Fajr Festival 2021: The Best Film Award Goes to Iran's Security Agencies, Again

February 15, 2021
Ehsan Mehrabi,  
Pouyan Khoshhal
11 min read
The Best Film award at Iran's Fajr Film Festival routinely goes to films produced by the Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards
The Best Film award at Iran's Fajr Film Festival routinely goes to films produced by the Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards
Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi has recently named some of the films made with the backing of his department
Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi has recently named some of the films made with the backing of his department
The Iranian public does not always react positively to government-sponsored propaganda films
The Iranian public does not always react positively to government-sponsored propaganda films
Owj Arts and Media Organization is one of the institutions that furthers the goals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps through cinema
Owj Arts and Media Organization is one of the institutions that furthers the goals of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps through cinema

Iranian cinema audiences are by now well-acquainted with the term "customized films". Ever since the Islamic Republic of Iran was established 42 years ago, security institutions and sometimes individuals have been making purposeful works with state funds: works that have been praised by the government and won top awards at the Fajr International Film Festival, up to and including this year.

These films rewrite history to show the Islamic Republic in a favorable light, wrapping the state-endorsed ideology in beautiful packaging. And the Intelligence Ministry makes no secret of it.

The Ministry of Intelligence: Lights, Camera, Action!

On February 8, on the eve of the 42nd anniversary of the Islamic Revolution, Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi unveiled an array of films and serials that had been produced by order of and with the support of his department in recent years.

Alavi named the movies Fox, directed by Behrouz Afkhami, The Story of Noon by Mohammad Hossein Mahdavian, Cyanide by Behrouz Shoaib, Mina's Choice by Kamal Tabrizi, Day Zero by Saeed Malekan, and The Night When the Moon Was Full by Narges Abyar.

According to Alavi, the serial Puzzle, directed by Ebrahim Sheibani, Inverted Interpretation of a Dream by Fereydoun Jirani and Thief of the Soul and Safe House, both directed by Ahmad Moazami, were also produced by the Intelligence Ministry. "We involved the Intelligence Ministry in making films and serials,” Alavi declared, “in order to achieve intelligence goals, in addition to public education and protection against espionage.”

Plenty more films and serials than those mentioned here by Alavi have been made by the security agencies in Iran. Satan's Day, directed by Behrouz Afkhami, In Purple by Ebrahim Hatamikia, Gold Collars by Abolghasem Talebi, Ambassador's Driver by Habibaullah Bahmani and Shafi Agha Mohammadian, and Black Pearl by Habibaullah Bahmani and Shafi Agha Mohammadian, are among the other “customized” cinematographic works disseminated in Iran.

Propaganda Dominates the Festival

Film critic Ali Mosleh Heidarzadeh recently denounced this year’s Fajr Film Festival for being "against the people". He wrote: "This is the result of 40 years of systematic film censorship, and now on the eve of the new century [in the Persian calendar], no true heroes or anti-heroes have been created in Iranian cinema. What we saw in the selected films of this year's festival were mostly representatives of the amorphous masses called 'the people', who have been captivated by passivity, fear, ignorance, poverty, superstition, and have lost their self-esteem and vision. The people portrayed in Iranian cinema do not evoke empathy. On the contrary, they are disgusting and pathetic."

Writing in Hamshahri newspaper, Heidarzadeh went on to point out the presence of unknown and often suspicious investors in the films, saying it was therefore not surprising that their content turned out to be “anti-people”. He concluded: " Fajr Film Festival no longer claims to be a fully-fledged mirror of Iranian cinema, but a faded and cracked mirror, which on the eve of its 40th anniversary presents us with a frightening image: an image that is nightmarish and unpleasant: cinema against the people."

Shortly after this year’s Fajr Film Festival came to an end, the website Cinema Cafe wrote that the festival judges had selected 16 films for the shortlist, most of which were made by a specially-authorized body and filmmakers who it said had a history of making propagandistic films.

The Best Film award this year went to Yadoo, directed by Mehdi Jafari. The focus was the Iran-Iraq war, a thematic choice that itself caused a great deal of criticism. Proponents say the film is similar to Bashu, the Little Stranger by Bahram Beizaei, which was released in 1989 after having been banned for several years. But Beizaei had a different view of war in his film, in which a boy flees Iraqi-occupied Abadan after his family is killed. In Yadoo a boy instead remains in Abadan, which is meant to depict resistance against the enemy.

Film journalist Babak Ghafouri Azar wrote on Twitter of Yadoo’s receipt of the festival’s highest honor: “What an ending to this year's Fajr Festival! The award for best film goes to what they say is a response to the film Bashu, the Little Stranger... a perfect manifestation of the security-militarized cinema of the Islamic Republic of Iran."

The journalist Mira Ghorbanifar also wrote: "After about 30 years, are you still eager to respond to Bashu, the Little Stranger, directed by master Bahram Beizaei? ‌He, who was so harassed so much that he was forced to go into exile, with his art and patriotism and knowledge, still shines like the sun, and penetrates into the darkness of your eyes."

The Casualties of Censorship at Fajr 2021

The Killer and the Savage, directed by Hamid Nematollah, was ultimately not allowed to be included among the 16 films at the festival because actor Leila Hatami sported a shaved head and the tips of her ears were therefore visible.

Meanwhile, a video of the wedding of Genghis Jalilvand, the late, great Iranian voice actor, aired on the Namayesh network at the end of the festival. The network deleted all the sections related to the pre-revolutionary period.

Soleimani Advised on Series

The Owj Arts and Media Organization is one of the institutions that, will the full support of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), is able to further its ideological goals through cinema. Among the organization’s works are The Undercover, directed and written by Amir Abbas Rabiei, about the activities of Iran’s Tudeh Party in the 1980s, as well as Abu Ghraib Strait by Bahram Tavakoli and Bodyguard by Ebrahim Hatamikia.

One of the most significant incursions of the Iranian security apparatus in cinema and TV is Owj’s collaboration with the makers of the popular series Capital, which depicts the life of a family in a village in Mazandaran province. Ehsan Mohammad Hassani, the head of Owj, said on television on February 10 this year that Ghasem Soleimani, the slain commander of the Quds force, had personally been involved in Owj’s film and serial projects. He added that Soleimani had met with many directors including Reza Mirkarimi, Kamal Tabrizi, Ebrahim Hatamikia and Majid Majidi. Capital, too, was apparently produced with Soleimani’s backing. "He wanted to talk to the producers of Capital before shooting began,” Hassani said, “so Mr. Sirus Moghaddam had breakfast with him." The head of Owj also said the films 23 People and Dinner Time had been made on Soleimani's explicit request.

In 2015 the film Standing in the Dust, which was produced by Owj, won the Best Film award at Fajr. The following year the award was conferred on The Story of Noon, which had been produced by the Intelligence Ministry: a film about attacks on the regime in its early days by the People’s Mojahedin Organization (MKO). In 2017 Abu Ghraib Strait, also produced by Owj, won the top award, and in 2018 the winner was The Night When the Moon Was Full, in turn produced by the Intelligence Ministry.

Director Rejects Claims of Government Influence

Mohammad Hossein Mahdavian directed The Story of Noon and Midday Event: Trace of Blood, and has been said to be among the filmmakers with Intelligence Ministry backing. But he said in a statement this month: "I am not one to make a film under the influence of external pressures. Even if it meant stay home and making no films at all, I wouldn’t make a film under the influence of these institutions."

Mahdavian says he loves all of his films, and in response to the obvious fact that he is a director of “customized” films, said: "I have learned that these comments are a desperate attempt to put the brakes on me and reduce my energy, but I am not upset." His film Standing in the Dust was also produced by Owj Arts and Media Organization with the support of the IRGC. Mahdavian’s new film Shishlik also screened at this year's Fajr Film Festival.

Ties between certain Iranian film directors and the security agencies sometimes go beyond the film-making process. Massoud Sheikh al-Eslam, a former police intelligence commander, whose avatar-character in The Story of Noon is named Massoud, says in his book Thunder in the Cloudless Sky that a document was handed over by a Mr. A., a television director, to a Mr. S., a former security deputy of the ministry. He says the director made a "beautiful and complete report" on the murder of a man named Habib Rousta, said to have been a supporter of the MKO who was later ostensibly killed by them.

Distortions of History

Security agencies seek to control the historical narrative of the Islamic Republic of Iran through the films they endorse. This striving by the Intelligence Ministry and the Revolutionary Guards has even provoked protestation from some domestic political figures, including the author and pundit Sadegh Zibakalam, about The Story of Noon. "In terms of the assassinations of the Mojahedin,” he said, “we have slaughtered just like Shimr [the Arab military commander said to have killed Imam Hussein in 680 AD]. This film does not create historical awareness in the viewer at all. We do not understand why they are shooting and blowing things up.”

Although the security agencies agree that they want to show the Islamic Republic in a positive light, there is also some uncertainty between their own officials about how to distort history in favor of different factions of the government. Among other things, in the film Cyanide the role of Mohsen Khamoushi, the brother of Alinaghi Khamoushi one of the leaders of the Islamic Coalition Party, in religious purges of the MKO went completely ignored. Mohsen Khamoushi was involved in the assassination of Majid Sharif Vaqefi, a senior member of the MKO.

Narratives about the respective roles of officials of the Islamic Republic in historical events varies according to the period. There is an ongoing visual debate around Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani’s acceptance of UN Resolution 598, which called for a ceasefire in the war with Iraq, and the story of senior MKO member Saeed Shahsavandi in Midday Event: Trace of Blood. In this film, intelligence officials are told that Shahsavandi is injured and go to visit him in hospital. Shahsavandi had defected from the MKO but took part in Operation Forough Javidan to seize back towns in central Iran in July 1988. He said agents of the Islamic Republic had tried to kill him, but their commander recognized him and prevented it. There are different narratives about who this commander was, including a claim that he was Ahmad Vahidi, the military governor of Kermanshah. Ali Khamenei’s adviser Mostafa Tajzadeh said the then-president had ordered that Shahsavandi not be executed, but at an IRNA news conference about Trace of Blood, an unnamed intelligence official said the decision had in fact been taken at a lower level.

"The level of decision-making in these cases was at my level, and at that of my manager, and at most the minister," he said, as though he had been one of Shahsavandi's interrogators himself. "After a great deal of effort we finally managed to get a meeting with the minister to talk about Saeed Shahsavandi."

Security Official Has a Hand in Many Productions

Morteza Ghobeh – also known as Morteza Esfahani – is a figure whose name often crops up in discussions around Iranian cinema. This security official has even been attacked by some critics for his role in producing propaganda films and TV, especially the Safe House series. In one episode of this serial the fugitive banker Mahmoud Reza Khavari is killed by security agents abroad. Mashreq website wrote that showing this would cause the Islamic Republic to be blamed for any future incident that befell Khavari.

In the introduction to an interview with the elusive Esfahani, Sobh-e Now newspaper noted: "We neither met Morteza Esfahani nor heard his voice, but he received our questions through an intermediary and then sent us the answers in writing.” Esfahani said in this interview that after producing around 3,000 minutes of documentaries he had entered cinema and television, inspired by the director Masoud Kimiaei, and starting with the film Banquet. This film was made in 1995. At that time Esfahani was one of notorious security chief Saeed Emami's colleagues. For his part, Kimiaei denies having had any direct contact with Emami.

Producer Mahmoud Razavi has said of Esfahani: "I do not know anyone with the surname Ghobeh. But Mr. Haj Morteza Esfahani has been a security consultant for our projects in several films and has been approved by the responsible institutions. The role of the consultant is to advise the producer and director. The things I have read in recent times are the allusions of friends.”

Director Behrouz Afkhami welcomed Esfahani's activity in cinema, saying he is “very talented” and could in time become a capable screenwriter and filmmaker. Apart from helping to write scripts, Esfahani is thought to be active in other aspects of production. Farhikhtegan newspaper wrote that he even has influence over acting and was present on the set of the Silent Assassination series. This background may be a prelude to him becoming a director, just like the hardliner Massoud Dehnamaki.

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Fajr Festival 2021: The Best Film Award Goes to Iran's Security Agencies, Again