Iranian artists, musicians give voice to opposition amid censorship

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, May 29, 2010; A10

TEHRAN -- Nearly a year after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed election victory led to wide-scale protests and a fierce government crackdown, members of Iran's thriving and internationally acclaimed cultural scene have emerged as a driving force for the opposition.

Filmmakers, singers and rappers are, in their own way, pushing for social and political changes, and many are paying the price of speaking out against a government that brooks little dissent. In response to films, songs and paintings inspired by the largest grass-roots opposition movement the country has seen since the 1979 Islamic revolution, the government has arrested artists and markedly increased censorship.

Although some artists have left the country to escape restrictions, others remain in Iran and have turned their work into tools of activism. But the protest message has to be subtle or indirect, and even then the work is often produced secretly, using legal loopholes or underground distribution networks to evade the notice of authorities.

When world-renowned director Jafar Panahi decided to make a film about a family caught in the turmoil after last June's election, he did not ask for permission from the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Instead, the filmmaker turned his apartment into a film studio, with his wife cooking for the crew and friends playing the leading characters.

In March, security forces raided the home and arrested Panahi, the cast and his family.

"According to the law, nobody needs permits to film in their own house," he said in an interview. "But the government does not obey its own rules." Panahi was held for nearly three months; top directors such as Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami called for his release. State media reported that he had been making an "illegal movie."

On Tuesday, Panahi was released on $200,000 bail, pending the start of his trial.

"They arrest individuals to set an example to others," Panahi said Wednesday as his apartment slowly filled with guests, including actors and writers who gave him a hero's welcome. "My interrogators accused me of working for foreign intelligence agencies and said I was trying to make a movie highlighting problems in Iran. But I believe the rights and demands of millions who demonstrated have been ignored. I want to give them a voice."

He isn't the only one. The latest song by popular underground rapper Hich Kas, "Nobody," has become an instant hit, often blasting from cars on Tehran's busy streets. Hich Kas sings:

Good days will come when we do not kill each other

Do not look badly upon each other

A day we are friends and hug each other like in our school days

The song might sound conciliatory, but it ends with sounds of strife from the protests. Hich Kas, whose real name is Soroush Lashkari, left Iran before the song was distributed through the Internet and street peddlers. He is now touring in Dubai and Malaysia, where many Iranians live.

Within Iran, the opposition movement has lost steam in recent months as the government has used increasingly forceful methods, including executions, to discourage protesters from taking to the streets. Government supporters now confidently proclaim that the opposition movement is dead. But there are still signs of discontent from those who believe Ahmadinejad's supporters rigged an election that should have been won by opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi.

On Tuesday evening, 3,500 fans cheered, clapped and gave victory signs -- a popular opposition symbol -- when pop singer Alireza Assar sang a famous tune about corruption and dishonesty.

"People shouted 'Mousavi,' and almost everybody gave the 'V' sign," a witness said. "There would be immense cheering when the lyrics discussed corruption. Everybody interpreted the song as being against the government."

In a recent interview with Australian television, Iran's top performer of traditional songs, Mohammad Reza Shajarian, criticized Ahmadinejad for referring to the anti-government demonstrators as "dust and weeds."

"I announce that I am the voice of these dust and weeds," Shajarian said. "This voice always was and is for dust and weeds, and I do not let your radio and TV broadcast my voice."

His comments were widely repeated by foreign-based Farsi-language stations. Shajarian has said he will return to Iran within days.

Music, books, poetry and films filled with metaphors and irony played a significant role in the collapse of the Western-backed shah's government during the 1979 revolution. Books by the author Sadegh Hedayat were banned then because of their political content; during the annual Tehran book fair this month, his books and those of six other popular writers and poets -- some of whom died long ago -- were declared illegal by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

Government officials say censorship efforts will continue. "I promise that within a couple of years, our cinema will be mostly making appropriate films. We will try to enforce restrictions so that we can get rid of problematic films in the future," said Mohammad Javad Shamaghdari, the deputy minister, according to the semiofficial Web site

But filmmakers such as Panahi say they don't intend to bend to the government's will. "In the end, they want artists like me to leave, but I will never go," Panahi said. "This is my land. I will remain here and make independent movies and support what is just."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company