The Backstage

This blog (2014-2015), The Backstage, is the fourth activity of “Shiva: Struggles against Censorship in Iran” project. The Backstage presents a series of original analysis and anecdotes by various journalists, artists, lawyers, and civil society actors at large with respect to current events and past experiences surrounding freedom of expression in Iran.

The name, “backstage” symbolizes the freedom that has been pushed to underground scenes and behind closed curtains of theatre stages in today’s Iran. Even when sidelined, the quest for freedom of expression continues to be at play in the backstage of auditoriums, and the society at large. Even when considered illegal, many courageous Iranian citizens continue to express their dream for a society in which they can freely express themselves. This blog, The Backstage, is the story of all of those unstoppable struggles for freedom of expression in Iran, and beyond.

“We are Censored” by Morteza Esmailpour

Sometimes we become our own problem. It is now over ten years that I write for various publications. Since the beginning in Iran, we learn to doubt our thoughts. We ask ourselves repeatedly, “Should I say this? Should I write this? What are the redlines? What if they criticize me? What if they arrest me for it? What if the subject of my article gets into trouble?” All of these doubts become the dominant force manipulating our thoughts and words. We fear the next day as we hesitantly write down our thoughts.

“We Intentionally Censor” by Parvaneh Vahidmanesh

It was already a few years that I was working on a project about the history of the Iranian Jewish communities. When I proposed this topic for my master’s thesis at Shahid Beheshti Univerity in Tehran, I was faced with serious resistance by the faculty. One of my professors called me in his room, and informed me that such a project would not be possible as my thesis topic. He was not convinced that I could present an objective and uncensored research on such a topic.

“Censored Photos” by Parvaneh Vahidmanesh

I was a college senior at Tehran University when one of my professors asked me to work on a project about the history of our university. My first task was to browse through the records of Tehran University’s professors. While going through old documents, I came across old photos of my professors that were replaced by veiled images after the Islamic Republic.

“Censorship’s Blade on Photography” by Hassan Sarbakhshian

During the second term of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency I decided to publish a book with my photography. With my work as a war photographer in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as the many photos that I had taken on various domestic affairs in Iran, I had an abundance of work to publish. Yet, no publisher was willing to take a risk with a book that would include photography of any given year’s current affairs photography. They were worried that within only a few months the book would lose its relevance and audiences. As a result, I finally had to pay for it myself and publish this book independently. I prepared a draft of this book, and handed to the Ministry of Islamic Guidance for their review, hoping that they would issue a publication license for it. After a few months of anticipation, weeks before an upcoming presidential election that resulted in the victory of Mahmood Ahmadinejad, I received a call from the Ministry. The man who had called me introduced himself, and asked me to go to his office at the Ministry of Islamic Guidance to respond to a few questions and requests for clarifications regarding my book.

“School Essay Topic: Teacher’s Day” by Morteza Nikpendar

I was in tenth grade. Even though I was a good student, I was also quite a troublemaker in my own ways. It was getting close to Teacher’s Day. Like every year in school, we had to write about this topic for our essay class. We had to write a few pages in praise of teachers. By now, we knew all the rules by heart: a couple of lines of poetry about teachers, along with a memory that would convey the kindness of teachers, as well as an ultimate conclusion stating that we, the future of the society, were indebted to our teachers for everything that we had in life. I could have written this simple cliché essay without any trouble. However, the rebellious teenager in me told me otherwise, and got me in trouble.

“The Odyssey of a Conference” by Mehraveh Nazari

They stopped me at the Imam Khomeini Airport on my way out of the country to attend a conference. The man who seemed more like an interrogator than a border customs officer asked, “Are you travelling alone, and without a man?” I said, “Yes, I am single”. He was surprised. As if being single and travelling alone is a crime! Looking at the visa stamp for conference attendance his facial expression hinted aggravation. He asked, “Why are you going to a conference? What is the topic of the conference?” I said, “Education”. Looking at me head to toe, and condescendingly so, he asked, “What is the topic of your lecture?” I said, “Women’s education”.

“Censorship and Literature” by Habib Farahzadi

The first time I was called to the student disciplinary committee of Tehran University was due to the fact that I had written and translated short stories about various topics in a school publication. Even though during this time there was more space to write and to speak our mind, the censorship apparatus was still hard at work. There was still a general fear of censorship in the air. Various publications and newspapers feared getting suspended or their licenses getting revoked by the authorities. This fear of crackdown was in fact a key element in widespread self-censorship of university, local and national press.

“Cinema and Censorship” by Radin Salehi

Imagine a bedroom in which a man is asleep after making love to a woman who appears in full Islamic veil sitting on the edge of the bed and looking at him. This is the image of state cinema in Iran. But, who wouldn’t know that such an image does not correspond to real life, and that is in fact in complete contradiction with ordinary life? Now, imagine the hurdles that we went through to make a short film as our university assignment about a woman’s right to her body and her imagination, in an environment ruled by state censorship of this kind.

“The Story of a Silent Play” by Mani Modarres

When we think of theater, we often image a script, actors having dialogues and other similar aspects of this form of performing arts. It may appear that state censorship hits the form theater that relies on various forms of speech harder than other form of theater. But, in reality there is always a way to alter the speech and to keep the agents of censorship content. However, overcoming censorship is much harder in Movement Theater (silent), a form of a theater that is constantly accused of appearing as a “dance” in Iran. When you hear the word “dance” in Iran, it basically means that there is no way out of state censorship, and that you should just forget about your performance receiving any form of license from the Islamic Republic. But, we managed to find a way.

“Censorship of Character in Documentary” by Delaram Karkheiran

More important than external censorship, for which there is always ultimately a solution, is the censorship of character. The challenge is when the character is not willing to address all the aspects, and the only way to face it is to understand the dignity and the equality between you and your subject. The solution to this challenge is to use hidden cameras or to bring forward a judgmental and biased perspective in the hopes of portraying the real character. Ultimately, a documentary that cannot break through the censorship of character, without violating the ethics of filming, is not really a documentary.


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  • © Siamak Pourzand Foundation, 2014