The Politicization of Cinema: How Movies Are Employed to Support the Iranian Regime?


Over the past years, the Iranian regime managed to develop multiple media tools, with the aim of polishing Iran’s image abroad and boosting popular support for the regime at home. Iranian youth are the primary target, as young people tend to rebel against authority, and try to change the societal culture because of the overriding influence of globalization and information revolution as well as the growing interaction with Western culture. 

In this regard, the study titled: “The Outcasts: The Start of ‘New Entertainment’ in Pro-Regime Filmmaking in the Islamic Republic of Iran” by Narges Bajoghli, research associate, Watson Institute, Brown University, United States, focused on how the Iranian regime and its supporters employ filmmaking to defend values and political attitudes of the Iranian regime in the face of mounting criticism.

“Holy Defence” Cinema 

Since 2005, the Iranian regime adopted what is known as a culture of ” New Entertainment”, which means the Iranian entertainment media that aims to restore the masses to the principles of the Iranian revolution. The Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and Basij are tasked with supporting and financing this type of media to ensure promulgating and disseminating the intended messages that support the regime among youth. 

This type of media uses works of art, which have been banned since the Iranian revolution in 1979, such as pop songs, and employs actors to embody the roles of criminals and corrupt people, with emphasis on the revolutionary model represented by the IRGC in pro-Iranian regime films.

One cannot say that the dependence of the Iranian regime on media to promulgate ideological messages is something new. Since the outbreak of what is called the “Islamic Revolution” in Iran in 1979, there has been growing interest in using the recorded tapes, posters of revolutionary-figures and posters of those killed in the Iran-Iraq war and war movies or what is called the “Holy Defence” cinema to advance the goals of the revolution. From the start, the Iranian regime realizes the importance of media in nation-building and counteracting American soft power, which the regime calls the “War of Ideas”. 

Such role of media gained more importance during the Iran-Iraq war, as the Iranian State radio produced war documentaries, in addition to setting up an office specialized in war movies at the Farabi Cinema Foundation. The study notes that war-related works of art focused on the link between war and religious events by summoning up the events of Karbala and Imam Hussein Bin Ali and the value of sacrifice.

Fostering Iranian Values

The Outcasts trilogy, the first of which was introduced in 2009, narrates the story of a group of young criminals who decided to go to the front during the Iran-Iraq war for several reasons, including a desire to take photos, not fighting, but after knowing a member of the volunteer pious Basij forces, their thoughts change. As a result, they join the Iranian forces and at the end of the film, they die in the war. 

Bajoghli says that she chose this movie because of its success and reach to a large segment of young men, and though this movie qualifies as a war movie, it managed to spread even among opponents of the Iranian regime. 

The study suggests that the movie wanted to steer away from the stereotype of the ideal Iranian soldier who does not make any mistakes, as prevailed in the 1980s and 1990s movies. The goal of involving such characters in these movies is to maximize their impact on young people, while stressing that it is possible to turn criminals and the corrupt into good people, and thus they can join Basij Forces.

Moreover, the movie tried to clean up the image of Basij, where the character playing the role of Basij member gets closer to a group of offenders, seeks to learn their language and their games to earn their trust, and ultimately persuades them to attend prayers. This way of outreach to people is different from “resorting to force” that the IRGC and Basij members used to follow against any non-Islamic behavior. 

Although the movie is considered a pro-regime one and promotes its principles, it uses Iranian popular songs, including banned songs by Iranian singers living in Los Angeles, it even uses the melody of one of the known anti-regime songs at the end of the film, changing only words to talk about the glorification of war rather than rejecting injustice. According to the study, this sends a tacit message about the possibility of dissuading young opponents through the Basij efforts, as the movie shows- how the life of criminals changed after meeting a member of Basij.

The study adds that even though the film was technically weak, it presents the principles of the Iranian Revolution in a way close to the public, which boosts loyalty among young people. In addition, the film reflects Basij and IRGC’s growing role in formal and informal policies. 

Masoud Dehnamaki, the film director and former head of Ansar-e Hezbollah in Iran, argues that “methods of advancing the revolution and its principles evolve with time. Initially, it was fighting on the front, then disseminating the principles in books and magazines, but now cinema is the perfect way to cherish the values of the revolution”.

Credibility Dilemma 

Though the “Sinners” movie was a big hit, it was widely criticized by Iranian newspapers, because it was viewed as contradicting Islamic teachings and the teachings of the Iranian Islamic revolution. Accusations arose since the movie employed criminal characters that had been banned in cinema after the revolution for their bad behavior, thus the audience admiration of the movie may be due to nostalgia and longing to pre-revolution cinema. 

Nevertheless, the study maintains that the movie achieved its goal of supporting the regime as the movie targets mainly two types of audiences: First, youth or post- Iran-Iraq war, to ensure that they can defend their homeland. The second one is Basij and Ansar-e Hezbollah, where it urges them to change the way they communicate with the public and recognize that resorting to force is not always the best choice.

The study concludes that this type of unconventional movies, which has come to employ characters akin to opposition figures, aims to maintain the revolutionary values, enhance national pride, unite the public, IRGC and Basij. And that this use of cinema in augmenting the regime has grabbed the attention of broad sectors in the Iranian society, and a great number of followers of Iranian cinema abroad, albeit implicit propaganda messages in such movies have a negative impact on their credibility and potential to polish Iranian regime’s image abroad. 


Narges Bajoghli (2016): The Outcasts: The Start of ‘New Entertainment’ in Pro-Regime Filmmaking in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Middle East Critique, DOI: 10.1080/19436149.2016.1245529

Review by: Muna Salama Mohamed, PhD student, Faculty of Economics and Political Science, Cairo University 

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