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Iran Film Special: Watching Shrek in Tehran

My colleague Brian Edwards writes for The Believer magazine:

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.

"Nahal" 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 In some versions (since withdrawn from official circulation), various regional and ethnic accents are paired with the diverse characters ofShrek, the stereotypes associated with each accent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 overShrek’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 repressedid 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 theCinémathèque 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 $1.5 --- 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.”

Read rest of article....

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Reader Comments (7)

RE "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.”

That explains a lot!


March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

Mr Edwards,

Thank you for this enchanting article, though the conditions are not enchanting at all.
Speaking of dubbing, I never forget the Iranian character of "Columbo", with his famous "haneh?", an artificial rendering of Persian "han?" (Eh? What did you say?).
It was really a disappointing experience to hear him speak German some years later, but obviously I am not the only one:

Iranians are film freaks, and a whole industry is living on copying and distributing foreign clips and movies. Copyright? Who cares?
Even though I regret these obvious violations of intellectual property, the impact of Western films on Iranian society cannot be estimated at all. I just remember an episode of "Die Kommissarin" on IRIB: imagine, what an impression a determined female detective without hijab gives to a young Iranian girl...

By the way, the IRI has refused to sign the international copyright regulations. We are in a strange situation, where Iranian publishers demand the government to sign it -- in vain, of course.


March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

Thanks to Arshama, we now have TWO delightful articles to read!

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCatherine

Thanks to Catherine, we now know why Shrek is so popular :-)

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterArshama

Interesting. I wonder what they think of the Persian Ali Baba character in 1,001 Nights - Whether or not he is a Western construct that was added to the story. The West has portrayed this character as both good and evil.

March 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDave

Silent applause on computer for you now. Listen with your ❤ and you will hear. Thank you EA

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAli Mohommad

This is such a great story!!! I have to give a hand to you creative Iranians--dubbing over Western movies to give it an Iranian flavor. Such a great idea!!! Does anyone have a Iranian dubbed version of Terminator!!! To bad we can't do that here in the states--copyright--aggh!!

March 5, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBill

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