Iran’s 1979 revolution was such an all-encompassing movement that it influenced almost all aspects of life. Shortly after the kingdom of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was toppled, revolutionary entities were established to take charge of emerging responsibilities in the new theocracy: revolutionary courts, the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution.
Iran’s movie industry was not impervious to the ripple effects of the revolution. Many actors and actresses who had appeared in shah-era films left the country, fearing persecution by the religious zealots. Censorship was rife and films produced in the early years of the revolution were heavily vetted to ensure the removal of sexual content and political connotations. The government at the time sought to block the influence of Western culture on the Iranian audience. As a result, the tradition of screening Hollywood features in movie theaters was abandoned, being replaced mainly with Iranian movies.
Those films were subject to a stringent government morality code and the harsh vetting of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, which still thoroughly scrutinizes movies before approving them for screening.
And yet despite, or perhaps because of, these constraints, Iranian cinema has made major strides since the revolution, gaining an international following.
Movie geeks and regular cinema-goers across the world will have heard the name Asghar Farhadi, who is perhaps the most successful Iranian film director in modern times. Farhadi twice won the Academy Award for best foreign language film, in 2012 and again in 2017, for A Separation and The Salesman. The director has also won three Golden Globes and is one of the only Middle Eastern filmmakers to have garnered such accolades.
Farhadi boycotted the 2017 Oscars to protest a ban imposed by US President Donald Trump on travelers from seven Muslim-majority countries.
Other award-winning Iranian filmmakers have shined at international festivals. They include Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Bahram Bayzai, Pouran Derakhshandeh, Bahman Ghobadi, Abbas Kiarostami, Masoud Kimiai, Majid Majidi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Samira Makhmalbaf, Dariush Mehrjui, and Jafar Panahi.
The majority of Iranian films produced since the revolution have been melodramas featuring child protagonists, couples embroiled in family tensions, young people faced with catch-22 situations, ordinary citizens harboring big ambitions, and women being oppressed in a patriarchal society.
Cinematic techniques and visualization are mostly non-existent in Iranian motion pictures, and films are mostly founded on powerful scenarios and effective role-playing by talented actors and actresses.
Aside from movies produced to appeal to global audiences, including the jury members of international festivals, many films have focused on the Iran-Iraq War of the 1980s. The majority of these films illustrate the pain and suffering experienced by the Iranian people when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked the country, presenting stories of heroic resistance by Iranian protagonists against invading forces.
Although these movies rarely depict the traditional rivalry between Iranians and Arabs in a racist way, they arguably pander to nationalist sentiments and are part of the government’s efforts to glorify the “martyrs” of the eight-year conflict.
An unexpected ‘revolution’
Some cultural critics and commentators say official restrictions have helped to make Iranian cinema a flourishing and innovative industry that strives to depict human values and life stories under the shadow of authoritarian rule. Others say the refusal of the government to publicly screen European and American movies has empowered Iranian cinema, which has no serious competitors at the box office.
Touraj Daryaee, the director of the Dr Samuel M Jordan Center for Persian Studies at the University of California and a distinguished Iranologist, told Asia Times that the restrictions Iranian filmmakers face have resulted in a level of creativity and innovation in their work that this is absent in the cinema cultures of other countries where filmmakers don’t face such restrictions.
“Sometimes limitations produce creative and ingenious ways to discuss issues that normally is explained in a mundane manner. With all the restrictions, Iranian filmmakers have tackled important issues from their own perspective, and I may say in an Iranian way which is something new for the world of cinema,” he said.
The Islamic Republic’s restrictions were meant to produce “revolutionary cinema,” serving as a conduit for its propaganda, according to Daryaee. “However, Iranian cinema became revolutionary, but in a very different way.”
Iranian cinema “found its own voice and learned to maneuver around the restrictions. The end result was a brilliant display of ideas cloaked in speech and pictures.”
Mahmoud Sadri, a professor of sociology at the Texas Woman’s University, agrees with the idea that restrictions enabled Iranian cinema to make progress and establish a strong international reputation.
“The old adage that art thrives under repression and censorship may have something to do with this phenomenon. The most iconic example of this situation is the flowering 19th-century literature during the two consecutive repressive tsarist and Bolshevik regimes in Russia,” he told Asia Times.
“The ideology of a revolution, regardless of its identity, imposes restrictions on art, demanding that arts fall in line, and reverberate, with the precepts of the revolution. They reward the artists who echo those ideals and punish those who ignore or oppose them,” he added.
Sadri said the “socialist realism” movement in the Soviet Union and “responsible art” in Iran were launched and institutionalized to achieve the goals of the countries’ revolutions.
Going against the tide of these official incentives and potential punishments, “or – more intriguingly – navigating them … has proven invigorating for the art,” he said.
For the late Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami, Iran, along with China, has been one of the exporters of “great cinema.”
Iranian cinema is humane, known for depictions of childlike innocence, peaceful overtones, ethical values, and rural beauty. It is inspiring in the sense that it reflects the nuances of Iranian civilization in a relatable and conversant way. Although traces of violence can be found in some Iranian movies, the majority of them revolve around the life of ordinary citizens and how they deal with challenges. Some of them also narrate the quest of protagonists for peace and perfection in a tumultuous and unjust world.
Iranian filmmakers are perhaps the best ambassadors of the Iranian people, carrying a message of peace and friendship to the outside world.