"If artworks are answers to their own questions, they themselves thereby truly become questions."1 Are Iranian films answers to their own questions? The statement of Theodor W. Adorno might be an appropriate introduction for this work about Iranian Cinema after the Islamic Revolution of 1979.
An analysis of the recent development of Iranian Cinema should primarily mention its origins and history, especially since Iranian cinema always has been so closely linked to the political circumstances dominating the social reality. Its outset is generally accepted to have begun around 1900, when Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi, the official photographer of Muzaffar al-Din Shah, shot the first Iranian documentary.2 Despite this relatively late start, Iranian cinema caught up to the West and developed a lively film industry. Though, this statement has to be seen in a context which takes in consideration the fundamental factors almost always present and dominant in Iranian cinema: the political framework which of course includes censorship. As Richard Tapper states in his work, The New Iranian Cinema, "both government and religious authorities sought to control the images to be shown publicly." 'Formal censorship" began in the 1920s, when the imported films exhibiting women, sex and amusement dominated the Iranian market. In contrast to this permissive attitude, depicting the political or social reality critically in local productions was taboo. Until the Second World War "nothing worthy of being called 'national cinema"" was produced.3 In these decades, Iranian films were mainly remakes of foreign works, mainly Indian or Egyptian, and normally they lacked artistic quality. This genre of films is known as "Film Farsi."4 Along with the development of film comes the history of censorship, which tries to curb the freedom of expression in increasingly institutionalized manners. Indeed, in 1950 a committee for the supervision of locally produced or imported films was established. This might have contributed to the fact that in the 1950s and 1960s, next to the import of American and Indian films, only "commercial films" were famous in Iran, whose sole aim was to entertain and to fill the cash tills. In this period too, the censorship worried more about the expression of political opinions than about the demonstration of sex. However, on the edge of mainstream productions slowly evolved few other interesting and formative films. "1969 is generally agreed to mark the birth of Iranian art cinema, called the New Wave."5 In the following period various films were successfully presented to international film festivals. However, from its beginning on, the evolution of Iranian cinema was constantly accompanied by a consistent religious opposition. Through the lens of many Iranian clerics, films were immoral. They denounced cinema as a tool to access corrupt western influence into Iran. This suspicion and aversion against cinema, which was deep-rooted in many Iranian clergymen found later on as well expression in the Islamic Republic. Promoters of the Islamic Revolution named cinema in the same breath as Westernization and furthermore, the Pahlavi regime.6 All regimes were well aware of the popularity of cinema and its power to influence masses. Earlier, the Pahlavi regime and later on, Islamic leaders, seemed to recognize cinema as a vehicle to fight the opposition or the adversary.
After this short historical introduction, the following text will examine the evolution of Iranian cinema and its different peculiarities after the Islamic Revolution. Firstly it will focus on the institutional framework of the Cinematic reality after the revolution and on its sequences for the development of the Iranian cinema. Successively, it will proceed to examine the economic trend influencing Iranian cinema. In conclusion this article will try to analyze the consequences of censorship regarding the quality of Iranian cinema.
In the early years subsequent to the revolution, cinema was primarily used for propaganda purposes, thus to spread Islamic values among the Iranian population. The first speech of Ayatollah Khomeini following his return from exile to Iran lines out his position regarding cinema:
"We are not opposed to cinema ... cinema is a modern invention that ought to be used for the sake of educating the people, but as you know, it was used instead to corrupt our youth. It is the misuse of cinema that we are opposed to, a misuse caused by the treacherous policies of our rulers."7
The aim of the revolution and successively of the Islamic regime in terms of cultural policy was to create an "authentic cultural milieu that would recapture the dignity of Iran as a Muslim country."8 This goal had to be achieved through education and the consistent emphasis on Islamic morality. Thus a new national cinema which would respect and promote Islamic values of the Iranian society had to be created. First of all this intention required erasing the remainders of the Pahlavi regime. Consequently many film theaters had been destroyed or shut down during the Islamic Revolution. The theaters which managed to survive changed their usually Western names to Islamic and third world names.9
In the early period of the Islamic Republic, Iran's filmindustry stood still mainly out of two reasons: Firstly the political and financial incertitude, which came along with the Revolution and which harmed investments. Secondly, the new Republic lacked established Islamic intellectuals in the film industry who could have been promoted. Consequently, the four years following the Islamic Revolution only saw between three and twenty local film productions per year.10
Connected to this new policy are the cultural institutions, which had the demanding task to realize the cultural goals of the Islamic Revolution. The first relevant institution was represented by the Supreme Council of the Cultural Revolution, which was established in 1980. Its purpose was to provide general directions, and to elaborate a cultural policy, which would be implemented by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) and its four affiliated institutions.11 This plurality of institutions responsible for regulating cultural life almost invited a power struggle among the different political factions dominating these structures.
The commitment to the Islamic values was embraced by every leader. But how to approach and to inculcate them evoked many disputes and discrepancy. In this discussion two main streams emerged. On one site were the 'Conservatives'. They strived for limiting the artistic expansion to works dealing with religion and war and furthermore they opted for a rigorous censorship. This faction included supporters of the Society of Militant Clergy (SMC), religious leaders and members of the Guardianship Council. Many members of this group belonged to the older generation and adhered to a traditional jurisprudence which condemns cultural pluralism as an instrument of the 'imperialist West'. Among some of them may also have prevailed the fear for a political change, which would have endangered their positions of power. The other voice belonged to the 'Liberals'; mostly younger and well-educated Iranians, who refused to see stagnation as the key for the survival of the Islamic Republic and who were more receptive to cultural development.12
In 1982, the Cabinet, under Prime Minister Mir Husayn Musavi, approved extensive guidelines regarding the presentation of films and video and charged the MCIG with the enforcement. These regulations laid down Islamic values and banned all films which, for instance, insulted "directly or indirectly, Prophets, Imams, the guardianship of the Supreme Jurisprudent, ...the ruling Council or the jurisprudence;" which encouraged "wickedness, corruption and prostitution;" which encouraged "foreign cultural, economic and political influence contrary to the 'neither West nor East' policy of the government;" which misrepresent "historical and geographical facts;" but also which negate "the equality of all people regardless of color, race, language, ethnicity and belief."13
Through a five-stage process, the MCIG examined the alignment to Islamic values of all Iranian film productions. For instance, out of the 202 films controlled between 1980 and 1982, only 25 percent passed this procedure, and only after having sustained many changes.14
1 Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, ed. Robert Hullot-Kentor, (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota press, 1997), 6 quoted in Hamid Dabashi, Close up: Iranian Cinema, past, present and future (London: Verso, 2001)
2 Richard Tapper, The New Iranian Cinema: politics, representation and identity (London: I.B. Tauris 2002), 4.
3 Richard Tapper, The New Iranian Cinema, 3.
4 Richard Tapper, The New Iranian Cinema, 4.
6 Hamid Naficy, "Iranian Cinema under the Islamic Republic", American Anthropologist 97, No. 3 (1995): 548.
7 Hamid Naficy, "Iranian Cinema under the Islamic Republic", 548.
8 Sussan Siavoshi, "Cultural Policies and the Islamic Republic: Cinema and Book publications"International Journal of Middle East Studies 29, (1997): 513.
9 Hamid Naficy, "Islamizing Film Culture in Iran: A Post-Khatami Update" in The New Iranian Cinema: politics, representation and identity, ed. Richard Tapper (London: I.B. Tauris 2002), 30.
10 Hamid Naficy, "Islamizing Film Culture in Iran", 31.
11 The four affiliated institutions are: The Islamic Republic News Agency, the Organization for Pilgrimage, Religious Endowments, and Charity Affairs, the Institution of Cultural Documents of the Islamic Revolution, and the Organization of Press and Publication of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, http://www.iranculture.org/en/nahad/ershad.php
12 Sussan Siavoshi, "Cultural Policies and the Islamic Republic", 513.
13 Hamid Naficy, "Islamizing Film Culture in Iran", 36.
14 Hamid Naficy, "Islamizing Film Culture in Iran", 39.