Reluctant Nod to Cultural Shift: Iran Eases Ban on Its Own Films

Critics of hard-line Islam move from pirated video to big screen

The cinema goes dark, and the mostly young audience prepares for an Iranian movie treat. This film - "Snowman" - had been banned by Iran's ruling clerics, and it sat on the shelf gathering dust for two years at the offices of the Islamic Guidance censors.

But just weeks ago, as part of an easing of cultural restrictions promised by new moderate President Mohamad Khatami, the film was released uncensored. Theaters have been packed.

Iranian filmmakers have long been adept at making tough points with satire and symbolism. Their international profile grew at the Cannes Film Festival earlier this year, when Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami won the prestigious Golden Palm award for "The Taste of Cherry."

But overcoming official objections to their films at home has been one of the biggest hurdles for directors since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Now "Snowman," by writer/director Davoud Mirbaqeri, is being seen. "I'm surprised they released it," says a student who gave her name as Mojgan. "Maybe they are lifting the pressure because there are other pressures that people are under."

Release of "Snowman" has not been without violence. Militants of the Ansar E-Hizbullah (followers of the Party of God), self-appointed defenders of the revolution, have attacked cinemas across the country in protest. And the Islamic Guidance ministry offices in Isfahan were reportedly stormed.

The scenes flit by, and soon it becomes clear why Iran's hard-line clerics object. The first scene is of an Iranian man in Turkey, who dreams of living in America. In an elaborate disguise as a bearded academic, he applies for a visa at the American Embassy and is rejected for the third time.

Broken-hearted, he cries out in dismay: "But you don't even know who I am! Do you think I am a bad person, a terrorist?"

Desperate to get to America - still considered the "Great Satan" by Iran's revolutionary leaders - the hero, played by actor Akbar Abdi, tries a ploy deemed even more deviant by hard-liners here: He dresses up (convincingly) as a woman. For $6,000 he is to marry an American man who will take his new "wife" home to the US for a green card.

The iconoclasm cuts deep. To remember their beloved homeland, Iranians in the film break into songs from before the 1979 Islamic revolution that are still illegal, and the audience claps irreverently to the beat.

When a woman in the film says that she wants to live in a country where she will "not get detained because she is wearing nail polish or lipstick," the audience cheers.

Along the way, however, the hero falls in love with a decent, head-scarf-wearing Iranian woman in Turkey. They marry and return happily to Iran. At a decisive moment, the hero looks at pictures of family still in Iran. An Iranian friend asks: "You were crying again - were you thinking of Iran, or America?"

Another character, who has tasted the semi-Western freedoms of Turkey, says: "I prefer to die in Iran."

The film is called "Snowman" because, as one theatergoer put it, "all the dreams and illusions melt like a snowman." But it is also an example of the Western influence that hard-liners call corrupting.

In his speech at the opening of the Islamic summit in Tehran two weeks ago, Iran's supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, warned against the "Western materialistic civilization directing everyone toward materiality, while money, gluttony, and carnal desires are made the greatest aspirations."

Still, more and more banned films by Iranian producers are being shown here, despite sometimes critical or "un-Islamic" content.

As the minister in charge of culture in the early 1990s, Khatami himself presided over what many intellectuals describe as the "golden age" for arts since the revolution. Khatami resigned in protest of hard-liners in 1992, writing that he would rather "fight ignorance and backwardness" on his own. Books and films were again subject to tough rules.

But since Khatami's landslide victory in May, scores of once-forgotten "illegal" films and books have been released.

Even under the ban, pirated videos circulate. Many who saw the "Snowman," now in more than 40 theaters, had seen it already and just wanted to view it on the big screen - and clap along with others in public.

"There are no more surprises with this [moderate] new government," says Jaber Hossein, a teenage student who had seen "Snowman" three times illegally on video. "We voted to get these [films] released. Now all of Iran has seen it."

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