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Last Updated: Monday, 9 May 2005, 18:54 GMT 19:54 UK
Iran's booming animation industry
Frances Harrison, BBC Tehran Correspondent
By Frances Harrison
BBC News, Tehran

In an attempt to challenge the West's cultural domination, Iranian television has been making Islamic cartoons, some of which it has started exporting to the wider Muslim world.

Iranian animation of Muslim clerics
Stories of martyrdom and revolution are retold through animation

Shia clerics in their robes and turbans are depicted in a series for children about the lives of the martyrs of the Islamic revolution.

The cartoon Martyr Bahonar, for example, tells the story of a future prime minister growing up as a little boy, studying the Koran and becoming a cleric before he is killed in a bomb blast after the Revolution.

There is also a film called Ashurian, which tells the story of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, who is revered by Shia Muslims.

Another cartoon, Children of al-Rashid, projects Iran's view of the Palestinian struggle. It shows a fat Israeli military commander with an obsequious Arab informer talking about calling children in for questioning.

Political overtones

These overtly political cartoons are made by Saba Productions, an offshoot of Iranian state-run television that refused to give an interview to the BBC, but supplied clips of its work.

Not all Iranian cartoons are so blatantly political.

Some simply reflect the reality of life here: grandmothers wearing the all-enveloping chador, little girls in headscarves, traditional Persian gardens, and tea served from samovars.

It is a world away from the shopping malls and suburban American life shown in many Walt Disney films for children.

"Animation has this potential for the exchange of culture and civilisation," says Behrouz Yaghmaian. "Each country should differentiate itself from others."

Animation has another purpose other than just entertainment
Behrouz Yaghmaian
Animation producer

Mr Yaghmaian runs Rasaneh Fard, a private animation production company that supplies films to Iranian television.

"We have also made some cartoons based on Iranian folklore, and we're now making a feature film based on an Iranian myth," explains Mr Yaghmaian.

His office is full of young men and women behind computer screens adding the finishing touches to colourful cartoon characters, such as a those in a new series based on the lives of the Prophets of Islam - many of them Old Testament figures like Noah.

A social message

The films have been sold to Turkey, but Arab countries won't buy them because they show the faces of the Prophets - something most Sunni Muslims object to.

Animation being created on computer screen
Many of the techniques used are similar to Western animation

"Animation has another purpose other than just entertainment," says Mr Yaghmaian, who believes film animation is a good vehicle for social and cultural messages.

Iran has used animation for environmental messages, to promote better driving on the roads and now there are even cartoons being made for the forthcoming presidential elections, to encourage a high voter turnout.

The subject matter may be different from Western cartoons but many of the techniques are of course the same.

"When it comes to the basics of animation, which is making characters move, we copy the classic Disney films," says artist Shahram Kharazmi.

He says he has learned camera movements from cartoons created in Japan.

"I try not to be dependent on either but inspired by both," says Mr Kharazmi.

One day, he hopes the techniques will be sophisticated enough to draw on Iran's tradition of miniature painting and create something that is both modern but in tune with the past.

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