Iran is currently facing a number of crises: a political crisis, an economic crisis, and a crisis of public health sparked by the Coronavirus. When news media inform us about these crises, they usually lump them all together and predict an immanent regime collapse or revolution.
For instance, outside analysts have made much about the Islamic Republic’s “crisis of legitimacy” in the wake of low turnout for recent parliamentary elections and mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak, both of which come only months after massive popular protests against a cut in gas subsidies and widespread anger at the military’s downing of a passenger plane.
Little is won and much is lost, however, by predicting that all of these events together must spell the end of the Islamic Republic as we know it. Indeed, a lot of outside analysts, surprised by the government’s ability to survive in the face of what appear to be a lot of pressure, go on excursions to explain “regime resilience.”
Rather than analysing regime resilience through the lens of capabilities and pressure points, it is more insightful to understand Iran’s multiple crises within a historical framework that looks at relations of social bargaining between civil society and the state. We believe this is the only way to stop seeing Iran simply as an “authoritarian state,” and to start fruitfully predicting potential future trajectories. In a recent article for the New Left Review, we look at the internal transformations of the Iranian state since the 1979 revolution through the eyes of Tehran’s movie industry, one of the country’s most vibrant economic sectors.
Our main argument is that Iran’s movie industry has gone through a series of transformations that is jeopardizing its global art-house status. These transformations can inform us about what sort of domestic crisis Iran is facing today.
Alongside oil, world-class art-house movies have long been the Islamic Republic’s most successful export product. We argue that filmmakers managed to find such high degrees of creative autonomy in a unique post-revolutionary context: not only were they able to solicit financial and logistical resources from a chequerboard of competing state institutions, but state elites also lacked a coherent program themselves about what “Islamic” film should look like, largely leaving it up to individual filmmakers to define what this meant.
As a result, between the late 1980s and early 2000s, Iran reached unprecedented levels of success at international film festivals.
In the article, we distinguish between two types of film that were particularly welcomed by global art critics, helping to shape Iran’s movie industry.
A first type was the “festival” film, a pejorative term used by domestic critics to denote films that drew the attention of film festivals much more than domestic audiences. Festival movies operated on small budgets, usually granted by the state, and had to undergo strict censorship. Because of such restrictive patronage, filmmakers were incentivized to employ minimalist, often social realist, plots steeped in allegory and symbolism. Festival film was popularized primarily through the work of Abbas Kiarostami, whose Koker Trilogy, a set of three films all set in the small rural town of Koker, made him world-famous.
A second type of movie was associated with those filmmakers who rejected censorship outright. Employing new digital techniques, these underground filmmakers discovered a cheap and secretive way to produce movies that, even if they did not receive screening permits, would still be able to be screened at foreign film festivals, or re-distributed illegally online. Mohammad Rasoulof, together with Bahman Ghobadi and Jafar Panahi, have long been Iran’s most well-known underground movie directors.
These two types of films, associated with different directors, reflect different social bargains with state institutions. Over the past decade or so, even if Rasoulof’s recent stellar performance at the Berlinale shows that these types of films continue to be popular at festivals, these modes of filmmaking have been largely discontinued. Iran’s movie industry has changed, and filmmakers have become confronted with a new set of obstacles.
Two of these obstacles are worth noting here. First of all, politicians have increasingly set their eyes on the film industry, politicizing the funding sources. This is not necessarily a phenomenon unique to Iran, and is witnessed for instance in Russia and China: film industries, while increasingly churning out movies in Hollywood format, are also increasingly nationalized, producing patriotic content tailored to domestic audiences.
What is unique about the Iranian case is that the state’s earlier suspicious and repressive attitude has been replaced by fierce factional competition over the production of blockbusters. Not only has this led to a steep increase in production costs and improvement in the technical quality of movies, but it has also made filmmakers’ success reliant on their ability to cultivate political connections.
A second factor, not unrelated to the first, that has helped to transform film production is brutal US sanctions. These sanctions, tightened first by Barack Obama and then re-imposed with full force by the Trump administration, have closed the door to young and aspiring filmmakers. US sanctions have provoked a severe economic crisis in Iran. Choking state revenues and economic activity has not changed the way in which politics and cultural production interact. Sanctions have simply drained the funds circulating in the industry, increasingly monopolizing the major projects in the hands of a select number of organizations and their trusted filmmakers.
High inflation associated with the sanctions have also made it much harder for independent filmmakers to meet steep production costs. Inflation has eroded the real value of state funding, while leading to a sharp increase in the salaries of professional actors. Many of these filmmakers are now forced to stay in the short-movie sector, waiting until better times provide them with the opportunity to invest in a feature film that will reach a degree of commercial success.
The direct consequences of these rapid shifts are hard to measure. But one simple indicator of the plight of Iranian film is the average age of Iran’s top filmmakers. Very few names have been added to the existing pool of talent. Some, such as Abbas Kiarostami, have passed away. Others, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have emigrated. Among Iran’s most internationally-known directors, Asghar Farhadi is currently the youngest. At age 47, there should be cause for concern.
Younger filmmakers have largely remained stuck in the incentive structure created by the new political economy. Saeed Roustayi is a great example. Only 30 years old, Roustayi has rapidly established his name within the country with several successful commercial films, all funded by domestic investors. While Roustayi sticks to social realist themes, his movies have a moralistic and conservative undertone, focusing on deviance and moral corruption. While Roustayi has made few public statements that suggest that his political beliefs line up with the rather conservative bend of his movies, we argue that such plotlines and contents are really a product of the pressure exerted by various state-affiliated funders.
Indeed, many filmmakers are quite critical of the current state of affairs. And they certainly have been capable of class solidarity and group action. For instance, in January, a significant number of filmmakers decided to boycott the country’s largest movie festival in response to the tragic death of several hundred passengers on a plane that was mistakenly shot down by the Iranian military in a confused reaction to US threats to bomb the country. There were frank and open debates between actors and filmmakers on Instagram, each expressing their opinions to millions of followers.
Yet, protest does not make a world-class movie. For this, resources, autonomy and creativity are required. So is this the end of Iranian film? We think this really depends on the broader socio-political context in which filmmakers function. At the very least, Iran has a top-notch infrastructure and a large pool of talented and aspiring filmmakers that hope to produce something novel, creative, and impactful. The question is: under what circumstances will they be able to do that? It is clear to many, not least to filmmakers themselves, that state-sponsored filmmaking can only be successful in the long-run if the domestic crises are resolved. In our view, US sanctions currently prevent a broader socio-political transformation within Iran from happening. In fact, US sanctions seem to only exacerbate those crises, while doing nothing to speed up their resolution. If Iran’s authoritarian regime unintentionally produced a world-class film industry, responsibility for jeopardizing this distinctive and politically conscious art form may now lie with the US and its allies.
To read more, see: Zep Kalb and Masoumeh Hashemi (2020) “Tehran’s Universal Studios,” New Left Review 121.
Zep Kalb is finishing his PhD in Sociology at UCLA. His writing has appeared in the Journal of Agrarian Change, Mediterranean Politics, Oxford Middle East Review, and elsewhere.
Masoumeh Hashemi recently completed her graduate research on the US Information Agency in Cold War-era Iran at the Mel Hoppenheim School of Cinema, Concordia University.