The must-see film in Iran this spring is Santouri, a gritty tale of a musician who struggles to get permission to perform in public. Ironically, the film does not have permission to play in public either. In Iran, all cultural performances are strictly regulated and anything deemed morally dubious is outlawed.
So instead of going to the cinema, Iranians are snapping up copies of the film from bootleg DVD sellers around the country.
By Dariush Mehrjui, one of Iran’s most renowned directors, Santouri won the people’s choice award at Tehran’s Fajr film festival last year. But then the authorities banned it.
“For me, the last year has been the worst of my career,” says Mr Merhjui, who pioneered Iran’s New Wave cinema movement with the 1969 film The Cow.
“There is this very rigorous censorship that is more or less destroying our culture,” he told the FT at his home in northern Tehran. He says he was not told why Santouri was blacklisted.
The film tells the story of Ali, whose increasing despair leads him to heroin addiction and separation from his wife. The implication is that Iran’s cultural repression and its significant drug problem are not unrelated.
Javad Shamghadri, arts adviser to the president, has publicly criticised the movie, suggesting it is part of a wider problem in Iran’s film industry.
“Even changing the train cannot solve the Iranian movie industry problem; we should change the railways,” he told reporters earlier this year.
Censorship is a decades-old problem for the Iranian film industry, considered one of the country’s greatest cultural assets.
But it has worsened markedly under President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad’s government, which has been trying to defend Iranian society against “cultural threats” from “arrogant global powers”, especially the US.
“Things have become very bad in the last two years, not only in the realm of cinema but in theatre and music and publishing too,” says Mr Mehrjui.
Orchestral and theatre performances are increasingly scarce, and just last month, the government banned nine magazines because they contained too many photos of “corrupt” Hollywood stars and details about their “decadent” private lives.
Tighter restrictions, combined with the prevalence of bootleg DVDs of local and foreign films and satellite television, means Iran’s film-watching population is increasingly likely to stay at home.
This has contributed to a funding crisis in the industry, with some directors reportedly selling their flats to fund their films.
“As a film-maker I have a lot of difficulties to get the facilities I need to make my films,” says Mona Zandi-Haghighi, one of Iran’s new generation of directors. “There is no basic support for film-makers here. That is the difference between making films in Iran and in America.”
Iran still, however, has one of the strongest film industries in the Middle East. Its films continue to become arthouse hits in the west and to collect international awards, even though they are routinely banned at home. Directors such as Mr Mehrjui, and his New Wave contemporaries Abbas Kiarostami and Jafar Panahi, have won major prizes in Cannes, Venice and Berlin.