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How Iranian Cinema Continues to Flourish Despite Government Crackdowns

Authoritarian governments have always feared the power of film and its creators. Iran is no exception. 

On the 14th of October 2022 director, Mani Haghighi’s passport was confiscated after he was banned from boarding his flight to London. He was meant to appear at the BFI London Film Festival (LFF) for the screening of his newest film, Subtraction. Though the authorities gave him no reason for the confiscation, he filmed a video for the LFF after the incident, saying he believed it is due to an Instagram video he posted. In that video, he declared his support for the Mahsa Amini protests and criticized the Iranian government’s actions, namely, the callous crackdown on those protesting the mandatory hijab laws. Contrary to the government’s probable aim of silencing Haghighi, he reinforced his support for the protests when he gallantly ended the LFF video with the slogan of the current protests: “women, life, freedom; زن زندگی آزادی “.

This, unfortunately, is not an isolated incident. The Iranian government seems to have it out for Iranian filmmakers who exhibit any sort of anti-regime sentiment on any platform. Even if their films don’t seem to consist of any attacks against Iran’s regime (as is the case with Haghighi’s Subtraction), they may still get persecuted.

Two Iranians who have been in the government’s line of fire for a while are filmmaker Mohammad Rasoulof and award-winning director Jafar Panahi who were arrested in 2010 for spreading “anti-regime propaganda” through their films and in protests. In 2020 Rasoulof was sentenced to a year in prison after three of his films were once again accused of spreading “propaganda”. In July 2022 he was again arrested along with fellow filmmaker Mostafa Aleahmad for allegedly “inciting unrest and disrupting the psychological security of society”. A few days later Panahi asked about the whereabouts and well-being of the two filmmakers; the government reacted to the inquiry by sentencing Panahi to 6 years imprisonment. Panahi, and presumably Rasoulof and Aleahmad, were sent to the infamously brutal Evin prison for political dissenters. 

Despite this, in October 2022, Panahi addressed the audience at the screening of his newest film No Bears at the New York Film Festival through one of the actresses, Mina Kavani, who delivered his statement. In this statement, he confirms: “The history of Iranian cinema witnesses the constant and active presence of independent directors who have struggled to push back censorship and to ensure the survival of this art. While on this path, some were banned from making films, others were forced into exile or reduced to isolation.” Imprisonment has not silenced these filmmakers.

The repression of filmmakers and censorship in film has been a characteristic of several authoritarian governments. Though some may argue that censorship in film is just a small part of a wider goal to eradicate freedom of thought and expression, the specific focus on film in 20th and 21st-century politics illustrates its prevailing power. 

Films reflect the world – exposing injustices and condemning oppressors – and demonstrate how the world can be. Additionally, they have become incredibly accessible, making film a compelling medium for the dissemination of ideas, radical or mundane. Inevitably, film is a force to be reckoned with, especially for governments trying to impose a certain narrative without opposition. So do not underestimate the power of film.

Women. Life. Freedom.

Iran flag from Taleghani Park” by DavidSandoz is licensed under CC BY 2.0.