Taste of censorship

July 6, 2007 at 12:28 pm (FILM REVIEW)


Ten years ago the Islamic Republic of Iran, in what many regarded as a charade, ‘mulled’ barring director Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry from the Cannes film festival. The film went on to become co-winner of the Palme d’Or, arguably buoyed by the publicity Iran’s threatened withdrawal generated.

Ten years on and another Iranian film, this time funded by French money, is co-winner at Cannes of the Jury prize – France ignored the mullahs’ protests and the film was allowed to take part.

The 2007 Bangkok international film festival, which kicks off this month, however, was not so bold. Last month, in a coup for Iran’s Islamist censor, Thai authorities agreed to withdraw Persepolis, the film version of Marjane Satrapi’s acclaimed autobiographical graphic novel of the same name, from the festival.

“[The filmmakers] tried to make Iranian people sad and upset with the Islamic revolution, which is not true,” a spokesman for the Iranian embassy in Bangkok told AFP last week. (Charmingly, he identified himself only as ‘Mohammed’.)

He added: “We appreciate that the Thai organisers understand, and now we are trying to introduce other good award-winning Iranian films.”

This last statement is worth note because it confirms the fact that the Islamic Republic believes in the PR value of its film output, even if Iranian directors are reluctant to accept they might be acting as facilitators in this regard.

Most are long-dogged by the complaint that they fail to use the high profile afforded by the international festival circuit, to talk about the elephant in the living room of atrocities under the Islamic Republic. Their stock response is that art operates above, or separately from, politics.

But while that’s academic, one thing is clear: Iran’s directors have signed no letter to any newspaper in Marjane Satrapi’s (and co-director Vincent Paronnaud’s) defence, condemning the decision to ban Persepolis in Bangkok.

They must be asked, is the plight of Satrapi’s film a political issue they cannot touch or a simply matter of cinema, the medium they so often, in romantic terms, claim to adore. (“Oh, the lights! How I used, as a boy, to cherish Uncle Hasan projecting Murnau’s Nosferatu onto the side of our house in Tehran for all our neighbours to see. Even Ali the butcher was enthralled by the magic of the lights! Oh, cinema!”)

Satrapi is important because she is one of few Iranian artists operating outside the Persian language sphere, who is scathing about the Islamic Republic and the US government in equal measure, while offering a sophisticated window on the culture of her homeland.

It is still not too late for Iranian film-makers to shoot off a few letters to the press in her defence and get the Thai authorities to overturn the decision to bar the film on the grounds of what the mullahs claim is the ‘Islamophobic’ thrust of its narrative.

I believe the international film community should boycott the Bangkok film festival and that Iran’s acclaimed directors should speak out for Satrapi and Paronnaud. Otherwise we can expect more festivals to follow Bangkok’s example and toe the Islamic Republic’s line.



  1. Hadi Gharabaghi said,

    Inconvenient Truths
    The illustrated book, Persepolis, by Marjane Satrapi is one of the few artistic works that captures the turmoil of 1979 revolution brilliantly. I identified with the book immediately as I also belong to the generation whose childhood was stamped by the event. I say, we have our own share of those times and one must be truthful to what happened and how.
    In the Middle East region, the personal is even more political than other places. This may explain the lack of action by Iranian filmmakers who live inside Iran. For the majority of young population born after the revolution, Persepolis may be seen as a fairy tale of a distant past or a one sided political propaganda, but for those who lived it as children, it hits home.
    Persepolis does not claim objectivity neither it should. Recently, while browsing a collection of photographs from Tehran, I was appalled by the beauty and modernity captured in the photographs which meant to convey that Iran has a modern society despite what Western world warns against. Right after that, I watched a MTV style video clip that portrayed hostility, punishment, suffering, and brutality of Iranian government. Well, in today’s world we are surrounded by media outlets neither of which is objective. Yet, Persepolis falls within parameters of an artwork while chronicling a hot political issue uncompromisingly. In Iran, the tradition of subversive and metaphoric forms of expression has a history much older than the 18th and 19th Centuries Russian writers, yet sharing many characteristics with them. However, as soon as an artwork goes beyond the established norms of political tolerance, it is attacked viciously for being one sided or propagandist as if nothing else is.
    Film festivals are also subjective in every regard, therefore, one must keep supporting Persepolis’ right to be published and viewed so citizens’ of the world may have the opportunity to view and judge it for themselves while those few who felt it will continue to love and cherish it even more.

  2. Mitra said,

    I tend to agree with what Hadi says here, and from the bits and pieces (trailers, promos)I’ve seen re Persepolis, it DOES certainly hit home. It’s those days in black and white!

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