Hollywood delivered at Iranian doorsteps

Illegal movie video dealers here are not usually given to philosophy, but after five years on the job Ali Sufi - not his real name - knows how his clients' tastes have changed since the election of President Mohammad Khatami three years ago.

"Khatami came and started to give freedom and space to talk and to think," Mr. Sufi says, as he rifles through an anonymous black leather briefcase stuffed with video tapes.

"Since Khatami, people started to want much more sensitive films - they are tired of arguing," he says. "Iranians have powerful feelings. They want to be loved, and want to love something, so they prefer this to action or sex movies."

Unapproved films are illegal in Iran, but that hasn't stopped Iranians from enjoying foreign releases within days of their premires - sometimes taped by a camcorder during "first showings." "Titanic" was a blockbuster here. And so was "Saving Private Ryan."

Hard-line clerics have railed against all things Western, and right-wing morality police have raided homes to confiscate videos.

In rejecting Western films, officials here have not gone as far as Afghanistan's Taliban - who decorate checkpoints with unwound video tapes. But in a country where satellite dishes are illegal purveyors of Western culture take certain risks.

"It's very difficult and dangerous to bring these in," says Sufi. "But outside Iran, there is definitely a mafia behind it, and inside some police and customs officials are in the pay, too."

Before the advent of DVD and CD technology for films, smugglers used to carry video spools without their jackets past custom officials. Foreign travelers, flight attendants, and pilots have been couriers, too.

Being caught in Iran usually means a fine, like the $200 charge Sufi paid when police at a checkpoint opened his trunk and found his stash of tapes.

But the risks are worth it, and customer satisfaction ranks high. Sufi works for one of the seven biggest illegal movie outlets in Tehran, which rents some 3,000 films a week.

The club keeps just 1,200 of the most popular titles in its archive. Each video costs less than 50 cents per week to rent and is delivered at the door by salesmen like Sufi.

Sufi calls himself a soldier for Khatami's reforms. "I believe that everybody is on the frontline of this war, because almost everybody wants reform," he says and plops down copies of "Galdiators," "The Flintstones II," and "Music of the Heart," as he leaves.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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