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Last Updated: Tuesday, 19 August, 2003, 09:12 GMT 10:12 UK
Risking all to show Western films
Oliver Stone
Stone's Natural Born Killers is controversial around the world
The release from prison of an Iranian cleric jailed and defrocked for screening Western films to his students has highlighted the high sensitivity in much of the country towards cinema.

Ali Afsahi was arrested after showing such films to his students as Oliver Stone's Natural Born Killers, which aroused strong debate around the world on release in 1994 for its graphic violence.

Before his arrest, Mr Afsahi had said he used film as a window on morality and on the West - despite the risks he faced personally.

"It is very dangerous to me, but it's very good to the students that they understand that all culture - especially Western - is very serious," Mr Afsahi told BBC World Service's The World Today programme.

"They must study about that. Film is a very important medium, and they must understand that before they repel it.

"I try to expand the idea that we must know each other, that we must respect each other - Western or not Western - and we must make a dialogue between the cultures, between the civilisations."

'Corruption of corruptions'

Afsahi's methods had often polarised his students.

"Some were extremely scandalised by his choice of film, and started leaving his classes," said journalist and film-maker Elli Safari, who was part of his circle.

Ingmar Bergman
Afsahi began by showing Bergman's films
"Others were seduced by his passion, and continued to follow his classes to discover more.

"He started off showing only very classical films by Bergman and Dreyer - mostly philosophical films - but moved gradually to mainstream popular movies."

The taboos which surround the artistic image in Iran - and which were broken by Mr Afsahi - run deep.

Some hardline clerics regard the medium as deeply immoral and heralding an apocalypse of sight and sound.

"Cinema represents the end of time to Shia clerics, because according to Shia tradition, at the end of time an element will emerge with sight and sound that attracts everybody and will lead them to hell," said university professor Rasool Nafisi.

"So cinema is the end of time - cinema is the corruption of all corruptions."

Young directors

Cinema has, in fact, been intimately involved with the Iranian revolution from the very beginning.

As revolution approached, 180 cinemas were burnt down - including the attack in Abadan which killed 400.

And despite Mr Afsahi's treatment, the Islamic republic is happy to use cinema for its own ends.

Samira Makhmalbaf
Makhmalbaf is one of a number of successful child directors
Recently the authorities have allowed more Western films into cinemas - in part to help distract the population from anti-government demonstrations.

Serious film-making has thrived in the country, producing internationally renowned directors like Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf - some of whose work is released to almost universal acclaim.

Many of the most successful film-makers - for example sisters Samira and Hani Makhmalbaf - are in their teenage years or younger.

"They made a virtue out of necessity, meaning a brand of Iranian movie emerged focusing on children," explained Professor Nafisi.

"A child represents an element of innocence, an element of being asexual as well as apolitical.

"Kiarostami himself acknowledged the positive role of censorship in developing a native brand of Iranian movie.

"So this tremendous number of Iranian movies is the product of censorship, in an ironic way."

And indeed, this irony would not be lost on Ali Afsahi, who though released is now forbidden from teaching.

Now, he himself simply quotes Bergman: "Hell is meeting people who don't understand you."

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