SXSW: Two Programs Pushing the Censorship Envelope

Censorship, International issues

This week, OIF Director Barbara Jones is blogging about her experiences at her first SXSW in Austin.

March 14, 2012

Two SXSW programs about free speech were especially provocative and VERY controversial.  In both cases, the projects use humor to present the impact of censorship in closed societies.  They both experiment with how far they can push the limits to free expression–one in Iran, the other in Sharjah (UAE).

Parazit means “static”–what viewers experience when the Iranian government jams the television signal.  Thus is named a popular TV show broadcast on Voice of America’s Persian service:  Coverage of the SXSW presentation, “Iranian Outlaws: Satire Vs. Censorship“, is available at

Saman Arbabi and Kambiz Hosseini, two Iranian expats, designed a type of Jon Stewart Daily Show for Iranians.  (They have indeed appeared on Stewart’s show.)  Though the Iranian government has declared watching the show “illegal,” people use illegal satellite dishes and the Internet.  Over 800,000 have “liked” the show on Facebook worldwide and Arbabi receives dozens of photos and videos showing Iranians watching it in crowded living rooms, in a traditional tea and multigenerational get-together.  Episodes are posted on You Tube.  Arbabi receives his inspiration from ordinary Iranians, and topics range from the hijab to the hypocrisy of Islamic laws against gambling and drinking, versus real-world practice.  Also covered are food shortages and the costs of gasoline–and the often amusing government statements regarding such daily frustrations.

The two comedians and their supporters have just launched Weapons of Mouse Destruction, a social media project to stamp out government censorship in such regimes as Iran and China.  I have one of their amazing t-shirts and they are eager to partner with library groups.  What an inspiration!


I had a lot more questions about the second presentation, a movie–“The Sheik and I”–and so did the government of Sharjah (though not the same concerns as mine!).

Filmmaker Caveh Zahedi was commissioned to make a film for the Sharjah Art Foundation’s Biennial Celebration, which interestingly wanted to explore the theme of “subversion.”   Zahedi carefully checked for any restrictions and was told:  no frontal nudity, and no making fun of the Prophet Mohammed.  Puzzling to me was that Zahedi was invited in the first place!  His previous films are more than edgy and very explicit in ways that surely would bother Muslims in the UAE.  Zahedi himself says he thinks the organizers assumed that because he is an Iranian-American Muslim, he would have understood the underlying customs and traditions.  Well, he didn’t, or at least pretended he didn’t!

He decided to make the film in Sharjah, to take him family with him, to hire local “guest workers” as actors, and to use this theme: guest workers and children kidnapping the Sheik of Sharjah in order to get more labor rights for guest workers.

I had trouble with this film.  It started with the fact that I honestly didn’t think that Zahedi’s actual movie was all that good. His vision to test the limits of censorship was lost in some very troubling stereotypes and fuzzy thinking about the plot.  And it brought to me the very real ethical issue of filmmakers putting their actors in physical danger.  It seemed to me that Zahedi was more interested in his personal satisfaction as an artist than in the lives of his actors.  For example, he had one elderly gentleman–an Egyptian living in Sharjah for 30 years–play the Sheik.  If this scene had remained, this would have surely gotten this old man kicked out of the country.

Having said that, I think it is a very important film for pointing out censorship’s dilemmas, and I wish more theaters would have the courage to show it, perhaps with a discussion panel afterwards.  I was also interested that when the Sheik of Sharjah tried to ban the film worldwide, the new New York State libel tourism law was applied and Zahedi won!  He can now show the film anywhere he wants (except Sharjah), and the actors will not be harmed.  Having said that–Zahedi and his family are very nervous.  SXSW was the only film festival willing to show this, and he has been rejected from others and feels that the ethics of documentary filmmakers toward his work have been abandoned in this case due to fear of reprisals.

My third post will be about a prevailing theme here at SXSW:  privacy.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.