Iranian Cinema: Acclaimed Abroad, Under Siege at Home

It was momentous that an Iranian artist reflected the voice of so many Iranians at a venue as important as the Oscars, where millions of people watched his speech.
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At a moment when millions of people -- including many Iranians -- were watching to see what Iranian filmmaker Asghar Farhadi would say in his Oscar acceptance speech, Farhadi chose to talk about the concerns of the Iranian people and "the dust of politics" that has overshadowed the hopes and dreams of a nation.

Farhadi, director of the Iranian film A Separation that received the Oscar for best foreign film, could have taken the easy way out -- "I'd like to thank the Academy" and thanked family and friends. Or, as a filmmaker who works in Iran, he could have said a few words about the ongoing repression of the country's film industry, widespread censorship, and the difficulties of being an artist in Iran. But Farhadi decided to use his podium to elevate the millions of Iranian people who are being ignored in the global discussions of Iran's nuclear activities that will have significant effects on their personal lives.

Politicians look at Iran's nuclear program as a matter of international security, throwing around threats of sanctions or military strikes or even all-out war. But when it comes to the threat of military action against Iran, we cannot separate its government from its people.

The director of the masterpiece A Separation is not alone in raising the voices of those who see a military strike against Iran as an indescribable nightmare. This past July, as international talk of a possible "military option" against Iran intensified in the EU, Israel, and the US, the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran spoke to 35 leading and influential Iranian civil society activists, lawyers, intellectuals, and artistic and cultural figures, all of whom live in Iran.

In this report, "Raising Their Voices: Iranian Civil Society Reflections on the Military Option," their unanimous opinion was that any military attack would not only be a complete disaster for Iran, but it would especially harm Iranian civil society and the burgeoning pro-democracy movement.

In the words of one Iranian student activist quoted in this report, "If war breaks out, democracy, human rights, and civil society will be the main losers. The Iranian government would militarize and such a militaristic government has the potential to carry out widespread killings of its opponents."

Farhadi is not a political person; he never talks about politics, and his films do not deal with political topics. However, Farhadi, like those who spoke with us last summer, felt a responsibility to raise his voice about the issue of the individuals and communities who live in a country that is usually only referenced by its politics.

Farhadi's decision to highlight the cultural and human aspects of Iran comes at a time when Iranian artists are feeling the heat of government repression more than ever. Iranian cinema in particular is under siege: just last month the Iranian government shut down the biggest cinema guild in the country, House of Cinema. Over the past two years, a number of actors and filmmakers have been arrested on various politically motivated charges.

Iranian officials want the film community to be an extension of the propaganda arm of government, instead of a reflection of the soul of their society. The government routinely restricts many independent artists from contributing to, in Farhadi's words, the "rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics."

Currently, some Iranian filmmakers are banned -- officially and unofficially -- from making films in Iran. The Ministry of Culture, a government entity, must approve scripts before films can be made in Iran, a long process that is often used to impede or even block many filmmakers, such as Bahman Ghobadi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Bahram Beyzaie.

In 2010, Iranian authorities arrested prominent filmmaker Jafar Panahi on charges of "propagating against the Islamic Republic of Iran." An Iranian court sentenced Panahi to six years in prison and a twenty-year ban on filmmaking. His colleague, Mohammad Rasoulof, was also initially sentenced to six years, though an appeals court revised his sentence to one year.

Last fall, Iranian security forces arrested five documentary filmmakers on accusations of collaborating with the BBC television network; without ever being tried, the filmmakers were released weeks later. Many filmmakers and other artists have left Iran because they were unable to continue their work.

It was momentous that an Iranian artist reflected the voice of so many Iranians at a venue as important as the Oscars, where millions of people watched his speech. The world might not trust Iranian leaders for obvious reasons, but in an attack, bombs will not differentiate between the government and the people. It is very important to highlight the consequences of these potential actions, and to bring the Iranian people and their fate into the equation.

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