Conservative MPs Pressure Culture Ministry to Ban Films Portraying “Realistic Picture” of Modern Iranian Life
Director Ali Ahmadzadeh’s film “Atomic Heart,” about the lives of young, modern Iranians, including Christians, could be removed from cinemas in Iran just weeks after a three-year ban on the movie was lifted.
“Although it was made in 2014, the film only recently received a screening permit,” Ahmadzadeh told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) in a recent interview. “Now there are threats to ban it again.”
“I tried to present a more realistic picture of Iranian girls and boys in a way that had not been done before in Iranian cinema,” he added. “But there are angry people and officials out there who, instead of standing up for the film for its realistic and lively portrayal, are criticizing it.”
On July 6, 2017, a group of conservative members of Iran’s Parliament wrote an open letter to the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry calling for a ban on “Atomic Heart” as well as “Oxidan,” a comedy by director Hamed Mojhammadi about a man who impersonates a Catholic priest to get a visa to the UK.
The letter said: “Given that the Holy Quran respects all religions and prophets of the book, and considering that supreme leader [Ali Khamenei’s] command to maintain national unity and mutual respect among monotheists in the struggle against [the US] and international Zionism, we expect the ministry will stop these two films from being distributed in order to prevent insults against holy religions and avoid discord among the great Iranian people.”
Other critics have claimed that some of the film’s characters display homosexual tendencies and that it undermines Iran’s right to nuclear technology.
“Even though it has been revised several times, ‘Atomic Heart’s’ achilles heel is still the homosexual themes surrounding the film’s main characters and challenging Islamic Iran’s firm stand on the right to have a nuclear industry,” said a review by Cinema Press, a website belonging to the conservative Islamic Society of Artists on June 11, 2017.
“Atomic Heart” was also attacked by the International Quran News Agency on June 16 for allegedly “undermining Iran’s legitimate nuclear rights and making fun of our popular Islamic diplomacy.”
Iranian-Armenians have also criticized the movie; one objection regards a scene wherein a policeman stops a car for suspected drunk driving. The driver, played by famous Iranian actress Taraneh Alidousti, defends herself for having had alcohol by saying, “I’m Christian.”
In a scathing review of the film, Iranian-Armenian actor Siamanto Barseghians wrote: “Taraneh Alidousti plays a role that shows Armenian girls as drunken creatures who take advantage of their Christian faith in an Islamic society. In other words, it represents the Christian community as a bunch of louts.”
While Muslims are not legally allowed to consume alcohol in the Islamic Republic, the private consumption of alcohol by Christians is allowed.
Iran’s small Christian community is primarily made up of ethnic Armenians and Assyrians.
While Iranian Muslim conservatives have reacted strongly to the films’ use of Christian characters and themes, Christian institutions in Iran have not shown any reaction.
Nevertheless, Mohabat News, an Iranian Christian website, reported on June 2 that “Atomic Heart” and “Oxidan” were met with “a lot of criticism among Armenians and Christians in general for how they were negatively represented.”
In the interview with CHRI, Ahmadzadeh insisted that critics who think Christians were belittled in “Atomic Heart” are wrong.
“In fact, the Christian girl is the best character in the film,” the director said. “I don’t understand why there should be objections to her drinking wine in the film. Why should we oppose everything that’s real?”
To date, the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry, which operates under President Hassan Rouhani, has not taken any action against the film. It has, however, banned other films in the past when faced with a wave of criticism from religious conservatives.
“The ministry has not said anything yet, but the film could be banned at any moment” Ahmadzadeh told CHRI. “I’m 30-years old and I have made three films in the past 10 years and all three have received angry reactions.”
His earlier film, “Kami’s Party,” was banned in Iran because the authorities said the female characters did not wear proper hijabs. The film nevertheless made its way to international film festivals.
In January 2017, less than three months into his new post as culture and Islamic guidance minister, Reza Salehi Amiri boasted about banning ten films from entering the Tehran Fajr International Film Festival, “in line with the policies of the supreme leader.”
“For the first time, we cut out films with feminist and inappropriate themes and supported 30 films made by young directors about the sacred defense [Iran-Iraq War],” he said during a meeting with Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, a senior Qom-based theologian.
Some Iranian directors who have had their films banned responded angrily to being subjected to extreme censorship.
“I will no longer make any films showing women wearing headscarves in a private space or in front of strangers,” said veteran Iranian director Kianoush Ayari on January 8, 2017, after he learned that his latest film, “Canopy,” was rejected even after he tried to pacify censors by showing four actresses wearing wigs to avoid religious objections to their shaved heads.
“I’m in this situation because of my commitment to realism,” he said.