With several Iranian issues under international scrutiny this year, Asia Society and the Global Film Initiative are highlighting the country’s artistic accomplishments with a timely film series called Women of Iran in October and November at Asia Society’s headquarters in New York, calling attention to the roles of Iranian women in film and society.

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the country’s film industry has continued to thrive amidst the turbulent Iranian political scene and despite strict censorship laws. Ms Negar Mottahedah, an associate professor of Literature and Women’s Studies at Duke University and author of Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema, told CNN in March 2009 that creativity often feeds off prohibition, and “film cultures have flourished oftentimes when they have been under restrictions.” Her sentiment seemed to ring true especially this year, when Iran’s controversial elections in June coincided with burgeoning international recognition of the country’s film industry. Many Iranian films competed in international film festivals and were awarded prestigious prizes: Mr Asghar Farhadi’s film, About Elly, won the Tribeca Film Festival’s best narrative feature award, and Ms Shirin Neshat won the Silver Lion award for best director at the Venice Film Festival for Women Without Men.

Moreover, many of the latest Iranian films discuss women’s roles in Iran and how they have been developing in a country where politics, religion, and culture are deeply intertwined. Movies featured in the Women of Iran series include Ms Manijeh Hekmat’s Women’s Prison, which uses the physicality of imprisonment as a metaphor for the lives of Iranian women following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and Mr Kambuzia Partovi’s Border Café, which is the story of a young widow defiantly running her late husband’s restaurant against threats from men in her community. Furthermore, many of Iran’s most prominent filmmakers are females, such as Ms Samira Makhmalbaf, who directed the award-winning films At Five in the Afternoon and The Blackboard.

The poetry of Iranian film

Post-revolutionary Iranian cinema has been praised, internationally and domestically, for bringing attention to critical issues the country has been dealing with in the past three decades. Iranian filmmakers are also repeatedly lauded for portraying such issues in a realistic yet poetic manner, evoking an emotional response to their films from the audience, as well as connecting people outside of Iran to Iranian culture and society.

Iranian film, by touching the hearts of the international community, has opened up the industry to a new audience. Iranian film series are being held in many places outside Iran, such as the Iranian film festival in San Francisco. Shannon Kelley, the head of public programs at University of California’s Los Angeles campus, discussed with the Los Angeles Times why Iranian films have captured international attention: “It is a cinema that’s very engaged first with its own cinema history and culture. It’s also a very internationally informed cinema with techniques as sophisticated as what anybody else is doing in the world. The beauty of their work translates to other cultures.”

Problems faced by the industry

But the Iranian film industry has unfortunate barriers to face within Iran. Strict censorship laws often prohibit the distribution of many of the Iran’s internationally acclaimed films within the country itself. Mr Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, which won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the 1997 Cannes Film Festival and the US National Society of Film Critic’s award for best foreign language film in 1999, is banned in Iran allegedly because of it incorporates suicide as a theme. Mr Jafar Panahi’s films Offside and Circle, the latter of which won the Venice Film Festival’s Golden Lion prize in 2000, are also banned in Iran; both films deal with women’s rights.

Censorship also creates problems when it comes to the production of films in Iran, such as with Offside, which depicts a group of women who dress up as men in order to attend football games in Iran. The film had to be shot in secret, and as Mr Panahi described to National Public Radio, it was no easy feat: “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. She’s arrested, and she’s beaten up, and they arrest all of them and put them in a car. And I go and tell them that, `If you do this, I will tell everyone about it,’ so they finally let them go.” Mr Panahi also said that his lead actress was momentarily traumatized by the experience.

Moreover, Iranians involved in the film industry live under close scrutiny, and participation in activities considered illicit by the government often lands them in trouble. BBC News reported in August 2001 that Ms Tamineh Milani, a filmmaker who often incorporates themes of liberalism and feminism in her work, was arrested. A statement from the public relations office of Tehran’s Islamic Revolution Court said that Ms. Milani “showed support in her work for the counter-revolutionary groups which wage war against God” and that she “exploited art.”

The months surrounding the elections this year in Iran were especially ripe with trouble for filmmakers. In June 2009, the AP reported that Mr Bahman Ghobadi, whose film No One Knows About Persian Cats was featured in the Cannes Film Festival, had been arrested upon returning to Iran; he was accused of criticizing the Iranian government while at Cannes. Also, in July 2009, theAFP reported that Mr Panahi had been arrested along with his wife and daughter at a commemoration for protestors killed in Iran’s post-election violence. Most recently, on 10 October 2009, Reuters reported that Iranian actress Ms Fatemeh Motamed Arya and movie producer Mr Mojtaba Mirtahmaseb were forbidden from leaving the country by Iranian authorities because of their activities after Iran’s June elections.

Censorship: past, present, and future

Despite the obstacles faced by the Iranian film industry, optimism remains that it will continue to flourish internationally and domestically. Ms Arya told AFP while attending the KaraFilm festival in Pakistan’s capital city Karachi, that she believed Iranian film had a steady future ahead: “Iran is a magical country and you can’t say what is coming next, and I can’t say whether change will come in cinema in the near future or not. But I have not lost the hope for better Iranian cinema.”

But what exactly would this “better Iranian cinema” entail? And how would such improvements be achieved? Ms Arya, for one, believes that the removal of censorship in Iran would allow filmmakers to explore diverse topics without anticipating film-bans, and would also allow an Iranian audience to experience a different cinema than what exists today. According to DesParades.com, she also believes the complete censorship on films showing sex, violence, or alcohol left filmmakers with limited topics and themes to pursue.

The Iranian film industry’s battle with censorship began following the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, when strict censorship laws were enacted that forbad films to depict couples touching or a woman to appear on screen without wearing Islamic garments that hid her hair and body shape. Moreover, because of censorship, permits for scripts and film production became harder to attain. Government departments controlled these aspects of the film industry, producing dilemmas between what filmmakers wanted to produce and what was allowed.

But some believe that the censorship and government control motivates filmmakers to push creative boundaries, which leads to more affecting films. Mr Hamid Dabashi, a professor of Iranian studies at Columbia University, told CNN that the impact of the Islamic Revolution created “a condition of creativity to express the trauma that the nation has experienced,” and that censorship created a barrier that filmmakers have to cross in creative ways.

On the other hand, people from Iran’s film community rebuke the perspective that censorship can be an asset. Ms Maziar Bahari, a documentary-maker from Iran, told the Guardian that she found it patronizing when censorship was credited for the industry’s boom: “I think romanticizing censorship is a great disservice to Iranian artists. Censorship has had a negative effect on Iranian arts for centuries. I believe without censorship we would have many other great artists and film-makers whose talent and effort cannot bear fruit because of governmental, religious and social restrictions.”

For films to be produced or shown domestically, they must succumb to rigorous inspection by Iranian authorities and often have to give in to heavy censorship. Directors who have yielded to government demands in order for their films to reach a local audience described the feeling of doing so as demeaning to their work and to themselves. Mr Babak Payami, director of Silence Between Two Thoughts, told the Guardian that he was crushed after the first version of this film was seized by Iranian security agents and he had to make a second edition, which he felt did not live up to his original vision. “I was alone in a little lab and I cried my eyes out through the entire film,” he said.

Mr Bahman Fahmanara’s feelings echoed Mr Payami’s following the censorship of his film A House Built on Water. The film won six awards at Iran’s film festival in 2003, but after its premiere, numerous cuts were demanded by Iranian authorities and three scenes had to be deleted.

In 2008, AFP published an open letter signed by about 50 Iranian filmmakers who wished to alert the public to their feelings about the country’s censorship laws. The letter said: “The lack of attention to the cultural cinema, which is considered a national asset, is worrying. The decision-makers in cinema, instead of coming up with ways to reach more elevated national and international horizons, have isolated and even deleted this kind of cinema from public audiences.”

In response, Iran’s Culture Minister Mohammad Hossein Safar Harrandi protested that films the government chose to censor were “distant from family and ethical values,” and that their negativity was the reason they should be stopped.

Censorship alternatives

For filmmakers who refuse to succumb to censorship, filming in locations away from Iran is a popular option. According to CBC News, Mr Makhmalbaf is opting to film in Afghanistan, rather than Iran, for his upcoming movie as he feels this will allow him greater control over production. But he also emphasizes that external locations are not a viable solution to overcome censorship. Mr Makhmalbaf believes that if Iran continues to implement censorship laws, other filmmakers will follow his example and pursue production elsewhere, pushing Iranian artists out of their country.

Besides the option of external film locations, Iranian filmmakers often turn to alternative topics that are less likely to incur inquisition and censorship from the government. According to Dan de Luce of the Guardian, it is government restrictions, especially those concerning the portrayal of women, which explain why some of the greatest Iranian films focus on children’s lives or portray life outside on the street rather than inside the home. Ms Arya also believes that this is a common occurrence, but that searching for acceptable topics is not an easy task.

Censorship not only creates problems for filmmakers to get past, but it also makes film distribution a challenge. Sid Ganis, the former president of the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts and Sciences, told CNN that it was hard to get Iranian films distributed in Iran not only because of the small number of cinemas, but also because of the government’s intrusion on the distribution process.

Distribution challenges also force the Iranian people to turn to illicit methods, like piracy, to view films that are prohibited by the government. An Iranian man who makes a business of selling pirated DVDs, told AFP: “I usually sell between 50 to 80 DVDs per day for 20,000 rials each. The business is good. …I will have my long list of customers as long as these films are not shown in cinemas.” But while piracy may allow for local access to banned Iranian films, it has an inherently negative element in that no proceeds from film sales go to the film’s producers, impairing the economy of the Iranian film industry.

Populist support

The Iranian film industry may have its barriers, but it is bolstered by the support of the Iranian people, and seems to continue to thrive. Individuals like Mr Ali Afsahi, an Iranian cleric who was arrested in 2006 for educating students about the various media of film, continues believing that education and dialogue can lead to more freedom for the film industry in Iran with the added bonus of improving Iran’s relations with other countries through art. He told BBC News: “Film is a very important medium, and they must understand that before they repel it. I try to expand the idea that we must know each other… we must make a dialogue…”

Ms Neshat, who left Iran after the Islamic revolution, also believes that Iranian filmmakers will have the artistic freedoms in the future that they are currently denied. She told Reuters in September 2009 that “people have changed, the dictators have changed in form and shape and ideology but the struggle continues. … we will not give up.”