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Censored Iranian Film Gets First Public Release, 27 Years After Its Debut

A mysterious plan to steal The Nights of Zayandeh-rood from government archives helped bring the film to a London theater

The Nights of Zayandeh-Rood (YouTube)
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The Nights of Zayandeh-rood, a film by acclaimed director Iranian Mohsen Makhmalbaf, was swiftly locked away in the archives of the Iranian censorship committee after its first screening 1990. Now, in the wake of a mysterious effort to smuggle the footage out of Iran, the film, originally titled Shabhaye Zayandeh-rood, has been released to the public for the first time.

As Saeed Kamali Dehghan reports for the Guardian, the Curzon Bloomsbury theater in London first screened The Nights of Zayandeh-rood on Saturday. While only 63 of the film’s original 100 minutes remain intact, the London screenings are nevertheless a promising new chapter in the turbulent history of the film.

The Nights of Zayandeh-rood follows an anthropologist and his daughter through the Iranian Revolution of 1979, when protestors ousted the ruling Pahlavi dynasty and replaced it with an Islamic republic. Suicide is an ever-present trope, a metaphor for the dashed hopes of a nation.

On the eve of the film’s debut at the 1990 Fajr festival in Tehran, censors cut 25 minutes of footage. Even in its truncated form, The Nights of Zayandeh-rood became something of a sensation after its premiere. “[T]he hard line media belonging to the state, put me and the film under constant attacks and accusations for a full six months,” Makhmalbaf writes on his website. “Some even demanded my execution.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei allegedly watched the film and prompted censors to cut another 12 minutes of footage. The Nights of Zayandeh-rood was never granted a wide release.

“They said it’s a critique of Islam, of the political system and the revolution,” Makhmalbaf said before the London screening, according to Kamali Dehghan. “They accused me of insulting the families of the martyrs and taking away people’s hope about the revolution.”

Despite the wrangling over the film, Makhmalbaf rose to prominence as one of the most celebrated directors in Iran. Many of his movies have screened widely in the country. But he left his homeland in 2005, after the government once again clamped down on his creative efforts. "I moved from Iran … to make more films because at that time the Iranian government doesn't let me make more films in Iran,” he said in a 2011 interview with CNN’s Rina Maktabi.

Makhmalbaf now lives in London. It is not clear how the censored footage was stolen from Iranian government archives and brought to him there; the filmmaker writes on his website that he "can’t give any details about how this was done."

Makhmalbaf says he was surprised when he first revisited the footage. "The film looked like a living thing with no limbs but it was still breathing, and its story and meaning were not lost," he wrote. After working on the remaining negative, he submitted it to the Venice International Film Festival, where it was featured in 2016.

Thanks to the London screenings, now public audiences can see The Nights of Zayandeh-rood for themselves and form their own opinions about the long-silenced film.

About Brigit Katz

Brigit Katz is a freelance writer is based in Toronto. Her work has appeared in a number of publications, including NYmag.com, Flavorwire and Tina Brown Media's Women in the World.

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