Iran’s Cinema of Resistance

Iran’s Cinema of Resistance

Independent filmmakers offer a vital portal into the struggle against the theocratic regime.

Nasrin Sotoudeh in a still from Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (International Federation for Human Rights/Flickr)

About halfway through Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (2015), the Iranian filmmaker picks up his young niece, Hana, from her elementary school. Hana has just been tasked with producing a film for class, and she is eager to seek her uncle’s guidance. Who better to ask than an internationally renowned writer and director? Hana tells Panahi that her school, which is under the jurisdiction of the Islamic regime’s so-called morality police, has banned what the government refers to as “sordid realism” in any of the student productions. The legal term for this censored cinematic art form is translated from the Farsi سیاهنمایی (phonetically anglicized as seeyah namaee), which literally means “representing something darkly.”

Hana tells Panahi that her teacher instructed the students to “show what is real, but not what is real real. Then [the teacher] said if reality is dark and unpleasant, not to show it. . . . They don’t want to show it, but they do it themselves.” She pauses, seemingly unaware of the harrowing truth that she has just laid bare, then adds, “Whatever. I don’t get it.” The scene’s striking dialogue uses the neorealist motif of framing social and political inquiries through the innocent, prying eyes of a child.

Panahi—a dissident, a political prisoner, an artist—has dedicated his life to an illicit art form. Like many of Iran’s dissident filmmakers, Panahi centers much of his work around the stories of women. Consider the film that initiated his ongoing struggle against the country’s authoritarian regime: The Circle (2000), which was groundbreaking in its bleak, unvarnished depiction of the government’s crushing oppression of women. As Roger Ebert wrote in his review, “The film is profoundly dangerous to the status quo in Iran because it asks us to identify with the plight of women who have done nothing wrong except to be female.” Like Taxi, The Circle is about the poetics of the everyday. It is an act of unveiling, revealing how Iranian women pursue their own safety and survival.

Following his participation in the 2009 Green Movement, Panahi was arrested and convicted of creating “anti-government propaganda.” During a three-month stint in Evin Prison—commonly known as Evin University because of the number of intellectuals, journalists, students, and artists who have been imprisoned there—Panahi went on a hunger strike that garnered attention from filmmakers, artists, and activists around the world. Following his release, the government banned Panahi from directing or releasing films for twenty years. Panahi’s 2011 documentary chronicling his life under house arrest, aptly titled This Is Not a Film, was smuggled to the Cannes Film Festival on a flash drive concealed within a birthday cake. 

Recently the repression of artists has gotten worse. Last May, more than a dozen documentary filmmakers were arrested or had their homes raided when the ultraconservative administration of President Ebrahim Raisi conducted the most severe crackdown on artistic freedom of expression that Iran had seen in many years. Two months later, Panahi was arrested after going to a prosecutor’s office in Tehran to pursue answers regarding the imprisonment of his friend Mohammad Rasoulof, who was arrested in July after posting a statement on social media urging the regime’s security forces to lay down their weapons against anti-government protesters in Iran’s Khuzestan province. Like Panahi’s Taxi, Rasoulof’s 2020 film There Is No Evil, which tells four interwoven stories of Iranians whose lives have been affected by the systemic corruption and injustice of the country’s capital punishment laws, won the prestigious Golden Bear award at the Berlin International Film Festival. Also like Panahi, Rasoulof was banned from leaving the country and was unable to attend the festival and receive his prize. On July 19, Panahi, too, was sentenced to six years in Evin Prison.

Since September, thousands of Iranians have been imprisoned in Evin for participating in the uprising that has convulsed Iran and much of the Kurdistan region since Mahsa (Jina) Amini, a twenty-two-year-old Iranian-Kurdish woman, was murdered by the morality police after being arrested for the “unsuitable” placement of her mandatory hijab. These protests, marked by fervor, scale, and state retaliation the likes of which we have not witnessed in decades, have adopted the slogan “Woman, Life, Freedom,” a rallying cry translated into Farsi (Zan, Zendegi, Azadi) from a Kurdish revolutionary chant (Jin, Jiyan, Azadî).

On Saturday, October 15, a nightmarish image began to circulate on Instagram and Twitter: Evin Prison was on fire, enshrouded in swelling billows of black smoke that obscured Tehran’s skyline. Iranian social media accounts that had been posting on-the-ground information from the protests began to report that gunfire could be heard echoing from within Evin’s walls. Fear spread that the government was engaging in a concerted attack against protesters inside the prison.

The regime’s judiciary has stated that eight people were killed and sixty-one injured in the blaze, which security forces claim was set by “thugs” in Evin’s financial crimes unit and completely unrelated to the protests. Groups like Human Rights Watch, citing the regime’s indiscriminate violence and the history of torture and wrongful detainment at Evin, are calling for an independent investigation into what happened. The night of the fire, it was reported that Panahi and Rasoulof had been attacked with tear gas. It remains unknown how many people were killed; Panahi’s wife said he described the experience as “the worst hours of his life.”

A week before the fire, Panahi’s latest film, No Bears, premiered to impassioned critical acclaim at the New York Film Festival. Unable to attend in person, Panahi shared a statement of solidarity with the protesters, which was read to the Lincoln Center audience by the film’s lead actress, Mina Kavani. It is worth quoting in full:

We are filmmakers. We are part of Iranian cinema. For us, to live is to create. We create works that are not commissioned. Therefore, those in power see us as criminals. Independent cinema reflects its own times. It draws inspiration from society. And cannot be indifferent to it. The history of Iranian cinema witnesses the constant and active presence of independent directors who have struggled to push back censorship and to ensure the survival of this art. While on this path, some were banned from making films, others were forced into exile or reduced to isolation. And yet, the hope of creating again is a reason for existence. We are filmmakers, independent ones.

Panahi is a leading figure in the lineage of the Iranian New Wave, a filmmaking movement that stretches back to the 1960s. Iranian New Wave films, descendants of the neorealist cinema that took root in postwar Italy, have been shaped by repression and political agitation. The genre first emerged under the Shah but developed into its current form following the 1979 Islamic Revolution. New Wave directors are chroniclers of quotidian life in Iran. They do not necessarily depict revolutionary fervor or directly reference state violence; instead, they follow the lives of ordinary Iranians, layering political commentary into everyday conversations, visual settings, and narrative techniques.

Unlike traditional Western films, which derive their structures from novels and other forms of storytelling, Iranian neorealist cinema is more akin to poetry—a style the Iranian-American scholar Hamid Dabashi has described as “lyrical, political, and metaphoric.” (Iran’s foundational literary voices—Rumi, Khayyam, and Hafiz—are poets, and the Persian poet Ferdowsi’s masterpiece, the Shahnameh, is one of the longest, most linguistically complex epic poems of all time.) Slow-moving, cerebral, and rife with symbolism, these films follow a tempo that evokes what Dabashi calls a “melodious numbness.” Their plots are largely inconclusive, but plot is not precisely the point. Instead, Iranian cinema pays sedulous attention to the lives lived on screen and serves as a meditation on reality and its many shadows. 

In The House Is Black (1963), a documentary short that helped pave the way for the Iranian New Wave, the feminist poet Forugh Farrokhzad probes life within an Iranian leper colony. Farrokhzad’s film is a tapestry of her poetry, recitations of religious texts, and aesthetic exploration—an amalgamation that points to the genre’s poetic origins. But the most widely recognized auteur of the movement is Abbas Kiarostami, a maestro of the minimalist and the metafictional best known for Close-Up (1990) and his Palme d’Or–winning film Taste of Cherry (1997). Kiarostami’s work encapsulates the subtle politics of New Wave cinema. His post-Revolution documentary Fellow Citizen (1983), in the words of Dabashi, follows the “concealed sentiments and social actions of a traffic jam,” which parallel the “social psychology of revolutionary crowds that began to gather under Khomeini’s banner.” 

Kiarostami’s experimental drama Shirin (2008) more literally integrates poetry into the conception of the film. It is composed entirely of spartan, close-up shots of the faces of 113 actresses (112 of them are Iranian, and the other is Kiarostami’s muse, Juliette Binoche) as they watch a film based on the Persian poem Khosrow and Shirin, a tragic love story originating in the Shahnameh. Our visual understanding of the poem forms solely through the visages of these women; we see them fidget with their headscarves and observe how their expressions subtly alter with certain turns of phrase. Perhaps this description makes Shirin sound like arthouse meandering, but the effect is hypnotic. Kiarostami asks us to look at each actor intimately, providing the audience time to take in the women’s internal lives dancing across their faces. In a country where “Woman, Life, Freedom” has become a revolutionary slogan, Shirin is a subversive statement.

Other New Wave films address politics and human rights more overtly. In No One Knows About Persian Cats (2009), the eminent Kurdish director Bahman Ghobadi focuses on Tehran’s banned underground pop and rock music scene. Shot in secret, the film follows two young musicians upon their release from prison; they had been arrested and charged for playing rock music, and doing so with a woman as their band’s lead vocalist. In one of his earliest feature films, Turtles Can Fly (2004), Ghobadi documents the harrowing plight of Kurdish refugees days before the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the fall of Saddam Hussein, all chronicled through the eyes of orphaned children. Like Kiarostami and Panahi, Ghobadi is embedded in the neorealist tradition. His films do not hasten the rhythm of life for the sake of thrill or entertainment. They demand that we look, until we cannot ignore the reality before us any longer. 

The sharp dialogue in Panahi’s Taxi is scripted, although it does not seem to be at first. Panahi plays “Jafar Panahi,” the director, who is that day playing the role of a Tehran taxi driver—a job that allows him to tell the story of his nation through seemingly happenstance exchanges with the eccentric characters he picks up throughout the afternoon. 

Each character’s presence makes a sociopolitical statement, but none more directly than the human rights lawyer Nasrin Sotoudeh, who joins Panahi for a ride toward the end of the film. Sotoudeh, a wife and mother of two, had only recently been released from solitary confinement in Evin when Taxi was filmed. Referred to by Panahi only as the Flower Lady, she enters the taxi cab with an ebullient smile, clutching a bursting bouquet of red roses to her chest. She is the friendliest and most easygoing of Panahi’s passengers thus far, and the two immediately strike up a collegial banter. This effervescent portrayal of Sotoudeh is itself in defiance of the government that has tried to silence her.

“Where are you headed?” Panahi asks when she gets in the car. “Paradise,” Sotoudeh answers, a tinge of irony coloring her soft grin. She is on her way to Evin to see Ghoncheh Ghavami—a client who was arrested in 2014 for trying to watch a men’s volleyball match in Tehran—to try to persuade her to give up her hunger strike. Panahi, momentarily breaking from his consistently genial disposition, grimaces just moments before Sotoudeh enters the car. Quietly shaken, Panahi confesses to her that, while driving, he thought he had heard the voice of the Evin guard who had interrogated him. Sotoudeh responds calmly, in the reassuring tone of an experienced legal professional: “Many of my clients say the same thing. They want to identify people from their voices. That is the advantage of the blindfolds.” Their shared understanding creates one of the film’s most haunting moments.

As Sotoudeh prepares for the end of her ride, she places one of her roses on the dashboard. “Here is a rose for the people of cinema, because the people of cinema can be relied upon,” she says, pointing to the camera with a laugh. “I put it there so you don’t think I don’t know what you are up to here.” 

By hiding his camera, referring to Sotoudeh as the Flower Lady, and confining his entire production to the interior of a taxi, Panahi takes measures to ensure that he will not be identified while filming, and that his actors will remain anonymous in the film’s credits. They innocuously got into a taxi and went for a ride. This mode of filmmaking is partly an homage to Iranian cinema’s aesthetic tradition (the New Wave has a prodigious legacy of extended shots filmed within cars, the vehicle acting as a device of physical and psychological isolation) and to urban life in Tehran. But it is also a genuine form of clandestine filmmaking, revealing how far Panahi must go to protect himself and his cinematic subjects from state retaliation.

Sotoudeh was arrested again in 2018, on charges of “spying, spreading propaganda, and insulting Iran’s supreme leader.” In 2019, she was sentenced to thirty-eight years in prison and 148 lashes. Sotoudeh, who has tirelessly dedicated her life to advocating for the release of political prisoners, is now the country’s most well-known defender of women’s rights. In late September, she told Time magazine that the women risking their lives in Iran’s streets today give her hope that “even if the people’s demands are not met, the reality will have shifted permanently. They will not tolerate the compulsory veil anymore.”

Sotoudeh said in 2015 that “making a movie can be considered an act of civil disobedience.” Today, when over forty filmmakers have been arrested in the national uprising against the Islamic Regime, her words are acutely prescient. The red rose that Sotoudeh bestows on “the people of cinema” is not only a token of appreciation, but an effort to remind us of our responsibility as viewers: that we “can be relied upon.” What will we do with the words and the stories to which we have just borne witness? Can we fulfill our obligations as viewers—to listen to the voices of those fighting for fundamental human rights for the Iranian people, to resist the inclination toward willful ignorance, to bear the weight of recognition, to refuse to be silent, to know and to remember? 

Iranian and Kurdish women are setting their legally mandated headscarves aflame on Tehran’s streets. They have shorn locks of their hair on the sidewalks of Mahsa (Jina) Amini’s home city of Saqqez. The response has been brutal. Schoolgirls participating in protests and waving their headscarves in defiance have been detained by government officials and banished to psychiatric institutions. Sixteen-year-old Nika Shahkarami was disappeared and killed by the regime’s security forces hours after she was photographed burning her headscarf in Tehran. As this issue goes to press in December, more than 18,000 people have been arrested and 475 have been killed in the demonstrations, although the actual numbers are likely much higher. At least sixty-five of those killed have been children. Many, if not most, of the protesters are, like Amini herself, very young. 

Their primal scream of despair and exhaustion represents an urgent, throbbing need for justice. The fabric woven by centuries of imperial interference, revolution, war, and dictatorship is coming apart on Iran’s streets. Woman, Life, Freedom is a chant for all marginalized groups that have faced persecution under the Islamic government, and it has galvanized people from across Iranian society. The fight for women’s rights in Iran today also encompasses the historic struggle for Kurdish rights, which has grown as the regime’s military forces laid siege to Mahabad, Sanandaj, and other Kurdish cities and strongholds in late November, opening fire on protesters, arresting citizens en masse, and killing with impunity. Woman, Life, Freedom is an epochal rallying cry, in the vein of “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” It means that if women do not have freedom, and if Kurds do not have freedom, then no one in Iran can be free. 

Some have been surprised by how rapidly these demonstrations have overtaken the country. But Iranians have been just a tremor away from the fight for liberation from the theocratic dictatorship for some time; they have been fighting, both loudly and quietly, for more than four decades. Iranian cinema offers a vital portal into this historic struggle. It captures the pulse of civilian life under the traumatic duress of dictatorship, and it reveals how close the people always are to revolution. There is an undercurrent of fearlessness and dissidence that runs beneath the framework of Iranian society. Hopelessness is never final, and repressed fury is always ready to bubble to the surface and burst.

Hanna Khosravi is an Iranian-Kurdish-American writer and researcher in literature, film, and human rights policy. She graduated from New York University in 2021.