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Iran: The Double Life of Cinemaholic

Iran: The Double Life of Cinemaholic

Walking along the Enqelab street in Teheran I found occasionally an oldschool video store. It struck me that there is probably no other country where renting movies is as risky as in Iran (ok, maybe North Korea). I came inside expecting to meet the madcap who inevitably contributed to the fact that Iranian kids are running in the yard and playing Transformers and other American superheroes. When I entered the room I felt the stench of cheap cigarette smoke that hung in the stale air and this impression was even intensified by the prevailing gloom inside and the presence of plump Iranian resting on the office chair behind the counter. This image perfectly illustrated the phrase I have heard from my Iranian fellow: ”We are more American that the real Americans”. The seller wore sweaty T-shirt which used to be white one day, but now turned yellow and shabby fishing vest. On the nose he had classic aviator sunglasses that made me wondering if he can see anything.

– Salam. Hubi? Hello. How are you? – I asked in Farsi.

– Salam. Hubam. Hello, good – the seller changed his position, took off sunglasses and said something in Persian that I did not understand.

– Sorry, I don’t speak Farsi. I know only basics – I said in English expecting the stranger to understand me and continue dialog.

– No problem! – he replied in a flippantly vivacious tone and send me a broad smile. Where are you from? – he asked me in English this time.

– From Poland.

– Great! Krzysztof Kieślowski nad his Three Colors trilogy – I love it for highly sophisticated operator’s work! – the seller started to look for something in a big box, which he kept under the counter. – Here you are: “Blue”, “White” and “Red” – he put in front of me catalog with the images of DVD covers. On the first two pages there were above-mentioned movies of Three Colors trilogy and “The Decalogue“, a famous TV series directed by Krzysztof Kieślowski.

– Do you know what’s funny? That Kieślowski is more popular in Iran that in my country – I replied. I was really surprised that many Iranians were immidiately linking my nationality with Kieślowski. – Few years ago when I wanted to buy DVD of “The Decalogue” I couldn’t find any Polish distributor from which I could order it. Could you believe that it was cheaper for me to buy a 10 DVDs box from South Korea? With shipping from other end of the world! Finally I put on my shelf Korean edition. – I added looking on movies in the catalog. Except of Kieślowski there were movies by Godard and Fellini, I found also another famous Polish movie called “Man of Iron” directed by Andrzej Wajda.

Kinda weird – the seller agreed. – But why?

– Well, most of Polish cinema-goers prefer to watch romantic comedies You would be surprised with our box-office.

– No way! Do you know what do they show in our cinemas? – The seller made comfortable in chair. I will show you, just wait a second – he took Hamshahri magazine, one of the most popular Teheran daily, which was laying on the table and opened on the page with cinemas’ program. – Just take a look! The biggest movie theater in Teheran, Azadi complex. That movie is about Iraq-Iran War, there are some comedies and a melodrama – he was staring at me in the way like he wanted to say: “Did you say, that your cinemas suck, huh?”.

– Okey, I agree, our cinemas have something in common… I assume it’s all domestic production?

Of course – he smiled sadly. – But from time to time you can watch foreign movies in cinemas. There were some screenings of The Aviator, Casino Royale or The Illusionist. But you know…if something is being shown in cinema, you can be sure that all kisses and sex scenses are simply cut out. That’s why everyone waits for a DVD rip to check out how much of the original movie was cut out. Well, that’s how cinema-goers have double fun – once in cinema and later on watching movie on DVD. Sometimes you can have two different stories – he exhaled heavily.

– Can I borrow some foreign movie? – I noticed latest Tarantino.

– Everything you want from the catalog in front of you – he pointed with his finger. – It is not so simple, though. You choose the movie you want, order it and on the next day I can bring it for you. I don’t keep that movies here, as policemen may come in any minute and if they find a whole bunch of foreign movies I will be forced to shut down my business. But if you want to order something – no problem. There are some Polish cartoons as well. I have “Bolek and Lolek” and „Kidnapping of Baltazar Gąbka” – he started to leaf catalog. – Look, here.

Europejskie bajki są popularne w Iranie. Obok polskich "Bolka i Lolka", "Reksia" czy "Przygód Baltazara Gąbki" mali Irańczycy oglądają również czeskiego "Krecika".
European cartoons are quite popular in Iran. They are, however kind of a risky good, as selling and renting them is not fully legal. On picture: “Bolek and Lolek”, famous Polish cartoon.

I was looking at famous Polish cartoons from 60′ – adventures of two friends named Bolek and Lolek, funny chef named Baltazar Gąbka and the friendly dog named Reksio. The strangest was the fact that all these DVDs were illegal.

– And what about “Argo”? Do you have it?

– What a question! Of course, I have! But it’s bad movie – he said indignantly when I reminded latest Academy Award winner for the best movie.

– Why do you think so? – I did not want to argue about the movie I liked. Iranians are proud of their history and they are quite sensitive on some points.

– The context in which Affleck presented the whole story was a complete eyewash – the seller made comfortable in chair again, put hands on his protruding stomach and made the pose as he supposed to lead a long conversation. – According to Affleck’s movie Iranians without any reason became furious and started to hunt for Americans. Have you seen how we were shown in that movie? There is simply no Iranian who looks normal, all of us were shown with anger in the eyes couldn’t wait to kick America’s ass. Imagine that Affleck pictured your Solidarity movement in such way? How would you feel? It’s pure propaganda, am I right?

­– You are right – I answered surprised by the sudden reference to Poland’s history.

– Believe me that Iranians had good reasons to rebel against the Shah in 1979. He was buying from Americans a lot of military equipment and hiring retired American colonels, because no one knew how to operate it. It was clear that there will be no enough American colonels, so thousands of tanks, military trucks and artillery has been left in a desert and just started to rust and cover with sand. In our country there was no industry, no agriculture, people couldn’t live on a reasonable level, and the Shah dreamed about building the fifth biggest army in the world. And Americans played his game! They sold us military equipment for billions of dollars. – He stopped for a minute, sweat appeared on his forehead.

After a few minutes he picked up the thread but with bitterness instead of outrage in his tone. – Unless we were friends with Americans we were a regional leader in the Middle East. And suddenly, poof! Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979 and suddenly we started to be seen as the biggest threat to the peace. Because of radical islam, because of civil unrest… And do you know what have happened later?

– The war with Iraq? – I guessed.

– Exactly, the war with Iraq. And do you know who supported Iraq?

– The United States?

– Brilliant! It wasn’t hard to guess, though – he winked at me. –In 1980 Americans provided Saddam Hussein with military equipment, so he could attack Iran. We had been fighting for 8 years, eight years! Four hundred thousand Iranians had died, but Iraqis twice more! –he added proudly as if today it has any importance.

– And do you know what happened in 1986? Reagan secretly facilitated the sale of arms to Iran. To Iran! So now Americans were providing both armies with military equipment – Iraqi and Iranian armies! On top of it, they spent the money  earned on Iran on financing Contras, Nicaraguan guerillas. Americans were accusing us for terrorism while they were financing real terrorits! The world has never seen such hypocrites. Money is their god. That’s the sad truth.

After a long monologue the seller clearly calmed down but I couldn’t resist to ask one more question: – And if you could compare the life before and after the 1979 revolution – when was better?

– You know what…– he thought for a minute. –I think that it was better before the revolution. To be honest, I was a kid back then, but I have a lot of photos from my childhood and I heard many stories from my parents. Maybe there was no justice, but there was a freedom at least. Now there is neither one nor the other. And that stupid Ahmadinejad [previous president of Iran – an author’s remark] is constantly discrediting our country in the international fora by speaking about nuclear bomb, Jews and Israel. That are we who are giving ammunition to the Western media so they can shoot at us. Pure stupidity.

Fortunately you have Asghar Farhadi – I reminded about the most popular Iranian director, the frequent guest at the biggest European movie festivals. – Can I watch his movies legally in Iran?

–O, Farhadi! Of course! Just look behind you!

At the height of my eyes in the glass case were carefully laid DVDs by Farhadi: “The Beautiful City”, “Fireworks Wednesday”, “About Elly”, “A Separation”, “The Past”. It was visible that the seller wanted to expose them, but dirty glass and sloppy green wiping cloth did not help his efforts. The most surprising thing was that all movies that I have seen there were pirate copies in plastic envelops with the printed DVD covers. Movies directed by Farhadi were not an exception.

Watch documentary “Inside Iranian Cinema”


Translated by: Alyona Kononenko