This article and a radio report by Shirin Jaafari for The World originally appeared on PRI.org on February 13, 2014 and is republished as part of a content sharing agreement.
For any film to be shown in Iran, directors have to follow the strict Islamic laws.
Male and female characters can't touch. Women have to cover their hair at all times.
“Can you imagine how many stories you’re unable to tell as a filmmaker if you cannot show the slightest physical touch between members of the opposite sex?” asks Jamsheed Akrami, an Iranian director based in the US.
Akrami spent five years interviewing a dozen Iranian filmmakers, actors and actresses. The result is his latest documentary: “Cinema of discontent.”
They all lament the hardship they face in telling a story in film when they have to follow all the Islamic codes they have to follow.
“I’m not only alluding to the romantic subjects, you know, we’re talking about situations where you can’t even show parental affection or a male physician for example, cannot be shown examining a female patient,” he adds.
One of the directors Akrami interviews in his documentary is Bahman Farmanara. He explains how he got around one challenging scene in his movie “A Little Kiss.”
“There is a sequence in ‘A Little Kiss’ where the father, after 38 years of being in Switzerland, has returned suddenly because his son has committed suicide and he comes to visit his daughter,” he says. “Well, obviously according to the laws that we have to obey, a man and a woman cannot embrace each other. Even though in this particular instance they are father and daughter.”
Here’s how director Farmanara got around it.
“So what I did … when the daughter takes a few steps towards him, he takes his hat off,” Farmanara says. “So, he makes a move to stop her from coming close…”
Farmanara added that Iran is a “nation that in our films we don’t kiss, we don’t touch, we don’t hug but somehow miraculously from 37 million we’ve gone to 70 million.”
There are so many similar cases in Iranian films that if you watch enough of them, you would actually be surprised if the characters do touch or dance for example.
Yet filmmakers and actors constantly challenge the red lines.
In one film called “Gilaneh,” a mother who is taking care of her paralyzed son bathes him, moves him around and even at one point starts dancing to cheer him up.
In Akrami's documentary, the director, Rakhshan Bani Etemad says that she worried about the sensors, but felt the story had to be told to break the taboo.
Akrami says as an Iranian filmmaker “your most prized skill is the ability to work around the censorship codes. The artistic gift is actually a secondary requirement when it comes to making films in Iran.”
But with all the restrictions, Iranian films have been part of festivals around the world. And they have received recognition.
Many others film have won international awards.
Meanwhile Mahdi Kouhian, a documentary filmmaker in Iran, says since the election of Iran's president, Hassan Rouhani, there is a more positive atmosphere.
For example, he said he attended the Fajr Film Festival for the first time in four years.
The festival is held every year to mark the anniversary of the Islamic Revolution.
But filmmaker Akrami isn't as optimistic. That's because he says he doesn't see any fundamental changes.
“The election of Mr. Rouhani, to me, is just a cosmetic change. It's like putting make up on a monster, which basically wouldn’t change the nature of that monster. You still have a monster,” he says.
For him, the saddest part about Iranian cinema is that its best movies never got to be made.