Iranian cinema frequently earns critics’ praise around the world, and the film “A Separation” won this year’s Academy Award for best foreign film. But even as its Oscar victory was declared a point of pride on state television, Iranian authorities have been cracking down on the filmmaking community. We explore the uneasy relationship between the Iranian regime and the country’s prominent artists.


  • Hamid Naficy Professor, Sheikh Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in Communication, Northwestern University School of Communication; Author, 'A Social History of Iranian Cinema," (Vols. 1-4, Duke University Press, 2011)

“A Separation” –Trailer for the Movie

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  • 13:06:44

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your neighborhood with the world. Later in the broadcast, defining pure honey. A new Maryland law would allow lawsuits against what's known as honey laundering. But first Iranian cinema is among the most critically acclaimed in the world. And this year and Iranian film "A Separation" won the Oscar for best foreign film. On Monday, Iranian authorities unexpectedly cancelled a ceremony in honor of the film's director.

  • 13:07:29

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt was something of a reversal, given that the regime had publicly celebrated the Oscar as a triumph for the countries artistic and cultural traditions. But the political and religious leaders in Iran have long been intentioned with the country's artist. And Iranian filmmakers work under intense scrutiny by Iranian authorities. Over the past few years, crackdowns have increased. One of the country's most prominent filmmakers was banned from making movies and put under house arrest two years ago.

  • 13:08:00

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIAnd in January, authorities shut down the country's most prominent film guild. Joining me to discuss the future of Iranian cinema is Hamid Naficy, a professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Northwestern University School of Communication. He's the author of "A Social History of Iranian Cinema," a four volume series. He joins me by telephone from Evanston, Ill. Hamid Naficy, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:08:30

    MR. HAMID NAFICYThank you for inviting me, Kojo.

  • 13:08:32

    NNAMDIMaybe we can start with a little background on Iranian Cinema. As we said, Iranian filmmakers are among the world's most acclaimed. If someone wanted to learn more about Iranian film, which directors, which movies would you suggest they start with?

  • 13:08:48

    NAFICYOh boy. Well, first of all, I think something that most people don't know is how long the history of cinema in Iran is. It obviously predates the revolution. And even the kind of art films that we see in cinemas nowadays and like the one that just won the Oscar, have been made even before the revolution. So this kind of pre-history of cinema is something that, I think, is important to remember for Iranian cinema didn't suddenly spring up from anti-ground.

  • 13:09:29

    NAFICYThere was some background to it. And so, in fact, some of the filmmakers who were making films before the revolution, in many ways, were responsible for the smooth transition, if you will, of cinema after the revolution. And they were responsible in many ways to set the models and the kind of cinema that evolved afterward. So to answer your question, what kinds of films should people see? I think, in a way we're dealing with three different generations of filmmakers after the revolution. So I'll give you a couple of films -- names from each generation, is that okay?

  • 13:10:21

    NNAMDIYes, please.

  • 13:10:24

    NAFICYSo among the first generation of filmmakers, these are filmmakers who transitioned from the Shaw era to the Islamic Republic era and the filmmakers are very well known. Among the most well known is Abbas Kiarostami whose films are quite well known and, you know, "Under the Olive Trees" and "Taste of Cherries" and "The Wind Will Carry Us" and "Shirin," his latest film. These are films that would be worth seeing. Of course, there are others who were in this first generation that are important.

  • 13:11:02

    NAFICYAnd then there is the second generation amongst, who's well known filmmakers are, the Makhmalbaf family, especially the father of the family, Mohsen Makhmalbaf. And amongst the women directors are Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Tahmnineh Milani. And then in terms of third generation filmmakers that we can talk about, Mr. Farhadi whose film "A Separation" won the Oscars. So this, I think, gives you some names and some films to see.

  • 13:11:42

    NNAMDIWell, the director of "A Separation" gave a very powerful speech at the Oscars dedicating his film to the Iranian people and to their, quoting here, "Rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics." Did he step into the political fray, maybe a political minefield when he said that?

  • 13:12:04

    NAFICYWell, you know, this is a good question. Iranians are actors and have to really walk a fine line. And they want to be able to make their films above ground and not underground. So then people will be able to see them. They want to retain a certain amount of independence of thought and ideas and action. And they want to remain at home to make films. And that way they have to play along, to some extent, with the rules and rulers. At the same time, they want to not sell out to them. So it's a very complex answer, they have to play. So in this case, I think he did as good as a job as he possibly could by trying to not step on anybody too badly.

  • 13:13:00

    NAFICYSo by highlighting the deep Iranian culture, which the Islamic Republic authorities also acknowledge, even the Under Secretary of State for cinema, Javad Shamaqdari, who in, you know, previous months had basically talked about controlling cinema on films that are being sent abroad and so forth. Was congratulating Farhadi for his film.

  • 13:13:35

    NAFICYBut he also put his own spin on it, saying that his winning the award was a triumph over Israel because, of course, Israel had its own film in the category for best foreign film (unintelligible) theater called (unintelligible) . So in a way, they put their spin on it that way. Farhadi put his own spin on it by referring to the ancient Iranian Persian culture. It's a game that, I think, filmmakers continually -- and population, film viewers also continually play in Iran.

  • 13:14:19

    NNAMDIAnd it's a game in which you never seem to know exactly when you have stepped over the line of what's considered appropriate and what's not. Could you talk a little bit about what the process is for making a film in Iran? It's my understanding that it falls under the control of the Ministry of Culture which has to approve even the script.

  • 13:14:40

    NAFICYYes. The situation and this process of approval has undergone evolution over time. At first, immediately after the revolution, all film ideas have to be approved. Before the (word?) was written -- and the names of stars and actors had to be approved. Luckily, fortunately, that stage has been thrown out. And the second thing that filmmakers had to do was to get their script approved and that remains true for most of the time except, since the 1990s, they have allowed A list filmmakers to make films without having their screenplays approved in advance.

  • 13:15:29

    NNAMDIOur guest is Hamid Naficy. He is a professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Northwestern University's School of Communication. He's the author of the book "A Social History of Iranian Cinema," a four volume series. We're talking to him in the wake of an Iranian film winning the award for best foreign film at the Oscars. And then unexpectedly a ceremony honoring the director has been canceled. We're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will continue this conversation. And later in the broadcast, we'll talk about a new law in Maryland that defines exactly what pure honey is. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:17:53

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation with Hamid Naficy. He is a professor in the Department of Radio, Television and Film at Northwestern University School of Communication and the author of "A Social History of Iranian Cinema" which is a four volume series. We're talking about filmmaking in Iran and inviting your calls at 800-433-8850. Have you seen the Oscar winning film "A Separation?" Are you a fan of foreign films? What about Iranian cinema, 800-433-8850? The movie "Separation," Hamid, has very intimate themes. It explores a marriage and class issues. And Iranian movies tend to be very accessible to audiences around the world because of their themes. Can you talk a little bit about that?

  • 13:18:41

    NAFICYYeah, I think, this film is unusual in a way amongst the majority of Iranian films that have come abroad in the since that previously, many Iranian films were sort of child centered films. This one is about adult situations. And it is about an issue that is very prevalent in Iran, divorce. I think somewhere around 40 percent or so of all marriages end up in divorce recently. So it's a major issue. And it also, of course, deals with other, you know, other issues like child custody, class division, taking care of, you know, ill patients with Alzheimer's, for example.

  • 13:19:31

    NAFICYAnd, of course, the kind of lying and deceit and the kind of dual culture that has evolved in Iran after the revolution. So it really is a, you know, shows Iranian society as a cauldron of tensions and the way the film is filmed also emphasizes that, for example. Most of the events in the film take place indoors in fairly closed quarters. And the filming style is, you know, using very close-up shots and tight shots that seems to imprison the characters within the frame. It enhances the sense of tension and claustrophobia.

  • 13:20:22

    NAFICYAnd I think what is remarkable in this film in a way is the relationship between the male and female. The other aspect that the film deals with, which is very prominent in Iran, is the empowered role of women. Women are very visible in Iran despite or perhaps because of the imposition of the veil on them. More women go to universities now than men and they also outnumber men. So in a way they are in demand more now than men are.

  • 13:20:59

    NAFICYSo the film really shows the woman to be the person who is interested in routes, interested in going out, interested in going abroad, taking her daughter somewhere else where society is more tolerable.

  • 13:21:15

    NNAMDIWell, I'd like to raise an issue about that because many say that the film angered conservatives because it dealt with issues like wanting to leave the country, it dealt with divorce, it dealt with gender issues, it dealt with class issues. And while I can conceive of that being possible the script was approved. The winning of the Oscar was celebrated. Why do you think the backlash comes after all that at this time?

  • 13:21:41

    NAFICYWell, it's hard to parse that yet, I think. I'm frankly myself somewhat baffled as to why they are reacting this way because they nominated the film. The film does not -- I suppose the one thing I can think of is that it shows the Iranian society in a way to be an unhappy society, a society which is very concerned about daily living. At every turn people have to fight with each other in order to get something done.

  • 13:22:22

    NAFICYEven though there's no evil person, no bad guy really in the film it shows that the society really is not working. So in a way, the film's criticism of society is not so much political and obvious as it is subtle and widespread. And maybe that's why. And the other reason might be because the film is so celebrated in the West. So anything that is celebrated in the West is automatically -- comes under suspicion by some of the people in society. You have to realize that the film was not universally negatively received, even by authorities in Iran.

  • 13:23:05

    NAFICYBecause there is conflict within the power structure as well, and contractions, so the under secretary of ministry of culture in Islamic guidance, which is in charge of cinema, congratulated the film and the winning of Oscar, but it said it shows the triumph of Islamic values. So it's a very complex (unintelligible) ...

  • 13:23:36

    NNAMDIIt's complex. A number of actors and filmmakers have been arrested or banned from making films in Iran. And in January the House of Cinema, an independent film guild that counts some of Iran's top filmmakers as members was shut down. What has been the reaction of the filmmaking community in Iran to pressures and to arrests by the government?

  • 13:23:58

    NAFICYIt has been actually remarkable in many ways. Filmmakers have begun to voice their opinions publicly. They have begun to write public letters and publishing these on websites or in newspapers, giving interviews. You know, the film that Panahi made that this is not a film for example, while he was under house arrest is a new form of...

  • 13:24:30

    NNAMDII wanted to talk about that for a second because in 2010, the individual you just mentioned, Jafar Panahi, whose films have won awards at Cannes and elsewhere was sentenced to a six-year house arrest. And this is the most shocking, a 20-year ban on making his films. What...

  • 13:24:48

    NAFICYAnd not only that, and 20-years ban in giving interviews.

  • 13:24:53

    NNAMDIAnd on making any films.

  • 13:24:54

    NAFICYAnd on making films.

  • 13:24:55

    NNAMDIWhat was his alleged crime?

  • 13:24:58

    NAFICYWell, he had been arrested supposedly making an underground film of the green movement and the opposition movement that surfaced in the aftermath of the 2009 disputed presidential election that reelected Ahmadinejad to presidency. And he was arrested while he was making the film. They came to his house, took away, he says, all of his videos, all of his films, confiscated all of them. And then they sentenced him to six years house arrest. The interesting thing is that while he was under house arrest he decided to make this film.

  • 13:25:44

    NAFICYAnd if you see the film, you see how cleverly he sidesteps all the bans against him. He was banned against making films. So in the film...

  • 13:25:55

    NNAMDIHe even called the film, this is not a film.

  • 13:25:58

    NAFICYRight. In the film, he doesn't claim that he's the director of the film. He says, I'm an actor. He is not allowed to make a film so he talks about the film that he's not allowed to make. So he reads some parts of the script of the film, the dialogue to the audience, to the camera. Then he tries to show the camera what the film said would have looked like. So on his carpet on the floor he draws the outline of the room in which the film is taking place with masking tape. And, you know, cleverly sidesteps all the restrictions and yet he makes the film in the style of the making of, you know, like the behind the scene making of...

  • 13:26:49

    NNAMDIBut despite all of that, the film still had to be smuggled out of Iran, it's my understanding, in a cake.

  • 13:26:59

    NAFICYThat's right, on a DVD inside a cake. And that's part of what I was telling you earlier the kind of multilateral dance that Iranian filmmakers have to play with authorities. And in this case, also the other partners in the dance are festival organizers and sympathetic interviewers in the West who, like the person who received the film in the West and premiered it and (unintelligible) .

  • 13:27:32

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's all the time we have. Hamid Naficy is a professor in the department of radio, television and film at Northwestern University School of Communication. He's the author of "A Social History of Iranian Cinema," which is a four-volume series. Hamid Naficy, thank you so much for joining us.

  • 13:27:47

    NAFICYThank you very much, Kojo. Bye-bye.

  • 13:27:49

    NNAMDIWe're going to take a short break. When we come back, we will have another conversation about the so-called business of honey laundering and a new Maryland law that defines what pure honey is. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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