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Lights, camera, revolution: Iran’s guards make films (www.ft.com)

Iranian war veteran Rahmat has fallen on hard times, his cotton farm destroyed by salt water flooding from a local dam.

In frustration and anger, he gathers local farmers and persuades them to drive in their tractors to Tehran, the capital of the Islamic republic, and complain to a president who no longer seems to care.

Rahmat’s story is the heart of Exodus, an Iranian road movie that while thematically similar to its American counterparts has in recent weeks raised eyebrows at home and abroad not least because it was funded and conceived by the Revolutionary Guards, the Islamic Republic’s high-level military guard.

While the theocratic state once sought to win over hearts and minds with street posters of martyrs and long speeches by clerics, it is now putting its money into reality shows, comedies, documentaries and feature length films.

“People protest when officials distance [ themselves] from them and fail to deliver on promises to establish social justice,” said Mohammed Zoghi, a spokesman for Owj, a cultural organisation affiliated to the guards that funded Exodus.

The film will go on general release in Iran in the coming months. “We are not after releasing [people’s pent-up] anger. We think if we depict real images of the society, we can have an impact to help them be resolved.”

Iran’s film and media industry has long been dominated by the state broadcaster Irib, known for its censorship. It never, for example, shows images of women dancing and rarely touches on sensitive political issues.

Films such as the Oscar-winning A Separation were mostly funded by private individuals or foreign money. Falling state television viewing figures, particularly among young people, have convinced the guards it is time to deliver a more nuanced message.

The Lost Strait (2018) depicts the last days of Iran's war with Iraq in 1988
The Lost Strait depicts the last days of Iran’s war with Iraq in 1988

“The guards are the leading military force; they have the biggest economic activities and are the most powerful political force but the missing link has been the cultural field,” said one reform-minded analyst. “The guards are determined to be the leading cultural force, too.”

Owj’s offices in downtown Tehran immediately mark it out as different from other cultural organisations. A large backlit banner commemorates Qassem Soleimani, a senior guards commander, and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, Iraqi paramilitary chief, assassinated in a targeted US strike in Iraq last month.

The cafeteria on the ground floor is decorated like a battlefield to commemorate the lives lost in southern Iran during the war with Iraq. A small theatre hall on the top floor is available for private screening of the organisation’s movies.

The young bearded men, and women in top-to-toe black hijab, at Owj are determined to ditch old-style propaganda and instead produce sophisticated dramas that in the case of The Lost Strait and Standing in the Dust offer a national reckoning with the deadly war with Iraq, or as in The Day of Uproar, explore the hardships caused by corruption.

“We are not guards’ members but are interested in helping safeguard the revolution’s causes,” said Mr Zoghi. “Part of our budget is provided by the guards but more significant than money are our ideas and young managers. We reflect people’s voices, raise their problems, follow up their demands and give them hopes.”

Productions like The Lost Strait offer a national reckoning with the deadly war in Iraq/
An action scene from The Lost Strait

In so doing, the guards may be overstepping their role. Reformist analysts have said that the 120,000 guards have no mandate to interfere in non-military fields. The guards’ interpretation of the constitution is that they are responsible for protecting the revolution’s achievements and that justifies their involvement.

Some of its more popular offerings have been reality shows. In Commander Show, broadcast last year, two teams of four are told to map out a frenetic Persian bazaar and locate an enemy who is deep undercover.

Trailed by television cameras, they search for a mysterious barber shop to fulfil their mission. The winner can join the Revolutionary Guards’ navy unit.

For now, Iran’s art community is unsure if it should accept the new reality or stand against it. “[The] guards as a military organisation cannot guarantee the freedoms needed in the cultural sector and surely invest in projects which fit into the ideology they have fought for,” said Reza Ashofteh, a cinema and theatre critic.

He added: “This [could] create more restrictions . . . as we do not see any signs that the guards intend to use their investments to exercise freedom in the cultural sector.”

For others, more practical concerns prevail. “I find them professional and to be honest they pay on time,” said one film technician. “I could never socialise with them but can work with them as long as they respect me as an artist, which they do.”

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