In recent days, a number of developments within the realm of Iranian cinema has captured the attention of its ardent audience. These developments had in common the civil disobedience exhibited by filmmakers against government-imposed constraints.
One of the most notable cases is the ongoing legal battle over the film “Tafrigh,” which was banned from release by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance due to the inclusion of Taraneh Alidoosti, an actress who has opposed compulsory hijab.
Two other cases involve the ban on the film “Cabareh” (Cabaret) and the prison sentence against “Leila's Brothers” director.
Government's Astonishment at Actors' Defiance
Some observers believe that the issuance of peculiar orders to filmmakers and the censorship of movies featuring defiant actors underscores the government's astonishment at the resolute response of the cinema industry to the events that unfolded after the death of Mahsa Amini last year.
Incidents such as the psychological classes imposed on Azadeh Samadi and Afsaneh Baygan, as well as the prison sentence against Saeed Roostaei, the director of “Laila's Brothers,” all represent extraordinary occurrences underscoring the extent to which civil defiance exhibited by the cinema industry has unsettled the Islamic Republic’s authorities.
Journalist and film critic Ali Mosleh told IranWire that one of the most remarkable surprises stemming from the “Woman, Life, Freedom” protest movement was the unanticipated reaction of Iranian filmmakers.
Since the early 2010s, there has been a discernible sense that Iranian cinema stars had veered away from the common populace, and that only high wages and trade union benefits were important to them.
"However, the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement was like a reset button for artists, steering them back to their authentic positions – positions that affirm the interconnectedness of the artist and the people," Mosleh said.
"In essence, this caught the government off guard and prompted a formidable response,” he continued. “They waged war with full force against these filmmakers, summoning them, detaining them, barring them from work, restricting their travel, and issuing perplexing judicial orders. This underlines the government's utter lack of anticipation that filmmakers would so ardently align themself with the people in standing against the government."
Mosleh attributed this astonishment to the Islamic Republic's long practice of exploiting cinema for its own interests.
"Filmmakers had inadvertently become a tool of the Islamic Republic's propaganda, willingly or unwillingly. Figures like Amir Naderi, Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi and others had been employed for decades to propagate the notion that the hijab was a cultural phenomenon arising from the hearts of the people," he said.
"Observe how this 40-year narrative crumbled in a matter of weeks. A significant number of female filmmakers and actresses discarded the hijab early in the ‘Woman, Life, Freedom’ movement and effectively declared their resistance against the government," he added.
Prominent Women in Cinema, Theater Champion Disobedience
Shaghayegh Nowrozi, a former actress and an advocate for women's rights, shares the sentiment that the government did not anticipate artists would align themselves with the women-led protest movement.
She explains that most artists who participated in last year's protests were women who had faced the twofold pressures from the state-controlled system of art and the Islamic Republic’s culture of violence, discrimination and surveillance.
Nowrozi underscores that the civil engagement of women artists commenced even prior to the eruption of the protest movement.
It began with their involvement in the MeToo movement which culminated in the release of a statement, endorsed by 800 women from the sectors of cinema, theater and television, condemning the harassment and discrimination faced by female artists.
Then the Underground Cinema Suddenly Rose Up
Whether the Islamic Republic likes it or not, the resounding response of cinema and theater artists has cast an indelible influence on Iran's women's protest movement and the cultural atmosphere in the country.
A return to the previous era appears increasingly implausible. Officials of the Ministry of Culture and Guidance Islamic are undecided on whether to grant screening licenses for films. It seems that the Iranian cinema community has parted ways with them.
In the 2000s, Jafar Panahi and Mohammad Rasoulof turned to underground cinema to evade censorship and governmental restrictions, braving imprisonment and bans. Over the past 10 months, emerging directors have followed their footsteps, showcasing their films in foreign festivals.
Mosleh said that the burgeoning trend of underground films, though rooted in the legacy of the 2000s, now stands on better footing.
"What's intriguing about this wave [of underground films] is that many of these underground filmmakers are young, sometimes even lesser-known. The latest instance is Ali Ahmadzadeh, who won the Locarno Film Festival [top] prize with an underground film," he said.
"He had previously produced three underground films. One of the most profound outcomes of the 2022 protest movement is that a generation has come to realize that filmmaking under governmental censorship is no longer tenable. This has the potential to fundamentally reshape the landscape of Iranian cinema."
This film critic explained that, while underground cinema might not exert a direct impact on box office earnings, domestic releases or mainstream cinema, it has undeniably changed the global perception of Iran's artistic and festival-oriented cinema.
Foreign festivals now predominantly feature either underground creations or works by Iranian filmmakers in exile. These works often defy mandatory hijab and address pressing social and political issues.
Mosleh is convinced that this phenomenon marks a pivotal point in the international presence of Iranian cinema and will cast a far-reaching influence on the national cinema industry.
For this reason, officials from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance continually caution against cooperating with underground projects. They recently raided the shooting location of “Cabareh” and confiscated the crew's equipment, suspecting it was an underground film.
Mosleh said that these officials understand that underground cinema could take the place of official cinema on the global stage.
The Vanishing Chasm Between Artists and the Public
In recent years, the number of Iranian women artists who have been added to the Ministry of Guidance's red list – for refusing to adhere to wear a headscarf, participating in popular protests or for having left the country – has grown steadily.
Nowrozi told IranWire that the amalgamation of artists with the “Woman, Life, Freedom” movement, along with their willingness to bear the consequences of resisting the Islamic Republic’s repressive system, has bridged the gap that previously separated artists from the general public.
In the eyes of this former actress, this phenomenon constitutes a pivotal moment in history that will be talked about for years to come.