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REPORTER: Matthew Carney

Iranian film directors are internationally acclaimed for a simple but powerful approach to their craft.

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`Blackboards` is just one of 300 Iranian films to win international awards in the last decade. It`s the story of itinerant teachers in Iran`s Kurdish region and it took home the Special Jury Prize from Cannes in 2000. Critics say, compared with highly produced Hollywood movies, films from Iran capture the essence of cinema – narrative, character and landscape.

MOHAMMAD NIKBIN, FILM PRODUCER: Our films are more allegorical. We are using lots of symbols that maybe in Western films you don`t need to, you can get to the point right away very graphically and here you have to use many different symbols to get your point across.

But apart from the aesthetic qualities of Iranian films, cinema has a more important role to play inside Iran – exploring and exposing the darker side of society. `The Circle` is typical of these films. In defiance of Iran`s powerful conservative forces, it tackles forbidden subjects, like prostitution.

MOVIE FOOTAGE: It`s all in order.

What`s your relationship to her?

She`s just a passenger.

Miss…what happened here?

Ask your men.

Are you related?

No.

Did he make you get in?

No, I did it myself.

Why?

Will you pay the bills, honey?

Get rid of that gum and fix your shawl.

Please, Hajji. You can see I`m not the type.

She could be my daughter.

I was on my way home.

Director of `The Circle`, Jafar Panahi, is a leading figure in the new wave of Iranian cinema. Critics called his film a landmark, and awarded him the Venice Film Festival`s top prize in 2000. The film has sold to 37 countries, but it still has not been seen in Iran. Panahi has refused to make the cuts the censors wanted.

JAFAR PANAHI, FILM DIRECTOR (Translation): I have presented cinema the way I want to. And I`ve looked at cinema the way I want to. I have tried to express social realities the way I see them, without any self-censorship or other considerations.

MOVIE FOOTAGE: Wait here.

Listen, I need your help.

What for?

I`m pregnant.

Pregnant?

But you aren`t married.

I need an abortion. I`ve tried a few places, but I`ve had no luck.

`The Circle` is about a group of women, one a single mother, some freshly out of prison, all caught in the cycle of sexual and political repression, topics that cannot be questioned in Iranian society.

MOVIE FOOTAGE: What am I going to do?

I don`t know. I don`t know anyone.

JAFAR PAHANI: These women want to escape their limitations and avoid going back to their first point. They have been released from a small circle. They have crossed the boundary of a small circle and have entered a bigger circle in which there is no security.

MOVIE FOOTAGE: Where`s your mother?

Don`t know.

You don`t know? Is this your bag?

Yes.

Why did you leave it here? Where`s your mother?

Mommy? I don`t know where she is.

Where did she go?

Don`t know.

She left you all alone?

I`m scared.

I`ll find your mommy. Which way did she go?

Are you her mother?

No.

I thought she was your child. Did you see the mother?

No, only the kid.

I want my mommy.

Watch her. I`ll be right back.

The film takes a realistic and disturbing look at how these women each struggle to change their circumstances, but, in the end, remain homeless and helpless.

MOVIE FOOTAGE: She`ll be sick with grief. It will take time, but she`ll be fine.

The hard-line clerics saw this film as a stinging attack against them and the failings of their regime. The censors and clerics have told Panahi they will burn `The Circle` if they ever see a copy of the film. Panahi, working by the Caspian Sea in northern Iran, remains defiant. He`s now developing an equally controversial new script.

JAFAR PANAHI: In societies that have a closed system, where they want everybody to be the same, they can`t accept different thinking. They are afraid that if awareness increases or a new idea is expressed, they may lose their power.

Another director who has run into far more serious trouble with the authorities is Tahmineh Milani. We found her attending a film festival in Tehran. But she isn`t allowed to talk to us. That`s because she`s facing charges over her last film, `The Hidden Half`. It`s no minor matter. The crimes she`s accused of carry the death sentence. The film is essentially a love story, but it`s set in the years following the Islamic revolution in 1979 when the new regime carried out a brutal crackdown on any dissent.

MOVIE FOOTAGE: You don`t need to fill out the forms. They won`t accept you anyway. I mean, I won`t let them.

I`ll take my chance.

It`s a dark period of Iranian history that`s close to home for Milani. She saw 10 of her friends executed and many others imprisoned during that time. Although Milani can`t comment on the court case, her husband, architect Mohammad Nikbin, can. He says the charges against her, which relate to national security, are a fabrication, part of a campaign to silence film-makers.

MOHAMMAD NIKBIN: There are accusations, but there is no documentation for the accusations.

REPORTER: Were you surprised at all?

MOHAMMAD NIKBIN: Oh, extremely. I mean, we could have thought of anything except that. That was a total shock, and I think lots of people were shocked in the movie industry.

The irony is the court case has not stopped `The Hidden Half` being screened in cinemas across Tehran. The film went through the normal censorship process and was approved by the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. It was only after this approval that a group of angry clerics brought the charges against Milani, but they have not thwarted her aim to encourage debate about Iran`s recent history. The younger generation is learning the real story of the revolution.

YOUNG WOMAN: It had good information about the political situation in the past and now and what is happening in society. It expanded our view a little.

Late last year, Tahmineh Milani was imprisoned and then released after a public uproar. While she`s now free to resume her work, the charges have not been dropped. Despite her uncertain future, Milani is about to start shooting her next film, which explores the inequality of inheritance laws for women in Iran.

MOHAMMAD NIKBIN: Film-making is very important for my wife and now we have a scenario ready and we are going through the approval process and trying to start again, see what happens.

The film, `The Party`, about troubled youth, is the most popular movie now showing in Tehran. But while censorship clearly hasn`t stopped directors telling their gritty social stories, it has forced them to be more innovative in how they approach their craft.

MOHAMMAD NIKBIN: If the political points that you have is a subject that is a forbidden subject, something that you shouldn`t be talking about, of course you have to go about it symbolically. You use this symbolism for things that you are not allowed to get to directly.

BAHAM FARMANARA, DIRECTOR: Censorship is a mother of old metaphors. We have censorship here, a very strict one, and we have had to find new ways of expressing ourselves, which is both understood by our own audience but also can translate to the Western mind.

Bahman Farmanara has directed films both in Hollywood and Iran. He returned to Iran in 1983. It was another decade before the censors let him make his first film in Iran. But Farmanara says film-making in Hollywood can be just as restrictive.

BAHMAN FARMANARA: In some ways, the censorship there is by financing. Here, it`s the government. And my preference, because I also practised that when I was over there, is that ours at least is closer to art.

Farmanara often stars in his own films, like `The Smell of Camphor` And The Fragrance of Jasmin`, an autobiographical story about a film-maker who`s been banned from making films for 20 years. He says what keeps him working in Iran is the real power films can have in shaping society.

BAHAM FARMANARA: In my new film, `A House Built on Water`, somebody asked me, “Why do you call it `A house Built on Water`?” I said, “Well, because I can`t call it `A Country Built on Water`, but that`s the sense of it. Everything is going in opposite directions. You don`t feel that there is anybody solid enough to run the whole show. And the forces of the young people is amazingly destructive when it becomes angry. So all in all, I`ve tried to point out in my film that, “Look what is happening to us, there`s all these contradictions.” We have our traditions, but at the same time we have young people that have been born and grown up since the revolution that they don`t believe in anything, because they don`t feel that they have a future and once you don`t have hope, you`re a very dangerous weapon.

The Bahrain Film Festival screens short films made by women. It`s a showcase of young talent. The next generation of film-makers are as eager as ever to use film to investigate the society they live in. A short film by Shohreh Soltani deals with the taboo subject of pregnancy outside of marriage. Like many real-life stories, the girl is cast out of home. She`s left pondering life as a prostitute to support herself.

SHOHREH SOLTANI, DIRECTOR: We have learned to censor ourselves in this environment because they`ve taught us and we`ve grown up like that. That`s why I, an Iranian woman, can never be as free as an Australian woman.

But in cinema, women are finding the confidence to express their problems, hopes and desires, and Tamineh Milani is there to offer her support to the next generation. The future vibrancy of Iranian cinema seems assured. These young film-makers are as determined as their mentors to use cinema as a tool to challenge and change.

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