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Slashing Red Tape on the Silver Screen

by SAYA OVAISY in Tehran

12 Oct 2009 11:556 Comments
simatv-ekhrajiha.jpg[ film ] Censorship is watertight in Iran, as scores of farhangis -- those involved in culture and the arts -- well know. A telling symptom of this all-prevailing malaise is the fact that the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which licenses and oversees all cultural activities, is referred to (by people and officials alike) with the latter component of its name: Ershad ("Guidance"). In expunging the Farhang ("Culture") bit from the Ministry's full title in common speech, public consciousness reduces the "cultural" authority of this state organ to the disciplinary "watchdog" role it exercises in practice.

Ershad is thus a dreaded enemy of publishers, authors, journalists, filmmakers, actors, musicians, dancers, artists, gallery owners, and any citizen who values freedom of expression.

When someone says they are waiting to get a permit from Ershad to screen a film, publish a book, stage an exhibition, etc., she receives wilted, sympathetic looks. Everyone knows applications can be held up at the Ministry (located downtown in Baharestan Square near the Majlis building) for months, with a strong possibility of being rejected in the end. Much like getting a U.S. visa, the process for obtaining an Ershad permit is slow, trying, and uncertain.

Some applicants fare better than others. The status of Ostad ("Maestro") trumps many obstacles, so veterans such as director Abbas Kiarostami, vocalist Shahram Nazeri, and choreographer Pari Saberi navigate the bureaucratic waters with relative speed and ease. Bribes can buy leniency if one is a skilled negotiator. But above all, it is political clout that cuts through Ershad's red tape.

This is why, when a hit like Sham-e Aroosi ("Wedding Dinner") is screened across the country, its bold flouting of the rulebook raises one big question: Who has the clout to get away with that?

The movie, which stars Iranian A-listers Amin Hayayi, Nikki Karimi and popular heartthrob Reza Golzar, is about a father who hates his daughter's fiance (think "Meet the Parents") and plots to sabotage their wedding at any cost. But the comedy gets a generous dose of un-Islamic spice with scenes like when the father (Amin Hayayi) drops ecstasy and goes on a frenzied dance blitz, or dialogue that insinuates sex -- the ultimate taboo, ranking alongside assaults on state politics and religion.

What's more, the film's trailer ran for weeks at theaters to promote it to audiences. This is normal, of course -- until you see the trailer, which features the father explaining the storyline in an extended rap set to a Farsi version of Michael Jackson's "Billy Jean."

As with the 2006 blockbuster Ekhraji-ha ("The Outcasts"), a shocking satire of the Iran-Iraq war directed by Masoud Dehnamaki, an infamous Ansar Hezbollah leader who himself fought in the war and before his foray into filmmaking with a documentary about prostitution in Iran, we can assume the names behind Sham-e Aroosi can be traced far up the Islamic Republic pyramid.

Since foreign films are banned at Iranian theaters, domestic studios and producers need to push the envelope every so often in order to draw crowds. As more 'establishment-types' venture into the movie business, they are likely to lobby Ershad for less stringent censorship to drive up box-office sales. Given the current tightening on cultural laxity, however, it may be awhile until Iranian moviegoers see any more hints of sex, drugs, or rock n' roll on the big screen.

Copyright © 2009 Tehran Bureau

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6 Comments

I'm not trying to downplay the effects of censorship, nor am I a fan of the “film farsis” genre in any way.

But to a certain extent, Iranians should consider themselves fortunate. Unlike Hollywood, their film industry isn't thoroughly dominated by an ETHNIC ELITE, a greedy entity that usually takes the easy way out of creativity, saturating its audiences with heavy doses of sex and explicit violence.

To Iranian audiences complaining about cultural guidance, I say be careful what you wish for.

Pirouz / October 12, 2009 5:59 AM

The actor's name is AMIN HAYAYI and NOT AMIR HANAEI as claimed in the youtube video and reiterated by the writer. Didn't the writer herself see the movie before writing this?

This movie was screened FOUR years ago. I was there and remember every awful moment.

And lastly, this is nothing new. Sexual references, musical references, anything and everything which goes beyond the "red" lines is permitted so long as the story commits to certain guidelines.

A newer version of such bad film making can be seen in 2008's "delshekasteh" (broken heart) in which all sorts of sexual hints are made, and the movie even features a gay character. But of course, at the end, the taghooti (rich, monarchist) father "realizes" that the basiji was right all along.

IN fact, I would argue this has nothing to do with boosting sales but is seen as a viable way to "draw" youth: fill the movie with things they like, and end it with things you like.

And unlike what the author claims, such cheap film making has seen a SURGE under Ahmadinejad - we've seen more of them in the last four years than the entire eight years under Khatami.

Pedestrian / October 12, 2009 6:51 AM

The actor's name is AMIN HAYAYI and NOT AMIR HANAEI as claimed in the youtube video and reiterated by the writer. Didn't the writer herself see the movie before writing this?

This movie was screened FOUR years ago. I was there and remember every awful moment.

And lastly, this is nothing new. Sexual references, musical references, anything and everything which goes beyond the "red" lines is permitted so long as the story commits to certain guidelines.

A newer version of such bad film making can be seen in 2008's "delshekasteh" (broken heart) in which all sorts of sexual hints are made, and the movie even features a gay character. But of course, at the end, the taghooti (rich, monarchist) father "realizes" that the basiji was right all along.

IN fact, I would argue this has nothing to do with boosting sales but is seen as a viable way to "draw" youth: fill the movie with things they like, and end it with things you like.

And unlike what the author claims, such cheap film making has seen a SURGE under Ahmadinejad - we've seen more of them in the last four years than the entire eight years under Khatami.

Pedestrian / October 12, 2009 6:52 AM

"it may be awhile until Iranian moviegoers see any more hints of sex, drugs, or rock n' roll on the big screen"

Oh boo hoo no more sex , drugs and rock and roll. what will become of our country without it. Maybe we can start producing better films instead of the junk, rip offs that are presented on this site. This crap is much the same as the 70's Italia, Italia .

koorosh / October 13, 2009 7:01 AM

thank God for Iran, a place where culture matters family values and wisdom indeed, God help us get through all the mindless and soulless trash and violence and greed being fed into the minds of the masses. I love you Iran, Stay strong safe and clean well Blessed forever and spread your beautiful sooul of love.

soulheart / October 15, 2009 4:11 AM

http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/tehranbureau/2009/10/slashing-red-tape-on-the-silver-screen.html

I asked a couple of my Iranian acquaintances their opinions about the film trailer embedded in the above Tehran Bureau article. Answering my questions are rapper, Shaya Vatanparast http://www.youtube.com/user/jigsawnovich#p/f/132/GMbL1DcNkyo; and singer songwriter and music video editor, Fred Khoshtinat. Fred created the music video for Hichkas' Bunch of Soldiers track. http://www.youtube.com/user/jigsawnovich#p/f/122/QU1NNAH6b_g
I am Julie Jigsawnovich, and I also wrote this piece http://www.persianesquemagazine.com/2009/10/05/seeking-refuge-mahdyar-flees-the-crackdown-on-irans-hip-hop/

JJ: How would you describe the "rap" in the trailer for this government-approved movie, Shame-e Aroosi (Wedding Dinner)?
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-SUyLfglpEw

SV: I don't like this. This is a kind of joke.

FK: This is fast rhyming about moral things like weddings and stuff.

JJ: Are you surprised that Ershad allowed "rap" and "graffiti" to be shown in a movie in Iran, when Police there arrest real rappers and graffiti artists?

SV: No, but we are sorry when we see these scenes in our movies. They show this just to give some fun to every person that bought a ticket.

FK: They don't have anything against rap. The thing that they are against are the lyrics that have been used. And, by the way, you can never see such a thing in Iranian TV. This is Iranian Cinema--whole different rules!

JJ: Do you think this movie helped or hurt rap in Iran?

SV: Absolutely hurts.

FK: I don't think it has any effect on rap in Iran. I don't really consider that song a rap!

JJ: Has rap been shown in any Iranian movies or on Iranian TV lately?

SV: I saw some rap music in movies, but they portray rappers as sick people.

FK: No, there is no such a thing as rap in Iranian TV.

JJ: Fred, I heard there was an Iranian TV show called, Shock that used HichKas songs. And this TV program was State propaganda--saying all rappers use drugs and are into devil worship. Did you see, Shock? Is it true what I heard about that show?

FK: Yes, it's all true about Shock. It also showed some parts of Hichkas' "Bunch of Soldiers" music video.

JJ: I heard that rap music was considered "Western music" in Iran, and was therefore forbidden for most rappers to perform. No?

FK: My opinion is that their main concern is on the lyrics. We have legal rock and pop, but they have moral lyrics.

JJ: I think the lyrics to Hichkas' Bunch of Soldiers do show a type of morality. He's talking about loving God, friends and family, and being ready to defend his country against attack. He is saying he is street wise, but that he has made mistakes. He is not saying anything sexual, and he is not criticizing the regime. What more could they ask for? Really!

FK: Hichkas is someone outside the system who is leading some people. This is some big political issue. Hichkas is influential, and the regime dislikes this.

JJ: How did you feel when you saw the Bunch of Soldiers video you made for Hichkas included in Shock?

FK: I was shocked and amazed. And it meant they are going to start to arrest rappers.

JJ: Did the inclusion of the Bunch of Soldiers video in Shock help or hurt your career?

FK: It hurt. That inclusion meant that they had their eyes on us--and they really did.

JJ: When did Shock first show on TV?

FK: I think it was last summer--I'm not sure. But two months after that they started to arrest underground artists, again.

Julie Jigsawnovich / October 16, 2009 7:07 PM