An Iranian film director on the country's censorship laws (1/2)

Stills from Iranian films.
Stills from Iranian films.


The Iranian film industry is one of the most respected in the world and wins dozens of international prizes each year. However, before they are released, films produced in Iran must go in front of the state censorship board. We spoke with Iranian director Abdolreza Kahani to find out the real deal about making movies in a theocracy.

The FRANCE 24 Observers team is publishing a two-part interview about censorship and Iranian cinema. Stay tuned for part two.

How does censorship work in Iran? In the past decade, at least 25 films have been banned in Iran, for a variety of reasons.

The film "Asabani Nistam" ("I’m not angry", in English) by director Reza Dormishian was banned in 2014 because the story centres on the Green movement, an opposition movement that came to prominence in 2009. The films "Mehmoonie Kami" ("Kami's Party") by director Ali Ahmadzadeh and "Delighted" by Abdolreza Kahani, which are both about social tension in Iran, were also banned.

This is an excerpt from the film "Delighted" by Abdolreza Kahani, which follows three young girls pursuing rich men. This film was banned in Iran, but, as the director says in this tweet: “I wanted to show you a tiny excerpt from my film."

"To get authorisation to film in Iran, you need to go through several steps”

However, it’s not just overtly political films that are affected by censorship in Iran. In reality, censors scrutinise the whole industry-- down to even the tiniest elements of a scene or screenplay. It’s a complex system, but director Abdolreza Kahani — who has won numerous international prizes — has dealt with it enough to know the ropes. Some of his films have been either partially or completely banned by the board.

There are multiple steps to getting authorisation to film in Iran. First, you have to submit a complete screenplay to the examination commission at the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. The members of this commission read the screenplay to check that there is nothing that is overtly problematic in it. If there is a “problem”, they request modifications to the text or just delete the section themselves. They can also decide to throw out the entire screenplay.

Once we get this initial authorisation, then we can start filming. When we finish up the filming, another commission examines the film to make sure that we respected all regulations and that what we made follows the screenplay that we submitted. They can censor different scenes or ask us to modify them. If it is approved, then the commission gives us the authorisation to screen it.

A lot of films are banned at this step, including my film, "Delighted" — even though the finished film was even more conservative than the screenplay that had been originally approved.

This scene from the film "Gashat Ershad" was banned in Iran because one of the actors appears totally drunk in it.

Banned by powerful figures

Even if you have those two authorisations, you aren’t in the clear. There are a lot of Iranian films that get all the necessary authorisations but are never screened because an ayatollah [Editor’s note: a high-ranking member of the Shiite clergy who is an expert in Islamic studies] publicly opposes them. There is also a powerful and conservative group that owns multiple cinemas in Iran. Sometimes, this group refuses to screen films that it sees as going against its conservative values.

In fact, many of the films that get initial authorisations are ultimately banned after objections from various powerful circles. One of the most recent examples is "50 Kilos of Sour Cherries", which was only ever screened in Tehran. It didn’t play in any other theatres across the country because of the objections of various ayatollahs and the Basij  [Editor’s note: The Basij is a paramilitary branch of the Revolutionary Guards that is responsible for interior security. It also has a “cultural” department].

Unfortunately, Iran has a lot of powerful people, like influential scholars at religious universities, who can block films. I had trouble with the police over my film "Absolutely Tame Is a Horse". The Ministry of Culture told me that, for my next film, I needed to get police authorisation to film in the street. That is one of the reasons that I decided to film my next movie "By No Reason", entirely inside.

In this tweet, director Abdolreza Kahani writes: "The Ministry of Culture needs to keep its promise: a year later, we are still waiting for 'Delighted' to be released [in Iran]”. During the presidential election in May 2017, authorities had promised to re-examine the cases of several films banned in Iran.

Also banned abroad

These bans also apply outside of Iran. That means that if a film is banned, we are not allowed to screen it abroad. Sometimes, films are authorised in Iran, but authorities ban any international screening.

I won several prizes at international festivals for my film, "Twenty". After that, authorities banned me from screening my next four films abroad. They even banned me from sending my films to international festivals. If I had done it anyway, they would have prevented me from making other films in Iran.

They explained that Iranians were allowed to see the social problems that I highlight in my films, but that there was no need to show them to foreigners.

The film "Kami's Party” was censored in Iran. The director ended up posting it on Vimeo as a sign of protest.

Earning a bad reputation

However, the rules change depending on the directors. Certain directors, who have close relationships with Iranian authorities, can explore certain taboo topics — but that’s only because authorities know that these directors will express the official point of view on these topics. Directors who don’t question the position and beliefs of the authorities are much more free.

In 2011, I wrote a screenplay about underground fashion shows in Iran. My request was denied, but another filmmaker was given permission to make a film about the same subject. When I asked why he was allowed to make the film, the authorities told me, “He was allowed and you weren’t. We knew ahead of time that you’d make a film impossible to screen.”

What is banned in Iranian films?

Representation of women

There are a lot of things that we can’t show in films in Iran. Any actresses must be covered in an Islamic manner in every scene, which results in ridiculous situations.

In Iranian films, women must always wear a hijab, even when they are alone or with their families — even though both sharia law and Iranian law only require women to wear a hijab when they are around strangers.

Physical contact

We can’t show a man and a woman in the same bed, even if they are completely covered and a metre apart. Actors and actresses can’t be seen touching each other in any situation.

Imagine if one of them is sick. In Iranian films, when someone is injured or sick, the other person can’t do anything but cry. We can’t show them touching each other — even though it is such a simple, natural gesture. We also can’t show any alcohol or drugs in our films.

I filmed "We Have Time” in France. There are several scenes that show people who aren’t Iranian drinking, dancing and touching each other. Authorities in Iran asked me to cut out all of those scenes. If I had done that, I would have lost 20 minutes from my film — and it would have turned into a short film. I didn’t do it, but that meant that I was not allowed to screen it.

The Iranian comedy "Dracula" is one striking example of censorship in Iran. In certain scenes, the actors apparently looked too sexy and the women were wearing too much make-up. In another scene, a man running for public office appeared to be a drug addict. The censorship board cut out 13 minutes of the film but afterwards it was still released in Iran.

The story of a man and his wife

In my film "Absolute Rest”, I asked the wife of one of the actors to appear in the film so that I could film her touching him a few times. However, the examination commission asked me to cut the scene. I explained to them that the actress was the real-life wife of the actor.

Their response was, “Okay, but the public doesn’t know that.” We ended up adding a message at the beginning of the film that says “The woman in the film is the real-life wife of the actor” and it was only after that that we were allowed to keep the scene. People made fun of the message, saying “Who cares?” In any case, we weren’t able to show viewers the real relationship between these two people.

Iranian authorities permitted a scene where a man touches a woman in the film "Absolute Rest" on the condition that the director add a written explanation at the start of the film explaining that the actress was the real-life wife of the actor.

Religious figures always have to be angelic

We also aren’t allowed to show any religious figure in a negative light. They can’t be anything other than a completely good person.

In my film "By No Reason”, for example, there is a female religious figure who, according to the examination commission, isn’t a nice person. But, in my films, I don’t make my characters black or white, I want them to be realistic. "You need to change it, you can’t show a religious woman who isn’t lovely; otherwise, it is anti-religious propaganda,” they told me.

According to Abdolreza Kahani, addressing societal issues like prostitution or any form of corruption goes way beyond just crossing the red line established by censors.

In the last 40 years, Iranian authorities have clamped down on several films because they were about taboo topics. That’s the case for director Jafar Panahi’s film "Offside", which tells the story of a group of young girls who are arrested for trying to go see a men’s football match, which women are forbidden from attending.