There was the time that Iran pursued a secret nuclear-weapons program with North Korea and possibly facilitated the killing of dozens of people at CIA headquarters.
There was the 1979 Islamic Revolution, when an entire country of religious fanatics supported an attempt to kidnap Americans.
Then there was the Iranian doctor who duped his American wife into bringing their daughter to his birth land so he could cruelly hold them hostage.
These might sound like tales spun by anti-Iran hawks in the U.S. government. But they come from a more unlikely source — they’re some of the most prominent stories Hollywood has told about Iran in recent years.
As tensions between the U.S. and Iran percolate — over incidents such as the killing of Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian rocket response, the apparently accidental Iranian downing of a Ukrainian airliner, and President Donald Trump’s announcement of new sanctions against Iran — some U.S. politicians have painted the country as a land populated entirely by anti-American fanatics.
But the image may have nearly as many roots in Hollywood as in politics. U.S. entertainment companies have for decades been using Iran as a go-to villain, portraying a country bloodthirstily and monolithically interested in bringing down America.
Some of the stories are fictional, with Iranians chosen by screenwriters as the villain for little apparent reason. And even the fact-based tales tend to whitewash good Iranians; the viewer is given the impression that the country contains only radicals and bad actors.
Experts say these types of stories (the above come from the Showtime hit “Homeland,” the Oscar best-picture winner “Argo” and the Sally Field film drama “Not Without My Daughter”) have helped shape U.S. public sentiment and, perhaps, even public policy.
“The portrayal that Hollywood has been putting out for a long time is that Iran is not just a place of bad leaders or regimes but a nation of terrorists, radicals and bad guys — that this is the entire culture,” said Hooshang Amirahadi, an Iranian American professor at Rutgers University and the founder of the think tank the American-Iranian Council, which aims to foster understanding between the countries. “That’s poisoned how a lot of Americans think about Iran, especially people who are too young to remember it before the revolution.”
“It’s certainly poisoned how a lot of Americans in their 60s and early 70s who are now in power think about Iran,” he said.
Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War three decades ago, Hollywood has struggled to find villainous nations. North Korea is a cliché. Russia was, until recently, passe. China is a no-go; Hollywood wants to sell too much product there. And using fake or generic countries in a newsy modern climate is a non-starter.
Enter Iran. Images of the country’s Islamic Revolution — which occurred at the relatively late modern date of 1979, after the ubiquity of television — are emblazoned in Americans’ minds. Proxy wars and strains of theocracy in the years since have further reinforced those perceptions.
The geographic distance from the U.S. and regular sounding of harsh rhetoric from such figures as former president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hardened the case.
“Iran is closed off in so many ways that it’s understandable it would become such a hated symbol in American movies,” said Desiree Akhavan, an Iranian-American filmmaker who in 2018 won the top prize at the Sundance Film Festival. “Still, it’s a little pathetic.”
Even when there is heroism in Iran, it usually comes about as a result, and to the benefit, of Americans.
There has never been a major Western work looking at the Islamic Revolution from the point of view of Iranians, which has prompted Akhavan to begin developing a new movie about a young Iranian woman from that time. She says it will aim for a 70′s “Boogie Nights” vibe and show a side not depicted in previous Hollywood movies.
“I think it’s a be-the-change-you-want-to-see kind of situation,” Akhavan said. Still, she is working, for now, outside the Hollywood system, developing her film to work with the BBC instead of an American studio or streamer.
Also troubling, critics say, some of the existing pieces, though nominally inspired by real events, offer a portrait of Iranians that is inauthentic, reductive and even racist.
In “Argo,” director Ben Affleck shows how a clever U.S. plan rescues some half-dozen Americans during the Islamic Revolution. But the Iranian characters are often shown to be fanatics, interested in harming North Americans behind a cloak of religious righteousness.
In the Globe and Mail, commentator Jian Ghomeshi criticized “Argo” for a “deeply troubling portrayal of the Iranian people” and “an unbalanced depiction of an entire ethnic national group.” In The Guardian, Saeed Kamali Dehghan noted “the film takes a black and white view towards Iranians … it portrays them as ugly, poor, strictly religious, fanatical and ignorant — almost in line with the young revolutionaries behind the hostage-taking.
“The only nice Iranian in the film is the Canadian ambassador’s maid,” he wrote.
Amirahadi asked why, even to the extent stories like this are fact-based, studios seem to choose to dramatize only events in which Iranians are portrayed in a bad light.
Meanwhile, in “Homeland,” Iran agrees to stop enriching uranium, but only after senior American intelligence officials outmanoeuvre them. The impression the Emmy-winning show leaves is of Americans seeking to act honourably while Iranians are prone to duplicity.
More provocatively, Tehran is the site of a critical scene in the third season’s finale. An angry mob lustily cheers as one of the show’s American heroes is hanged in a public square while a large image of the Supreme Leader hangs in the background; the image suggests a country in which an anti-Western fanaticism predominates.
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No such lynching of an American is ever known to have taken place in Iran, and the scene can seem gratuitous, stoking viewer anger about a country filled with citizens intent on bringing down America.
A Showtime spokeswoman did not make any “Homeland” creators available for comment. Affleck, via a publicist, also declined to comment.
“Not Without My Daughter,” also inspired by true events, notably lacks sympathetic Iranian characters. Telling of the Iranian-born Sayyed Bozorg Mahmoody and his American-born wife, it portrays what happens when he brings her and their young child to Iran for a vacation and then refuses to let them leave. The 1991 film elicited criticism even at the time, with many saying the abusive behaviour of one man was too easily superimposed on tens of millions of people.
In the New York Times, Caryn James called the movie “inflammatory” and wrote that that it “exploits the stereotype of the demonic Iranian.” The film shows an entire coterie of people eager to help in Mahmoody’s abuse in the name of Islam.
Even historical blockbusters often have treated Iran disdainfully.
The 2007 blockbuster “300,” which tells a fictionalized version of the battle of Thermopylae, shows how a small band of Spartans heroically fought off a massive army of Persians. The latter are shown to be barbaric and decadent. The movie prompted criticism from across the political spectrum in Iran and among select Western critics.
All of these works, experts say, has led to an environment ripe for targeting by U.S. politicians.
“When culture is created in this way it can have a very significant effect,” said Mehdi Semati, the chair of the communication department at Northern Illinois University and a close observer of Iranians in the U.S. media. “It basically prepares the public for any harsh policy the U.S. might take. The more Iranians are shown as fanatics and men who brutalize women the easier it is for policy-makers to do things like order strikes or increase sanctions.”
There have been more nuanced portraits of Iran in art-house movies. Among them are “A Separation” and “The Salesman” from Asghar Farhadi; “Persepolis” from Marjane Satrapi; and “This Is Not a Film” and “Taxi” from the more openly dissident Jafar Panahi. All of these films, however, received only niche releases in the U.S. And these movies, experts like Semati and others say, can paradoxically highlight anti-democratic and anti-American elements in the country, even if they’re aspects the films’ protagonists are fighting against.
Iran is a country that carries little risk for Hollywood to demonize, experts say; unlike China or Russia, it is the place of few Hollywood dollars.
And while Iran is hardly the first enemy of the U.S. to have its citizens painted with a broad brush in Hollywood movies — such depictions have existed in Vietnam, Germany and others — experts point out a trial distinction: Those portrayals often came after a war has started, not before one has been fought.
Filmmakers from the Middle East say the best attempts to change the perception of Iran, and the region as a whole, may be to appeal directly to Hollywood the rare times they are given the microphone. When Farhadi won the Oscar in 2017, the director, boycotting the ceremony over Trump’s travel ban, had a messenger at the ceremony read a statement about the dangers of pitting one side of the world against another.
And last week, when the Syrian filmmakers of “For Sama,” an Oscar-nominated documentary about everyday life in that country against the backdrop of bloodshed, won a special prize at the National Board of Review ceremony, they cited misunderstandings in the West of both Iran and the Arab country they come from.
Waad Al-Kateab, the film’s subject and co-director, was standing at the side of the room as Adam Sandler hurried by from back stage. She and her co-director rushed over. She took out a card promoting her film and pressed it into Sandler’s hand. “I’m going to watch it, I promise,” Sandler told her. “I love what you said up there.”
Al-Kateab turned away from him after he left. “We have to try to get as many important people in Hollywood to see our film,” she said. “That’s the only way anything will change.”