The Iranian Filmmaker Kamal Tabrizi
Should One Be Allowed to Laugh at Mullahs?

"It used to be that religious figures enjoyed a special place in the hearts of Iranians, otherwise the revolution would never have taken place," recalls the popular Iranian filmmaker Kamal Tabrizi. "Yet, today this trust has been undermined." Charlotte Wiedemann met with this uncompromising film director

Kamal Tabrizi (photo: ISNA)
With his biting film comedy "Marmulak" (The Lizard), Tabrizi broke all box-office records in Iran

​​ As with other well-regarded Iranian filmmakers, the revolution has left its mark on the director Kamal Tabrizi. For some, this might come as a surprise, since a couple of years ago Tabrizi made sure that all over Iran people were having a good laugh at the expense of the country's clergy.

In his satire "Marmulak" (The Lizard), a thief escapes from prison disguised as a mullah and henceforth slyly plays at being a holy man. The film broke all box-office records. After three weeks, however, it was banned from being shown in cinemas and is only now making the rounds as a DVD.

Kamal Tabrizi has not let the success go to his head. The 49-year-old Tehran native of Azerbaijan descent has a pleasantly unpretentious air about him. His face bears laughter lines, he listens carefully, and is more than willing to talk about his life.

Revolution and the burning down of cinemas

As a 19-year-old, he was always present at anti-Shah demonstrations with his Super-8 camera. When the bullets began to fly, he ran for cover, not only to save himself, but his film material, as well.

​​ "I come from a traditional religious family. This kind of piety, the praying, fasting, and everything that goes with it, was not particularly attractive to us young people. It was only when I was at university that I discovered an Islam that was concerned with the conditions of people's lives. This attracted me! Religion should improve the life of mankind. I still believe this today."

Before the revolution, his parents often told him that the cinema is not a wholesome place. "Cinemas were regarded as dirty, almost akin to bordellos. That is why many cinemas were burned down during the revolution. Many others were turned into mosques in order to sanitize them. There was a huge gap between the cinema and the clergy. Even to this day, many people have still not reconciled themselves with cinema. This includes members of the current government."

Pedagogical film

To view the Islamic Revolution as hostile towards film and art is nonetheless wrong, says Tabrizi. "We, the young people, rejected cinema under the Shah's regime because, for the most part, it was just shallow, cheap entertainment, devoid of any intellectual pretensions. We wanted to develop a completely new style. We wanted to make cinema that truly represented Iran. Film should educate and engage the viewer. We saw the camera as a tool to show what the revolution should be."

Support came from Khomeini personally. He held up a demanding minority film from the Shah period as a model – a remarkably sensitive decision. "The Cow," which was awarded in Venice, is a metaphorical tragedy about a farmer driven to madness by the loss of his only cow, finally becoming a cow himself.

Anti-Shah demonstration at the Azadi-square in Teheran (photo: AP)
Tabrizi also attended demonstrations against the Shah – and took along his Super-8 camera

​​ When you see the film today, what is most impressive is the archaic power of the Iranian village, completely untouched by the Shah's modernization policies. "That was the key," recalls Tabriz. "We could finally cut loose."

As he was learning to make films, war broke out in 1980 between Iraq and Iran. On the second day of the war, Tabrizi was already at the front filming his first documentary. The war films of the time are largely regarded by Western film critics as youthful transgressions of those same Iranian directors who were later celebrated at film festivals.

"I am not ashamed when I see my earliest films," says Tabrizi. "They are simple, but they have something pure about them. They are about people who could face death at any moment."

It's the clergy that have changed

The purity of the relationship between Iranians and their religion has been lost. This is why there is a great deal of melancholy behind the laughter at Tabrizi's mullah comedy.

"It used to be that religious figures enjoyed a special place in the hearts of Iranians, otherwise the revolution would never have taken place," says the director. "This trust has been undermined. Society now has many problems with the clergy, and it is mature enough to deal with them."

Before "The Lizard" opened in the movie theatres, there was a special preview for the clergy. Everyone was so curious about the film that many brought their families along. Women and children were sat on one side of the theatre and the mullahs on the other. During the funniest parts of the film, loud laughter could be heard on the family side, while there was bitter silence on the clergy side.

"This just shows how far the clergy have distanced themselves from society," says Tabrizi. "I am a religious man," he adds, "no less than during the time of the revolution. It's the clergy that have changed, not me."

Charlotte Wiedemann

© Deutsche Welle / 2009

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

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