A Cinema of Discontent: Film Censorship in Iran, the latest film from Jamsheed Akrami, an Iranian/American filmmaker, deals with problems of filmmaking and censorship in Iran. Last week, we had the opportunity of speaking to Jamsheed Akrami about his film and estate of the filmmaking in Iran.
Dr. Jamsheed Akrami is a former editor of the Iranian film magazines Film and Art and Film Quarterly. He has published extensively on Iranian cinema, presented dozens of lectures, curated several film series, and produced a number of films and videos, including a trilogy of feature-length documentaries on Iranian cinema: The Lost Cinema, on political filmmaking under the Shah, and Friendly Persuasion, on Iranian cinema after the 1979 revolution, and A Cinema of Discontent, on film censorship in Iran. The films were screened in international film festivals and national film centers. They also enjoyed theatrical run and television screening in US and Canada.
Mr. Akrami teaches film at William Paterson University and was a visiting professor of film at Columbia University, where he taught “Cinema as Cross-cultural Communication.” and “Film as Art.” for several years.
Since advising October Films on the release of The White Balloon in 1995, Mr. Akrami has worked as a consultant with several American film distribution companies on the release of more than twenty Iranian films. He has been frequently interviewed on national media outlets such as NPR, CNN, BBC, VOA, IndieWire, Sundance Channel, IFC, USA TODAY, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Dallas Morning News, Chicago Tribune, Denver Post, Daily News, Christian Science Monitor, Guardian, Irish Times, and other international outlets.
Bijan Tehrani: What inspired you to make A Cinema of Discontent?
Jamsheed Akrami: I have always been interested in studying media censorship in authoritarian systems. So the Iranian situation was a natural case for me. I often hear from American film experts that they have no illusions about the repressive nature of the Islamic Republic and the fact that all media in Iran are tightly controlled by the government. But they would also say they really don’t see the censorship in the actual movies. I would explain to them the reason is the filmmakers tend to hide the censorship by making mostly tame movies in which the traces of censorship is not easily visible. The idea of making a documentary to show how censorship actually impacts all aspects of filmmaking in Iran was my attempt to shed light on the issue.
BT: Did you plan the structure of your film before starting the shoot or it was formed during the editing stage?
JA: Well, obviously I had a road map before I started to shoot. I had done extensive research and knew what issues I wanted to explore through analyzing films and interviewing the filmmakers. But in projects of this nature, you really don’t have your full structure formed until you start editing. The fact that I had already made two similar documentaries on Iranian cinema helped me with the structure of this third film.
BT: Please tell us about the research stage of the film.
JA: It was the most time consuming and adventurous part of the project. Although I had always followed the Iranian cinema and had a very good knowledge of the film censorship in Iran, but I realized I hadn’t seen enough movies to have an adequate number of illustrations in my film. Like other cinephiles living outside of Iran, I was mostly seeing the so-called “festival films” that were coming out of Iran. These were the films the internationally known Iranian filmmakers were making and they were being shown in film festivals. These filmmakers were trying to avoid the censorship codes by making the type of films that wouldn’t get affected by the codes. For example, you never see a film by Abbas Kiarostami in which a woman is asleep in bed, because the censors require that woman to appear veiled in that scene, which is so unrealistic that it makes people laugh. So Kiarostami would never do a story in which a woman needs to be in bed. But the mainstream filmmakers are more unabashed, and less creative, and they do include such scenes in their movies if their scripts call for them regardless of how fake and stupid they are.
So I know those were the movies that I had to see to find examples of the censorship’s effects. I watched close to 200 of these films. Watching most of them was just pure torture, but there were some pleasant surprises as well. Popular films that were being made for domestic consumption, but were quite watchable and surprisingly polished.
BT: Did you travel to Iran to make A Cinema of Discontent? How long it took to make the film?
JA: No, I didn’t. I didn’t think I could work there freely or even safely. I did all the research and interviews in U.S. and Canada. I had to catch the filmmakers in their excursions in the North America. I did at least half the interviews at my own house, each time using a different wall and a different poster! The long intervals of waiting for the filmmakers to show up around these shores were the main reason the production of the film took nearly five years.
BT: How did you convince the Iranian filmmakers to trust you and come on camera?
JA: I knew almost all the filmmakers personally. My friendship with some of them like Daruish Mehrjui and Bahman Farmanara dated back to pre-revolutionary era, when they were making their first films and I was writing my first reviews in Tehran. The era that now is wistfully referred to as the glorious days of the Shah’s repressive regime! Some of the younger filmmakers knew me from my previous films or writings. I think they felt they could trust me. I was quite open with them in letting them know the focus of the piece was censorship, which is a somewhat forbidden topic as far as the Islamic government is concerned.
BT: There is a sense of humor all through the film that makes it very entertaining. Please tell us about this aspect of A Cinema of Discontent.
JA: The censorship codes in Iran are so incredibly ridiculous that the only way to discuss them is with a dose of humor to make them more digestible. I felt a lighthearted approach was necessary if I was showing film clips of women asleep in their headscarves or blow-drying their covered hair. I felt I needed to match the absurdity of the hair dryer scene with an animation in which a woman is taking a shower with her headscarf on to make the point that in Iranian movies women are required to keep their hair covered under all circumstances.
This film is the third in a trilogy of documentaries I have made about Iranian cinema. In the first two, The Lost Cinema and Friendly Persuasion, you don’t see much humor because they deal with other aspects of Iranian cinema. But in this one, it was just impossible to deal with the stupidity of the codes with a straight face. Documentaries, especially the essay films, normally tend to be a bit dry. So if you have a subject that allows you to use humor and make the film more entertaining and audience friendly, why not use the option.
BT: What has been the reaction of audiences to A Cinema of Discontent?
JA: The film has only had one festival screening at Montreal so far and the audience reaction was quite positive there. Interestingly the number of Iranians among the overall audience for the first two screenings was limited because the film had been slated as a US entry in the festival. It was only after Voice of America ran a show about the film during the festival that some Iranian audiences showed up for the third screening. Their reaction was even more enthusiastic than those of the non-Iranians. One lady told me she had found the film to be more about the oppression of women in Iran. I guess that impression comes from the fact that most of the censorship codes in Iran target the representation of women in the media.
BT: Have filmmakers that you have interviewed in A Cinema of Discontent have seen the film after completion and what do they think about it?
JA: So far only Bahman Ghobadi has seen the film and he told me he couldn’t stop laughing. I thought it was an interesting response coming from a filmmaker who’s been a victim of film censorship in Iran. He can’t even make movies in his own country anymore.
BT: Do you think the re-opening of Khaneh Cinema (Iranian Filmmakers’ Home for Cinema) by the new government means lifting censorship or loosening it?
JA: I know many people are quite hopeful that the new government will make substantial changes. But I don’t share their optimism. Any relaxation of the media censorship in Iran requires more profound changes than just replacing a hardline government with a seemingly moderate one. We need radical constitutional changes to allow us the transition from an authoritarian system to a democratic one.
BT: What is your next project?
JA: I am still waiting to see how this film is going to be received. As you know my day job is teaching film. I don’t find the chance to make a film too often. And when I do it’s with great difficulty, mainly due to the limitation of resources.
I also have this uneasy feeling that any kind of public exhibition for the kind of films people like me make is increasingly narrowing down. How are these films supposed to reach their intended audience? It’s great that the digital revolution has democratized the filmmaking process and many more people are now making many more movies. That means festivals like Sundance receive more that twelve thousand entries. Even smaller and less prestigious festivals may receive a few thousand films. But they all show the same couple of hundred films every year that give them the razzle-dazzle they need to attract attention. A small film can easily get lost in the dust of this ever increasing film avalanche. Obviously the distribution companies face the same deluge. The rules of the game have changed. The old paradigms of film distribution and exhibition have been replaced by the new ones that haven’t shown their efficiency yet, no matter how innovative or groundbreaking they might be. The end result for the less known filmmakers who make less commercially appealing films could be quite disappointing.