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Cheap DVDs Swamp Iranian Supermarkets

By Amir Najafi (Source: Institute for War & Peace Reporting)

Filmmakers say diet of low-budget, straight-to-DVD drama is killing off cinema industry.

Advertising at a convenience store for the latest films and serials out on DVD. (Photo: Farshid Alyan)

The sale of DVDs in Iranian supermarkets has stirred controversy, with detractors claiming the cheap-and-cheerful end of the market is delivering the death blow to an already troubled film industry.

Until recently, the supermarkets which proliferate in every Iranian town sold only food and other groceries. But starting last year, they began selling domestically-produced movies and serials as well.

Some are new cinematic productions, others are films that went straight to DVD or drama serials that never made it onto television.

Priced at the equivalent of between 1.50 and three US dollars, the “supermarket movies”, as they are known, provoked a furious reaction from the national association of audiovisual distributors, which claimed its members’ businesses were being undermined. The association claimed that selling through this retail network was unlawful, pointing out that clothing, for example, could not be sold in grocery stores.

Critics argue that the widespread availability of lightweight films at low prices is emptying cinemas across Iran, and dumbing down audiences.

Supporters of “supermarket movies” might seem to be driven by the commercial imperative alone. But intriguingly, there is also a clearly ideological element at play. It is not that the low-budget movies on sale focus on Islamic themes; instead, the argument seems to be that swamping the market with Iranian-made content will squeeze out undesirable foreign influences.

Culture minister Mohammad Hosseini made this absolutely clear in his rebuff to the film distributors’ protest, expressing hope that the availability that Iranian-made films in every supermarket would “curb the sinister phenomenon of cultural invasion to an acceptable degree, and bring the noble and pure Islamic culture of Iran into people’s homes”.

The arrival of newer and cheaper forms of media over recent years has spurred the regime on in its bid to avert the eyes of young Iranians, in particular, from pernicious western influences.

Ayatollah Ali Khamenei first came out with the concept of “cultural invasion by the West” when he was appointed Supreme Leader over two decades ago. He believed that western media and books were being foisted on Iran in a deliberate attempt to undermine belief in the Islamic foundations of the regime.

After a ban on sales of video cassette recorders was lifted in 1992, the government opened a Visual Media Centre, responsible for distributing carefully censored versions of foreign as well as Iranian films on video. Its explicit aim was to counter the “cultural invasion”.

Initially successful, the centre was driven towards bankruptcy by the early 2000s because people were buying uncensored and cheaper versions of the latest films from underground distribution networks.

Veteran producer Morteza Shayesteh is among those who see a hidden political agenda at work.

“The new policies on cinema introduced since Mahmoud Ahmadinejad came to power [in 2005] have placed huge constraints on films with social and comic themes. This has led to a massive decline in cinema audiences,” he said. “The vacuum is now being filled with a wave of films that were made in the space of ten or 20 days and cost only 20,000 to 30,000 dollars to produce.”

Some directors, scriptwriters and actors have seen the tide turning and have joined the “supermarket movie” bandwagon to keep their careers going.

Perhaps the decisive moment was the arrival in the shops of “Coffee Without Sugar”, a made-for-TV drama serial by well-known director Mehran Modiri.

Modiri has made a number of popular comedy series for state TV over the last two decades, and was included in Newsweek magazine’s list of the 20 most influential people in Iran for 2009. Like his earlier works, “Coffee Without Sugar” stays well clear of politics, but manages to snipe at the comic stupidities of the current regime while pretending to be a historical drama.

When the first three episodes went on sale for 2.50 dollars five months ago, they sold half a million copies in the supermarkets in a matter of days.

The serial had originally been commissioned for Iranian state TV, and rumours circulated that it was blocked by censors. The truth seems to have been a more mundane disagreement over money. The producers have said they were forced to release the series in the supermarkets after the state broadcaster refused them a share of advertising revenues on top of the 3.5 million dollars they were going to get for the full 90 episodes.

So far, sales of just the early episodes of “Coffee Without Sugar” have netted in the region of 55 million dollars, according to a local film critic who asked not to be named. He said the show’s success was likely to encourage other production companies into the low-end market, and “open up an alternative route for new films and serials, instead of the conventional path that leads to state TV”.

He noted that retail figures made the distributing companies keenly aware of their customers’ tastes, and they passed this information onto production companies so that they could tailor future output accordingly.

All this is a long way from the arthouse films for which Iran is famous abroad. There are many local critics who grumble that the government is effectively sponsoring poor taste, hackneyed themes, and the lowest common denominator.

Distributors like Mahmoud Soltani would dispute this. As head of the Pars Video Company, Soltani has been widely criticised for the sale of downmarket films like “The Boy From Tehran”. But he insists that with the film industry in financial trouble and cinema audiences falling, supermarket retail offers a route to survival.

“Supermarket movies are not the enemies of cinema; they are contributing to it,” he said.

Amir Najafi is the pseudonym of an Iranian journalist and film critic who recently moved to Vancouver.

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