How to sidestep Iran’s film censors (2/2)

Stills from Iranian films.
Stills from Iranian films.


Censors at Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance often order directors to make changes to their films – or ban the films outright. In this second article in our series on censorship, award-winning director Abdolreza Kahani reveals techniques he and other filmmakers use to sidestep the restrictions.

If you missed the first article of this two-part series, you can catch up here: "An Iranian film director on the country's censorship laws (1/2)"

Creative ways to bypass censorship

Over the last four decades, Iranian directors have learned to get around censorship by coming up with creative ways to show actions and activities that are banned.

I remember one film in which a young man walked toward his sweetheart to kiss her. They were outside and the camera rotated around them so that when he reached her the couple was hidden by a tree. All you saw was his arms closing – presumably around her. You’re not supposed to show men and women touching – even husband and wife. So if you want to show a couple fighting you have the actors break plates and throw things instead of putting their hands on each other. And we developed special conventions for taboo topics like rape. It was interesting for non-Iranian audiences at international film festivals - they couldn’t believe we would show a rape just by filming a closing door.

But after nearly 40 years we’re just repeating the same metaphors for forbidden scenes. It’s not creative anymore. It’s not cool. We’re once again faced with the reality that censorship is a huge obstacle for showing the simplest human interactions in Iran.

Hoping they won’t notice

When the censors told me to modify my 2012 film “By No Reason” ("Sans Raison") - to make the religious woman character into a “nice person” by changing dialogue and cutting sequences - I told them, “OK, I’ll make the changes.” I gave the review board the new edit on a DVD, and they cleared it. I asked them to give me back the DVD because I needed to copy the modifications onto the original version. But when I left the office, I broke the DVD and we screened the original version in cinemas. They never noticed what I’d done - fortunately. I took the risk because I wanted people to watch the film I really made.

The disease of self-censorship

Most Iranian directors never get to make a film the way they originally imagine them. We give a script (scenario) to the Culture Ministry. If they reject it we submit a second draft, or even a third, until we get permission to make the movie. I’ve made 10 films, but I’ve written at least 30 scripts.

Directors and writers have learned to exercise “self-censorship.” In fact, it reaches every part of the industry. On a shoot every member of the crew becomes a censor. When we we’re filming, actors and camera operators gently suggest making changes so we’ll pass the censors. Investors push to make films that are “broadcastable.”

Decades of censorship have created a sort of psychosis in Iranian film fans too. When they watch a new film, they look for deleted scenes. As they watch they sometimes imagine that something has been cut out even if it wasn’t. They add scenes in their minds. They’re convinced the censors must have removed something.

If you can’t show it in the cinema…

In recent years, new technology has given us new ways to fight back against censorship. We’re now able to publish banned scenes online – to show people what they couldn’t watch in the cinema. Some directors publish censored parts of their movies on social media. Others, who have had their films banned completely, go further and post their full-length movies entirely on the Internet.

In the last year, two Iranian filmmakers have published their movies on the Internet. Ali Ahmadzadeh’s 2013 “Kami’s Party” passed the censors but the authorities didn’t like it so they never scheduled it for release in cinemas. He finally published the film on Vimeo in September 2016. Mohammad Shirvani found an original way of protesting after his film “Fat Shaker” was banned in 2013: he’s putting his film online in installments – one minute at a time - on his Instagram page.

Posting a film online is an act of desperation, but a kind of protest at the same time. We know we’ve lost any chance to make money in cinemas; if we publish online at least we can get out films to the public. That’s the ultimate goal of any artist – for people to see what they have created.

Long-term damage

This long history of censorship makes artists depressed. We work for months to make a movie and then in a few minutes they ban it and all the efforts of dozens of people are reduced to nothing. Directors lose their passion. They make fewer movies – or stop making films altogether, so there are fewer movies in the cinema.

There’s a financial toll too. The last movie I made in Iran cost more than 1.5 billion tomans [€400,000] to make. My investors lost that amount as well as at least 10 billion tomans [€2.6 million] that we could have made at the box office. Investors end up staying away from serious movies and committed directors. They put their money in more profitable sectors like construction, and the cinemas are left with nothing but shallow entertainment.