By Reza Parchizadeh
Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows,” starring Javier Bardem and Penelope Cruz, opened the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. While Farhadi didn’t win any prizes this year, fellow Iranian director Jafar Panahi received the Best Screenplay Award for his film “Three Faces.” Since 2010, the Islamic Republic has barred Mr. Panahi from leaving the country.
Mr. Farhadi won the Best Screenplay Award for his film “The Salesman” at the 2016 Cannes Festival. The film also won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2017. But Farhadi did not attend the Oscars ceremony in protest against President Donald Trump’s travel ban on seven Muslim-majority countries including Iran. Two Iranian-Americans — Anousheh Ansari, the first Iranian in space, and Firouz Naderi, a former director at NASA — accepted the Oscar on behalf of Farhadi.
In this article, I’ll try to show how the Islamic Republic uses international film festivals to further its ideological objectives.
The world community’s recognition of Iranian cinema serves a specific political purpose for the regime. The Iranian establishment has its fingers on the pulse of international politics.
The truth is that there is no such a thing as independent Iranian cinema. Censorship and state control of the industry discourage filmmakers and audiences alike. Many cinemas have closed down. Iranians don’t go to the movies anymore. How could the country produce so many award-winning films under these circumstances?
There is a simple explanation. The regime promotes, markets and sells these films to the world. The late Abbas Kiarostami and Farhadi and others could not make any movie, let alone showcase their art on the international stage, without the approval of the security and cultural organs of the regime. For instance, the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance promoted Farhadi’s “A Separation” (2011). The establishment lobbied for the film at various festivals.
The Islamic Republic, however, cannot promote these films without the help of specific segments of Western society. There are groups in Europe and the U.S. that give explicit and implicit support to the reformists in Iran and to the Islamic Republic regime as a whole.
The political left organizes most of the film festivals in Europe. The left harbors a deep-seated hatred towards the Western establishment. These are the misguided souls who thought Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic, represented a “spiritual revolution” against “Western materialism.” They haven’t abandoned their ideals, even after being proven wrong.
These groups view Iranians as “exotic” creatures from a “Third World” country who have been oppressed by colonial powers and authoritarian regimes throughout history. It is no wonder that some Iranians who live abroad find these films exciting and provocative. These works express some degree of discontentment with the regime, but within acceptable parameters. The Islamic Republic cleverly ignores these watered-down criticisms and protests.
Through their success, these films have legitimized censorship. Mr. Kiarostami initiated the trend. By deliberately avoiding politics in his influential films, he legitimized and promoted an apolitical form of cinema. In effect, he spun a cocoon around himself and his audience, so neither would see or even think about the crimes committed in the real world. Kiarostami made self-censorship into a film genre. Compare this with Russian cinema during the time of Soviet Leader Leonid Brezhnev, and with the films of Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Parajanov.
Farhadi, in turn, has transformed self-censorship into social commentary. His realistic depiction of daily lives is a critique of Iranian society, but it is unclear what truth he is trying to unearth. Farhadi is a master of creating a psychological thriller by highlighting the human condition, personal conflicts, and emotional turmoil, but he conspicuously avoids delving into the “political system” that underpins that social breakdown.
Nevertheless, the audience perceives the ambiguity of the narrative as a subtle way of questioning the governing political system. Festival-goers love what they consider to be a smart way of addressing crucial issues in a closed society. Many people believe that Farhadi’s films challenge the regime. What the audience doesn’t know is that his movies enjoy the blessing of the Iranian establishment.
Ultimately, it is the Islamic Republic that benefits most from the awards given to Iranian films at international film festivals. The regime can claim that Iranian cinema has flourished in the past four decades, and silence its critics at the same time. Opponents of the establishment, therefore, cannot claim that there is no freedom of speech and expression in Iran. Also, world-famous Iranian directors occasionally express their support for the Islamic Republic at international film festivals.
Kiarostami, Panahi, and Farhadi have, at times, defended the regime. Kiarostami was less obvious in his support than the other two directors. He even rationalized censorship, arguing that it stimulated creativity. Despite his non-political stance, Kiarostami wrote a letter to then-presidential candidate Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in 2005, saying that he was going to vote for the late Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani.
Kiarostami wrote: “I like you more than the person I am going to vote for, but I believe he is more capable than you and better understands the realities of today’s world.”
Both Farhadi and Panahi have voted in the elections. The former has even harshly criticized U.S. policies.
The lead actress in Farhadi’s “The Salesman,” Taraneh Alidoosti, encouraged Iranians to vote in the 2017 presidential election. She tweeted: “We cannot alleviate our collective pain individually. #I’ll vote. #We won’t go back.” Mrs. Alidoost’s costar in “The Salesman,” Shahab Hosseini, dedicated his Best Actor Award at 2016 Cannes Film Festival to Imam Mahdi, the 12th Shia Imam.
Theocratic rule in Iran governs and controls every aspect of people’s lives. Nothing escapes the regime’s tentacles. We must be vigilant and not let the Iranian establishment enslave us by direct or indirect means. Freedom is the antithesis of self-censorship. There is something amiss when the outside world celebrates Iranian cinema when artists and writers ar under house arrest or jailed inside their country.