[Reader-list] More on Tahmineh Milani (2)

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Tue Sep 25 05:55:32 IST 2001

(Middle East Report 219, Summer 2001)

Iranian Cinema
Art, Society and the State

Ziba Mir-Hosseini

(Ziba Mir-Hosseini, a freelance anthropologist, researcher and 
filmmaker, is a research associate at the Centre for Near and Middle 
Eastern Studies, SOAS, in London.)

Still from Rakhshan Bani-EtemadiÕs Lady of May.

Following the Iranian revolution of 1979 and the inauguration of the 
Islamic Republic, many predicted that new restrictions would kill off 
Iran's cinema. But Iranian film has survived, undergoing remarkable 
transformations in parallel with the wider changes in Iranian culture 
and society. Today, Iranian cinema is recognized as one of the most 
innovative and exciting in the world, and films from Iranian 
directors are being screened to increasing acclaim at international 
festivals. The key to resolving the apparent contradiction between 
Iran's repressive image and the renaissance of Iranian cinema is to 
understand the relationship that developed between art, society and 
the state after the Islamic revolution.

The popular nature of the revolution, and the factionalism within the 
Islamic Republic, gave the public and artists an opportunity to 
engage the state in extended processes of negotiation, protest, 
cooperation and defiance. Contrary to prevalent views, the principal 
contenders do not fall neatly into opposing camps, with the state on 
the one side and artistic community on the other.(1) Rather, most 
filmmakers, helped by liberal segments of the government, have 
exploited divisions in the regime to confront the cultural 
conservatives and the segment of the state apparatus under their 
control. Women and romantic love -- time-honored themes of Iranian 
film -- became the main focus of this confrontation. Soon after the 
revolution, women and love were forced into the strait jacket of 
strict interpretations of feqh (Islamic jurisprudence), which allowed 
little room for social realities like feelings between boys and 
girls. With the imposition of hejab (the Islamic dress code) and 
sexual segregation, the public presence of women and the expression 
of romantic love became highly restricted. For a decade, Iranian 
filmgoers could hardly see women and love depicted on screen. The 
subsequent story of Iranian cinema parallels other post-revolutionary 
developments in Iranian society: a constant stretching of the limits 
imposed by feqh-based ideology.

Art of Ambiguity

Before the 1979 revolution, the clerics in Iran rejected cinema, or 
at best ignored it. Films were among the forms of art considered 
forbidden (haram), and for many pious families going to the cinema 
was tantamount to committing a sin. The main reason for this was that 
cinematic representations of women and love upset the delicate 
dualism which had long attended these topics in Iranian culture. Love 
has always been the main theme in Persian poetry, but it is seldom 
clear whether the writer is talking about divine or earthly love, or 
(given the absence of grammatical gender in Persian) whether the 
"beloved" is male or female. Both the Persian language and the poetic 
form have allowed writers to maintain and even work with these 
ambiguities. The art of ambiguity (iham), perfected in the work of 
classical poets such as Hafez, has spoken to generations of Iranians, 
including the present one. But such ambiguity cannot be sustained in 
the performative and graphic arts, where both the language and the 
form demand greater transparency and directness in the depiction of 
women and love. Among the traditional solutions adopted for this 
problem were the complete elimination of women, as in ta'ziyeh, the 
religious passion plays, where women's roles have always been played 
by men,(2) or idealized and unrealistic representations, such as the 
"neuter" figures depicted in paintings of the early Qajar period, 
which were embodiments of how the "beloved" was described in 
classical poetry.(3) By the late nineteenth century, with the advent 
of photography, the representation of women had become more 
realistic. The drive for "modernization" under Reza Shah, and the 
corresponding takeoff of cinema as public entertainment in Iran, 
reinforced this tendency. Not only had Iranian women's public roles 
and status changed, but women and love stories were integral to the 
film industry from the start.(4)

The nascent Islamic Republic was thus faced with a dilemma. Aware of 
cinema's power, the Islamic authorities could neither reject nor 
ignore the medium as the clerics had done before. On the other hand, 
feqh had nothing to say about film, apart from imposing its rules of 
halal and haram on cinematic images and themes. Khomeini's regime 
made a concerted attempt to bring cinema under the domination of 
state ideology and subject it to a process of Islamization. But the 
Islamization process has failed, as filmmakers, like other artists, 
have gradually managed to free their art from feqh injunctions and 
state ideology.

Trying to Islamize Art

Still from Rakhshan Bani-EtemadiÕs Nargess.

The three phases of the relationship between cinema and the state 
correspond to socio-political phases of the Islamic Republic. The 
first phase, now referred to as the First Republic, lasted for a 
decade, beginning with the creation of the Islamic state. "Liberals" 
and "moderates" confronted "radicals" and "militants"; the latter, 
supported by Ayatollah Khomeini, won the struggle to control the 
post-revolutionary state, and excluded the former from power. This 
first phase, dominated by the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), saw the 
ascendance and almost undisputed power of feqh-based Islam and the 
suppression of reformist and modernist visions of Islam. Attempting 
to bring culture and art under its control, the regime created the 
Committee for Cultural Revolution.(5) The Ministry of Culture and Art 
became the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG), with a 
mandate to Islamize all kinds of art and cultural activities.

Through its various organizations, the regime promoted the creation 
of a distinctively Islamic cinema in the early 1980s. In those years 
no quality film was produced, (6)and women and love were almost 
totally absent from the screen, though women were present behind the 
camera, even working as directors.(7) In the absence of women, love 
and human emotions could be channeled through children, so stories 
based on children dominated the screen.(8) In the mid-1980s, the grip 
of feqh-based ideology gradually loosened, and a period of 
qualitative growth started. Iranian cinema started to attract 
international attention once again.

Toward the end of the first phase, Islamic intellectuals and artists 
such as Abdolkarim Soroush and Mohsen Makhmalbaf -- disillusioned 
with the policies of the Islamic Republic -- began to voice 
objections to the regime's feqh-based Islam. There are parallels 
between the emergent "new religious thinking" of Soroush and the new 
cinema associated with Makhmalbaf. For Soroush, religion is "bigger 
than ideology." (9) For Makhmalbaf, the same is true of art: art can 
free an artist and it cannot be contained in a strait jacket of 

New Round of Factionalism

The end of the war with Iraq in 1988 and Ayatollah Khomeini's death 
in 1989 brought about a shift in the power structure. With Ayatollah 
Ali Khamene'i as Supreme Leader and Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani as 
president, a new phase started, referred to as "reconstruction" and 
marked by an increased tension between the different visions of Islam 
and between the two ruling factions within the Islamic Republic: the 
so-called "rightists" and "leftists." The strategic alliance of 
"radicals" and "militants" within each of these two factions now 
started to break down. The leftists, who had dominated under 
Khomeini, now gradually lost their ministers from government, their 
parliamentary representatives and their influence in the judiciary. 
This new round of factionalism focused on art and culture. The notion 
of "cultural revolution" gave way to that of "cultural invasion," 
which became the right's ideological tool for discrediting and 
eliminating the "enemy within" -- their leftist opponents. These 
included some of the early militants and radicals, who were gradually 
breaking away from absolutist ideologies, and were developing a more 
moderate and liberal outlook. This group was later joined by some of 
the "moderates" and "liberals" (now referred to as "religious 
nationalists," melli-mazhabi) and secularists (the "different 
thinkers," digar-andishan) whom the radicals had overcome in the 
early years of the revolution. Together they became the backbone of 
the reformist movement that emerged in 1997.

The rightist faction concentrated its attacks on the MCIG. Mohammad 
Khatami, the minister since 1982, had laid the foundation for the 
growth of a domestic cinema and an independent press as part of his 
general contribution to the development of open cultural 
policies.(11) The Farabi Cinema Foundation, a semi-governmental 
organization, put a partial ban on the import of foreign films and 
provided financial support for filmmakers. At first Rafsanjani sided 
with Khatami, but since cultural development was not among his 
priorities, he abandoned him and Khatami had to resign in 1992. By 
then the rightist faction enjoyed the support of the Leader, and its 
hold on power was almost complete. This meant the end of the open 
cultural policies of the late 1980s, and a renewed attempt by the 
rightists -- dominated by conservative clerics -- to impose their 
vision of feqh-based Islam on cultural and artistic production.

Cinema as Social Critique

Iranian film director Tahmineh Milani in Tehran. (Mohammad Sayyad/AP Photo)

But it was too late. The old taboo topics of women and love had 
already come out of the shadows. Mohsen Makhmalbaf's film A Time to 
Love (1991) marked the beginning of a new approach. It dealt with the 
forbidden subject of a love triangle (one woman, two men), and the 
relativity of human conditions and judgments. A Time to Love was 
shocking, not only because it revealed a change of position by a 
filmmaker committed to Islam, but also because he chose such a 
sensitive storyline -- a tale of romantic love -- to convey his 
message. Shot in Turkey, the film was shown in Iran only at the Fajr 
Festival, not in public cinemas, though it was passionately debated 
in the press for some time. During this phase, women film directors 
broke away from the male vision and started to produce films dealing 
clearly with female characters and love. Notable among them is 
Nargess by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad (1992), another love triangle story 
(two women and one man), which won the main 1992 Fajr Festival 

In the absence of a free press, cinema came to provide a kind of 
social critique. Its favorable critical reception meant that it also 
reached outside audiences, putting it in a unique position as the 
alternative face of Iran to the world. The conservative policies of 
the rightist faction, which now controlled the MCIG, politicized the 
filmmakers. During the 1997 presidential election, for the first time 
filmmakers made their implicit political tendencies explicit. Almost 
the entire cinematic community came out in support of Mohammad 
Khatami. His campaign commercial was produced by filmmaker Seifollah 
Dad, and a number of other filmmakers spoke in support of his 

Medium for Reconciliation

With Khatami's unexpected election, the MCIG was freed from the 
control of those (now called "conservatives") who still adhere to a 
feqh-based definition of social reality, and came under the control 
of "reformists" who advocate more tolerant cultural polices. This new 
phase -- a "Third Republic" -- has brought a breakthrough for Iranian 
film, with women and love publicly rehabilitated in releases like 
Tahmineh Milani's Two Women (1998) or Bani-Etemad's Lady of May 
(1998). One feature of this phase is the emergence of younger voices 
demanding personal freedom and questioning the whole notion of 
feqh-based gender relations. These voices are heard in films that 
deal openly and critically with gender roles and have love as their 
main theme. Meanwhile, international acclaim for Iranian cinema in 
the 1990s has helped the Iranian diaspora to renegotiate their 
relationships with the land they left. For many Iranians living 
abroad, film was the only thing coming from Iran of which they were 
not ashamed.

This new phase is still unfolding, and it is too early to say 
anything definite about its direction.(13) What is certain is that 
the marriage between art and ideology has proved to be as problematic 
in Iran as that between religion and politics. Today Iran is in a 
transition from theocracy to democracy. The radical discourse 
dominant in the 1980s has been challenged by a more pluralistic one, 
which is forging a more tolerant political atmosphere. Cinema -- like 
other cultural and artistic products -- has come to play a central 
role in this transition. Not only does it continue to provide a new 
social critique, it has also become a medium for reconciliation 
between Iranians inside and outside the country.


1 Sussan Siavoshi, "Cultural Policies and the Islamic Republic: 
Cinema and Book Publication," International Journal of Middle East 
Studies 29 (1997), p. 509.

2 Peter Chelkowski, ed., Ta'ziyeh: Ritual and Drama in Iran (New 
York: New York University Press, 1979).

3 Afsaneh Najmabadi, "Reading for Gender through Qajar Paintings," in 
Layla Diba, ed., Royal Persian Paintings: The Qajar Epoch, 1785-1925 
(London: I. B. Tauris, 1999). 

4 The first Iranian talkie, The Lur Girl (Ardeshir Irani, 1933), was 
a love story with a woman in the leading role.

5 The Committee's task was to Islamize universities, which basically 
meant purging teachers and students who did not conform to the 
state's ideology. In an interview, Abdolkarim Soroush has openly 
talked about the early activities of this committee, and the disputes 
and confusion in its ideology. The interview is posted at: 
http://www.seraj.org/far1.htm and http://www.seraj.org/cultural.htm.

6 Amir Naderi's The Runner was an isolated case. See Houshang 
Golmakani, "A History of the Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema," 
Chicago Film Center's 10th Annual Festival of Films from Iran (1999), 

7 Hamid Naficy, "Veiled Vision/Powerful Presences: Women in 
Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema," in Mahnaz Afkhami and Erika 
Friedl, eds., In the Eye of Storm: Women in Post-Revolutionary Iran 
(Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1994).

8 The best-known instances include Amir Naderi's The Runner (1984), 
Bahram Beyzai's Bashu: The Little Stranger (1985) and Abbas 
Kiarostami's Where Is the Friend's House (1987).

9 The title of one of his many books. See Ziba Mir-Hosseini, Islam 
and Gender: The Religious Debate in Contemporary Iran (Princeton, NJ: 
Princeton University Press, 1999), ch. 7.

10 See Lloyd Ridgeon, Makhmalbaf's Broken Mirror: The Socio-Political 
Significance of Modern Iranian Cinema (Durham Middle East Paper No. 
64, 2000); Hamid Dabashi, "Dead Certainties: The Early Makhmalbaf," 
in Richard Tapper, ed., The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, 
Representation and Identity (London: I. B. Tauris, forthcoming).

11 For a discussion, see Siavoshi, pp. 516-19.

12 See Naficy, op cit., and Sheila Whitaker, "Rakhshan Bani-Etemad," 
in Rose Issa and Sheila Whitaker, eds., Life and Art: The New Iranian 
Cinema (London: National Film Theatre, 1999).

13 Hamid Naficy, "Islamicizing Film Culture in Iran -- A Post-Khatami 
Update," in Tapper, op cit.

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