With fewer than four days to go until the opening of the 39th Fajr Film Festival in Iran, some of the films on the running order are still awaiting a screening license from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance’s review panel.
One of these is The Killer and the Savage, a horror and crime thriller directed by Hamid Nematzadeh. According to some reports, there have been objections to the film being shown because of the shaved head of Leila Hatami, the film's leading actress. Filmmakers speculate that it’s not the lack of hair, but rather the actress’s ears being visible, that is causing a problem.
It is not clear how far Ms. Hatami's ears even feature in the film – let alone on what legal and jurisprudential basis this could possibly be cause for concern. Since the late 2000s, cinema and theatre have opened up by degrees in Iran, and costume and dialogue are no longer as restricted as they were in previous decades. The Killer and the Savage is understood to have already been reviewed and edited several times by the Ministry due to its violent scenes, but it is unclear how the film could be shown at all were Ms Hatami’s visible ears deemed an untenable issue.
On January 24 the hardline news agency Mashreq criticized the film in an online article, declaring it should not be shown at Fajr because of the violence and because it touches on the topic of “sexual slavery”. Mashreq website also wrote that The Killer and the Savage has been promoted in recent days by "virtual networks and polluted trends" and "anti-revolutionaries", and went on to claim that even Hollywood companies and foreign festivals did not want to touch the film because of the extent of the violence.
The exact content of the film has not yet been widely shared. Given that the US is happy to screen the films of directors such as Quentin Tarantino – and indeed, to confer awards on him at prestigious festivals – it seems unlikely that an excess of violence alone would disqualify The Killer and the Savage from international screening.
The Mashreq article’s author infers that the film is about “sexual slavery” on the basis that one of the more unpleasant characters in the film is responsible for the shaving of Leila Hatami’s head. But they did not put forward any other evidence for this point.
The article goes on to attack the management of the Ministry of Culture and says the officials currently in charge of this institution are in thrall to celebrities and artists – citing its decision to green-light the screwening of such films as Father's House by Kianoosh Ayari, Motreb by Mustafa Kiai and the series Frog by Hooman Sidi.
Film aficionados have expressed outrage at the apparent delay in a licence being granted. Cinema and film journalist Bahman Babazadeh wrote on Twitter: “One recalls the bitter and horrible days of the 1980s. The Killer and the Savage has been praised by critics, and has been banned from the Fajr Film Festival due to Leila Hatami's shaved head.”
Dariush Memar, a poet and journalist, wrote sarcastically: "Removing #Killer_and_Savage from the festivals because of #Leila Hatami's ears! This is no longer vulgarity; it is misery! Why does no one come to cry collectively for the country! Where the #Violet_Oil? Let's throw it down our necks, because of #Lila_Hatami_ears?! This is a movie in itself!"
Other Iranian films featuring actresses with shaven heads have received the green-light for screening in advance. As the Instagram channel Film News relates, they include Farimah Farjami in the film Lead (1989), Zahra Davoudnejad in Women's Prison (2000), Khatereh Hatami in Quarantine (2007), Azadeh Zarei in We Will Say Amen (2015), and Panthea Bahram in Butterfly Swimming (2019).
The Iranian lawyer Alireza Babazadeh has also reacted aghast to the news on Twitter. “One of the most important films in Iranian cinema has been banned because of Leila Hatami, and this film will probably not be screened at the Fajr Festival! We should cry for these officials who think that a piece of cartilage may arouse the nation ... Silence, and nothing else.”
The semi-official ISNA news agency also reported on January 24 that the movie Shooting, directed by Mohammad Hossein Mahdavian, had been censored ahead of Fajr Film Festival. After some corrections were made, it belatedly managed to get a screening license. The fates of Grave Digger by Kazem Molaei and Left Right by Hamed Mohammadi are still unknown.
The website Cinema Cafe notes that the films of Hamid Nematollah and Mohammad Hossein Mahdavian have faced repeated censorship issues at Fajr in the past, partly because they are considered to be “insider” directors. The pair, Cinema Café writes, have made and sponsored many films over the past 10 years in collaboration with government agencies.
Both were also involved in a documentary broadcast on the IRIB called Unofficial, the subject of which is meetings held between Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei and a number of filmmakers and artists inside the country. It declared that many well-known directors were “inspired” by the Leader’s office and their Thursday meetings with Khamenei.
Every year at Fajr, a number of films are scrapped outright. These are productions that have been waiting in line for a licence for a year or even longer. In the end, many producers give up and send the films to foreign film festivals instead. This year censorship may be especially stringent because festival secretary Mohammad Mehdi Tabatabaei Nejad has determined that digital screenings will be open to ordinary members of the public as well as filmmakers and critics.
Because Tehran is currently on “yellow” alert for coronavirus transmission, the 16 films have been selected to be shown at Milad Tower at a number of other cinemas with "special conditions and limited ticket sales". All in all 110 films registered to participate in Iran’s biggest film festival this year, of which 62 were shortlisted, before judges made the final selection. The 62 films have to receive a licence first so that the jury can watch them: hence why The Killer and the Savage has not yet been seen by the festival judges, let alone the public.