‘A Cinema of Discontent’ – Film Censorship in Iran – Stifling or Feeding Creativity

By Megan Toon

Western societies actively encourage individuality, the expression of identity and aesthetic appreciation through visual mediums, such as cinema. American film directors express individuality and societal realism without the fear of governmental sanctions, imprisonment or torture. In contrast, the ideological conformity of the Iranian regime imposes strict censorship on Iranian film production.

Dr Jamsheed Akrami’s production of ‘A Cinema of Discontent’ has provided an opportunity for Iranian film directors and actors to publicise their displeasure with the media censorship in Iran. Dr Jamsheed Akrami is a professor of Film Studies at William Paterson University and the former editor of Iranian film magazines, ‘Film and Art’ and ‘Film Quarterly’; he has directed a trilogy of films on the constraints in Iranian cinema, ‘The Lost Cinema’, ‘Friendly Persuasion’ and ‘A Cinema of Discontent’. Iranian directors are obligated to abide by a strict set of guidelines, enforced by the Iranian government, which limit the dress, physical interactions and behaviour of characters in accordance with the government’s definition of Islamic practices and the political regime. Dr Jamsheed Akrami interviews twelve notable individuals involved with film production in Iran, who believe the censorship not only hinders their own creative talent, but also denies them the freedom to articulate cultural identity and social realism.

Map of the Islamic Republic of Iran (courtesy of Creative Commons)
Map of the Islamic Republic of Iran (courtesy of Creative Commons)

‘As the restrictions increase, so our resilience to express our opinions increases’, Bahman Gohabi searches for innovative methods of side-stepping the political covets. In order to comply with the politically regulations Gohabi feels he must make ‘extreme compromises’ to his films and sacrifice realistic portrayals of daily life. For example, women generally do not wear the hijab at home or in a private setting, however the regulations state that a women must be depicted with her ‘hijab’ covering her hair at all times, whether in bed, the shower or exercising. Gohabi is forced to supplement his scripts with subtle framing angles and dialogue insinuations, which avoid both unrealistic and prohibited situations–a concern that is absence from the Western liberty of Hollywood.

Intimacy is often a vital component of a climatic cinematic narrative. However the Iranian government strictly prohibits intimacy between the sexes in any form. Whether the characters share an innocent hand-shake, an embrace between father and daughter, or sexual attraction, the film producer must find an alternative solution to create the emotional suspense upon which so many American films structure. In ‘A Very Close Encounter’ a woman goes to shake hands with her husband, but he is conveniently holding two shopping bags to prevent physical contact. Objects, such as roses or shawls are substituted for the gentle stroke of a hand against a cheek, or a strategic positioning of the camera reveals only the feet of a couple kissing behind a car. Noureddin Kelt believes the sanctions have both stolen his ability to communicate the social realisms of Iranian society and left him with ‘impossible dreams’ of the films which he yearns to create.

Fatema Aria, an Iranian actress, is appalled by the sanctions, but nevertheless feels obligated to follow the laws in fear of retribution. She has learned to adapt her facial expressions and body language to compromise for the forbidden intimacy and still produce the emotion the scene demands.  The prohibitions in the creative arts mirror the social and cultural instability of Iranian society. The Iranian regime strives for an ideological conformity, which regimentally curtails the behaviour and emotional expression permitted by the actors. The Iranian film directors Dr Jamsheed Akrami interviewed remain adamant that the strict sanctions will not stifle their creativity and whilst they will continue to integrate innovative means of portraying the emotional suspense sanctioned by the censorship, they remain scared to publically refute or speak out against the constraints for fear of torture and imprisonment.

Creative arts provide a unique escape from reality. The political censorship enforced on Iranian film disallows this detachment from reality, and serves as a virulent reminder of the oppressing social regime. Iranian film directors and actors must discover novel techniques in their productions to achieve a compromise between the political subjugation and the aesthetic appreciations of a yearning audience.

Megan Toon is a sophomore in Trumbull College. Contact here at megan.toon@yale.edu