IN COVERSATION WITH OMID MIRNOUR AND DIANA HELMICH
In January 2023, roughly four months after the start of the Iranian protests after the murder of activist Mahsa Amini, German-Iranian filmmaker Omid Mirnour published his short film ‘Corruption on Earth’ on Youtube. Originally published in German, Mirnour uploaded the film dubbed in Farsi and English (with Spanish subtitles) as well in order to reach a broad as possible audience. The film, satirically titled ‘Corruption on Earth’, takes shape in the form of an award ceremony and entangles fictional footage with actual, real life citizen footage of current forms of violence which are part of daily life in Iran. Through the metanarrative of spectacle, the film offers a critical look at the current regime of the Iranian government. Diana Helmich, on behalf of MOED, spoke with Mirnour to talk about satire, art as activism, fear/lessness/, and the making of the film, which did not come without risks.
Despite those risks, however, the film was very well received, Mirnour says. ‘I thought the film would be more polarizing, but it is perceived as good. Besides the pro-regime comments that do not like the film of course, I have also received criticism that a few people cannot handle the satirical form of the film when it comes to the subject, which I can relate to’. Yet, satire is a powerful tool used in literature and film to point out the folly of a political situation. The setting of the award show in itself is a multi-layered idea: award shows are associated with the (glamorized) Hollywood film industry, which produces fictionalized narratives.
The script is flipped in this case, where the award ceremony is the fictional happening, and the footage that is being shown as part of the nomination is, in fact, real. Mirnour says that he thought about the narrative framework of the film for a very long time: ‘At the beginning, I had thought about other settings, such as a conversation between two Iranian women or a discussion at the dinner table of an Iranian family. But these settings were too simple for me, so I came up with the setting of an award ceremony to present everything in an exaggerated context. The initial dismissal from the political powers about the unrest actually gave us Iranians the feeling that the regime was being awarded a prize for its deeds. In addition, I wanted the political leadership in Iran to clearly recognize and express its crimes and not always just deny and cover up. So at least in my film they are telling the truth for once’.
A satirical look at ‘the best regime on earth’.
In the film’s fictional award ceremony, Iran is awarded the ‘best regime of the world’; they speak of the murder of Mahsa Amini and show footage of her arrest and speak about the mental and physical torture she endured in police custody. The award presenter satirically announces that ‘rarely has a person died for less, but isn’t less sometimes more? With this performance, Iran really stood head and shoulders above the rest. Really extraordinary!’. Indeed, Mirnour heavily plays with the medium of satire in order to show the absurdity of the current regime. Mirnour says that for him, ‘satire was the most suitable means of depicting the absurdity of the Iranian regime. The film is based on completely true events, the only thing that was exaggerated or satirical is the laudatory speech of the presenters and that of the audience. What does that do to you? In my opinion, the clapping of the audience in my film at the brutal images resembles a silence, which unfortunately many people have made and still do. Because fiction and reality blur together, and these satirical aspects come into play, it makes my film an emotionally unbearable work: sadness, anger, and incomprehension all come together’. The fictional and diverse audience in the film is shown to clap detachedly as the grueling images, as well as the harrowing details of torture, are presented to them.
One of the award show presenters is a woman, notably dressed in a low-cut gown without a hijab, also taking on a slightly detached tone. Once the Iranian president comes up to accept the reward, she is shown to ask to step to the background and put on a hijab. It is here, in the moment where she literally becomes a second row trinket, silenced and covered, that her emotions break through to the viewer. She is visibly upset. The screen turns to black, offering a very sobering statistical look at the sad reality of the current happenings in Iran. We are shown one last scene of the woman in the bathroom, looking in the mirror. Here, she takes off her hijab, whilst her expression turns to an anger fueled image of the power to fight back. During this scene, an Iranian song is playing. The significance of the song entitled “Sar Oomad Zemestoon”, which makes this scene all the more powerful, is that it ‘was already sung in earlier Iranian revolutions and is therefore a cross-generational song that triggers emotions in all Iranians’ (Mirnour).
Other forms in which the film plays with irony as satire is that the actions of the government are not condemned with words. Indeed, if one would read the script, the Iranian Regime is awarded (literally and figuratively) for their actions. Yet, the combination of this award ceremony and the violent, real life citizen footage of the protests shown together form its own condemnation or form of protest to what is happening in Iran. The way the Iranian government is announced, the way that a fictional Khamenei appears to accept the award, the acceptance speech in which he gives justifications of the regime, juxtaposed next to the violent citizen footage that is shown at the same time (in the way fragments are shown when a film receives an award) show the viewer that the opposite of what is being said is actually true: with its continuous and various forms of human rights violations, Iran is not the best regime on earth. Quite the opposite.
Satirising ‘Corruption on Earth’
The use of the death penalty is widespread in Iran. Justification of the death penalty takes its form in grueling ways, which are detailed at length in the film. The death penalty is used at large to suppress the uprising towards the Islamic Regime. Rape, detention and torture have been tools deployed for decades by the government to maintain the state’s apartheid. One of the justifications of the violence is through vaguely formulated verdicts such as “corruption on earth” (mofsed-e-filarz) and “enmity towards God” (moharebeh). The reappropriation of the vague term used by the regime to describe the regime in itself is a ironic move that dictates the satirical foundation of the film’s theme. Mirnour says that ‘by corruption on earth, I am clearly referring to the entire Iranian regime. They are really one of the most corrupt people in this world, but presume to condemn others for corruption on earth and even kill them legally according to Iranian law. They steal the money of the people and are really very rich people who send their children to Western countries like the United States or Canada. They live there in high luxury, while the Iranian people suffer greatly from poverty. The government is currently, apparently, taking tons of gold and money outside the country, so it is literally stealing from its own people’.
Art as Activism
In Mirnour’s own words, ‘art as activism is probably one of the most important forms of activism in my opinion. Art is transnational and reaches many people and makes them think about a topic.
Art manages to process information in a different way and points out the grievances more clearly. The Islamic government is afraid of artists, as you can see from the imprisoned Iranian artists. They jailed filmmakers, singers, actors, dancers for protesting through their art. For example, some actresses only let themselves be portrayed without a headscarf and were imprisoned for it, others wrote a song about the social suffering of the Iranian people and were imprisoned for it, the list is unfortunately very long’.
‘But’, Mirnour continues, ‘it also shows that art can hit the Iranian government hard. It bothers them extremely. The Iranian regime publicly threatened Charlie Hebdo after the publication of cartoons of Khamenei. The Iranian government either imprisons artists, kills them, or expels them from the country. Under this pressure, all the more courageous works of art are created with which many artists in Iran risk their lives or are confronted with risks themselves abroad. Filmmaker Jafar Panahi had to go on hunger strike to be released on bail after nearly a year. Nevertheless, he was banned from working and is not allowed to make any more films for twenty years. I know some filmmakers from Iran who are increasingly defending themselves against the government through their films and who are currently producing works critical of the regime even without official filming permits. So art and movies are very important elements in this revolution. I have planned further film contributions as well to support the Iranian revolution’.
With the Iranian government heavily pursuing everyone that expresses any form of criticism against the current regime (as shown in the short film), the production of this movie was not without its challenges. Mirnour says that casting was ‘extremely difficult, because there were many actors and actresses of Iranian origin who actually wanted to participate in the project, but were too fearful. Many people did not want to be mentioned in the credits as they feared to be cyberattacked by the Iranian secret service’. Even in Germany, there are Iranian informants who attend the protests, and stalk social media of (women) activists talking about the Iranian revolution.
As is shown in the short Making-Of, also included at the bottom of this article, the actors who participated expressed this fearfulness, as well as feeling a strong urge to still participate in the fight for justice and freedom. It is true though, that fearlessness does not stand separated from fear itself. In order to be fearless, one needs to feel the initial sense of fear to begin with, and with all the prosecutions and executions in Iran, there is much to be feared – there is also much to be feared in not standing up for rights, justice, and freedom. And indeed, it is the latter fear which persists and evolves into fear/lessness/. Mirnour says that ‘I did not let myself be influenced by the fears of others’, who had advised him to tone the film down significantly, and not mention Khamenei’s name. Mirnour continues saying ‘for me, it even had a motivating effect that I am doing something that not everyone dares to do. I cannot enter Iran anymore, but it was more important for me to take a stand and to be able to enter a free Iran again someday’. Because, as Mirnour succinctly puts it in the Making-Of: ‘if we are no longer afraid, what is left for the government to do against us?’
After ‘Corruption on Earth’ was released, Omid Mirnour reached out to MOED to ask us to circulate the film around our network. As Mirnour has said, art and film have a way of reaching different audiences, it reaches many people and allows them to think differently about topics. So, as MOED, we ask to watch, share, think, resist. Sign petitions, take in refugees, show your displeasure about it politically by sharing this video or by commenting, but also standing up in your work or in the function you hold and saying no, we resist.
Watch the Short Film ‘Corruption on Earth’ by clicking on this link.
(Note: Due to Youtube’s policy on ‘age-restricted content’, the video could not be embedded in the article directly.)
Watch the Making-Of here: