He is one of Iran’s most emblematic and famous filmmakers: after six months in detention, Jafar Panahi yesterday began a hunger strike to protest against the conditions of his imprisonment. The case of this filmmaker has been agitating the international community for years. Sentenced in 2010 for propaganda against the regime, he can no longer leave the country and his life has since been divided between stays in prison and conditional release. These films are created with few means and in a world of constraints, such as No bears, released on November 23 in France. In this film, as in his last productions since his arrest, the filmmaker stages creation within this constrained framework, and diverts the limits to make it part of the work.
“What distinguishes these forty-three years of the Islamic Republic is that censorship is trivialized, it’s not even a taboo,” says writer Nasim Vahabi. “At the time of the shah, censorship existed but it was more timid, more discreet. But for the past forty years, it has become so commonplace that they censor not only writers from their country, but also foreign writers , as we saw with Khomeini’s fatwa against Salman Rushdie.” In Nasim Vahabi’s latest book, I am not a novel (Tropismes editions, 2022), the heroine finds herself in the basement of the censorship office, surrounded by thousands of blocked novels waiting in vain for publication. A reality but also a metaphor for the situation of Iranian intellectuals and artists, forgotten in prisons, prevented from creating. Like Jafar Panahi.
“Censorship is found in cinema, literature: everyone knows the masterpieces created under this regime of restrictions in Iran. You have to understand that these are works that were thought out in a global system of prohibitions “, explains Sepideh Farsi, filmmaker, in particular of Tehran without permission or Mariam’s Journey, films shot without a license issued by the authorities. Nasim Vahabi and Sepideh Farsi organize next February 7 in Paris a round table on the mechanisms of censorship in Iran, where they will discuss the restrictions imposed on artists at the very moment of the creative process.
Iranian filmmakers, such as the famous Abbas Kiarostami or Mohsen Makhmalbaf, were known for their art of metaphor and contemplative films that tackled serious themes without talking about them head-on. “We Iranian filmmakers didn’t have the courage. We were just telling lies. Because the system taught us to lie. We want permissions, we don’t get them, so we tell lies. lies about the film that we are going to shoot to obtain the authorizations”, summed up the filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi when the film was released. Persian Cats, which evoked the Iranian underground youth and their appetite for rock, a music prohibited in Iran. A new generation of filmmakers has brought issues to the fore more in social dramas, such as the films of Asghar Farhadi, whose A separation, or thrillers such as the phenomenal Tehran Law by Saeed Roustayi, but which remain genre films and cannot frontally denounce the regime.
Get “Iran” out of the clutches of the Islamic Republic
Today, the torch of artistic protest has been taken up by the Iranians who have been demonstrating and multiplying acts of civil disobedience since mid-September and the death of the young Mahsa Amini for a poorly worn veil. “For my sister, your sister, our sisters, for women, life, freedom”: Baraye, the song of the young Shervin Hajipour, for example, has become a powerful and universal hymn to the protest movement in Iran. From the British group Coldplay to the French collective composed of Benjamin Biolay and Marjane Satrapi, among others, this massively covered song has done a lot to spread the message of Iranian protest. It earned its author to be imprisoned, and forced to withdraw his song from sharing platforms, even if it remains widely distributed abroad. Although he has since been released, his case, like that of rapper Toomaj Salehi, still imprisoned and facing the death penalty, illustrates the pressure put on Iranian artists in the context of protests against the Islamic regime.
According to a latest report provided at the end of December by Iran Human Rights (IHR), an NGO based in Oslo, at least 481 people were killed by the security forces. About 14,000 people have been arrested, according to the UN. Four people were executed in connection with the protests. As protesting becomes more and more difficult, young people are therefore finding other ways to express themselves. The stylized silhouettes of the young Mahsa Amini or the graffiti expressing the slogan “woman, life, freedom” flourished in the streets of Iran and abroad. On social networks, the creations of posters make it possible to continue to convey the message of the Iranian resistance.
“Despite all the difficulties in Iran, we observe a real effervescence of creation”, adds the writer Nasim Vahabi. “This creation expresses what is at the very roots of the protests in Iran”, and the visceral yearning for freedom that characterizes the movement of young Iranians.
“This artistic frenzy is for me the ‘real Iran’ which is trying to emerge against the Islamic Republic”, assures Negar Djavadi, author of the best-selling novel Disoriental (Liana Levi, 2016). “It is a country of art. We find in these creations the expression of this Iran, that of music, painters, art galleries and cinema. Even during the 1979 revolution, there were caricatures, songs. Today, the means are different but it is a fight to get “Iran” out of the clutches of the Islamic Republic.”
Censorship, an ancient tradition
Artistic creation has always been restrained under the Islamic Republic, and even beyond. For the Iranian author in exile, Javad Djavahery, author in particular of my part of her, “The particularity of censorship in Iran is that it is ancestral. There was no period of free creation. But this prohibition was further accentuated under the regime of the mullahs”.
This censorship does not prevent Iranians from having a strong appetite for foreign works and in particular those of authors in exile. Negar Djavadi says: “Today, my novels are not published in Iran, but I know that ‘wild’ translations are circulating.”
The goal of the regime is to “completely control artistic production, in Iran, but also internationally”, recalls filmmaker Sepideh Farsi. An intellectual stranglehold that does not prevent opponents in Iran and around the world from chanting “Woman, life, freedom”.
On February 7, at the town hall of the 17th arrondissement in Paris, at 7:30 p.m., come and attend the free debate “Creating under constraint, the mechanisms of censorship in Iran”, with Sepideh Farsi, Javad Djavahery, Nasim Vahadi and Negar Djavadi, in registering here.