Changing Iran: Film censor allows a chink of light behind the veil

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Iranians are flocking to see The Snowman, a film whose hero dreams of living in the United States and who, to secure a visa, dresses as a woman in the hope of marrying an American. Our Middle East Correspondent finds Iran's film industry is breaking free of the censors.

Almost every year since the 1979 revolution, Iran's film directors have won an international prize - but no thanks to the government. When Abbas Kiaorstami wished to enter his Taste of the Cherry for the Cannes festival this year, the Ministry of Islamic Guidance delayed the film's export licence for so long that the reels only arrived in France after the festival had begun.

Incredibly, the story of a potential suicide vainly seeking help from friends and strangers to kill himself won the Palme d'Or. It was a slap in the face for the Iranian ministry but earned a peck on the cheek for Kiaorstami from Catherine Deneuve. When the director returned home in triumph to Tehran, he was forced to flee the airport to avoid outraged radicals who claimed he had breached Islamic morals by accepting a "bise" from Ms Deneuve.

Since President Mohamed Khatami's election last May, however, there are discreet signs that the lot of Iran's film-makers is improving. The Snowman was originally banned by the authorities but now it draws packed houses in Tehran, where its daring contents - the film includes pre-revolutionary songs - have prompted Iranians to ask whether new cultural freedoms may after all be on the way. Women are shown with little head-covering and the hero's cross-dressing in an attempt to find an American "husband" in Turkey astonished cinema-goers.

After four years of refusals from the Islamic Guidance ministry, known by the single word "Ershad" (Guidance), Tahmineh Milani has just been given permission to make her film Two Women, a story of two female students at Tehran university during the revolution. One of the women is rich but untalented, the other poor but very intelligent; the wealthy student is successful, the poor woman fails. Social injustice, the film will say, continued after the revolution.

Milani, a 37-year-old architect, is one of Iran's six female directors (there are about 200 male film-makers) but had received no authorisation to make a film since 1993. "There is a very good feeling in the industry that things are going to change," she says. "Of course, all of us voted for Mr Khatami because we didn't want Mr Nateq-Nouri [Khatami's conservative challenger] to get elected. I just thought he was the best among the candidates. It doesn't mean he's my ideal person and we cannot expect a miracle from him. But since he arrived, he's got rid of people in the Ershad who were very conservative and who were holding everyone back."

Cinema lovers should treasure the restrictions imposed on Iranian film directors last year by Ezzatollah Zarghami, a former army officer incongruously appointed deputy minister in charge of the cinema.

He decreed that in Iranian films there should be: no close-up shots of women; no foreign music; no clothes on women which showed the shape of their bodies; no ties or bow-ties, unless the wearers were depicted as being morally evil; no badly-dressed policemen or soldiers and no jokes about them; no physical contact between men and women; definitely no kissing between men and women. By way of greeting, men could kiss each other (platonically, of course); no Islamic holy names could be given to bad characters; no film should be without a scene of men or women at prayer.

Zarghami was laughed out of office within months.

Milani has no time for those who look back with nostalgia on the pre- revolutionary Iranian cinema when, she says, sex, violence and cheap musical stories were pre-requisites for any successful movie. "After the revolution, for a period, things got better," Milani says. "Mr Khatami ran the Ershad at that time. Later, things changed and the restrictions forced people to look for different things. When you take sex and violence out of a movie, you have to replace it with something else; you have to find some new meaning to entertain the audience."

Amid the swamp of war movies on the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, Milani wanted to make a picture which depicted "the power of war" and the way that it affected families. "When a man goes to war, it is his decision but when he gets killed, it affects all his family. They are paralysed when a person in the family dies," she says. Milani visited the old war front at Qasr Shirin. The Ershad was not interested in such films.

If things are improving - and they appear to be - this is good news in a country where the cinema has often been the template of political change. No one has forgotten that it was a cinema fire in Abadan, killing more than 400 people, which provoked many of the anti-Shah street demonstrations in 1979. Milani is designing a new cinema for Tehran, along with her architect husband. President Khatami has appointed a film director, Seifollah Dad, whose Lone Survivor was filmed in Lebanon and depicted Palestinian women without Islamic head covering, as the new deputy minister of cinema.

Iranian films have won 30 awards in the last decade and bring in more audiences than imported Western movies. But then what else would you expect when almost all scenes involving women were cut from Dances with Wolves, Marathon Man and The Last Emperor?