On Tuesday, Fox News reported that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had levied criticisms against the film “American Sniper,” which has earned over 300 million dollars at the US box office since its opening in December and has been the subject of a great deal of discussion and debate among American citizens.
While acknowledging that he has not seen the movie, Khamenei nonetheless criticized it on the basis of plot synopses by others, saying it “encourages a Christian or non-Muslim youngster to harass and offend the Muslims as far as they could.”
“You are seeing what sort of propaganda there are against Muslims in Europe and the US,” Khamenei added.
It is difficult to assess what these criticisms are based on. The film is based on the true story of Chris Kyle, an American Navy SEAL sniper during the Iraq War, and it depicts not only his success in that role but also his moral struggle with it and the post-traumatic stress disorder that he suffered as a result. Kyle’s own faith is not an aspect of the plot, and the film makes no obvious statements about Islam, Christianity, or religion in general. It is, in its simplest terms, a war drama.
As difficult as it is to understand Khamenei’s comments in terms of the actual content of the film, it is equally difficult to understand why those comments were reported by an Iranian state-run newspaper three weeks after they were delivered to a meeting in the Iranian parliament of those representatives affiliated with the country’s few tolerated religious minorities.
One explanation may be that by using a recent film to make a political statement, the state-run media is able to suppress the implicit political statements of another story from the world of international film.
On the same day that Khamenei’s comments were printed, the Associated Press reported that the top prize at the Berlin International Film Festival on February 14 had been given to the latest film by Jafar Panahi, an Iranian dissident filmmaker who has continued making movies in Iran despite a 20-year ban handed down against him by authorities in 2010.
Since that time, Panahi has been banned from traveling, but he has been a symbol of opposition to Iran’s censorship and repression at various international film festivals in the past four years. The AP points out that he was invited to serve on the festival jury at Berlin in 2011, where his seat was left symbolically empty.
If Panahi’s story does not remain buried by Iranian state media, it would presumably be difficult for the country’s leadership to keep up the narrative that claims that Western film industries are used for propaganda while the heavily restricted Iranian film industry is not.