Nassim Khadem - Sydney Morning Herald – Iranian regime's censorship of films is easing, says director Hamid Nematollah
Iranian film director Hamid Nematollah.  Photo: Supplied

Iranian film director Hamid Nematollah.  Photo: Supplied


Nassim Khadem for the Sydney Morning Herald

Thirty-eight years on from the Iranian Revolution, a new breed of Iranian filmmakers are making their mark on the global cinematic landscape by subtly but constantly challenging the country's strict censorship laws.

Iranian director Hamid Nematollah, who has navigated this tricky terrain for more than 30 years, is among them.

He sat down for an interview with Fairfax Media while in Melbourne for the seventh annual Iranian Film Festival Australia (IFFA). (It's his first time in Australia - he likens Melbourne to Prague and says it's "one of the best cities" he's ever travelled to.)

His latest feature Subdued (Rag-e Khab) was among a shortlist of four for the Academy Awards best foreign language film category. But it was drama Nafas (Breath), directed by filmmaker Narges Abyar, that was selected as the final nomination. Both films are showing at the festival here.

Subdued follows the story of Mina (played by award-winning actress Leila Hatami), recently divorced from her drug addict husband, who commences a tumultuous emotional journey of love. Nematollah worked on the film with his ex-wife Masoumeh Bayat.

"I had divorced my wife. I wanted to reconcile," he says. "So I told her to write a film. We had talked this as a possibility many times before that ... I wanted to find a way to make up. But I couldn't find a way."

Still the pair maintain a working relationship, he says.

The Iranian film Subdued follows the story of Mina, played by award-winning actress Leila Hatami. Photo: Supplied

 

The beginnings

Nematollah made the decision to be a filmmaker after seeing the 1985 movie The Runner (Davandeh), one of the first of the post-revolution Iranian films to attract worldwide attention. He says he loves Iran and would never leave, because he feel his work can help lift Iran's prosperity. "I would like for Iran to grow," he says.

But staying in Iran means constantly testing boundaries of Islamic propriety. After the revolution, movies were banned for being sources of what the new regime saw as foreign corruption and imperialism. In his first year as Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini banned more than 500 foreign films.

Over the past decade, movies to gain Western attention for being banned include the 2003 movie Crimson Gold (Talaye Sorkh), directed by Jafar Panahi and written by the late Abbas Kiarostami. The Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance agreed to release it if Panahi agreed to a number of cuts, which Panahi refused, but it won the Cannes Film Festival's coveted Un Certain Regard jury award. Another Panahi film in 2000, The Circle (Dayereh), which criticises the treatment of women in Iran, was also banned. Again, the film won several awards despite its suppression, including the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival that year.

 

Narges Abyar, right, directs a scene in her film Nafas (Breath) in the Iranian city of Yazd. Photo: AP

I'm saying there is censorship. There is criticism. And it's serious censorship. But the real problem isn't the censorship

Hamid Nematollah

Nematollah admits that while there is censorship, things have dramatically eased in recent years. "I feel that as time passes censorship reduces," he says. "Compared with 20 years ago of course it's reduced.

"For example, once upon a time you couldn't show any drugs in movies. There was sensitivity. And then later they became more lenient on that. Or on smoking. Or on not wearing hijabs. Or on relationships between men and women. It's now more lenient."

Highlighting hardship

Iranian films are typically dramas. Is that to reflect societal, economic and political hardship faced by Iranians? "There's no doubt," Nematollah says, referencing the Iran-Iraq war and US sanctions that have been in place for decades and were only recently eased as a result of the nuclear deal. But filmmakers often "exaggerate" the difficulty of life in Iran, he says.

It's hard to talk about Iranian censors without drawing their wrath, so he treads cautiously when asked about the topic.

"As journalists you're interested to know about censorship," he says. "I'm saying there is censorship. There is criticism. And it's serious censorship. But the real problem isn't the censorship."

Nematollah then points to a real dilemma for Iranian filmmakers, who in some cases wish to make movies free from government interference but then get banned and become dependent on foreign production money and sales.

Making films so that they are appealing for foreign audiences at film festivals stifles true creativity, he says: "That, to me, is like censorship."

 

Screen shot from the Iranian film Subdued. Its director Hamid Nematollah says that censorship in Iran has dramatically eased. Photo: Supplied

Different style

This is perhaps how Nematollah's fim style differs from other celebrated Iranian filmmakers like Panahi,  Kiarostami and two-time Oscar winner Asghar Farhadi. Nematollah prefers to cater to Iranian tastes and his films are not as political. But they still highlight Iranian people's everyday struggles.

"I can't say Mr Kiarostami made films to please filmgoers at festivals," he says. "He was a true filmmaker. He made films that he believed in. If filmgoers liked it, all the better. And if they didn't, he was doing what he wanted to do. In my opinion this is the ideal way of making films. 

"It's very pleasing to win Oscars. But only if I make films the way I want. If you just think about winning an Oscar or you just think about pleasing the jury at the Cannes Festival, you can't create a good movie."

Farhadi in particular is a master at getting past Iran's censors while still making subtle criticisms of the society in which he lives. He won best foreign language film for his 2016 psychological drama The Salesman (Forushande‎). The film gained greater attention after Farhadi boycotted the awards ceremony because US President Donald Trump issued an executive order temporarily banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries, including Iran.

Farhadi also won an Oscar for his 2011 film, A Separation (Jodaeiye Nader az Simin), which examines issues of class and and gender through the eyes of a married couple struggling with life decisions. The  movie was initially banned in Iran because Farhadi, during another award ceremony, had expressed support for Iranian filmmakers including Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi, who had been connected to the Iranian green movement. The ban was lifted after Farhadi apologised for his comments. And the movie's popularity in Iran left the government no choice but to put it forward for the Oscars.

 

Oscar-winning Iranian director Asghar Farhadi. Photo: AP 

When Farhadi accepted the Oscar - the ceremony isn't broadcast live by Iranian state media, but many social media-obsessed Iranians watch it through illegal satellite dishes - Farhadi said: "I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilisations and despise hostility and resentment."

As Nematollah and other filmmakers continue making "good movies" that resonate with wider global audiences, they also consciously or unconsciously become part of change in Iran. What else could an artist hope for?

The 2017 Iranian Film Festival Australia (IFFA) is now moving to Sydney and Adelaide (until November 12) and then Perth and Canberra (until November 19). Films shown at the festival will continue screening in selected cinemas across major capital cities over the coming months.

Follow Nassim Khadem on Facebook and Twitter.