Iran's directors fighting tighter measures on showing films abroad

By Fereshteh Modarresi

As Iran's film directors win the hearts of audiences at this year's Cannes festival, their ongoing battle for freedom of expression has taken a new twist with local authorities pressing them to obtain permission to screen films abroad.

Jafar Panahi, whose endearing film the White Balloon carried away the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1995, received a letter from the culture ministry requiring him to cut several scenes from his new film "Talay-e Sorkh" (Crimson Gold) to allow it to be screened in Cannes.

"I am not going to cut even one frame from my film. My film is now in Cannes and it will be screened," Panahi told AFP in an interview, ahead of Saturday's screening.But he was not sure how authorities would react to his defiance.

"This is a new wave of pressures on film-makers ... We are feeling more pressure and there seems to be more restrictions," Panahi said.

"Censors have really tied the hands of film-makers," he complained, "but still everyone tries to find a way to express themselves."

In Iran's uncertain political climate, the freer hand and more relaxed censorship measures that directors have enjoyed since moderate President Mohammad Khatami came to power in 1997 may not last much longer.

Khatami's election was key in securing more space for directors to deal with political and social issues of relevance to Iranian audiences, and enabled them to push the limits of the strict Islamic rules their films must conform to.

But recent setbacks for the reformist camp, notably failed bids by Khatami to increase his presidential powers and reduce those of key conservative institutions, have also taken their toll on Iran's film industry.

The newly-appointed deputy minister of culture charged with cinema affairs, Mohammad Mehdi Heydarian, was formerly a top man in conservative-controlled state television.
In early May he called on directors to "take seriously" the requirement to secure authorization to show films abroad.

Despite the applause they receive in Western art-cinema houses, Iran's directors are frustrated that their movies are not widely available to Iranian audiences.

"I have always tried to screen my films in my own country first because my films deal with social issues and people's problems, and there is no place better than showing the film here to influence the people," Panahi said.

"Most of my films were about the situation of (Iranian) women, this is the first time I have made something about men," said Panahi, commenting about "Blood and Gold", the story of a pizza deliverer caught up in social injustice resulting from the gap between rich and poor.

Panahi's film "The Circle", released in 2000 and focusing on the plight of Tehran's women, sexism and institutional discrimination, was banned in Iran.

For his part, fellow director Bahman Ghobadi, director of "A Time for Drunken Horses" (2000) about Iran's Kurds, said he also wanted his films to be more widely available at home."I can only get permission to show my film in one cinema ... whereas in the United States a number of cinemas are showing it," he said.

Both directors highlighted the important role of festivals in sending their messages out to the world. "The films are first introduced by the festivals and then find their way into the European markets," Panahi said. Panahi requested permission two months ago to show his latest offering in Iran -- but he has yet to receive a reply.

Originally Published May 24, 2003

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