Making Movies Under the Eye of Iranian Censors

Producer Reese Erlich reports on the difficulties and rewards of producing films under Iranian censorship.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

And as Mr. Aram said, things have loosened up quite a bit in Iran. Just look at its movies. For years, films couldn't portray violence or sex or even show women dressed in anything but approved Islamic dress. But as those rules have eased, many directors feel the quality of Iranian films has slipped. Independent producer Reese Erlich reports from Tehran on the battle between commercial and art films.

REESE ERLICH reporting:

Since 1979, the Iranian government has funded at least 20 percent of the cost of any film shot in the country. But with funding comes a complicated system of government approval and censorship. In the early years censors completely banned overt violence, implied sex and any direct criticism of the government. So, says director Monni Hagigi(ph), filmmakers became inventive.

Mr. MONNI HAGIGI (Director): During those years Iranian directors were so limited in the choices that they could make for a film that they were basically forced to make films about children 'cause they didn't have any of those sort of censorship problems that usually go with adults. They were, more or less, forced to make films in rural areas of Iran because all the urban problems weren't reflected in the films.

ERLICH: To sidestep censors, films like "Children of Heaven" and "The White Balloon" portrayed children facing adultlike problems. Such films became widely popular in Iran and abroad. After the election of reformist President Mohammad Khatami in 1997, film censorship loosened a bit. Hidia Teharadi(ph), one of Iran's leading actresses, was able to break down some of the government's strict rules about proper on-screen behavior.

Ms. HIDIA TEHARADI (Actress, Iran): I was the first woman who wore pants, and I fought for that, and I was the first woman who smoked.

ERLICH: Nowadays directors are freer to portray adult themes. But, says film director Hagigi, this contributed to a decline in the number of art films. Of the estimated 60 to 65 films that will be made in Iran this year, he says most are action movies and less-than-inspired comedies.

Mr. HAGIGI: Once the liberalization takes place and you're free to make, more or less, the kind of film you want to make and choose the topic that you want to film, people tend toward lowbrow films, obviously. I mean, there's obviously a market for that everywhere in the world. This kind of lowering of Iranian film standards is a direct result, I think, of this process of liberalization.

ERLICH: But some Iranian directors continue to make art films and directly battle the censors. Jafar Panahi directed "Crimson Gold" in 2003.

(Soundbite of "Crimson Gold"; traffic)

ERLICH: "Crimson Gold" tells the story of an alienated veteran of the Iran-Iraq War working as a pizza delivery man. One night he delivers pizza to an upscale apartment building. He discovers soldiers arresting unmarried couples leaving a party. It was a violation of Islamic rules imposed by government hard-liners for men and women to socialize if they were not married. Panahi emphasizes the absurdity of the situation with sardonic humor.

(Soundbite of "Crimson Gold")

Unidentified Man #1: (Through Translator) Come out here!

Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) What's going on? We're married. Let me explain.

Unidentified Man #3: (Through Translator) Yeah, right. Who goes out with his wife?

ERLICH: Panahi's humor never got past the censors. "Crimson Gold" was banned in Iran but found distribution abroad and won a Jury Award at Cannes.

Panahi just finished shooting a new film with an equally controversial theme. In Iran today, women are banned from attending sports events with male spectators. His new film "Offsides" portrays a group of women who dress as men in order to cheer on Iran's soccer team headed towards the World Cup. Panahi describes how life imitates art. They were secretly filming outside Tehran's soccer stadium.

Mr. JAFAR PANAHI (Director): (Through Translator) Everything is taking place in secret. Nobody knows about it. They were actually hiding in a car, sitting there and shooting, and the actress runs to the stadium to get in.

ERLICH: Suddenly the police show up.

Mr. PANAHI: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: She's arrested, and she's beaten up, and they arrest all of them and put them in a car. And he goes and tells them that, `If you do this, I will tell everyone about it,' so they finally let them go.

ERLICH: Panahi says his lead actress was initially traumatized by the experience.

Mr. PANAHI: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Translator: She starts crying and screaming, and she was so nervous. And he asks her, `Why are you crying?' And she says, `Didn't you see what they were doing to me?' And he tells her that, `This is the story of our movie.' And then the girl stops crying, and they've got all that recorded.

ERLICH: Jafar Panahi's film "Offsides" is scheduled for completion in the next few months. He hopes to show it in Iran and also abroad before the 2006 World Cup soccer championship in Germany. For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.

BRAND: More to come on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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