single individual able to have a complete influence, even if someone like Mr Jamal Shorjeh supports a certain film it may still not be included in the final selection, because he is not the decision maker. They cannot tolerate the slightest notion of independence, but they do place people in this position for trivial and decorative purposes, so their opinions are not worth anything. From this point of view it is the most political festival in the world designed to serve the single ideology and the will of the Ershad [The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance]. For example, I saw the film We Only Live Twice (2009) by Behnam Behzadi and I liked it very much, yet because they didn't think it adhered to their purposes then, it wasn't to be included in the main running of the festival but rather put in a side category. We see this happening all the time.

PJ: What are your opinions about the International aspect to the Fajr festival?

JP: There is still a certain keenness from foreigners to attend the Fajr Film Festival and this enthusiasm stems from the position and significance of Iranian cinema in the world circuit. Many would like to be the "discoverer" of the latest new films and they always retain hope for Iranian cinema, and also when they see that a film is not included in the selection they would try to get access to it, via bootleg... and that's what happened with my film The Circle (Dayereh, 2000). I had a poor quality VHS copy to show, but it was accepted, and it was the Venice Film Festival which chose to screen it and in a sense they "discovered" it. What they do come for is the domestic Iranian films, what's going on domestically is the only genuine appeal for them. The international aspect of it shouldn't be taken seriously; it's there for the sake of inclusion.

crimson-gold-jafar-panahi.jpgCrimson Gold, 2003

PJ: Would you consider the way that films are chosen for screening in the Fajr Festival to correspond with the manner in which films are distributed on a national scale?

JP: It's very difficult to determine any parallels because they constantly change the way they do things. Nothing is for certain, there's a sense of it all being done on the spot and that can change by the day. A film they screen at Fajr might be prevented from distribution after that, or the other way around, if a film is seen to have problems, but a person comes up in its defence, it'll get the go ahead. There's no way of pre-emptively knowing what course a film will take. And if they were forced to decide from and include films made throughout the year, it would all depend on the prevailing opinion and events happening for the government, and when the film gets made, they might pick up something they hadn't before. There was once a time when you had to consider a film's screening at Fajr as a gateway to that film being released at other cinemas. But now it's become so very different, there's no way of telling what the censors will think of your film and how it will change from one minute to the next; the censors are programmed to think so constrictively. When a film is being given the go-over, it must be in line with every authority's point of view and become so condensed to the point where there is no such thing as cinema. Until notion of cinema with "no advantage nor disadvantage" is achieved, but then it reaches a point when this is no longer the definition of "acceptable cinema" and the methods and ideals are changed around once more; advantage and disadvantage mean something different.

PJ: Most of your films have been prevented from distribution in Iran, what is your personal experience in regards to the censorship mechanism present in Iran?

JP: I follow a strict principle not to accept a single frame from my film being taken out or being moved about, and you are aware of the problems this leads to. Naturally, we cannot have this expectation of everyone in the industry; there are only a few people who adhere to this refusal. I personally won't allow for it, while I'm making a film, I just pour everything into it and put no thought into whether they're going to allow its release. The only thing that goes into it is whether I want to make such a film, and whether I am pleased with the result. And after this production is complete, I then put these considerations into thought about how it will be distributed or what the film critics are going to think. So it's rare that I give thought to the prevailing tastes of others. I refuse to allow for a single frame to be moved about for the reason that it could lead to a bigger problem of you having to subconsciously censor yourself. For example if you might start to think, say that I've put in the effort and waited for the right moment to capture a shot and, eventually, the censors cut that bit out. I wouldn't have done that if I was inclined to think "Well look, what's the point of me putting all of the effort in if I know that it would be removed, or there's a chance that it could be." They put pressure on the filmmaker during the filmmaking process and after production is over, they force you to censor yourself and during these stages, they effectively remove sense of ownership; it is no longer the film that you wanted to make. Up until this point, whether outside or inside influences, for any reason, political or otherwise. I've given no consideration for this way of thinking. Because it is just as damaging to your filmmaking as it does to the individual film.

PJ: What is the censors' problem with your filmmaking?

JP: That's the thing, I don't know, because I'm never given a convincing response. I make it with the aim of having the film shown in Iran, but I don't abide to the idea of self-censorship because that is the eventual aim of the censors' work, it's what they want for us; to reach that point of censoring yourself. But while making a film I reiterate to myself, "This film is going to get shown", to motivate myself to make my film. I try to keep to my convictions and while, deep down, I know and realise that, for example, if I was to make a film about a subject, I really focus on it thinking of it as my duty and artistic need. Not what problem the censors might have with it or what they'll think about it in the end. I must satisfy this artistic need, and I don't intend to stop just because it might be boycotted. If I focus on a film I will carry on through with it till the end, not abandon it and move on.

PJ: Regardless, there is a system of rigorous control and you are required at various stages to comply and be put under control. For example, you need to have a permission slip before you can begin shooting a film etc. But how do you operate, clearly, when there is this issue and it is one which has remained constantly present throughout the history of Iranian cinema?

JP: It is no doubt a persistent problem and you need to find a way to make your films. As you say, it always has been like this. I mean even looking at the Iranian director Sohrab Shahid-Saless' experience when he wanted to make his first feature film A Simple Event (1973). He was given some negative film to make a short film but he managed to save the negative to make a feature film by getting the shots in one take. So in a way, he circumvented the system in place. And this is consistently the case for Iranian filmmakers. There are times when it seems unfeasible to be able to make a film, you can't imagine that it would work... but then you realise that something can be done and there are ways around such obstacles. Whether after or before the revolution, when most of our energy goes into thinking of ways to make it happen, countering the constrictions and hindrances in place, I maintain that 80% of the effort that goes into making the film; it's just using your ingenuity to work around such problems. This is what must be done if you wish to follow such pursuits in Iran, and everyone has their own ways to do this, different from another's methods.

PJ: How far do you abide and give consideration to the red tape and the absolute taboos that persist within Iranian cinema?

JP: Never. When I was making The Circle, in Iranian cinema there was not a prostitute as a character in a film, so naturally I would think not to include it, but it had to be there – at the end of the film – otherwise it wouldn't have been complete. They told me to take out 18 minutes from The Circle but I didn't accept. I don't intend to follow what they have allowed for us to do and what not to do, just because they might allow something and not allow something else doesn't mean that you must only feature the aspects which they've permitted, and not include others. We aren't trying to change our films to make them fit the tastes of those in charge, or that of the critics, the domestic audience, the foreign audience. We want them to accept our films based on their own tastes. So there's no red tape in this approach to cinema making.

the-circle-jafar-panahi.jpgThe Circle, 2000

PJ: Despite all of this, how much do you censor yourself?

JP: Never. If I believe in something and I choose to make it, I will put in my all to make it happen and, unless it was physically impossible for me to make it or if I couldn't secure a budget for it. In the past three years I kept coming up with ideas and projects which I immediately scrapped because I thought this isn't my film. When I decided to make The Circle, everybody told me not to make it. I was under a severe pressure and it took me nine months to attain the permission to make it. And finally, I made it, because I had to make it. There is no influence on me and I never compromise. Once I told the authorities that if you do not let me make films, I make a film with a person in a room and the consequence would be a trouble for you. And it is possible in these days.

PJ: Was there any idea at all that you ever liked to make but you abandoned it because of the censorship?

JP: No, never. I made six films and they were those that I wanted to make. If I was not allowed to make a film, I would persevere until I could make it... it's never happened that I've abandoned a film I intended to make, up to this point. With Offside (2006), I was told by the authorities to shorten my previous film in order to be allowed to make it. It was impossible. So how I would go about making such a film is that: first, I had to make it with a video camera because the regulations are much easier. Second, I didn't let anyone know that it was me who was making the film. I tried to make people think that someone else was making the film and I was the consultant etc.

PJ: What about permission slips? There were films that were refused because of just that – they didn't have the permission slips to make a film in the first place.

JP: That's where the 80% comes in. You have to look around until you find the right way to do it. But if there is a film that requires a big production and there's absolutely no way of obtaining the slip, then there's nothing you can do. But that just goes to show how resourceful the independent filmmakers in Iran have to be. And this also shows that independent films are the best of any kind in Iran, because they don't require the makers to give leeway to others under any circumstance – they're purely in it to make their own film.

PJ: An independent film requires an independent producer, is there such a notion in Iranian cinema?

JP: No. The reason that I produce my own films is that the censors try to put pressure on producers, and if a producer had more than one film in the running, they would threaten that person to prevent his or her other films from being released, if the one is problematic for them. So the producer would choose to sacrifice that film. Or if I was to use an unknown producer and the film failed to be a success, then it would be very damaging for that person, and I couldn't live with that. I wouldn't want anyone else to be my accomplice to a "misdemeanour", because that would lead to more problems for both of us. That's why in Iranian films, the producer credit is often accredited to the director or an unknown.

PJ: Although the foreign audience is familiar with your cinema, as most of you films have had effective foreign distribution, the domestic audience on the other hand have not been able to see your films. Wouldn't it have been better if the film you had made was seen by the Iranian audience?

JP: If this was a few years ago, I would have agreed with you, but now it has become different: if someone wants to see my film, they are able to, maybe not in the cinema... if we consider Offside, I had planned for the film to get its release one month before the World Cup tournament started – and it did precisely that; It never got the release I wanted but, people did see it, everyone had a DVD copy. It was impossible to get in the way of it being seen. They would have had to put all their effort into preventing it being made in the first place.

PJ: But the piracy of films is seen to have negative consequences for the film industry, is that not the case for you?

JP: Well, that's irrefutably the case, but for a film which wouldn't get any other source of distribution, it can be beneficial; to get the censors to think that "well, it's going to be seen eventually." The people who are responsible for the pirate releases don't put thought into whether it would cause financial damage to the film industry, they think of their own purposes and that's how these films get their release.

PJ: What about your opinion on the defectiveness of Khane Cinema [the Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds], in protection of filmmakers from an issue such as piracy, I seem to remember that you had made criticisms of the institution in your letter.

JP: Within a system where everything is regulated and all cultural activities require surveillance by the government, these bodies become meaningless and of lose all value, Khane Cinema is linked to and reliant on Ershad, so it is not an independent guild for members of the film industry. Their only pride is their ability to secure insurance for a film, and when it comes to real issues, it comes up short. I continuously brought this up and talked to people at Khane Cinema about the issue, but to no avail. I wrote a letter to the manager of Khane Cinema, stating that, "until you are able to separate yourself from other authoritative bodies, I refuse to be involved in any of your activities, because the path that it is carrying on in will leave no option other than it transforming into a replica of Ershad." Consider this: at the gala held by Khane Cinema, I tried to have the film Offside screened, yet no one, not even those who were members of the guild, were allowed to see it, only the jurors were allowed to have access to it. And I wrote to them that if this is the case, where I am not allowed to display my work among my own guild members, then I have been reduced to an irreverent member of the guild, and this could have adverse consequences for Khane Cinema... and until it can divide itself from the government and its bodies and secure independence, it's an ineffective film institution.

the-mirror-jafar-panahi.jpg Jafar Panahi on the set of The Mirror, 1998

PJ: Have you made any efforts to get your previous films such as The Circle or Offside released?

JP: I doubt anyone has tried as hard as I have to get the films released, I've tried everything, except to have my film shortened – which I refuse on principle – I have tried anything else.

PJ: What are your intentions for your next project?

JP: I can't elaborate, just to say, that I intend to make a film about the people who have been affected by war – of whom I am one of in real life. I will adopt the humanitarian approach to war, to the people affected by war, who were in the war and are returning to their homes.

PJ: It seems like it would be a large-scale project requiring at least some sort of cooperation from the state...

JP: Yes, although you shouldn't consider it as a war film, with shooting etc. It will still require some provisions and facilities which are hard to get... a train for example. I don't want to set it against a specific setting and location. It is a general view on the consequences of war, and war is all over the world and affects people from every part of the world.

PJ: What are your predictions about Iranian cinema in the years to come?

JP: So long as someone such as Mr Saffar Harandi is in place, day by day it will become worse, they will not cease until they achieve their goals, so we have wait and see how much of an effect they will have, and if they have an unlikely change of heart or opinion. Like I said, currently, an event like Fajr Film Festival is an experiment to determine the extent on how to make filmmakers constricted and how they are able to further constrict them in the future. And I suspect that it will remain as such in the foreseeable future.

PJ: With these considerations, is there a possibility that you may one day choose to leave the country and make your films outside of Iran?

JP: There are filmmakers such as Sohrab Shahid Saless or Amir Naderi, who started here and built their foundations and reputations in Iran, and once they left Iran it seems that they have lost their nous for good cinema. There is that, and there is also personal preference. It has been suggested to me that I go to LA and make a film about the Iranians there, and it had backing from large companies so, financially speaking, it would've been a fruitful project. But I have no familiarity with that place and even if I stay there for a few months it will only give me a basic understanding; I can't make a film outside of the country, and I have no real incentive to do so. It depends on how you approach things and your ideas when it comes to making cinema, I regard fame and money to be the derivative of producing good works and I don't actively aim to chase them for the sake of it. I have no reason to do so now, but if at some point it becomes a necessity for me, then that's what I'd be willing to do. I will try to pursue my career in this geography, but with a humanitarian and worldwide perspective.

The interview was originally published in Jahed Parviz (2012), Directory of World Cinema: Iran, London: Intellect Books; and has been amended for publication in Vertigo.

Parviz Jahed is a freelance film critic, journalist, filmmaker, and lecturer in film studies, scriptwriting and directing. He is the author of a number of books and essays on Iranian cinema and the editor of Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Bristol: Intellect, 2012).