Iranian state television has refused to broadcast the trailer for the 2017 movie Azar, the story of a woman desperately trying to save the family business while her husband is in jail. “The trailer was changed a few times until it got a permit to be aired,” a member of the film’s production team told IranWire, “but they now say it is banned and will not be aired.
Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) controls all of Iran’s TV and radio networks. The corporation’s head is appointed by the Supreme Leader and it is not accountable to the executive branch of government — in other words, the country's president. IRIB never offers an explanation to producers or directors as to why it bans trailers, but some cases, the reason is obvious — for example, if an actor or actress who has been singled out for IRIB’s banned list appears in a film. Although this is not the case for Azar, the reason for the ban is still obvious to those who were involved in the production of the film. “The protagonist of the film is a norm-breaking, motorcycle-riding woman,” my source said, “and most likely, this is why they will not air the trailer.” A Persian-language trailer for the movie which was screened at Vancouver International Film Festival can be viewed on YouTube.
Niki Karimi, who both produced and stars in the film, posted the news of the ban on Instagram, where she also criticized IRIB for its ill-treatment of and discrimination against independent filmmakers. She agrees that IRIB banned the trailer because of the film’s subject matter. “Azar talks about a simple subject that for some is difficult to hear,” Karimi wrote. “It is only when IRIB rejects the trailer after a lot of petty objections that you understand what is going on. Probably it is because the male-dominated cinema plus the male-dominated IRIB want women to play the same traditional and ultimately comic role.” This, she said, is the only way that they will allow women to be presented in film. “Azar wants to push back against what the society forces on her,” reads a plot summary of the film, and Karimi suggests this is far from acceptable for the IRIB and its supporters.
In addition to the trailer, the film’s other promotional material features Karimi on a motorcycle. To prepare for the role, Karimi had to learn how to ride, and was coached by champion female motorbike racer Behnaz Shafiei. Shafiei has also pushed the boundaries for women in Iran, not only because she competes in a sport that has been off-limits for women but because she is one of the first Iranian women to coach it as well.
The Male-Dominated Game
On Instagram, Karimi wrote that she had never conformed to the rules dictated by the male-dominated world of cinema. “For 27 years I did not play that game,” she wrote, “not as an actress, not as a director and not as a producer. I am an independent Iranian woman. I believe in independent Iranian women and value them.”
Azar is not the first movie trailer to encounter problems with IRIB. In October, the distributor of the movie Chanel reported that its trailer had been censored because it featured the actress Baran Kosari. “After the permit for airing the trailer for Chanel on TV was issued,” the distributor told the Iranian Students’ News Agency (ISNA), “they called us again and insisted that in the trailer, Ms. Kosari must appear in one scene only. This is a new type of censorship.” [Persian link.]
Kosari plays the main character in the film and so appears in almost all of its scenes. “Making a trailer without the main character was very difficult,” one member of the film crew said. “The trailer turned out to be very sterile and did not help sales, whereas the presence of Baran Kosari could have been very attractive for the audiences and could have helped.”
For years now, Baran Kosari has had to deal with censorship from the IRIB because of her support for reformist politicians in Iran. The fact that she was allowed to appear in even one scene of the trailer was a pleasant surprise to some. In recent years, Iranian TV has censored several film trailers featuring Kosari, including those for The Nameless Alley, Jameh Daran and Atousa's Laughter.
But Kosari is not the only actress that IRIB has banned. “The ban on appearing on TV is completely arbitrary,” one filmmaker told IranWire. “Some actors are banned because their political views do not agree with those of the directors of IRIB. Some are banned because they criticized IRIB — and some are banned for unknown reasons.”
The trailer for the movie Yahya Didn't Keep Quiet was aired without showing any images of its leading actress, Fatemeh Motamed Arya, or even any mention of her name. For years, the acclaimed actress was banned from working because of her support for reformists and for her violation of Islamic dress code at foreign film festivals. And in 2007, the name and photograph of actress Taraneh Alidoosti — who later played the leading female role in the Oscar-winning movie The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi — were removed from the trailer for the movie Canaan. Alidoosti was the executive producer for the 2016 film A Dragon Arrives!, but IRIB cut her voice from the trailer. Again, the most likely reasons were her political views and her criticism of IRIB.
The corporation also banned the trailer for Jameh Daran because of the appearance of Pegah Ahangarani. In 2013, Ahangarani was sentenced to 18 months in prison on “security” charges after she expressed support for reformists. Trailers for the movies Three Strangers in the Unknown Land, Laborer Wanted and The Frivolous were broadcast on TV, but only after actress Sahar Ghoreishi’s photographs and name were censored. Unlike some of the other actresses, it is not clear why the authorities demanded Ghoreishi be cut out, and the actress herself told the Persian website TV Plus as much. “I kept asking why and they said that I had ‘issues.’ I said name one. ‘They talk a lot about you,’ they answered.”
To Satellite and Back
IRIB’s behavior toward movie trailers has driven many producers and distributers toward Persian-language satellite networks based outside Iran. These networks don’t censor, cost less — and it appears they even have more viewers than IRIB.
However, over the last few years this has become problematic as well. After trailers for Iranian movies were broadcast on satellite channels and IRIB banned them from broadcasting on Iranian TV, distributors weren’t really bothered. But when Tehran’s prosecutor issued a warning to these distributors and producers about their trailers — and even summoned a number of them to court to explain themselves — they were forced to take notice.
“Now the Ministry of Guidance and Islamic Culture tells the producers that if satellite channels run commercials for their films, the movies will be banned from screening,” one producer told IranWire, referring to the judiciary’s ban on any film whose trailers had been shown on GEM TV, a Persian-language satellite network based in Istanbul. Some producers claimed that GEM had stolen their trailers, but one producer told me they did this in attempt to avoid censorship. “They had given the trailers [to GEM] themselves but claimed otherwise so that their films would not be banned from screening,” he said.
He added that since they have been treated with such harshness, producers are no longer willing to take risks. “In all fairness, however, they should not have blamed them,” he said. “Why shouldn’t they advertise someplace that is cheaper, has no censorship and attracts a bigger audience? And even when a movie has no banned actors, these gentlemen [at the IRIB] have a problem with the subject matter, like they do with Azar.”