Iran's Syria war blockbuster: cinema in the service of politics

Syrian Central Military Media/AP
Iran's army chief of staff Maj. Gen. Mohammad Bagheri (l., looking into binoculars) and other senior Iranian officers visit a front line in Syria's northern province of Aleppo in October 2017. The Iranian action film 'Damascus Time' glorifies Iran's military presence in Syria.

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Among Tehran’s goals in Syria’s civil war have been propping up its ally in Damascus, collaborating with Lebanese client Hezbollah, and creating a prized front line with enemy Israel. But getting Iran’s public behind the costly Syria policy has not always been an easy sell. In economically inspired protests a year ago, one common chant was “Leave Syria, find a solution for us!” Riding to the regime’s rescue came “Damascus Time,” an action-packed war movie produced by a pro-establishment movie house. Showcasing the daring and heroism of two Iranian pilots battling Islamic State jihadists, it cast the war effort as a classic battle between good and evil. It won accolades at an Iranian film festival, and high praise from Iranian military and political leaders. Despite that enthusiastic embrace, says a conservative analyst in Tehran, patriotic initiatives in Iranian cinema may have only limited impact, given Iran’s cultural sophistication. “In this movie you can feel that Iranians can save Syria and defeat terrorists and sacrifice themselves to save innocent people,” says the analyst. But he adds, “This movie can’t help the official narrative because protesters say: ‘Don’t save the world, save us.’ ”

Why We Wrote This

Does pop culture move politics? The war movie “Damascus Time” represents the fruit of a long effort by Iranian conservatives to gain supportive voices in the arts. But its impact may be limited.

The Iranian film “Damascus Time” is an action-packed story of heroes and villains filled, Hollywood-blockbuster-style, with dramatic surprises and explosions.

It’s also loaded with a not-so-subtle political message that steps deeply into Iran’s debate about its military role in Syria.

The movie tells the tale of two pilots with Iranian forces fighting Islamic State (ISIS) jihadists in Syria and “defending” Shiite shrines. Flying a military transport plane out of the besieged city of Palmyra, the pilots take off under fire in a risky, pre-dawn mission to rescue trapped and wounded Syrian civilians – and carry away a handful of ISIS prisoners.

Why We Wrote This

Does pop culture move politics? The war movie “Damascus Time” represents the fruit of a long effort by Iranian conservatives to gain supportive voices in the arts. But its impact may be limited.

But en route to Damascus, the ISIS prisoners break free and hijack the plane. The portrayal of the Iranian pilots’ ingenuity and bravery – and their eventual foiling of a brutal ISIS effort to kill them all in a live propaganda video feed – is very much art in the service of politics.

While the film easily dramatizes the good-versus-evil fight against ISIS, analysts say Iran’s strategic goals in Syria encompass far more: support for its longtime ally in Damascus, close cooperation with and the securing of supply lines to its Lebanese client Hezbollah, and the creation of a prized front line with its enemy Israel.

On one level, the film offers its domestic viewing audience justification for Iran’s costly and yearslong military interventions in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon, and for its policy of “fighting terrorists” abroad to avoid doing so at home.

As the jihadists seize control of the aircraft, for example, the sheikh leader warns: “Everything will [one day] be under the ISIS flag, and we’ll come to Tehran soon.”

But on another level, “Damascus Time” is a prime example of how nearly a decade of systematic efforts by conservative elements in Iran, often linked to the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), have borne fruit in gaining influence in Iran’s cultural and media space.

“At the level of revolutionary activists, after 2009 [pro-democracy street protests] they recognized the danger … that they were too weak in the media – they did not have a single cartoonist,” says a conservative analyst in Tehran who asked not to be named.

“But they have been very successful; they have a lot of cartoonists now, and media and filmmakers,” he says, noting that “Damascus Time” is just one example of the investment in new and more ideological output that aims to reinforce support for Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution and today’s Islamic Republic.

The movie won accolades at Iran’s prestigious Fajr International Film Festival last February – one of several films in the running produced by pro-establishment movie houses like the Owj Arts and Media Organization.

Veteran director Ebrahim Hatamikia – who has been among the vanguard of Iran’s celebrated war cinema since working on the “Revayat-e Fath” (Chronicles of Victory) television series during the 1980s Iran-Iraq War – won best director and other prizes for “Damascus Time.”

He expressed thanks for support from the Owj organization, which is widely recognized as being funded by the IRGC, and said the IRGC Qods Force commander, Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, “wept while watching my movie” and gave him a gift. Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif called the film a “masterpiece.”

‘Find a solution for us’

Not long before the prize was awarded at the festival, Iran had experienced weeks of widespread protests against economic mismanagement, corruption, and high unemployment. Street protests featured chants against Iran’s interventions in Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon.

“Leave Syria, find a solution for us!” was one common chant, as protesters torched cars and attacked military bases, and marched in dozens of cities and towns.

In Tehran, a former journalist who was raised in western Iran during the 1980s and felt the impact of the Iran-Iraq War says he is sympathetic to the idea of helping Syria, but understands the protesters.

“Syria was the only one who supported us [during the Iran-Iraq War], so I am not opposed to helping Syria. But how far? That is open to question,” says the former journalist, who asked not to be named. “If we had enough money as before, people wouldn’t care. But now, people feel the pinch.”

Indeed, justifications for Iran’s intervention since the Syria war began in 2011 have evolved, from simply bolstering a strategic ally to battling terrorists.

“They were lucky that ISIS emerged, otherwise they would never convince the middle class that ‘defending the shrine’ was ever a justified cause to spend so much money and blood,” says Hossein Derakhshan, an Iranian researcher at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass.

Along the way, Iran’s conservative cultural output has taken on a certain flavor, he says. “They have been so obsessed with the US culture that they unconsciously reproduce Hollywood, celebrity culture, militaristic and imperial tendencies,” Mr. Derakhshan says.

Despite questions on the street about Iran’s foreign interventions, “very, very few people think we should leave Syria,” asserts Hossein Shariatmadari, editor of the hard-line Kayhan newspaper. “Even among that little portion, when you talk to them, they will become convinced when we explain that we are actually paying for our own security in Syria, otherwise we would have been fighting ISIS in Iran.”

Iran’s hard-liners, who often call themselves “principlists” for their adherence to the principles of the revolution, “have realized how important this instrument is … the most important thing to convey messages. Cinema is a very important tool,” says Mr. Shariatmadari.

‘More important than schools’

Investing in media to shape popular perceptions may also be a bargain. Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, made this point in an audience with pro-regime media chiefs within the past two years, according to a source with knowledge of the closed-door meeting.

Such a view harks back to the earliest days of the revolution, when its founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, declared that, “of all of the organs of propaganda, radio and television are most important” and “more important than schools.”

That is a lesson the IRGC and Iran’s ideological Basij volunteer militia – which conducts its own classes in how media work – has been learning, as it puts forward its good-versus-evil narrative.

Indeed, Maj. Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari, commander of the IRGC, last year praised Mr. Hatamikia for “Damascus Time,” saying it came at a moment “when the enemy is using all its power to harm the Iranian nation’s faith.”

He said the IRGC “has a responsibility … to aid the link between those fighting for jihad and martyrdom, and activists in the field of arts and culture.”

Despite the enthusiastic embrace of the IRGC and hard-liners, patriotic initiatives in Iranian cinema may have only limited impact, given Iran’s cultural sophistication.

“In this movie you can feel that Iranians can save Syria and defeat terrorists and sacrifice themselves to save innocent people,” says the conservative analyst in Tehran, adding that parts of the storyline meant the film was “not successful in convincing Iranian audiences.”

“This movie can’t help the official narrative because protesters say: ‘Don’t save the world, save us,’ ” he says. “This is a challenge the establishment is still having to cope with.”

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