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Brooklyn, New York (VBS.TV) -- VICE visited Iran to document the country's prestigious, internationally recognized film culture. It was April 2009, just a few months ahead of the national elections that sent the country into a series of bloody revolts, clearly the calm before the storm. There were no signs that national discontent was brewing. Instead, there was the sense that the country was ready to dispense with its own personal George Bush -- Mahmoud Ahmadinejad -- through free and fair elections. People would politely smile and shrug when we mentioned his name.
It was the spring, and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs had just released their new album that month, and I had "Zero" in heavy rotation on my iPod. Things were so calm and nonchalant that I even contemplated shooting a music video for the song on the streets of Tehran. The idea was to get some local girls to push regular gestures like waving and walking to the point of dance, to see how far we could push dance out into a public sphere, where it would clearly be frowned upon, if not worse. Pretty cool concept, right?
It wasn't until a few months later, after seeing bloody young Iranian protesters in those same streets, that I realized how risky that music video would have been.
Modern Iran is a place of many, many rules. Dancing in the streets in the Islamic Republic of Iran is not something I would recommend. Lots of things are taboo in Iran.
It's a nation of laws. Lots and lots of written, otherwise stated, largely assumed, often implied, always religiously motivated laws. The country is a curious confluence of laws, divine and terrestrial. The country is caught in the grip of a clerical elite that takes its cues as much from the pages of an Orwellian dystopia as it does from the pages of any sacred text. This is what makes Iranian film so amazing. It is an industry and a culture that thrives to international acclaim and prestige in the face of all of those rules and laws (or maybe because of them).
The Iranian filmmakers we met on our trip were working under conditions that we simply can't really appreciate in our free and freely decadent West.
One of the most vivid memories of the trip was a visit to an acting school where young Iranians learned the very idiosyncratic style of acting for the Iranian screen. Men and woman shouldn't touch each other in suggestive ways, like hugging or dancing cheek to cheek, and of course onscreen kissing is strictly forbidden. There hasn't been a filmed kiss in Iran since the Revolution. But the actors in this acting class were incredibly expressive, huffing, puffing, crying on cue and expressing pain and love and happiness through the cracks in the code. Watching them, I felt like I was like watching silent film actors of a hundred years ago.
And I really couldn't help but think, what do they think of Lady Gaga?