Soft War: The 2014 Fajr International Film Festival

IranPolitik.com analyzes soft war at the 2014 Fajr International Film Festival.

On February 1st to 11th, 2014, the Islamic Republic of Iran held its 32nd Annual Fajr International Film Festival. Despite restrictive state policies and limited financial support for the arts since the Islamic Revolution of 1979, the arts scene in Iran is nonetheless very dynamic. Iranian cinema in particular has been a key source of cultural exports since the revolution and won acclaim around the globe. Historically, many of Iran’s best films have been showcased at the Fajr festival, with the best films receiving Iran’s equivalent of an “Oscar,” known as a “Crystal Simorgh.” Despite being a state-backed event, the Fajr festival continues to show-case high quality and independent films which are usually well-received by the public, and this year, as in the past, witnessed long lines of Iranian movie-goers eager to see the annual crop of films. Like the rest of the arts in Iran, however, films can deeply political and linked to the Islamic Republic’s concerns about national security, especially what the regime labels as “soft war”.

In our recent systematic study of soft war completed for the Iran Media Program (IMP), we defined soft war as “the exercise of soft power by the United States on Iran such that it creates security challenges for the Islamic Republic and forces it to respond.” We argued that:

“The main challenge of soft war is that large segments of the Iranian population are attracted to the United States, embracing key elements of its culture and political ideals, anathema for a regime founded on Islamic values and anti-Americanism. As the gulf between the culture and political ideals of the Islamic Republic and large segments of its population has widened, the regime’s power to influence Iranians has weakened and it has come under pressure to change its policies in a number of domains.”

We divided the regime’s strategy for addressing soft war in two categories: (1) “Hard responses”; and (2) “Building sources of soft power.” The first brings the full coercive apparatus of the state to block the exercise of Western (especially American) soft power, including through strict control over media and cyberspace. The second aspect of this strategy seeks to create sources of soft power, such as culture, political ideas, policies, and institutions, to advance the regime’s influence and values while being attractive to ordinary Iranians, especially youth. We maintained that while hard responses can be effective up to a point, the regime has to date been far less successful in creating attractive sources of soft power. This is because the latter cannot be achieved by state means alone, but requires the active participation of civil society and some level of socio-cultural freedoms. A large degree of the state-society disconnect in Iran today comes from the outdatedness of the regime’s sources of soft power, and it needs to renovate these in light of present circumstances to have any staying power at the socio-cultural level.

This year’s Fajr festival was an interesting case-study of how these “soft war” dynamics played out, especially in light of Hassan Rouhani’s presidential election and his promises of improving Iran’s artistic, cultural, and social climate. In fact, unlike during the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad era, this year we saw the return of many Iranian cinema giants who were less visible for a variety of reasons in previous eight festival years. This included directors such as: Masoud Kimiai, famous for Gheysar, Dash Akol (based on the book Sadegh Hedayat), and Gavaznha (The Deer) before the revolution and Ziafat (The Feast) after 1979, among others; Dariush Mehrjui, famous for Gaav (Cow, based on the novel by Gholah-Hussein Saedi) which was lauded even by the normally austere Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, before the revolution, and Hamoon, Ejareneshinha (The Tenants), Pari, and Santouri afterward (among others); and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, famous for such post-revolution films as Roosari Abi (Blue Veil), Zir-e Poost Shahr (Under the Skin of the City), and Khoon-bazi (Mainline). In this year’s film festival we saw both aspects of the regime’s soft war strategy at play, and specifically a resurgence of its ability to generate sources of soft power.

Hard Responses: The Case of Asabani Nistam

Film Title: Asabani Nistam (I Am Not Angry)

Director: Reza Dormishian
Born: 1981/Tehran
Education: Diploma
Filmography: Hatred
Synopsis: Navid, a provincial youth in Tehran, tries hard to improve his conditions to marry Setareh.

The case of Reza Dormishian’s Asabani Nistam aptly demonstrates the Islamic Republic’s hard response strategy. Some within the regime interpreted the film as casting the 2009 Green Movement in a positive light and critiquing the mistreatment of student activists during the Ahmadinejad administration. After the film entered the festival and was assessed by a panel of independent judges, it was allegedly slated to win five awards. However, before the results were announced the director withdrew the film, likely as a result of outside political pressure based on a number of statements by individuals close to the case.

After the withdrawal of the film and its lead actor Navid Mohammadzadeh’s consideration for awards, Reza Attaran was named the winner of the Crystal Simorgh for Best Male Actor. After receiving the prize, Attaran declared: “This Simorgh does not belong to me, because the votes of the judges of the Fajr festival elected Navid Mohammadzadeh for the best male actor of the festival. For this reason I know this prize to belong to him, not to me. That’s all.”

Faramarz Gharibian, a veteran male actor of Iranian cinema and a judge at the festival, also asserted that the award was originally intended for Mohammadzadeh. He explained that an emergency session was called once the judges had already cast their votes for Mohammadzadeh and rumors started circulating that the panel responsible for awarding the Best Male Actor award should change its votes:

“I and the other judges, in response to these rumors, threatened the secretariat of the festival that if the Best Male Actor prize went to anyone other than Navid Mohammadzeh, we would refuse to go on stage in protest and leave the closing ceremony. This resulted in those [calling for the expulsion of the film] retreating and not daring to pressure us.”

Houshang Golmakani, the editor-in-chief of one of Iran’s most influential cinema magazines entitled Film and a judge at the festival, weighed in on the controversy:

“The film I Am Not Angry was nominated in five fields for a prize and was supposed to receive the Simorgh for Best Male Actor. Judges declared they would not change their votes due to outside pressures and that according to the rules, if a film is to be removed from judgment, it must be done by the festival itself or the producer of the film, who must declare the exclusion of his production from the competition.”

The latter is precisely what happened: Dormishian wrote a letter to the secretariat of the festival explaining that “In order to preserve the peace of cinema and distance it from the rumors, evaluation of this film in the final stage shall be stopped.” A presenter read out this brief note in the closing ceremony of the festival. It is apparent that due to its politically sensitive content, the film was pressured to withdraw from the competition by an unknown outside force. This type of indirect and unofficial pressure is a part of the Islamic Republic’s modus operandi.

The Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) was also heavily criticized because of its heavy handed use of censorship to prevent anything even remotely critical of the regime at the festival from going on air. This issue was raised by leading Iranian legislator Ali Motahari, who complained that:

“Broadcasting the [Fajr closing] ceremony on TV was good, but the censorship which the television officials imposed on the ceremony was not proper… Anyone who made a critique had their image blacked out, the program cut off, and the ceremony broadcast was scrambled, which was painful for the viewer. I do not know why our friends [at IRIB] are so afraid of critique. With these actions they staged a frustrating program.”

Creating Sources of Soft Power: The cases of Shiar-e 143 and Che
Film Title: Shiar 143 (Track 143)
Director: Narges Abyar
Born: 1971/Tehran
Education: B.A in Literature
Filmography: Objects Are Closer Than They Seem In The Mirror
Synopsis: A woman waits for her son, who has been missing in action since the Iran-Iraq War, to return home.

Film Title: Che
Director: Ebrahim Hatamikia
Born: 1961/Tehran
Education: Bachelor of Script Writing from Art University
Filmography: Identity, Scout, Emigrant, From Karkheh to the Rhine, Green Ash, The Smell of Joseph’s Shirt, Minoo Tower, Glass Agency, Red Ribbon, Dead Wave, Low Heights, Like Purple, In The Name of Father, Party Report
Synopsis: Che is the narrative of last 48 hours of the crisis in which Dr. Mostafa Chamran, representative of temporary government in 1979, and commander of the army General Fallahi entered the city of Paveh, which was besieged by anti-revolutionary forces.

As we noted in our original soft war report, the culture and history of Shi’a Islam, non-Islamic Iran, and the Islamic Republic are potential materials from which attractive sources of soft power can be created or existing ones “renovated.” Indeed, while Iranians are often portrayed as disinterested in regime sources of soft power, this is not always the case. However, the regime will not be successful by simply throwing money at soft power endeavors; rather success requires the active participation of civil society, including artists, and a greater level of social freedom than exists in Iran today.

One film genre highlighted by the report as often lacking appeal to young Iranians is Cinema-ye Defa’-e Moghadass (Holy Defense Cinema), which usually explores Iran’s traumatic experience in the Iran-Iraq War and its aftermath in the post-war era. Both new and veteran film talent reinvigorated this often stilted genre at this year’s festival. Two films stood out above the rest in this regard: Narges Abyar’s Shiar-e 143 and Ebrahim Hatamikia’s Che.

Abyar’s film explores the bitter story of a young mother who sees her son off to war, and the trials and tribulations that she faces in his absence. The film was praised for its high quality, and respected talent Merila Zarei played the young mother and won the Crystal Simorgh for Best Actress. In her acceptance speech, Zarei honored the mothers of Iran’s hundreds of thousands of war dead and veterans, stating: “I ask that instead of applauding me and this Simorgh, out of respect for all of the mothers of this land who in these years stood patiently, gave their loved ones for the life, wealth, and honor of this country, and once again remained silent, to stand out of respect for them.”

Ebrahim Hatamikia, an exceptional Holy Defense Cinema director who nonetheless has found himself in conflict with Iran’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and other art and culture regulating bodies on several occasions during his career, also made a good showing at the Fajr Festival. His film Che (the letter ‘Ch’ from the Farsi alphabet, which in this case stands for ‘Chamran’) recounts the story of Mostafa Chamran, a martyr of the regime and a former defense minister, and his death in a military operation in western Iran.

Both films package the Islamic Republic’s culture and ideals in a way that is more immediately accessible to modern Iranian audiences. They demonstrate that in the conflict which the regime calls soft war, neither absolute victory or defeat is inevitable. While a large chasm exists between the state and key segments of society, and the state has excessively relied on hard coercive methods to date, the regime is also capable of learning from the past and may find ways to renew the appeal of its soft power sources to Iranian society. This means discontinuing ill-conceived and formulaic attempts at creating the sources of soft power - which characterizes a great deal of the regime endeavors in this area - and giving greater space for civil society to operate. The regime’s strategy in what it calls soft war has been badly broken thus far, principally using hard responses that ultimately isolate Iran from the world and alienate society from the regime.

Festival films’ general information have been taken from this year’s official Fajr festival brochure
 

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