Cropped Modesty: Iran's High-Tech Tricks for Censoring American Movies

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After failing to keep films away from culture-loving Iranians, the Islamic Republic is trying some new, if clunky, techniques for editing the West out of Western entertainment.

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An American film in its original form, left, and modified by Iranian censors, right. (CaffeCinema.com)

The Islamic Republic of Iran has been at war with the cinema since even before its founding. Ayatollah and future dictator Ruhollah Khomeini, in his years as a revolutionary, condemned movies in both of his books as forces of foreign corruption and imperialism. Many of the clerics who helped foment revolution in Iran in the 1970s declared movies forbidden and denounced them, sometimes forcefully. In late 1978, a small group of radical Islamists locked the doors of the Cinema Rex movie house in the city of Abadan and set it on fire, killing 400. After the revolution the following year, 180 more movie theaters (though now empty) were burned to the ground. In his first year in power, Khomeini banned 513 foreign films.


But people really like movies, and Iranians are no exception. The long Persian tradition of art and poetry has perhaps informed Iran's passion for film; in 1995, Werner Herzog declared, "What I say tonight will be a banality in the future: The greatest films of the world today are being made in Iran." The regime seems to have realized that foreign films were going to trickle into the country whether they permitted it or not, so perhaps better to "bring [the movies] under their own jurisdiction," as a report by the advocacy group Article 19 put it. 

That means censoring foreign movies instead of banning them outright, and even broadcasting them widely enough that people won't feel it's worth their time to track down an uncensored version. The censors, offensive though their mission may be, don't have an easy job. There are 37 rules, laid out in 1983, 1993, and 1996 laws, detailing the ideas and images banned from movies. Many pertain to women: no close-ups of their faces, no makeup, no exposed necklines; men and women can't sit closely, appear to be alone together, touch, or exchange "tender words or jokes." Veiled women, bearded men, policemen, and soldiers can't be portrayed negatively without "a good excuse." No booze, no profanity against religion (yes, Iran protects faiths other than Islam), or neck ties, which are seen as a symbol of foreign culture. Oh, and no sorcery -- sorry, Harry Potter.

Censoring foreign movies used to mean simply pulling out the scissors, cutting away inappropriate scenes and shots until the film was a good deal shorter and made a lot less sense. But, in 2010, Iranian authorities acquired new technology allowing them to manipulate images and dialogues into Islamic inappropriateness. 

"Romantic dialogue is often changed. For example, it isn't proper for a woman to say to her partner, 'I love you,'" Iranian journalist Reza Valizadeh explained to Radio Free Europe's Golnaz Esfandiari in a 2010 interview. "It's clear how dialogue about sexual proposals is dealt with -- they are changed to marriage proposals. Also we see that beer becomes lemonade on state television and whiskey becomes orange juice. Also dialogue about politics is often changed."

Censors will sometimes edit immodest images -- whether it's a man and woman sitting too closely, someone drinking a cocktail, or even an open neckline -- by cutting the offending person or object or by simply placing some visual obstacle. The Iranian film fan site CaffeCinema.com put together a series of side-by-side comparisons showing the before-and-after of this new censorship technique. Yes, that's Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby in there. Some of the efforts here are almost impressively subtle, but others, well, let's just say there seem to be a lot of clunky vases in the censors' world.

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We've only been able to identify the film in the top image; the aforementioned Will Ferrell NASCAR comedy (how that translates into any non-American culture, much less Iran's, is a mystery to me). If you're able to pick any of them out, please let us know in the comments.

The censored images are another indication of how seriously Iran takes the "infiltration" of foreign culture; the regime there has variously banned coffee shops, pop music, and certain hair styles in their quest to isolate Iranians from the outside world. But this isn't Afghanistan or Saddam's Iraq or North Korea, and there's really only so much the Islamic Republic can do to separate its long-worldly people from arts, culture, and entertainment. Little compromises like these silly seeming censorship techniques are a reminder of how difficult, and maybe how futile, that quest really is.
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Max Fisher is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic.

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