Iran’s War Flicks Are a Cultural Battlefield
Politics and propaganda on the silver screen
Iran’s filmmakers have proven themselves the envy of the world, racking up awards at international film festivals and even snagging an Oscar. Proud as Iranians are of them, these artists often leave the country’s military and clerical leadership squirming in the aisles.
War films, in particular, are proving to be a battlefield for Iran’s leadership and those with a stake in the political status quo. As reformists assert their cultural influence on screen and in the arts, conservatives in Iran are looking to a new set of movies and filmmakers to help suppress reformists and eliminate Western influence in Iranian society.
“There’s a cultural war going on in Iran and specifically it’s over the identity and meaning of the revolution, but also the Iran Iraq war,” says Alireza Nader, an expert on Iran and its Revolutionary Guard Corps at the RAND Corporation, a California think tank.
“When it comes to the Iran-Iraq war, for example, the Revolutionary Guards base a lot of their legitimacy on the conduct during that war,” Nader adds. “And a lot of Iranians question their performance in that war.”
The war to repel Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Iran, known in the country as “Sacred Defense,” inspired an outpouring of propaganda films, which made up roughly a quarter of all Iranian movies in the 1980s.
The war and the revolution had decimated Iranian cinema, draining it of resources and experienced directors. But young and eager revolutionaries stepped up and, with the state’s assistance, cranked out films glorifying the war and its participants.
But the war wasn’t then—nor is it now—a free-for-all for artistic expression.
“An Iranian film that focuses on national security or sensitive topics related to national security cannot be made or released in Iran without the consent of the state and some form of buy-in from major security institutions,” says Afshon Ostovar, a Middle East expert at the Center for Naval Analysis.
Censorship is, of course, one of the regime’s biggest levers. Directors must submit scripts to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance in order to gain permission to even start production. Once the film is done, the ministry gets another veto when it decides whether to release the finished product.
The restrictions are no joke. Authorities arrested Jafar Panahi, an internationally-acclaimed director and recipient of the prestigious Palm d’Or prize at the 1995 Cannes Film Festival, for making an unlicensed movie about the Green Movement in 2009. A court later sentenced Panahi to six years in prison and banned him from being involved in movie production for 20 years.
The films of the deeply conservative director Masoud Dehnamaki, however, are an interesting exception to Iran’s cinematic taboos about national security. Dehnamaki, a former member of the IRGC’s Basij militia and a veteran of the war, belonged to one of Iran’s “pressure groups,” nominally non-governmental organizations dedicated to attacking and disrupting reformists.
It’s not the kind of pedigree we usually associate with artists, but Dehnamaki has proved a surprisingly talented director. “What is fascinating about him is that he breaks out of that [background] and creates films that are relatively well made,” says Dr. Minuchehr, a professor of Persian language and cinema at George Washington University.
The Outcasts, Dehnamaki’s film series about a group of Iran-Iraq war veterans, tested Tehran’s boundaries. The films’ heroes aren’t the staid, flawless hero archetypes the regime seems to prefer, but uncouth, earthy and sometimes un-Islamic miscreants who nevertheless rise to the occasion.
Some believe Dehnamaki’s conservative, pro-government background gave him the leeway to skirt past the censors with such unconventional portrayals.
Aside from censorship and arrest, even gentle critiques of Sacred Defense cinema can earn artists a ration of hefty criticism. When veteran Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami criticized the war films of Ebrahim Hatamikia, he received a series of indirect official rebukes.
Hatamikia, a veteran of the Revolutionary Guards Corps and the Iran-Iraq war, cut his teeth as a filmmaker in Sacred Defense cinema. His movies include Mohajer, an ode to Iran’ war-era drone pilots, and The Glass Agency, a critique of Iran’s failure to support and help reintegrate its veterans after the Iran-Iraq war.
Kiarostami’s suggestion that Hatamikia’s films were schlocky action and stuck in the past prompted officials to praise Hatamikia’s work and criticize Kiarostami, if only by implication.
It also touched on a point of disagreement Iranian politics and culture. To some, the Iran-Iraq war is history—important but a finite period in time with a beginning and end. “For conservatives, the revolution, the Iran-Iraq war are not really the past,” Nader says. “It’s basically a living, breathing phenomenon.”
Censorship and official scorn alone, though, can’t fill the artistic void or capture the imaginations of Iran’s sophisticated cinema-goers. That’s especially true ever since Iran’s Green Movement, which called for more reform-minded government—and provoked a brutal crackdown.
“In recent years, they’ve become very involved in cultural activities supporting media groups and artist groups because they fear that the Islamic Republic is facing what they call a ‘velvet revolution’ to change the system,” Nader says.
And so while authorities restrict movies they perceive as being too Western-influenced or reformist in spirit, they also make sure to support the films that support them.
“The entire Iranian film industry is sponsored by the state,” Minuchehr explains. “They are not allowed to have a lot of private sponsors and not many private sponsors can fund filmmaking.”
The sources of private and nongovernmental funding can be opaque, but it’s often difficult for Iran’s film community to put up the cash for a production.
For a select group of cineastes, though, the state is there to help. The Islamic Culture and Relations Organization, the Iranian government’s global PR arm, jointly organizes the International Resistance Film Festival alongside the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance’s Cinema Organization.
Under “sponsors,” the festival’s Website bears the logo of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Foundation for the Preservation of and Publication of Sacred Defense Values.
The festival, which takes place annually on the anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war, shows off Sacred Defense films from Iran … and also highlights international works. Its Website declares that the festival-backers seek to feature “films about Iran’s Sacred Defense as well as anti-Semitic and anti-American productions in support for human rights.”
Other themes the festival seeks to promote include “solutions to combat U.S. sanctions,” “how to confront Christian Zionism” and examining “Hollywood’s role in promotion of violence, terrorism and sectarianism, Satanism and fighting monotheistic religions.”
This year’s festival also offered an “Imad Mughniyeh Award,” named for the Iran-backed terrorist responsible for a number of hijackings, kidnappings and, by some accounts, the bombings of the U.S. and Israeli embassies in Beirut and Argentina.
Odious as events like this are, it’s important to note that they’re not a reflection of Iran’s cinematic community, but rather the priorities of the state and a select group of its favorite artists.
Instead, most of Iranian cinema is celebrated around the world for its beauty and skill in depicting universal themes.
In some ways, it can also be a vehicle for protest. For instance, many fans saw a subtle political message in the Oscar-winning Iranian film A Separation, viewing its tale of social class set amidst a crumbling marriage as a critique of Iranian society and politics
For his part, the archconservative director Dehnamaki quickly brought his Iran-Iraq war veteran characters back for a third installment of his Outcasts series, which satirized the opponents of then-president Mahmoud Ahmadeinjad and received some friendly promotion on state-run TV.
“During the Green Movement, people were very active on Facebook, Twitter and social media so they kept on boycotting Dehnamaki’s film and telling everyone to go see A Separation,” Minuchehr says.
Iran’s minister for intelligence and security, Mahmoud Alavi, recently stated that the ministry needs to do more in the arts and cinema sphere in order to innocculate the country against foreign-backed strife.
Alavi might get his wish. One upcoming film looks set to paint a flattering portrayal of Iranian counterintelligence. Director Behrooz Afkhami is reportedly in production on a spy thriller called The Fox, a film about the assassination of Iranian nuclear scientists.
Iran and its proxies may also looking to toe the revolutionary line in film. Jawad Nasrallah, the son of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, is reportedly working on a film about Islamic State, the Sunni militant group that Iran is helping fight in Iraq and Syria.
Nasrallah the younger is already a poet. Now his appearance at the International Resistance Film Festival with the daughter of Imad Mughniyeh—alongside the rumors about an ISIS flick, hint at a possible career in the visual arts for the Hezbollah scion.