Your films have been censored by the government of your birthplace, Iran. What elements in your recent film, The Walnut Harvest, led to this censorship?
Well actually, the story of the film is one of a young mullah [an Islamic priest] who goes to a holy shrine to study and he falls in love there. So the problem that the authorities had with this kind of story was that he was a mullah and he fell in love. They expect a mullah to just study and think about God and religion, not falling in love. So that was the main problem with my film.
Iran has been hailed in recent years as the epicentre of modern cinema, especially given the success of Abbas Kiarostami. Why do you think this is?
Basically, after the Islamic revolution, there was also a social revolution. Whereas before, we were basically copying Hollywood, Islamic filmmakers have changed their style. Most of the Iranian new-wave artistic directors have found a new way to talk to the audience. Their storytelling is simplistic, and simplicity has really helped the success of Iranian cinema. Maybe it’s because we have a 2,500 year history of storytelling in Iran that it comes naturally. So it’s become a kind of tool that directors use to talk to everybody, and is seemingly much more effective than the fancy techniques of Hollywood. Especially Kiarostami; he has mastered this. Low budget, small crew, and a kind of truth in the movie means that people can really relate more to his films. Right now Iranian cinema is at its peak and people are very proud of that. We win many awards. And that affects the popularity of the cinema. But I have to mention that we have two types of cinema in Iran: commercial and artistic. The commercial follows trends set by Hollywood. But all of the new cinema and the original stories are artistic. It’s because the artists are so original that people want to see their work.
Some of the greatest artists have had their work censored. Many used their creativity to sneak under the radar of the censors and found that their message was, in fact, much more effective this way. Do you think that censorship is always a bad thing?
No, I don’t think so. I think that, especially with Iranian cinema, censorship has helped the way that directors operate. They find a different way to talk with the audience. Maybe it’s more artistic.
Sometimes the best way to promote one’s work is to make sure it’s censored as the public not only see it as the forbidden fruit, but it can also garner a lot of media attention. Many music artists, such as Madonna and Eminem, use controversy to sell records. Do you think filmmakers do the same?
No. I don’t pick up the story to be censored. But if it happens, so be it. It is always a possibility because, as an artist, you very much deal with polemic subjects, so it is a risk. However, when I made my film, I did not expect it to be banned, but it was. But no, I don’t think filmmakers want their films to be banned; they want people to see the film. But they also want to make the film their way. As an Iranian, I see there is a clear role for clergy and mullahs, and I want to talk about their lives. On the other hand, the authorities don’t like it; they don’t want to be exposed and they don’t want anyone to talk about their actual lives. And this was a problem prevalent in Christian societies as well, so it is not just us. I can say my film was the first Iranian film showing a young Mullah falling in love. There are probably thousands of them that fall in love every year, but it is not depicted in Iranian cinema.
Iran has been in the headlines a lot recently because of the polemic remarks made by President Ahmadinejad. Do you think he represents the views held by the majority of Iranians?
Well, I think this is actually not new. The speech he made was not unlike speeches made at the start of the revolution. But as we are living in a different era; there is more exposure these days, but he definitely isn’t representing the Iranian nation at all.
But he had a landslide victory over the other candidates?
Well yes, but the reason for that was that the youth did not come out and vote. In fact, many did not vote, so the more extreme voters carried more weight in the election. It looks a majority because so few voted, but it was a majority of voters, not citizens.
Do you think Iran’s relationship with the West will improve or worsen?
It really depends on both sides; it depends how they both behave. I believe their problems can only be solved by diplomacy, not by force.
And what about the issue of the country’s nuclear capability?
I think Iran has the right, just like any other country. They have to have civilised technology for energy, and that’s what they say they are doing and I, for one, believe them. But politicians in the West think they are going to do something else. I really cannot foresee that; it would be stupid for them to do so. But every country has the right to develop an efficient energy system in order to sustain the needs of the people.
I recently spoke with a journalist, Ben Anderson, who visited Iran as part of his holiday in the axis of evil series. He is of the impression that people are sick of the religious police and lack of real democracy, and that Iran is, in fact, ripe for another revolution. Do you agree?
Uhm, I’m not sure about that. People are unhappy with some things, but I don’t foresee that. I myself believe we need evolution, not revolution. The first revolution did not help the people, and they are obviously unhappy about many things: their financial situation, their lack of freedom. This is problematic. But Iran can improve itself.
And finally, what do you miss most about Iran?
Iran is big country with lots of culture and I miss working there; it is, after all, my homeland. And I really think it’s got the potential to move on, to move toward democracy, so I want to be a part of that. But I especially miss working there; I want to be able to be there and practise my film-making, writing and directing in Iran.
A screening of Iraj Emami's films, The Walnut Harvest and Towards Sunset, will be held at the Chelsea Theatre on 19 and 26 March, 2006 at 2:30 pm and at the Tricycle Theatre on 1 and 2 April, 2006 at 4:00 pm. For tickets or reservations, please contact the Chelsea Theatre Box Office at 0870 990 8454, or the Tricycle Theatre Box Office at 0207 328 1000.