Insidious Tempter: A History of Iranian Cinema

Despite years of intimidation, censorship, and violence, Iran's filmmakers continue to rise above the nation's restrictions on the medium.

Still from "Children of Heaven."

At about eight in the evening on August 19th, 1978, Hossein Takalizadeh, an aspiring young revolutionary, convened with a few friends at a liver-kebab stand in the middle of Abadan, a poor English oil town in southwest Iran. A local radio repairman named Farajallah Bazarkar soon joined the others with a concoction he’d prepared in his shop’s backroom: four soda bottles of turpentine cut with vegetable oil. Thus equipped, the group shared a cab to the Rex Cinema—a cheaply built movie house wedged into the second floor of a shopping mall downtown. Hossein and his mates bought tickets to the evening’s film, Masoud Kimiai’s The Deers; and, with a supply of very flammable solvent concealed in paper bags of pistachios and roasted seeds, the men took their place among the nearly seven hundred moviegoers crowding the dim auditorium. The Rex was ablaze by the end of the first reel. Hardly anyone would make it out alive.

Takalizadeh burned the Rex Cinema to the ground because the Ayatollah Khomeini told him to—because the Ayatollah Khomeini hated movies. In the gathering dissent of the days before the revolution, according to Hamid Naficy’s four-volume Social History of Iranian Cinema, anti-shah radicals “urged the destruction of cinemas, banks, liquor stores, discos, and Westernized restaurants,” objectionable to the pious “as representatives of the ‘corrupt’ and ‘decadent’ Pahlavi cultural and economic system.” Among Islamists11Lest there be any confusion, I’m speaking here of Islamist and Islamism, a violent, extremist ideology—as distinguished from Islam, the Muslim faith. the movies were regarded as a frivolity of the West: vacuous diversions poised to lure good Muslims from the path of righteousness. Mojtaba Navvab Safavi, an Islamic fundamentalist prominent in the 1950s, called American movies “a smelting furnace” before whose intensity the sanctity of Islam would duly wither. Khomeini’s denunciations were even more colourful: the movies, alongside other depraved secular horrors like dance and “mixed-sex swimming,” “rape the youth of our country and stifle in them the spirit of virtue and bravery.”

Yes, well, you can see why Khomeini felt obliged to do something about that. And after the Islamic Revolution he was empowered to. (Of course the 1979 revolution was not, technically speaking, Islamic—not at first. Potentiated by Islamist thought, perhaps, and its participants mobilized by Islamist campaigns, but never intended by the populace to entrain the installation of a religious leader. That came later: through shuddering, pullulating violence. The very short-lived Prime Minister Shapour Bakhtiar and the secular government with whom he replaced the Shah were soon usurped by Khomeini and his fundamentalist supporters.) Swiftly the Ayatollah introduced measures of rigorous re-Islamization—an effort to “purify” the long-benighted nation in a maelstrom of death and fire. Seven movie theatres were torched in Tabriz. A rep house specializing in foreign films was firebombed in Isfahan. Nearly two hundred cinemas were burned or otherwise destroyed in total, 32 in Tehran alone. By 1980 the country of 37 million citizens had scarcely more than 250 movie theatres left.


In lieu of the cinema, the Islamic Republic afforded its citizens other spectacles: Naficy describes such amusing post-revolutionary entertainments as “chest-beating, self-flagellation, head-cutting, religious chanting, Friday prayers and sermons, and massive street demonstrations and marches,” among other pastimes. But the cinema burned too bright in the popular imagination for it to be extinguished completely. And it would soon reemerge out of necessity. Khomeini hated the movies, but he conceded their persuasiveness—and quickly recognized their usefulness to his new regime. If they were so dangerous as tools of imperialist indoctrination, it stood to reason that their influence could be seized upon and redirected. Perhaps, say, to legitimize and promote Islamist values. So the motion picture industry returned to the Islamic Republic once more, with two stipulations. The state would restrict, and carefully vet, foreign imports, and it would foster domestic productions of its own.

The Ayatollah’s censors' sensitivities proved ludicrously broad: kung-fu movies were outlawed for promoting gratuitous, non-political violence, while Indian films—as a general rule—were banned on grounds of “excessive banality.”

Any movie house fortunate enough to have survived the revolutionary flames summarily reopened, though at Khomeini’s behest their decadent, deplorably Westernized former names were exchanged for ones more agreeable to the Islamist sensibility: The Empire became The Independence, The Panorama became The Freedom, The Cine Monde became The Uprising. Moviegoing resumed with renewed vigour, particularly as films previously banned under the rule of the Shah—like Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers—made their way at last to Iranian audiences. But for every foreign import made newly available after the revolution the Ayatollah’s censors rejected a dozen more. Indeed, their sensitivities proved ludicrously broad: kung-fu movies were outlawed for promoting gratuitous, non-political violence, while Indian films—as a general rule—were banned on grounds of “excessive banality.”

Demand, as you might expect, began to outpace supply: too few films were meeting the state’s threshold of propriety to satisfy the country’s moviegoing appetite. So exhibitors simply began plundering the national archives. But the government didn’t want Iranian films made before the enlightenment of the revolution clogging theatres any more than they wanted dissolute American pictures defiling the Islamic people, so they promptly established a movie review board that would oversee the distribution of “exhibition permits” necessary for any film—old or new, foreign or domestic—to legally screen in Iran. And it soon transpired that hardly anything would qualify for one. Iranian films produced before the revolution were exhaustively reviewed and, with few exceptions, were either banned outright or reedited to better accord with Islamist values. The slightest transgression could be enough to offend: many films were deemed immoral for merely depicting a woman without a veil. Though the exhibitors were not without recourse to creative solutions: A movie in which a woman’s shoulders or legs were exposed, say, might be cannily redeemed by drawing over the offending skin with a felt-tip pen, frame by painstaking frame.

Censorship, I’m sure we can all agree, is bad. But in retrospect it seems clear that the censoring of movies was among the mildest of the Islamic Republic’s efforts toward cultural reformation. The country was, as Naficy describes it, a landscape of tyranny: “Arrest, interrogation, imprisonment, torture, and murder of reformists, journalists, and alternative thinkers or countergermenic thinkers increased,” he writes, “under the guise of preserving the nation’s security, public order, and moral and revolutionary values.” Following the revolution it wasn’t only active dissent that the state sought to neutralize—it was anything or anyone they felt disagreeable. Jahangir Tafazoli, a respected historian, was publicly executed on the order of the Ayatollah. Why? Because he was the country’s leading expert on ancient Iran—on pre-Muhammadian Iran. The Islamists regard the period as unspeakably debased. And with all that history around they didn’t want anyone getting any ideas.

It was perhaps worst for members of pre-revolutionary media. Actors, writers, directors, and producers found themselves deemed “complicit” in the ideological crimes of the Shah, and for that—no matter how strenuously they recommitted themselves to Islam—they were variously lashed, imprisoned, exiled, or put to death. These parties were not being punished for speaking out against the Islamic Republic, or for doing or saying anything the truculent Ayatollah might find displeasing. Their only sin lay in having worked on movies at a time when a very different leader was in power. Typical in its idiotic cruelty is the story Naficy tells of Mehdi Misaqiyeh, a “prominent producer and studio head” who absconded to the United States with his wife and children at the beginning of the revolution. After much of the immediate tumult had seemed to settle, Misaqiyeh returned to Iran in order “to liquidate his considerable assets and thus to accumulate sufficient capital to start a new life and career in California.”

Now you might think getting your affairs in order would be a brief and painless business, particularly for an upstanding entrepreneur with nothing unbecoming to hide. But no. The cinema he owned in Tehran was burned down in ‘79. Before he could refurbish and sell it, Misaqiyeh was arrested and charged with “insulting Islam by parodying it” in two films he had produced decades earlier—The Go-Between, from 1971, and A Party in Hell, from 1957, both of which gently mocked religious fervour. Condemned to life in jail, Misaqiyeh was confined to a cell with forty other inmates, where, Naficy reports, “they had to sleep like sardines, unable to turn.” He was repeatedly and brutally beaten; his teeth were “broken or removed” in the fray. His brother, meanwhile, rebuilt the theatre on Misaqiyeh’s behalf, intending to sell it and send the profits to his family in America. The government confiscated the refurbished building and paid the family nothing.

The lunacy deepens. The Ayatollah Khomeini entertained some rather extreme attitudes concerning gender, and, unsurprisingly, the Islamic Republic reserved its most barbarous punishments for women. In 1980, a young film student involved in local productions was tortured and executed alongside nine of her colleagues, on the charge of conspiring against the state. Upon arrest she, like anyone so accused, was impelled to confess; she refused, and was consequently shot to death. The officials responsible then billed the girl’s parents for the price of the bullets they’d used—and for the cost of the marriage the girl’s executioner had arranged for them before raping and killing her. According to the tenets of radical Islam, you see, the killing of a virgin woman, even if sanctioned by the state, is considered sinful, and what’s more is believed a guarantee of the woman’s acceptance into heaven. Not wanting to reward in the afterlife the criminal they intend to punish on earth, the state prescribes that an executioner marry and rape the accused before murdering her.


While mainstays of the entertainment industry during the Shah’s rule were punished as veritably treasonous after the revolution, exponents of the Iranian cinema’s pre-revolutionary “new wave”—a period of galvanic creativity during the 1970s that yielded some of the most esteemed Iranian films of all time—were suddenly embraced by the mainstream. Bahram Beizai, Dariush Mehrjui, Masoud Kimiai, Nasser Taghvai, Sohrab Shahid-Saless: these and other modernists had been regarded as political dissidents under the Shah, and the enemy of the Islamists’ enemy, revolutionaries reasoned, must therefore be the Islamists’ friend. In the Iranian film industry after the revolution a climate of repression had prevailed. And yet, quite counterintuitively, some of the country’s most radical filmmakers were finding their reputations finally redeemed. (Khomeini, despite his well-known distaste for the movies, was even said to be an admirer of Mehrjui’s The Cow—the new wave’s first film and a landmark of Iranian cinema.)

"To an American audience, it would be baffling, it would be completely stupid, if Chiwetel Ejiofor came home at the end of 12 Years a Slave and didn’t hug his family.” Whereas it’s customary in Iranian war epics for there to be “a soldier coming back after years of imprisonment in Iraq and meeting his mother for the first time and not getting close to her, all because they’re not allowed to show a man and woman touching.”

It was in the ’80s and ’90s that Iran’s arthouse cinema began to find an audience internationally, emerging onto the festival circuit and earning a great deal of acclaim. Quite often these successes were the work of former new-wave filmmakers devising resourceful strategies for sidestepping the Islamist censors. My partner, Tina Hassannia, an Iranian-Canadian film critic and author of the critical study Asghar Farhadi: Life and Cinema, says that it helps to choose an innocuous subject. “The minute your movie has a female character who has gone through puberty,” she explains, “you have censors worrying about whether the way she opened a door is too suggestive, and you’re forced to edit things like that out for what seems like no reason.” Consequently it became a sort of trend in Iran through the ‘80s and ‘90s to make films about prepubescent boys: “It’s almost a cliché now,” she says, “but if you’re a filmmaker working in so heavily censored a country it’s easier to make a movie about children than it is to, say, make a family melodrama that hopes to depict grown women realistically.” Hardly surprising, then, that some of the country’s most enduring hits abide by this principle, from Abbas Kiarostami’s Where is the Friend’s Home? to Majidi’s Oscar-nominated Children of Heaven.

That said, Hassannia believes that censorship in Iran isn’t quite as severe as people insist. “People think there isn’t any room for negotiation,” she says, “but that simply isn’t true. It’s a fluid system. Things that were forbidden five years ago might be permissible now and vice versa.” Which may account for why a film like the Oscar-winning A Separation—widely felt to be critical of the Iranian government—was approved by that government’s own censors. Film critic Amir Soltani agrees: “There’s a lot of flexibility,” he explains, “around pulling strings and knowing people and asking at the right time.” Social freedoms for Iranians fluctuate depending on the agenda of whomever is in power (and the current president, Hassan Rouhani, is a fair deal more liberal than previous leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad), but in general, he says, “the government has toned down a lot.” A filmmaker like Jafar Panahi may be ordered under house arrest and banned from leaving the country as a result of his political affiliations, which is certainly disconcerting, but he’s still managed to smuggle three feature films out of the country and into major international film festivals. In the ’80s he might have been put to death for much less—he might have been put to death on a whim.


Censorship still to some extent governs the Iranian cinema. Only now it manifests itself in unusual ways—indeed, in some cases, to Western eyes, it manifests itself invisibly. It might not strike a North American audience as especially strange to see an Iranian woman, in an Iranian film, wearing a hijab indoors. But an Iranian would sense at once the disconnect with the reality, a frisson of conventional mistruth. “The government,” explains Hassannia, “absolutely requires that any time there’s a female character, they have to be veiled at all times.” Iranian women must be veiled in public. But at home? “That’s not how it works in real life.” Kiarostami, most famously, has refused to abide by this obvious falsehood. Over the last thirty years he’s been developing new ways to obviate the rule. “To get around it he just made movies about other subjects and in other settings, especially cars.” Soltani says that, for better or worse, this sort of thing represents “a clear mark of the state shaping the aesthetic of Iranian films.”

Other restrictions are harder to efface, and Iranian audiences, Soltani reflects, “have come to terms with the censorship” out of necessity. On occasion censorship torpedoes a film’s emotional credibility. “To an American audience,” Soltani says, “it would be baffling, it would be completely stupid, if Chiwetel Ejiofor came home at the end of 12 Years a Slave and didn’t hug his family.” Whereas it’s customary in Iranian war epics for there to be “a soldier coming back after years of imprisonment in Iraq and meeting his mother for the first time and not getting close to her, all because they’re not allowed to show a man and woman touching.” You can begin to see why Iranian war films—big business over there—tend not to make it to American theatres. Surely it doesn’t help that violence is off limits. “You see war movies where the filmmakers don’t show a single drop of blood,” muses Soltani. “You’ll get a pan to the side and there’s a fade out with really romantic music playing as the hero gets shot. It’s ridiculous.”


Long ago the Ayatollah Khomeini called the United States “the Great Satan.” He meant it in the sense traditional among Islamists, familiar from the Qur’an’s definition: the Great Satan is “the insidious tempter who whispers in the hearts of men.” Satan, in other words, is more seducer than destroyer—or will destroy by seducing. You can well imagine the Ayatollah Khomeini, his revolution gathering historical force, confronted by the impious splendour of the cinema, seeming to taunt and mock the foundations of his belief. But the anxiety was a delusion. All he saw was a mirror: the vast absences of his philosophy reflected back at him.