Filmmakers Clash as Rouhani’s Agenda Leaves Iranians DividedLadane Nasseri
After decades portraying starkly different visions of Iran through their movies, two of the nation’s leading filmmakers have turned on each other in a dispute that has sucked in some of the country’s top officials.
At the heart of the discord between Ebrahim Hatamikia, a household name in Iran, and Abbas Kiarostami, whose films have won global recognition, is the cinematic portrayal of the 1980s war with Iraq. Hidden in the acrimonious exchanges is a tussle between those who stand by the tenets of the Islamic Republic, and draw power from proximity to the clerical establishment, and proponents of a more open, liberal Iran.
Their clash symbolizes “a type of free-thinking versus the authoritative opinion of the state,” said Parviz Barati, an author of books on Iranian culture and commentator for the Shargh newspaper in Tehran. “The same friction we see between these two icons of cinema is visible within Iranian society.”
Iran was invaded by its neighbor just months after the 1979 revolution, the start of an eight-year war that killed hundreds of thousands, and it remains a central pillar of the Islamic Republic’s identity, known as the Sacred Defense. Yet it’s receding into history for many younger Iranians, who are more concerned about the country’s international isolation and played a key part in electing President Hassan Rouhani with a mandate to end it.
The directors’ spat escalated last month, with Hatamikia, 53, for whom the revolution and the war continue to define the Iranian state, accusing Kiarostami of being a “darling of foreign film festivals” who has denigrated the conflict’s martyrs.
‘Time of Peace’
Kiarostami, 74, whose films explore human relationships and topics such as compassion or justice often through child actors, shot back in a newspaper interview, implying Hatamikia’s war movies were formulaic rehashes of Hollywood themes, while denying he doubted the heroism of those who died fighting Iraqi forces.
“In a time of peace, I am not interested in talking about war,” he told the Etemaad newspaper on Oct. 9, alluding to the need for cinema to discuss contemporary issues.
There are no shortage of those. Rouhani and his hardline opponents are at odds over policies from curbing the nation’s nuclear program, in return for the lifting of international sanctions, to greater access to the Internet.
Supporters have rallied round the two directors. Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Qods Force and the increasingly public face of Iran’s contribution to the fight against the Islamic State militant group in Iraq and Syria, wrote an open letter to Hatamikia encouraging him to ignore criticism and “continue on your path” as “your prize is people’s awakened conscience.”
“In the West, they still make movies about World War II,” said Hamid Asemani, 34, a communications student at Allameh Tabatabai University in Tehran. “Our war only ended some two decades ago. Of course it’s important that we still document and discuss it.”
Defending Kiarostami, Hojatollah Ayoubi, deputy culture minister and head of Iran’s Organization of Cinema, said the director is also “enamored by” sacrifices made in the war though he wants to depict them in “his own style.”
Kiarostami is “very open to the world,” said Barati. “His fans are mostly liberal, more independent-minded reformists who back democracy,” he said. “Kiarostami doesn’t deliver slogans in his movies and stays away from ideology. Such people have always been under pressure. Some like Kiarostami have remained in Iran while others have left.”
Sparring between two stars of the cinema over something as sensitive as the war, the start of which authorities commemorate with the Sacred Defense Week each September, was bound to generate passions.
“In contemporary Iran, it’s impossible to criticize the war,” said Roxanne Varzi, an assistant professor of film and media studies at the University of California in Irvine and author of “Warring Souls: Youth, Media and Martyrdom in Post-Revolution Iran.” It’s “at the heart of the entire authority of the state.”
Most challenges to the clerical establishment in Iran are acts of calibrated defiance rather than outright confrontation. That’s become easier since Rouhani came to power signaling support for greater freedoms on university campuses and criticizing aggressive moral policing.
Conservative opponents have accused his government of diluting the declared objectives of the revolution, such as independence from the U.S. and social stability.
Hatamikia, who spent time at the front in the 1980s documenting the conflict, “is a believer in the cause and what the war stood for,” said Saeed Zeydabadi-nejad, a senior fellow at the School of Oriental and African Studies’ Centre of Media Studies in London.
His dedication has won him support from conservatives who see the resistance of the then-nascent Islamic Republic to foreign aggression as one of Iran’s most formative episodes.
For many Iranians, half of whom according to the United Nations Population Fund are below the age of 24, his films don’t relate to their present lives. “Hatamikia made movies about a period of Iran’s history and they had their impact,” Ali Honarvar, a 29-year-old sculptor in Tehran, said by phone. “But this isn’t all there is.”