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War Against an Oppressive Rule: The Iranian Cinema and Censorship

Like its other countless cultural restrictions, Iran has not spared its cinema from heavy censors. Derived from the Sharia law by Iranian scholars after the 1979 revolution, these censors limit the sphere within which Iranian filmmakers operate. They make it mandatory for women to observe Purdah, prohibit physical interactions, restrict discussion on controversial topics, and control the subject matter, music and even poetry used in films. Under such limitations, one has to stop and think if art can even be produced. The Iranian cinema, however, succeeded in being accepted worldwide as admirable despite a presence of censorship based on rigid Islamist rules and an absence of nudity which otherwise marks liberal, modern and acceptable Western cinema used as a yardstick for a successful film industry. Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, Where is the Friend’s Home? and Taste of Cherry were on BBC Culture’s list of the 100 greatest foreign-language films, while Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation is in the top 25.

What then, is in these films that makes them stand out, one might wonder, and how do these filmmakers deal with censorship. While some complain that censors kill creativity, others like Kiarostami do not directly question them anymore but find ways to speak up without actually breaching them. With most topics to be filmed being out of the question due to the many restrictions imposed, Iranian filmmakers have become adept at getting around these censors and in doing so, have mastered the art of allusion. Their cinema is acclaimed for its use of metaphors and of symbolism as a tool against all the restrictions put forth on Iranians in all spheres of life; be it economic, political, religious, or even domestic matters.

For example Where is the Friend’s Home? is a decisively metaphoric piece of work, beautifully and poetically commenting on the hurdles society puts forth, even for children, training them to lie and cheat their way through to achieve even the most innocent of their pursuits. Ahmed Ahmadpoor has accidentally brought his friend Mohammad Reza Nematzadeh’s notebook home and now must return it to him. Ahmadpoor is worried about his friend’s well-being and desperately wants to return the book lest the teacher punishes Nematzadeh the next day, but faces numerous difficulties along the way – his mother, grandfather, the elderly man he meets along the way- each representing society in general, and the hurdles created in our way.

Another attribute of these films is minimalism. This minimalism is not on the behalf of the characters, but the setting and the script. The characters themselves are mundane people, with all the desires, needs and lives of average Iranians, making them relatable not only for their Iranian audience but for their South Asian viewers and for audiences all over the world.

The storyline and plot are very light and empty of unrealistic, unnecessary detail. Children of Heaven, for example, is the story of a boy who, pressed by his inner guilt on losing his younger sister’s only pair of shoes, desperately wants to come second in an upcoming marathon, as the second prize is a pair of sneakers.

The Iranian cinema offers only as much as is necessary to keep the story from being ambiguous. Films are often left open-ended to keep the audience wondering. This can produce emotions that people otherwise do not feel. In the last scene of A Separation, for instance, the audience, along with Termah’s parents, await Termah’s decision anxiously. The film, however, does not show which parent she chooses to live with, leaving the viewers agitated, frustrated and even angry over the fruitless wait, once again proving, that waiting is the hardest of acts.

“More than anything else, I think today’s world needs more questions than answers…The important thing is to think and give the viewer the opportunity to think. In Iran, more than anything else at the moment, we need the audience to think,” says director Asghar Farhadi. Countless Iranian films have open endings, leaving people wondering in a world where wonder is becoming increasingly rare.

Sometimes, filmmakers stand up to these censors by attacking them in a subtle yet more direct nature. They break no rules and hence cannot be stopped. In Kiarostami’s Ten, for instance, the protagonist uncovers her head, which is restricted on screen, only to reveal a bare head and no hair present to be covered.

Be it through allusion, metaphor, minimalism, thought-provoking open endings or hidden criticism on censorship, constantly moving people to think and question, subtly pointing out things that censors intend to keep hidden and standing up to a regime that snatches their freedom, the films of this cinema are unlike those of any other: silently raging war against an oppressive rule. They are alive.