Abdolreza Kahani: “We are Born Into Censorship”
In Iran, the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture imposes a strict process of review and approval for all screenplays before films can be legally produced in the country. Films that are produced also face censorship, and directors are often ordered to remove certain scenes before the authorities allow them to screen the film.
Prominent director Abdolreza Kahani migrated to France in 2015 after three of his films were banned in the Islamic Republic and he was prevented from submitting them to international festivals. His films, which focus on social issues in the country, had great commercial success but “sometimes a filmmaker’s actions become more important than his films,” he told the Center for Human Rights in Iran (CHRI) in a recent interview.
In March 2019, Kahani published a handwritten letter online by the ministry demanding that he make changes and cuts to his film, “Vaght Daarim Haalaa” (“We have time now”) before it could be screened in Iran. He refused and decided to “document” the ministry’s rare step of ordering him to self-censor in writing as opposed to doing so verbally. The demands included, “delete scene of boy and girl in bed,” “delete scene of boy’s leg on girl’s buttocks” and “delete kiss and statements by boy to doctor.”
All directors, artists, writers, and members of the press deal with constant and arbitrary censorship in Iran enforced by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Its restrictions include adherence to government-mandated dress codes and removal of lines in a script that may be perceived as political or critical of the government.
In July 2017, Kahani wrote an open letter to film industry authorities arguing that censorship has been damaging Iran’s film industry. But he told CHRI that the situation has only worsened under the presidency of Hassan Rouhani (2013-present), who was voted into office promising a more open society.
“Filmmakers always had issues with the Guidance Ministry but now they have to deal with other agencies as well,” said Kahani. “In fact, censorship has not gone away; it has become even worse.” Excerpts of the interview follow.
CHRI: What kind of censorship do filmmakers encounter in Iran? Which agencies are involved?
Kahani: First, the screenplay has to be submitted to the Culture and Islamic Guidance Ministry. A censorship committee of eight or nine people will review it. After the film is made, it has to be reviewed by the Screening Permit Council.
But after the council issues a permit, many other authorities can create problems, including the Islamic Propagation Organization (IPO), the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB), the municipality and others.
For instance, the IRIB could refuse to show the trailer [on national TV] for certain films. Or the municipality could refuse to let it be shown at theaters. Every organization will raise obstacles in any way they can. Filmmakers always had issues with the Guidance Ministry but now they have to deal with other agencies as well. In fact, censorship has not gone away; it has become even worse.
CHRI: Are members of the review committees known by the filmmakers? Are they themselves engaged in the film profession? Are they film critics?
Kahani: There is a department of the Guidance Ministry called the Office for Overseeing and Evaluating Films. It is the censorship office, in essence. They watch all the films. Some of them are permanent members and others change with every new government. Some of them are filmmakers who like to engage in censorship as well. That is one of the strange aspects of the film industry in Iran.
The committee watches the films to ensure that the people would not be “corrupted” by certain scenes. That always made me ask the question: How is it that the censors themselves are not corrupted when they watch these films?
CHRI: Are censorship requests communicated verbally or in writing?
Kahani: Usually verbally because they do not want to put anything in writing. From my experience of making eight films in Iran, I can say that in almost every case I heard verbal criticism from officials from the Guidance Ministry and other agencies. The police, the IPO, the Guidance Ministry, and other authorities have all raised objections to my films.
Every time I tried to get a written document from them, I failed. The only exception was when I was working abroad and could not go to the Guidance Ministry in person to hear their objections. That is when, for the first time, they submitted a list of things they wanted to be censored. I had been waiting for this opportunity for years and I published it.
Sometimes a filmmaker’s actions become more important than his films. I published the letter because I wanted to document it for the history of Iranian cinema so that future generations could see how films are censored in Iran and under what conditions they are made.
CHRI: Are there clear censorship guidelines that filmmakers have to follow?
Kahani: Every filmmaker is censored differently; there are no set rules. Those who are close to the authorities are treated differently than those who are not. Some can cross imaginary red lines without experiencing any problems. They are mostly filmmakers who make films that contain messages that are favored by certain agencies.
I tried to make a film about the fashion industry but my request was turned down. Then someone else made a film about the same subject and later I found out that he was backed by government organizations. Later that same director became a member of the Screening Permit Council.
There are no clear censorship parameters. For instance, if I wanted to make a film about war, I am sure I would face a lot of problems. The authorities are going to be suspicious of me and presume that I will try to inject some evil plot.
A few years ago, I said in an interview that I am fundamentally opposed to the Screening Permit Council. I said that the council should act as a watchdog composed of sociologists and psychologists who could evaluate which age group should be allowed to see each film. At the time, many criticized me.
Unfortunately, censorship is not just imposed by state agencies. Censorship has become part of everyone’s lives in Iran. We are born into censorship. Censorship affects not just literature, music and film. Censorship begins inside the home. When we have to wear a headscarf to leave the house [as all Iranian women are required to do], that means we are not being ourselves. In Iranian society, even the religious people have to censor themselves or else they would have difficulty getting a job in the private sector.
We are a people with lots of unspoken thoughts. As long as we continue to practice self-censorship, the Guidance Ministry will remain part of our society. In such a society, your colleague becomes a defender of censorship, despite having suffered from censorship himself.
Some people in the film industry have realized that they have to surrender to censorship in order to survive. It is unfortunate. It is these kinds of things that are revolting to people like me. I have had many friends who were not close to the state but have decided to become so.
I had a friend who became famous because of my films and then shamelessly turned against me in order to please the Guidance Ministry and others. My friend decided to agree with the Guidance Ministry’s policies in order to make a living. There is no point working in a society where alcoholics accuse you of drinking alcohol.
CHRI: In recent years, we have seen films with drunken characters [drinking by Muslims is illegal in the Islamic Republic], less restricted dialogue between men and women, and more relaxed observance of the [state-mandated] hijab. Does that mean the red lines have faded?
Kahani: I have been making films outside Iran for some time. I deliberately avoid reading about the film industry in Iran. If I ever went back to make a film, I would try to stay away from the news and avoid contact with the Guidance Ministry.
As far as I know, most of the films that have less restricted dialogues are made by state or semi-state agencies. These films are made according to the wishes of those agencies. There are producers that are themselves part of the Guidance Ministry’s censorship apparatus. They have a more open hand in making films that fit the mentality of the state. That does not indicate the existence of more freedom in Iranian cinema.
CHRI: What restrictions do filmmakers who want to submit their work to foreign film festivals face? Some Iranian films are blocked from being screened inside the country but are permitted to be shown at foreign festivals. What’s the process behind this?
Kahani: It is completely arbitrary. Sometimes the authorities grant permission to screen a film in Iran and then they decide to prevent the same film from being submitted to foreign festivals. Sometimes they will not let a film be shown anywhere. The regulations governing the Iranian film industry are very complicated. No one really knows how they work.
In my case, Mr. (Javad) Shamaghdari, who was in charge of the Guidance Ministry’s film division, officially told me that I could not submit my film “Heech” (“Nothing”) to foreign film festivals. Most of my films suffered the same fate.
CHRI: What has the professional climate been like for filmmakers under President Hassan Rouhani?
Kahani: For me, it has been worse than before. Today, if I submitted proposals to make the same films I made in the past, I would be rejected. The censors have gained a lot of experience and realized that they have to turn down screenplays from the start and stop suspicious films before they are made. Then they don’t have to deal with stopping the films from being shown.
This is a time for less risky films. Producers are happier backing these kinds of projects. I believe films have lost their serious nature. There are fewer courageous films being made. Yet it is courage that the world of film celebrates.