A man holds a photo of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who is held under house arrest in Iran.
A man holds a photo of Iranian director Jafar Panahi in Berlin in February 2011 at the international Berlinale film festival. Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, co-director of banned Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi's latest film, is just one of many movie makers arrested by Iranian authorities. © Valery Hache - AFP/File
A man holds a photo of Iranian director Jafar Panahi, who is held under house arrest in Iran.
Peter-Paul Zanker
Last updated: June 23, 2012

You only live twice: The end of Iran's “House of Cinema”

After a moment of hope for makers and lovers of independent Iranian cinema, their only supporting institution, the guild “House of Cinema” was ordered to permanently close its gates last week.

This was not the first time the independent guild was ordered to close shop. Late in 2011 the board of the House of Cinema had been advised by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance to cease all activities by January 6, 2012. In the beginning, the official reason stated by the ministry for the ban was the “secret” changes to the by-law of its statutes that were not conform with the law. Most analysts however judged that the guild's political positions, which had been repeatedly at odds with the country's official line, had played a significant part in the decision. Most prominently, House of Cinema representatives spoke out publicly against the detention of six independent documentary filmers that were accused of collaborating with the BBC in September 2011.

Prominent figures of the Iranian cinema, such as the acclaimed director Ashgar Farhadi (of the Oscar-winning movie “A Separation”) criticised the forced closure of the guild in the weeks following the January decree. Farhadi, in an open letter, called for a public vote on the dissolution of the guild to solve the conflict. Later in February 2012, a letter of protest signed by 2000 members and supporters of the House of Cinema was sent to the Iranian government - seemingly to no avail.

End of May 2012 then, a sliver of hope emerged for Iran's independent cinematic community. In an interview with Mehr news agency on May 27, the chairman of the guild, Farhad Tohidi, announced the immediate reopening of the House of Cinema: “I hold the decree in my hands” he announced, adding “this morning the first meeting of the management board took place, and we spoke about the future programs and activities of the House.” Apparently, the administrative court of Iran had issued a ruling, which in his view had rendered the decision of the Ministry of Culture void. While the exact reasons for this decision remained unclear, friends of the Iranian cinema relished over the unexpected turn of fate.

Less amused were apparently a group of Basiji, who staged a small protest in front of the guild's headquarters in Tehran shortly after the news over a possible reopening emerged. Spraying the guild's bronze-doorplate with black ink and holding up sings reading “Down with the BBC documentary producers” and “Death to the Communists” the hard-liners made their opposition to the court's ruling very clear.

Soon after, the Ministry of Culture further dampened the spirits of House of Cinema supporters. Hours after the Tohidi's interview appeared on Mehr's website, the ministry issued a statement that the administrative court had merely detected a formal mistake in the decree and did not question the validity of its content. According to a senior official of the Ministry of Culture, “the administrative court has simply raised the point that the House of Cinema has no legal foundation,” and for that very reason, “there is no grounds for the Ministry of Culture to dissolve it.” Another accusation, that the guild had failed to reapply for a legal permit after the Islamic Revolution, and that its status as guild had no legal foundation still applied according to the Ministry of Culture official. This new line of argument was soon after entirely adopted by a spokesman of the administrative court.

Hence, two days after announcing the re-opening of the guild, chairman Tohidi openly admitted defeat. “we do not understand the logic of the unlawfulness of the actions.” Listing the many external and internal challenges Iran faced he added, “our national interest requires, that one abstains from fuelling the creation of crises. And we will refrain from this.”

Simultaneously, the press office of the Ministry of Culture issued a statement, that after a thorough review of all documentation, the relevant committee had come to the conclusion that the House of Cinema guild lacked any legal foundation and would thus be ordered to permanently shut down.

The now certain end of the House of Cinema marks a black day for Iran's independent cinema, one of the few remaining exports unaffected by the nuclear stand-off between the Islamic Republic an the West. Yet it serves also as an interesting exercise in observing how little effort government officials invest in framing their political decisions under a flimsy legalistic veil.

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