Watching Shrek in Tehran

Illegal Ogre as Repressed Id, Immoral Materials, Idiosyncratic Censorship Methods, Limited Bathroom Real Estate, Manifold Misreadings of Muslim Societies, Trenchcoats, The Preferred Means of Destruction, Mistaken Notebooks, An Alien Logic of the Look, Flirting With Juliette Binoche

Watching Shrek in Tehran

Brian T. Edwards
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Downtown Tehran, winter: impossible traffic, the energy of 9 million Iranians making their way through congested streets, the white peaks of the Alborz Mountains disappearing shade by shade in the ever-increasing smog. The government’s declared another pollution emergency, and the center city is closed to license plates ending in odd numbers. The students at the university, where I am teaching a seminar on American Studies, are complaining openly about the failures of their elected officials.

Nahal1 and I are sitting in a café off Haft-e Tir Square. She is smart and dynamic, a graduate student and freelance journalist who is quick to criticize the US government and the perfidy of CNN. When I mention that, a few days ago, I had overheard Friday prayers and was taken aback by the chanting of Marg bar Amrika! (“Death to America”) she retorts: “But you call us the Axis of Evil!”

Our conversation turns to the movie Shrek. Nahal loves Shrek so much that she’s seen the first installment of the DreamWorks trilogy “at least thirty-six or thirty-seven times.” Her obsession is, apparently, shared by many Iranians. The image of Shrek appears everywhere throughout Tehran: painted on the walls of DVD and electronics shops, featured in an elaborate mural in the children’s play area of the food court at the Jaam-e Jam mall. Once, from a car, I passed a five-foot-tall Shrek mannequin on the sidewalk; like his fellow pedestrians, he wore a surgical face mask to protect him from the smog.

Nahal explains: “You know, it’s not really the original Shrek that we love so much here. It’s really the dubbing. It’s really more the Iranian Shrek that interests us.”

The Iranian film industry has a long and illustrious tradition of high-quality dubbings. In the post-Revolution era, and the ensuing rise of censorship, dubbing has evolved to become a form of underground art, as well as a meta-commentary on Iranians’ attempt to adapt, and in some way lay claim to, the products of Western culture. A single American film like Shrek inspires multiple dubbed versions—some illegal, some not—causing Iranians to discuss and debate which of the many Farsi Shreks is superior. In some versions (since withdrawn from official circulation), various regional and ethnic accents are paired with the diverse characters of Shrek, the stereotypes associated with each accent adding an additional layer of humor for Iranians. In the more risqué bootlegs, obscene or off-topic conversations are transposed over Shrek’s fairy-tale shenanigans.

But still, I asked her, why Shrek, of all things? Was it the racially coded weirdness of Shrek’s cast of characters that somehow spoke to Iranians? Did Shrek himself symbolize the repressed id of people living in a sexually censorious society? Or was it simply the impossible lushness and the tactile pleasures of American CGI technology itself?

But Nahal found my questions beside the point. Because our Shrek, she told me, isn’t an American film at all.

Perhaps the question I should have been asking was this: What does it mean that Americans and Iranians make such different things of each other’s cinemas? I returned to Tehran last winter to try to make more sense of these cultural readings and misreadings, and in particular to try to better understand the debate in Iran over Iranian directors like Abbas Kiarostami, lionized in the US but not generally admired in Iran. Kiarostami, the director of Taste of Cherry (1997), The Wind Will Carry Us (1999), and Ten (2002), is the reason that Iranian cinema is currently upheld—by critics in France and America and elsewhere around the world—as the greatest since the French New Wave brought us Jean-Luc Godard, François Truffaut, Jean-Pierre Melville, and Eric Rohmer.

And yet, to many people within his own country, Kiarostami, as one Iranian film critic said to me, is considered “a crime against the cinema of the world.”



I’ve arrived in Tehran at an auspicious time for filmgoers—February marks the beginning of the annual Fajr Film Festival, which includes multiple competitions (the national and international competitions as well as those for documentaries, shorts, Asian cinema, and “spiritual films”), plus retrospectives and screenings of classic films. But more importantly, the festival is the only time the censors allow all new Iranian films to be screened; only after the premieres will they determine what can be shown in wider release. The festival, thus, is a precious ten-day window of unrestricted viewing.

A colleague from home has connected me with an editor in Tehran who has in turn put me in touch with a young film critic named Mahmoud. He and I speak on the phone before we meet. He wants to take me to an unusual place. He says: “I think it will be very interesting for your research.”

The next morning I find Mahmoud outside the Bahman Cinema wearing a Woody Allen trenchcoat.

“Let’s walk,” he says. “Ali is waiting for us.”

Ali, Mahmoud tells me, has a sizeable—and illegal—collection of classic Hollywood films, lobby cards, and posters—though that only begins to describe what I’d soon encounter. As to why such a collection would be considered illegal, apparently it is illegal for “non-official” people to own 35 mm films at all. Also, much of what Ali owns is considered “immoral” material. A poster of a semi-clad Marlene Dietrich in The Garden of Allah (1936), in other words, can get you into serious trouble.

“Ali is the Henri Langlois of Iran,” says Mahmoud. This reference to the famed creator of the Cinémathèque française (the archive in which Langlois preserved miles of footage from destruction during the Nazi occupation of Paris and, later, from oblivion) is as much for Ali’s daring as for his near-obsessiveness. And Ali has taken risks, to be sure: twice he has been arrested and sent to jail. The last time he was arrested, in the early 1990s, the Islamic Republic confiscated a truckload of tins of film. Mahmoud estimates three thousand canisters of film were lost; fortunately, Ali had many others hidden elsewhere.

As we walk through the grime of downtown Tehran, Mahmoud talks of his other film-critic friends who have been sent to jail. “The authorities accuse the critics of advertising Western values with their reviews,” says Mahmoud. “These films have sex in them. They tell us, ‘You are advertising sex.’”

According to Mahmoud, the censorship rules governing what’s allowed onto Iranian screens are haphazard and idiosyncratic. One day, the Ministry of Culture will allow a film, but the next, the Supreme Council of Clergymen (an unofficial group that Mahmoud calls a “powerful, mafia-like organization”) may reverse the ministry’s finding and the picture will be banned.

I struggle to keep up with Mahmoud’s quick pace. As if to underscore his indictment of the government’s haphazard and idiosyncratic censorship methods, Mahmoud leads me past an endless string of street vendors offering pirated DVD copies of banned movies. Back in the US, it’s nearly time for the Academy Awards. Here on the streets of Tehran, I buy copies of many of the contenders for $1.50—Benjamin Button, Slumdog Millionaire, Frost/Nixon, Revolutionary Road.

We finally arrive at Ali’s apartment. He invites us inside what seems less a home than a storage space—posters stacked against the wall of a cramped sitting room, lobby cards piled in a cluttered kitchen, bags and bags of film canisters arranged haphazardly in the hallway. Ali’s bedroom is a crumbling crawl space lined with metal shelves. The majority of his bathroom is given over to film canisters, with only a tiny bit of real estate allowed to the toilet and the curtainless shower.

Ali is about sixty and wears a plaid shirt under a worn tweed jacket. He tells me that he started collecting early, and explains his clever methods of subterfuge. When Hollywood films were screened throughout Iran under the Shah’s regime, they were licensed for a brief run, after which they were returned to the studio’s Iranian headquarters in Tehran. But rather than pay to ship the bulky prints back to the US, the studios allowed the film stock to be destroyed in front of witnesses. (The preferred means of destruction was to take an ax to the reels.) Ali, who worked as a projectionist, substituted worthless copies of easily accessible Iranian films for the Hollywood pictures, then secreted away cans holding the more valuable films by United, Paramount, Disney, etc.

He keeps his collection—worth millions of dollars, according to Mahmoud—scattered in a number of locations south of downtown, in basement apartments and storage rooms. Ali pulls out catalogues showing prices being paid at Sotheby’s for posters that he owns. “Here look: ten thousand dollars.”

Over the years, Ali has come to serve as a valuable resource for the film communities in Tehran, and as such, occupies a strange place both above and below the government’s radar. He tells me of the day in the early 1970s when he met director William Wyler, who had come to Iran for a screening of his film Roman Holiday. The Tehran branch of Paramount couldn’t get its hands on a copy of the film in time, and someone thought to contact Ali. He supplied his copy for the screening. He continues to provide rare films for Iranian film students and scholars, and his screenings are reminiscent of the ones with which Langlois inspired the French New Wave.

Mahmoud tells me: “Everybody knows Ali in Iran, but nobody knows where his archive is.”



The following day, Mahmoud introduces me to Kamran, a critic who Mahmoud claims knows Iranian cinema better than anyone.

The three of us meet at Jaam-e Jam mall; walking among the high-end stores and Western-style cafés, I feel as if we have blundered into another world. We sit in the basement café where we can smoke. Kamran asks me which film theorists I respect most—and then he grills me on their fine points better than my own graduate students in the US can. But I’m most curious to learn what Kamran makes of Abbas Kiarostami.

Kiarostami, now sixty-nine years old, is the director of nearly forty films, one of which (Taste of Cherry) won the Palme d’or at Cannes in 1997, launching his international celebrity and bringing post-Revolution Iranian cinema into global focus. In Iran, he’s seen as an art director whose films are far removed from politics or any sense of contemporaneity, inhabiting instead a more mythical and contemplative place. In Taste of Cherry, a man drives around Tehran looking for someone to help him commit suicide, stopping to chat with pedestrians and workers at construction sites, the dialogue becoming more and more metaphysical. In The Wind Will Carry Us, a fictional film crew visits a remote town to await the death of an ancient (ever unseen) woman, after which some sort of ceremony will take place. In Where is the Friend’s Home? (1987), an eight-year-old boy living in a village far removed from urban life attempts repeatedly to return a notebook he took home from school by mistake.

Kiarostami’s reputation in Iran is surely affected by his popularity in the West, and how French and American film critics extrapolate from his films assumptions about Iranian society. For some, Kiarostami’s celebration abroad is reason to cherish him more. For others, his international fame is a reason to be doubtful of him; his prominence reinforces their belief that Kiarostami is just another pawn in the West’s media game of demonizing Iran. Some even suspect that he may be capitalizing on it.

Such skepticism is hardly unfounded. When Deborah Solomon interviewed Kiarostami in 2007 for her weekly page in the New York Times magazine, eleven of the sixteen questions published were explicitly about politics, Islam, violence, and repression; two were implicitly political; only the final three left politics behind, but they were flippant and short. (“Do you always wear sunglasses?”) What’s still more striking is that Solomon herself pointed out that Kiarostami’s filmmaking is hardly political: “It’s odd that your films would be viewed as subversive, when they’re more philosophical than political and abound with picturesque views of the countryside.”

Few people I spoke to in Iran thought of Kiarostami as subversive, or as anything but an art-film director. Most thought he was overly feted in the West, to the neglect of other Iranian directors. And that of course makes him, unwittingly, a political director. Alas.

Joan Copjec, a professor at SUNY Buffalo and distinguished psychoanalytic film critic of a Lacanian bent, writes of Kiarostami and, by extension, about Iranian cinema itself:

Iranian films are an exotic experience for audiences accustomed to Hollywood-dominated cinema. Not just for obvious reasons but because the obvious—the foreign locations and people, everything we actually see on screen—is produced by a different distribution of the visible and the invisible and an alien logic of the look.

Her take on Kiarostami crystallizes just how his films are seen in such a deeply political light in the West—and also how this vision is so alluring. These alien people with their alien logic have, she writes, “a different distribution of the visible and the invisible.” This claim worries me, because what is unseen by Copjec—“the hejab covering women that obscures them from the sight of men to whom they are not related”—leads to a celebration of this “alien logic of the look.” Despite her intention to champion Kiarostami’s work, her gesture is an unwittingly exoticizing one. Thus, Kiarostami’s becomes a cinema that anyone with Orientalist urges—from the browsers of Anthropologie clothing catalogs to the addicts of the New York Times’s Sunday travel section to the fedayeen of Samuel Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations—can cherish.

And when Copjec goes on to posit Kiarostami’s subtle “cinema of respectful reserve and restraint” and the way his camera seems to “separate itself from the action by inserting a distance between itself and the scene and refusing to venture forward into the private space of the characters,” it is in the service of her argument that Iran is an “all-exterior world.” Her Kiarostami is “uniquely interesting” because he finds an original way to reinsert interiority and privacy into a “world” that cannot have any, or cannot be depicted as having any, because of the all-encompassing hijab she sees covering it. And this allows her to forward Kiarostami’s vision of Iranian culture against the manifold misreadings of Muslim societies by the US government (from the horrors at Abu Ghraib to the post-9/11 wiretappings) all of which, she suggests, are based on a misreading of Islamic society as based in a culture of “shame.” To be sure, the Bush Administration’s reliance on Raphael Patai’s intellectually corrupt book of 1973, The Arab Mind—with its shaky distinction between “guilt cultures” and “shame cultures,” where the former is associated with “advanced” societies and the latter with “primitive” Arab ones—led to some of the worst American excesses since 9/11. Patai’s argument is racist, to be sure. But Iran, of course, is not Arab, though Copjec fails to make this distinction in “confront[ing] directly” Patai via her own conflated reading of “Muslim people.”

Here is where Copjec’s act of politicizing a non-political filmmaker starts to become not only problematic, but also misleading. To claim that a “woman must be secluded from the sight or touch of unrelated men” is a bit exaggerated when it comes to today’s Iran, I’ve got to tell you. Sure, there are lots of women in Iran who believe in modesty—and men too—which is a precept of Islam. But nor is it unusual to see, as I did one evening in a restaurant on Valiasr Avenue, an Iranian woman wearing a form-fitting white leather jacket—covering her arms and her hips, as Islamic code dictates—but also white leggings, tall boots, and a scarf that loops up and over blond highlighted hair and perfect makeup. And when I finally got myself invited to a North Tehran party, I saw miniskirts and backless tops on braless young women in their mid-twenties and thirties, to say nothing of the heavy flirting and the dirty dancing. Even among the non-elite and working class, female friends and students of mine often made a point of shaking my hand (against convention), lifting their head scarves to reveal their hair, and even showing me cell-phone photos of themselves uncovered. Let me just say this: Joan Copjec is describing an Iran I only saw before I got to Iran.

Yes, walk in downtown Tehran and there is the hijab, the chador, the coverage of much of a woman’s body, though again it depends on where you look. And yes, a woman in a white leather jacket can seem provocative because of the contrast with what is mandated, what is common. But in their homes, Iranians are watching DVDs of Hollywood films, and downloads from websites everywhere, and Facebook pages and lively Iranian serials and comedies and, if they want to and have a satellite dish (which almost everyone does, even though they’re technically not permitted), sexy music videos from Lebanon and unrestricted porn from the Persian Gulf. Everything is here, people like to say, just in the right place. You need to know where to look for it.

Read Copjec’s essay out of context, in other words, and you may get the wrong idea about Iran and its cinema: “The look of desire around which Hollywood-dominated cinema is plotted had to be forsaken, along with the well-established system of relaying that look through an alternating pattern of shots and counter-shots and the telling insertion of psychologically motivated close-ups.” There is a sophisticated psychoanalytic argument about shame in Copjec’s essay, but it doesn’t square with what one sees in mainstream Iranian films that don’t make it to the festival circuit, or in daily life in Iran. Kiarostami works too well for the argument, in other words, and the argument works too well for Kiarostami.

Kamran refers to a witty critique made by Khosro Dehghan, an Iranian film critic and screenwriter, to explain what is wrong with Kiarostami: “Remember the gun made out of soap in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run? That’s what Kiarostami’s films are like. Eventually it will rain and the gun will melt away.”

The only conclusion I can make, I realize, may seem obvious, even if it runs counter to the logics by which both Copjec and the fearful clerics—and indeed the champions of US cultural diplomacy—operate. As films like Shrek and Taste of Cherry make their way across the ocean to new interpretive communities, they not only accrue different political meanings, but they become different things. The Iranian Shrek and the American Kiarostami do not represent, in their new homes, what they represent in the film worlds where they originated. In fact, the American Kiarostami is just as American as the Farsi-dubbed Shrek is Iranian. In each location, they become convenient foreign elements against which domestic film production can more clearly distinguish itself as domestic.

When American State Department officials imagine that the export of Hollywood film and American pop music can be simple weapons in the battle for “hearts and minds” of other cultures (as so many of the champions of so-called “cultural diplomacy” do these days), they are suffering from a Cold War hangover. When Iranian clerics wring their hands that Hollywood movies will corrupt Iranian youth just by their captivating presence and attempt to squeeze them out of circulation, they are only looking at the flashy posters. Neither is seeing the ways these foreign products signify within a much richer cultural context and resonate in ways that their producers could hardly have predicted.


In June 2009, President Ahmadinejad is reelected in the first round of voting, beating three opponents—including Mir Houssein Mousavi (the major challenger)—by a margin significantly larger than expected and foreclosing the anticipated runoff. The opposition claims widespread voting irregularities. People take to the streets in protest and, based on the evidence of cell phone videos uploaded from the streets of Tehran, are beaten back viciously. To many, the government’s brutal repression of the protest signals the demise of democracy in Iran. From my home in Chicago, I watch YouTube videos of what looks like a counterrevolution building on the streets.

Mahmoud forwards a major op-ed published on June 20 in the Guardian. Titled “I Speak for Mousavi. And Iran,” the piece is written by Mohsen Makhmalbaf, another key filmmaker of the Iranian New Wave. Makhmalbaf, fifty-two years old, is a generation younger than Kiarostami and had a markedly different trajectory. Born poor in South Tehran, raised within a religious and political family, Makhmalbaf was connected directly to the Revolutionary project. As he taught himself the art of cinema, his own films moved from moral tales to political critiques of fascism in its many forms to more speculative explorations of the complexities of the Iranian condition, such as The Cyclist (1987) or Gabbeh (1996), his most famous films.

In his Guardian op-ed, Makhmalbaf claims to be the spokesman of the defeated Mousavi. “I have been given the responsibility of telling the world what is happening in Iran,” he writes. Since the flawed election—many Iranians wanted not simply a recount, but an annulment of the results—the notable examples of Iranian democracy had, in the filmmaker’s words, “vanished.” Makhmalbaf mourns the Islamic Republic’s visibly violent attempts to quash coordinated opposition among the people. Ahmadinejad’s reelection, however, had promoted a resurgence of “togetherness”: “All the armed forces in Iran are only enough to repress one city, not the whole country. The people are like drops of water coming together in a sea.”

But in his op-ed and in a subsequent interview in Foreign Policy, Makhmalbaf does not call for the end of the Islamic Republic itself—rather, he calls for a rejection of the results that named Ahmadinejad president, the Guardian Council that certified them, and the position of the Supreme Leader that is tantamount to “dictatorship.” Makhmalbaf argues that an Iran that is a “democratic Islamic country” could be a model for other “Islamic countries.” And not everyone who demands the annulment of the election results wants to end the entire system of government created in the wake of the 1979 revolution. Listen carefully for the differences, and attend to the way in which many of us in the West collapse those two positions as if they were the same. It is an important distinction.

Makhmalbaf was one of several important Iranian directors who made public statements in support of the protesters: other important directors such as Jafar Panahi, Asghar Farhadi, and Bahman Ghobadi did so as well. The latter did so from inside Iran, which Mahmoud rightly saw as yet more daring—the critique from within always has more force for Iranians wary of outsiders’ frequently tone-deaf calls for Iranian “liberation.” (Makhmalbaf moved to Paris in 2005 after the first election of Ahmadinejad; Panahi was arrested in Tehran in July and had his passport revoked this past October.)

I ask Mahmoud what people are saying about Kiarostami. “Kiarostami is not in Iran right now. He is making a new film in Italy,” he replies. “If you want to know how people think of him see the latest poll in my blog. His films are absent from the top ten films.”

Mahmoud writes back a few days later to say: “Kiarostami now is flirting with Miss Juliette Binoche in the countrysides of Italy and making love stories among the poetic landscapes!”

He wants to make sure I understand. “We know that always there have been artists who believed in the constancy of their art in any political and social condition,” he writes. “To them the key to the truth is believe in ‘if there is art, changes and improvements will be unavoidable.’ It’s why Kiarostami always quotes from Sohrab Sepehri [the poet], because he was one of the true believers in this concept. But I don’t know if Kiarostami belongs to the same league or if he is only a coward!”

Meanwhile, in Chicago, I pull out the alternate versions of Shrek in Farsi that I collected with Nahal and my students at the University of Tehran, and watch them again, looking for clues. I recall how the Alborz Mountains appear and disappear at the edge of the city when the smog overwhelms the sky. How, like those mountains, what is seen and unseen in Tehran is always there, you just need to know where to look.

1. Not her real name. All of the names are changed, except for public figures.
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