During the later stages of the Cold War, the Soviet Union realized that it could take advantage of international film festivals to promote the inhuman communist system as a regime with a human face.
It followed that while behind the Iron Curtain the KGB was disappearing protesters en masse and dispatching troves of liberal artists and dissidents to the Gulag and the Warsaw Pact tanks were bulldozing Budapest and Prague, Tarkovsky’s intellectual films and Kozintsev’s Shakespearean adaptations were scooping awards at prestigious Western film festivals.
Many Russian films that took a critical stance towards the WWII Soviet war effort officially known as the “Great Patriotic War,” which led to massive loss of life, would be censored and only given limited domestic release, but the same would be sent by the authorities to international film festivals and become critically acclaimed as manifestations of “Soviet Cinema.”
Similar to the former Soviet Union, the Islamist regime of Iran knows how to exploit international film festivals. Early on, the regime did not shy away from stark demonstrations of revolutionary violence. With rampant oppression of women, widespread murder of dissidents, mass execution of political opponents, overseas terrorism, and hostage-taking of American diplomats, the regime portrayed itself as extremely violent, ideological and inhumane in the eyes of the world.
Over time, however, the ruling Islamists in Iran realized that they could not always advance their agenda through violence, and that they needed to present as subtle and civilized a face as possible. To redefine and reimagine its identity on the global stage, the Islamic Republic chose the medium of cinema.
This trend began in the late 1980s. The films made by those filmmakers who toed the “red lines” of the regime’s cultural-security apparatus would be widely screened in international festivals, at the embassies and cultural consulates of the Islamic Republic, and with the help of foreign lobbyists at arthouse theaters, universities and academic cultural centers overseas.
Abbas Kiarostami was the epitome of the first generation of the Iranian regime’s specialized festival filmmakers. For most of his career, while sticking to politically neutral narratives and humanist imagery centered on children that appealed to the tender sensibilities of festival audiences, Kiarostami would repeatedly defend censorship, even advocating for it as a contributing factor to “artistic creativity.” What he did in effect was to internalize and institutionalize self-censorship as style.
The high point of Kiarostami’s career, winning the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival of 1997, was also, according to one account, a reward for his silence in the face of the regime’s censorship, repression, violence and resulted from purely political considerations.
In his book With Mr. Fellini’s Permission (2000), the dissident film critic Bassir Nassibi reveals how in order to reduce international pressure on the regime due to the condemnation of the Islamic Republic’s leadership by the German federal court in the Mykonos assassination affair, where the regime’s security apparatus killed a number of its opponents in Berlin, the French and Iranian governments coordinated to make sure Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry would receive the outstanding award that year.
The emergence of the second generation of the Iranian regime’s specialized festival filmmakers occurred during the presidency of Ahmadinejad in the late 2000s, and its paragon is none other than Asghar Farhadi. During this period, the cultural-security apparatus of the regime became bolder and started to sponsor commercial films to conquer American markets, become a force in Hollywood and win much-coveted Oscars. This is precisely why Farhadi’s films, in contrast to the films of the Kiarostami generation, are replete with elements that are appealing to Hollywood sensibilities, such as star power, creative narrative technique, audiovisual tension and high production values.
Western media usually depict Farhadi as locked in eternal battle with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the “extremists;” however, the truth of the matter is that he has a complex relationship with them. Farhadi’s first international hit, A Separation (2011), was funded by Bank Pasargad, which is a subsidiary of the IRGC, and was put on the US Treasury Department’s sanctions list in 2020 for financing the Guards’ terrorist activities in Iran and overseas.
Also, Javad Shamqadari, the deputy minister of Cinema for the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance during Ahmadinejad’s presidency, revealed in an interview in 2015 that the Iranian regime had lobbied the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to give the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film to Farhadi’s A Separation so that Footnote, its rival in the same category from Israel, would not win the award.
But what benefit does indeed the Islamic Republic receive from participating in international film festivals? They are myriad, but the most significant is that by feeding these prestigious fairs for high culture with a stream of mostly well-made movies centered on humanist concerns, the regime has managed to convince the world that it is not brutal and medieval, and gain international legitimacy to conduct more important political and economic transactions that bolster its position at home and abroad.
This is evidenced by the ongoing negotiations in Vienna to revive the dysfunctional nuclear deal, whereupon the regime could potentially receive billions of dollars in sanctions relief as well as having the IRGC’s terrorist designation lifted while it continues to strive for nuclear arms and terrorize the world.
Of course, we should not overlook the role of insiders and collaborators in the West, without whose generous assistance the Islamic Republic would not have been able to showcase itself as a normal regime.
Prestigious film festivals are generally a projection of political trends that are lenient towards Islamists in the name of “cultural diversity” and are inclined to “normalize” the apocalyptic regime of the ayatollahs in the international liberal order. And that’s how the vicious cycle of the West’s bestowing credit on the regime and the regime’s exploiting that credit to discredit the West repeats itself ad infinitum.
Nevertheless, the open hostility of the supreme leader and his Revolutionary Guards to the West and especially the United States in recent years, which is highly likely to escalate to military conflict, will certainly have an adverse effect on the position of regime-affiliated filmmakers and other cinema folk vis-à-vis international film festivals and other cultural events in the West.
In alignment with Khamenei’s “Look to the East” policy, instead of walking the red carpet in Berlin, Cannes, Venice and Los Angeles, it looks like the next generation of the Iranian regime’s festival filmmakers will have to try their luck in Moscow, Beijing and Shanghai.
The writer (@DrParchizadeh) is a political theorist, security analyst and cultural expert. He is a senior editor at Al Arabiya Farsi, serves on the editorial board of Journal for Interdisciplinary Middle Eastern Studies, and is an international committee correspondent for World Shakespeare Bibliography.