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Society & Culture

The Provocative Chicken: Iran's Censors Pressure Advertisers, Novelists

January 2, 2015
8 min read
The Provocative Chicken: Iran's Censors Pressure Advertisers, Novelists

Saeed Kamali Dehghan

In the world of Iranian television advertising, censorship is not a strange occurrence. But when Mohammad Massoud, a Tehran-based advertising film-maker, agreed to produce an ad for a tomato paste company, he didn’t expect to face any particular problems. Unlike his last project which had faced a lot of scrutiny by the authorities at the state-run television, marketing the new product of a tomato paste company seemed straightforward enough. All he envisioned would be needed would be to throw a whole chicken into a pot, add some vegetables and remind the viewer of the missing ingredient.

But Massoud was wrong. “We showed a whole chicken inside the pot that we were going to cook and to which we were going to add tomato paste. There was a close-up that moved over the whole chicken. They found fault with this, saying that it was ‘provocative.’ We ended up having to scrap that sequence and show the scene from a distance, which made us lose the advertising angle. We wanted to show that this chicken will find a whole new presentation with this tomato paste, but the gentlemen were distracted by something else.”

Those who viewed Massoud's television ads most likely never thought about then twice. But the psychology behind the Islamic Repubic's advertising censors is a distinct world unto itself, something we only pause to consider when an ad's unlikeliness finally strikes us. Years ago, like hundreds of thousands of people passing by a wall mural in the southern side of Vanak Square in Tehran, I never noticed anything peculiar about it. The wall painting, located in one of the busiest traffic spots of the Capital, showed the backs of two men who were walking shoulder to shoulder down a green and happy road towards the sun, each holding a small child.

One day, when I was passing the spot with a French friend, he asked me laughingly, “these two men are gay, aren’t they? And those are their kids.” A gay ad in the middle of Tehran? No. The story was something else. The ad showed men walking off into a meadow because images of women are virtually off limits in Iranian advertising, leading to an increased representation of men. “But, what is more normal than a husband and wife walking next to each other? What about it can be problematic?” my friend asked. This was a question for which I had no convincing response.

This may have happened to you, too, as an Iranian viewer, where you were watching a foreign series on TV, and only later realized that the ending of the original show was not how you saw it broadcast on the Iranian TV. Or that the dubbed dialogues were monumentally different from what they really were in a film. How did you feel then? Do you know what the redlines in the culture and arts scenes are, and what problems artists face for creating their art in Iran?

Abdolreza Zohreh Kermani, a film and TV actor who has acted in several films such as “The Burnt Generation” (Nasl-e Sookhteh) and “Hiva,” directed by Rasoul Mollagholipour, and in the TV series, “Stranger (Gharibeh), believes that whether we like it or not, censorship has become an inseparable part of the lives of all Iranians. Years of limitations and redlines of un-written laws have made him a resident of London these days. Mr. Kermani beieves that the un-written laws of censorship have even affected people’s personal lives in Iran and have led to self-censorship and duplicity in individuals.

“Iranian society itself is now involved in the act of self-censorship and everyone has two or more sides. Everyone appears the same in the society, but in their private sanctum they are a different way. This, too, is another story of the same censorship. The most profound example of this is in our movies. A woman goes to bed wearing a headscarf. A prisoner of war returns after years of imprisonment in Iraq and cannot embrace his mother, though a director may do something clever to skirt this limitation,” Kermani says.

In addition to acting, Kermani has also done some directing. However, his film by the name of “House of Hope,” made in remembrance of the 2003 Bam Earthquake survivors, was not allowed to screen, and is currently kept in his private archives. He remembers that the censor agent’s problem with his film was focused on a pregnant woman. “ In the film, there is a pregnant woman who is in the final days of her pregnancy when she goes into labor. In the scene, she puts her hand on her stomach and sits down in the middle of the frame. The censor told me, ‘her stomach is too big!’ I said, ‘Well, Sir, this birth marks the pivotal point of my film and everything it’s all about, this event must stand.’ He said, ‘her stomach is huge.’ I said, ‘Sir, it’s true that her stomach is huge, but I would like to emphasize that she is going into labor in this scene, so it’s a ninth month pregnancy, therefore her stomach has to be big.”

The censor agent eventually put Reza Kermani out of his misery. “After much coming and going, one day he said, ‘do you want to know the truth? This scene is sexy. You will have to remove it.’ This is when I realized that his whole view was a sick view. The only thing I never thought about. How is it possible that a person who is married himself and has five or six kids, how can he come and say that the pregnant actress in my film was sexy? This view is most disturbing,” added Kermani.

Mania Akbar, 39, began her professional career with painting, and entered the field of cinema later. She began her acting career in 2002, when she appeared in Abbas Kiarostami’s “Ten,” and won acclaim in the Iranian arts field. She says that Iran’s censorship standards have so many layers of light and darkness that she is incapable of analyzing it.

In 2007, Ms. Akbari was diagnosed with breast cancer. After a round of chemotherapy, her hair fell out, an experience about which some time later she developed her second film, entitled “Ten Plus Four.” “I remember that in ‘Ten Plus Four,’ I got into trouble because I had become bald. No matter how many times I told them that I had naturally lost all my hair and that there had been films before this one where an actress did not have any hair and that the film had received a license, nobody listened to me,” Akbari says.

All those I talked with for this piece agreed on one point, however: the un-written law is the greatest problem facing the Iranian artist. “The biggest objection I have always had has been that the issue of censorship in Iran is, unfortunately, not a law. I mean, there is no list they could give you and tell you that in our country these cases are illegal. In practice the problem is that [censorship] is not legal and does not have clear standards. It is determined by daily politics at a given point. As the policies are constantly changing and lack consistency, the interactions with the censor agent are also constantly changing,” says Akbari.

In Iran, prior to publication, publishers must submit the final manuscript or translation of books to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The process of book censorship within the Culture Ministry is not well-known to authors and translators and many seem to have had distinctly varying experiences.

Some of the authors I spoke to for this article believed that at least one or two censor agents had read their books from cover to cover, but a translator who requested anonymity told me that due to the large number of books submitted to the Culture Ministry for publication licensing, over the recent years the censor agents have been increasingly using software to only search for specific words in the texts.

The Tehran-based translator wrote, “The Ministry has chosen comic ways for itself. They have word search software. They have given the forbidden words to the software and this is how they censor the books. For example, in an economics book, they ordered the elimination of the word ‘intercourse’.Such censorship is comical!”

Even Mehdi Shojaee, an author who writes religious novels, complains about the censors. In October 2011 he told the semi-official Mehr News Agency, “In the new system’s censorship area, they have asked us to eliminate all instances of the word ‘wine’ from our books and to replace it with ‘drink.’ Imagine, if we were to publish Hafez under such constraints, what would happen. I believe that even the Quran cannot be published under the present circumstances. They also tell us that we cannot even quote the word “Israel” from the mouth of the US President, or for the word to be published in books! They tell me why in my books the Pharaoh has anti-monotheistic dialogues!”

According to Asghar Ramazanpour, former Press Director of the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, who currently lives in London and works as a journalist, there was a decline in censorship in the Khatami era and the censorship redlines became more defined. During the Ahmadinejad era, however, the old censorship policies were revived. 


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