According to Azadeh Farahmand (2002:87), “Socio-economic factors and institutional politics contribute to the elevations of films, filmmakers and national cinemas to the level of high art”. This is truly the case for contemporary Iranian cinema. Since the Revolution of 1979, Iranian filmmakers have learned to overcome the limitations created by the current economic issues and political censorship in the country. Filmmakers’ adaptations to these restraints substantially affect the cinematic style of their production and are reminiscent of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave movements. Aspects found in Iranian cinema, including handheld camera movements, unprofessional actors, shooting on location, jump cuts, and poetic storytelling, significantly allude to styles of the previously mentioned cinematic eras. Bahman Ghobadi’s film, No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009), and Jafar Panahi’s film, The Circle (2000), are two contemporary Iranian films that perfectly exemplify how Iran’s economic issues and administrative censorship have driven its filmmakers to create cinema of high art.
The current state of Iran’s deteriorating economy (inflation being the main cause) will only permit low budgets for cinematic productions (Sadr, 2006). While commenting on the economy’s affect on cinema, Farahmand (2002,87) stated, “The international presence of Iranian cinema has increased…This phenomenon is related to the ongoing and escalating economic crisis that has led to the deterioration of local filmmaking in Iran”. This is driving filmmakers to improvise through the use of unprofessional actors, location shooting, and handheld camera movements which create a unique documentarian narrative style. Both No One Knows About Persian Cats and The Circle illustrate each of these factors within their cinematic formation. Again, this is a similar approach found in Italian Neorealism cinema.
The mass majority of actors within each of these films portray a semi-fictionalized part of themselves. Negar Shaghaghi, Ashkan Koshanejad, Babak Mirzakhani, and even Bahman Ghobadi play self-titled characters within No One Knows About Persian Cats (IMDb, 2009). Ghobadi, expressing his methods while producing his film, says, “Usually for most of my films, this is why you see the thread of documentary-making in my work. Everything I bring into the film comes from the heart of reality. My actors don’t seem like they’re acting” (Adams, 2011). Furthering the film’s close boundary between fiction and reality, one of the opening title cards states, “Based on real events, locations, and people” (No One Knows About Persian Cats, 2009). Due to the restrictions set by the lack of proper budgeting, Panahi also uses nonprofessional actors in The Circle. For example, most of the actresses portray self-titled characters, such as Nargess Mamizadeh, Mojgan Faramarzi, Elham Saboktakin, and Maedeh Tahmasebi (IMDb, 2000). The use of nonprofessional actors is not the only way the deteriorating economy of Iran has highly influenced the way in which filmmakers approach a production. It is also precedent in the utilization of shooting on location and handheld camera movements.
The budget of a film controls several aspects while producing cinema, the most evident being the choice in film location. Without a proper budget, an Iranian film production does not have the luxury to shoot in far away places and is limited to the space that is nearby and available (Tapper, 2002). The setting in which the narratives of No One Knows About Persian Cats and The Circle occur is located in the urban part of Iran, particularly the backstreets. This is also due to political censorship, which will be discussed later. In No One Knows About Persian Cats, Ashkan, Negar, and Nader are constantly traveling among the backstreets or down into dark underground rooms and music studios. This is a significant motif within the film for the characters must constantly hide from the authorities in the shadows. These are all genuine locations with no alterations made for the film. The same goes for the filming locations displayed in The Circle. The setting mainly focuses on the urban streets in which the women must cautiously navigate in order to avoid trouble from political authority.
These locations, although caused by the unavailability of a proper film budget, provide the films of Ghobadi and Panahi with an authentic sense of reality. The deteriorating economy, however, is an additional cause for another cinematic aspect of internationally praised Iranian cinema. Handheld camera movements, a supplement factor of location shooting, furthers the strong representation of realism in both No One Knows About Persian Cats and The Circle. This cinematic technique is required because the low budget does not allow for filmmakers to invest in expensive crane or dolly shots. On the contrary, this does not affect the artistry of the production. Ghobadi and Panahi each use handheld camera movements in these films in order to capture the raw reality for their narratives. This filming method provided the directors with full mobility while shooting on location and the ability to avoid legality confrontations. Iran’s economic crisis furthermore drove both directors to use darkened ‘underground’ and backstreet location shooting with handheld camera movements. This adaptation resulted in the construct of a mysterious and raw piece of high art cinema. The alleyways and darkened setting of No One Knows About Persian Cats and The Circle have the audience experience the characters’ fear of governmental enforcement. However, filmmakers in Iran also produce this ‘underground cinema’ in order to avoid the censoring restrictions implemented by the Iranian government.
As leader of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Ayatollah Khomeini began to administer censoring laws, particularly pertaining to women, soon after the victory of the Revolution in 1979. The government ruled that it is illegal for women to wear make-up, talk or walk loudly in public, cut their hair short, wear high heels, walk without a relative male escort, and to be in public without a wearing a burka, hijab, or chador (Sadr, 2006). “Today, Iranian films have risen to the level of international acceptance and adopted a different approach, with an attitude to women that is far more progressive than attitudes before the Revolution” (Tapper, 2002:225).
The governmental restrictions on female public appearance and actions are evident in both Ghobadi and Panahi’s films, but The Circle focuses more heavily on this issue. Panahi effectively paints a realistic portrait of how it is to be a woman in Iran today, challenging the government’s belief of what a woman’s place should be in society (Tapper, 2002). Iran’s administrative censorship of women has led Panahi to create a poetic and moving piece of cinema that unfolds the unknown hardships of Iranian women everyday. These hardships are shown through each character in The Circle and include giving birth to a female child, wrongful imprisonment, walking without a male relative escort, prostitution, single motherhood, and the authoritative requirement to wear a chador. Ghobadi also addresses some feminine issues within Iran, but not a directly as Panahi. Within No One Knows About Persian Cats, the subject of female censorship is shown more through the censorship of Western-styled music. For example, Nader informs Ashkan that it will be difficult to get visas and passports for their dream tour in Western Europe because Negar is the only female band member. While scouting for an additional female singer needed to get the permits, they come across a few potential women; But, they are banned from singing due to previous conflicts with the government. The larger issue presented in No One Knows About Persian Cats is the Iranian censorship of the arts.
Powerful media, such as television, film, radio, theater, and music that are believed to ‘threaten’ the morals and principles held by the Islamic Republic of Iran, are also brought by strict state control (Tapper, 2002). Soon after Ayatollah came to power, “the arts—including music, theater, cinema—and press and publishing are made subject to the new Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG)” (Tapper, 2002:6). Ayatollah Khomeini’s goal of the post-Revolutionary cinema was to “establish an anti-Western attitude” (Sadr, 2006:183). Hamid Reza Sadr (2006,169), reflecting on cinematic censorship wrote, “Over 125 cinemas were burnt to the ground during the upheavals of the Revolution…Ayatollah Khomeini famously remarked that the Revolution was not opposed to cinema per se, only obscenity”.
No One Knows About Persian Cats persistently addresses artistic media censorship within its narrative. Ashkan and Negar, with the help of Nader, meet several musicians who have previously been arrested for performing and must hide in effort to avoid another incident with the Iranian police. Expressing her frustration with music censorship, Negar exclaims, “You can’t make music here, or say what you want” (No One Knows Persian Cats, 2009). Even Nader, who prides himself of his ‘great’ American accent, runs into trouble with political authority for being caught with his collection of smuggled Western world films. Both Ghobadi and Panahi, as film directors, have experienced the brutality of governmental censorship personally. Ghobadi and his cast were arrested twice while filming No One Knows About Persian Cats, but were released after persuading the authorities (IMBd, 2009). Regarding Panahi, the Islamic Republic of Iran banned his film, The Circle, and he himself was later arrested in 2010 due to his ‘controversial’ filmmaking (IMDb, 2000). The government believes artistic cinema, not funded by the government, is more likely to present obscene subjects that are prohibited by the Islamic Republic of Iran. Many film proposals to the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance (MCIG) and Farabi Cinema Foundation (FCF) are rejected or revised to a point that the original concept is unrecognizable. The MCIG and the FCF do this to ensure no film is released that questions political beliefs and enforcement (Sadr, 2006). Ghobadi expresses his own frustration with the government’s censorship when he states,
“In order to be able to make the film, you have to lie. You have to change your subject…but if you want to get a permit you have to show that the person is praying, that they person has a head cover, that the person is being hung because of robbery or because of drugs, not because of a human-rights situation” (Adams, 2011).
Farahmand (2002:91) addresses this issue further by saying, “…filmmakers have been led to refrain from making confrontational and socially critical films for fear of being held accountable for making anti-system or anti-establishment statements in their work.” The overpowering influence of Iranian political censorship not only affects the poetic topics, but also the cinematic methods that create the artistic style of film productions.
The overbearing threat of censorship from Iranian authorities has driven both Ghobadi and Panahi to develop their unique approach to a film’s narrative construction. While filming, both directors feared local enforcement would shut down their cinematic production, so they had to film on location and quickly. The minimal film crew necessary for both No One Knows About Persian Cats and The Circle had to be prepared to leave at any moment to avoid conflict with the police. Ghobadi’s method is described as, “shooting quickly and clandestinely with a lightweight digital camera, always ready to pack up and flee the unwanted attention of the authorities” (Scott, 2010). These filming conditions, due to Iran’s restrictive censorship, forms the fragmentary narrative construction seen in each film. This fragmented storyline is caused by jump cuts (which are a result of interruptions during the film shoots) allude directly to the style of French New Wave cinema. The jump cuts of No One Knows About Persian Cats and The Circle generates a fusion of reality and a poetic narrative. The construction of each film is strung together by fragments of stories, but are bonded together through the overall poetic themes. For example, No One Knows About Persians Cats jumps from one group of musicians to the next as Ashkan and Negar search for additional band members, but none of these encounters have a conclusion and are left openhanded.
The same narrative construction occurs in The Circle. The audience follows one woman hiding from authoritative figures to another without a resolution to the previous female characters. The storyline of these characters “do not just slot neatly inside each other—they open onto each other, overlapping” (Chaudhuri, 2003:54). The title of The Circle addresses this cinematic effect directly. Panahi wishes his audience to know that the tragic stories of each Iranian female character continue in a never-ending circular motion. The film begins with the misfortune of Solmaz Gholami giving birth to a girl, and it ends with an officer asking the prostitute, Mojgan, if she is the woman called Solmaz who is warranted for arrest. The film comes to a full close. The same circular narrative is evident in No One Knows About Persian Cats. Ghobadi’s film opens with obscure shots of an unknown man being rushed into the emergency room. By the film’s conclusion, the audience learns that this man is Ashkan after his treacherous fall while trying to avoid being arrested by officers at a party. In all, the Iranian government’s censorship contributes to both films’ awing political subject and its artistic, yet fragmentary, narrative construction.
The censorship put forth by the Iranian government, as well as the country’s dwindling economy, has driven local filmmakers into a new age of high art cinema that has become a spectacle for international audiences. Bahman Ghobadi and Jafar Panahi offer a unique combination of documentarian approach and poetic storytelling while bringing a fresh new style that marries the cinematic staples of Italian Neorealism and French New Wave. No One Knows About Persian Cats and The Circle should be admired worldwide as they present challenges, such as low budgets and restrictive censorship, most filmmakers would not dare face.
What ways do you think censorship affects Western cinema?
Adams, Sam (2011) A.V. Club. Available at: http://www.avclub.com/article/ino-one-knows-about-persian-catsi-filmmakers-bahma-53341 (Accessed: 12/04/15).
Chaudhuri, Shohini and Howard Finn (2003) The Open Image: poetic realism and the New Iranian Cinema. Screen. 44 (1) pp. 38-57.
Farahmand, Azadeh (2002) Perspectives on Recent (International Acclaimed for) Iranian Cinema. In Richard Tapper (ed.), The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representations and Identity, London: IB Tauris. pp. 86-100.
IMDb (2000) The Circle (2000). Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0255094/ (Accessed: 12/04/15).
IMDb (2009) No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009). Available at: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1426378/?ref_=fn_al_tt_1 (Accessed: 12/04/15).
Sadr, Hamid Reza (2006) Iranian Cinema: A Political History. London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers.
Scott, A. O. (2010) The New York Times. Available at: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/16/movies/16noone.html?_r=0 (Accessed: 12/04/15).
Tapper, Richard (ed.) (2002) The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity. London and New York: I.B. Tauris Publishers.
No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009). Directed by Bahman Ghobadi [Motion Picture, DVD]. Iran: Mij Film Co. and Mitosfilm.
The Circle (2000). Directed by Jafar Panahi [Motion Picture, DVD]. Iran: Jafar Panahi Film Productions and Lumière & Company.