Earlier this week, a prominent Iranian filmmaker, Mohammad Nourizad, was sentenced to three and a half years in prison for "insulting" Iran's leaders in the aftermath of last June's presidential election. He is hardly the first filmmaker to get in trouble with the regime; today, artists like Nourizad are at the center of Iran's internal struggle. For 31 years, social commentary under the Islamic Republic of Iran has become increasingly politicized. With the regime viewing the enforcement of strict religious values as one of its fundamental goals, the line between personal expression and criticism of the government has become blurred. Censors from the country's Ministry of Culture have clamped down, but filmmakers have also pushed back, using their work to test the regime's limits. Some, such as Jafar Panahi, have been thrown in jail, while others, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, have chosen exile.
That's what happened to another of Nourizad's peers -- Kurdish-Iranian filmmaker Bahman Ghobadi. After leaving Tehran for the Cannes Film Festival in April 2009, Ghobadi decided it was just too risky to return home. After years of filming in Iran, Ghobadi has now joined the ranks of fellow filmmakers abroad, splitting his time between Kurdistan, Europe, and the United States. His most recent film, No one Knows About Persian Cats, screened on Monday night at the Washington D.C. International Film Festival, explores the little-known underground music scene in Iran and the fight for creative freedom. In an interview with Foreign Policy's Kayvan Farzaneh, Bahman Ghobadi discusses how he got his start, the importance of Iran's creative culture, the repression of art under the Islamic Republic, and the green shoots emerging among Persian youth that make him optimistic in an otherwise bleak moment.
Foreign Policy: Why did you get into filmmaking?
Bahman Ghobadi: I was never in love with cinema. When I was young I used to love these sandwiches that my uncle used to buy me [when we went to the movies]. I think that my love for sandwiches just pulled me toward cinema.
When I was 18 years old, my parents separated. We were seven children with my mother, and I, as the eldest son, had to look for work. Then I got my hands on a book called Cinema of Animation and I wanted an outlet for my energy and so I went and bought an 8-mm camera and I read this book 20 times, because there was no other source -- there was no university or film school. So I made a movie about the competition between Iranian and foreign cigarettes. Then someone told me to send it in to a film festival, which I did even though I didn't know what a festival was. I won the top prize. They gave me three gold coins and I gave them to my mother -- that paid the rent for our house for five or six months. So my mother told me, "Go make more movies."
Then I realized that animation was very difficult, so I started to make documentaries. It started as a way to pay for things -- and in the process of living and working and supporting my family, I learned the art of filmmaking. It became a weapon in my hands to express my opinions. As I grew more mature and my vision expanded, I thought I could raise questions and show the problems and hardships of the Kurds.
FP: Do you believe that film has a special place in Iranian culture?
BG: Iran has always been a land of culture. Although we were later torn apart, that gene never died. Now, once again, it seems that is coming back and no dictatorial government can ever stop it. Music and cinema, for as long as they have been around, have pulled Iran forward. If it had not been for the last 31 years, Iranian music could have been one of the most powerful in the world.
Ninety percent of the artistic production in Iran is now underground, and most foreigners are unaware of it. For 31 years, and even before the revolution, we've had these young artists, but you just can't see them. It was even a shock to me when I discovered them. I realized that beneath the underground was another underground -- even three or four layers -- and we were not aware of this. [The government] is trying to blind us so we don't see it. But now, I think and I hope -- perhaps unreasonably -- that it is starting to show itself.
FP: So do you believe that Iranian film is more rooted in freedom of expression than other film industries?
BG: No, I don't think so. You cannot judge Iranian work on the basis of censorship.
FP: Are you optimistic about the future for Iran?
BG: Very. Iran is a powerful country. No people could have endured such assaults like the Iranian people have.
FP: What are some of the obstacles in terms of censorship and financing your movies?
BG: There are many. This kind of art is not supported. [The government] has the money and the power and they will only support the kind of work that they want. It's what they want, not what you want. What's worrisome is that the reins of the youth are in the hands of these merciless people. Art must swim against the current; [the government] can't exploit art.
FP: Do your films have to be shown underground? Do they reach a wide audience?
BG: I sent my [most recent] film to Iran. The first country where it was screened was Iran. I gave it out for free; I told them that I didn't need money and that they could copy it. This was only for the Iranians in the country, not for those outside of Iran, because they'll bring some 20 foreigners with them to see the movie.
Since I gave the film out freely, everyone is watching it. And I told them, look around you and if there is any money, give it to these young people who are trying to create art. Now I'm getting emails from the young people in Iran telling me, "The people are looking at us differently; we're getting much more positive reception."
FP: If you had the choice to either work in the West or in Iran, which would you choose?
BG: Iran, of course. It's my country. I have to serve them. We artists form the basis of every culture and we take pride in our cultural past -- not in our political or military past or nuclear past. That is why we need to preserve that foundation. If these young people cannot reach their ideals, then it is better for the world to die.
Now they've thrown me out. I'm waiting for the chance to return.