Could another Iranian filmmaker be in trouble with his government at home? First-time Sundance Film Festival writer-director Mohammad Shirvani, whose film “Fat Shaker” screened in the New Frontier program this week, believes he now has cause for concern.
According to Shirvani, who spoke through a translator, several fundamentalist websites (Javanonline.com, rajanews.com and kalame.com, among them) attacked his film Sunday as “anti-Iranian,” despite the fact that he had made the film under Ministry of Culture guidelines. Filmed in February 2012, “Fat Shaker” details the relationship between an obese father, his deaf son and a beautiful woman who enters and changes their lives. Performed in the English, Farsi and Dari languages, “Fat Shaker” premiered Friday, Jan. 18, and also played in Salt Lake City Monday night.
“The regime characterizes any work shown in outside festivals that may be viewed as anti-government as anti-Iranian,” Shirvani says, noting that Marjan Satrapi's Oscar-nominated 2007 animated film "Persepolis" was labeled such. “They believe that Western festivals show films that are against the government and that those festivals tend to always show political work.”
While several high-profile Iranian filmmakers have seen their work screen at Cannes, Toronto and other international festivals over the years, Shirvani’s is the first Iranian-made film to be selected for Sundance. Its depiction of a woman challenging Iran’s patriarchal culture surely triggered the hard-liners negative reactions, as well as several instances were censorship rules regarding indecent exposure were “modestly crossed” (a man’s naked torso, a woman’s partially uncovered hair).
“One of the other reasons for the potential backlash is the portrayal of a plain-clothed character who is harassing the main characters by invading their privacy and demanding bribes under the guise of possible authority,” says Shirvani. “Or alternatively, maybe from their point of view, the main character of the film is an off-duty police officer who takes advantage of his position to seduce young girls in Tehran.”
Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi (“This Is Not a Film”) has been the most recent casualty of government punishment, receiving a 20-year ban from filmmaking and house arrest in 2010 for his work. This has not stopped Panahi from making films on the sly, but the threat of major restrictions remains very real for any and all Iranian artists.
“Fat Shaker” is also scheduled to play the International Film Festival Rotterdam next month, after which Shirvani plans to return to Tehran. “Simply leaving the country or entering the country is risk because of my previous work,” he says. “Now, because of these recent articles, the risk is higher. It may be that they take my passport away when I get to the airport and ban me from leaving the country. Or they may also ban me from working altogether. I sincerely hope that neither of these will happen.”