Geopolitics of Drugs: Drug Addiction in Iranian Film

Geopolitics of Drugs: Drug Addiction in Iranian Film
Geopolitics of Drugs: Drug Addiction in Iranian Film

Geopolitics of Drugs: Drug Addiction in Iranian Film

This week, we've been looking at the role of illegal drugs in nations around the world.  And now we'll turn our attention to the nation with the highest rate of heroin addiction in the world - Iran. Today in his regular film commentary, Milos Stehlik of Facets Multimedia examines how drugs are depicted in films in Iran...

Films about drugs can be quickly reduced to  formulas. In some films, drug use leads to a psychedelic experience – best illustrated by the 1970s drive-in movies of the Roger Corman era. There are also more serious attempts to depict altered states of consciousness like Alain Resnais' Je t'aime je t'aime or Ken Russell's Altered States.

In a second category, a filmmaker tries for a realistic or a hyper-realistic depiction of the drug lifestyle; Trainspotting comes to mind.

The third group of films tries to penetrate the psychological and social issues which are at the root of drug addiction – filtering the experience through a humanistic lens. It is this third category which Iranian filmmakers have largely adopted.

In Iran, where the incidence of drug use, particularly heroin and opium, is huge and growing. Iranian filmmakers have been dealing with this issue for a long time, but their struggle to draw attention to the problems of drug addiction has not been an easy one.

The most recent victim of censorship is Dariush Mehrjui, one of the founders of contemporary Iranian cinema, and his film Santouri. The censors wanted certain scenes with the film's female protagonist, Hanieh, removed, and there was a rumor that they objected to Mehrjui's use of the name Ali for a drug addict, because this is also the name of the first Imam and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad. The subject of Santouri is a successful musician who falls to heroin addiction and ends up among Tehran's growing legions of junkies.

Rakshan Bani-Etemad, a leading woman filmmaker with an extensive career of features and documentaries, has focused on the issues of drug use in both documentaries and narrative films. In an interview with Alissa Simon, Bani-Etemad says drug use among the young is growing because of the many social and economic pressures they now face. Drug addiction is amplified by Iran's geographical position as a route for narcotics smuggling, especially from neighboring Afghanistan. She says according the UN statistics, Iran has the highest rate of heroin and opium addiction in the world; one in 17 people is a regular user.

In Bani-Etemad's most recent feature film, Mainline, she focuses on a middle-class Iranian family.  Sara, the protagonist, is a bride-to-be who gets cold feet just before the wedding. The mother, Sima, figures out what's going on. Despite Sara receiving regular methadone treatments, she's gone off and gotten a heroin fix. Mainline follows mother and daughter as they make a difficult journey to a drug treatment center near the Caspian sea. Mainline offers an affecting look at the daughter's suffering and mother's efforts to protect her, and casts the suspicion that the daughter supports her habit by prostitution.

In her previous film, Under the Skin of the City, Bani-Etemad broke the rules of Islamic filmmaking in Iran by showing a woman's hair being washed and giving us a glimpse of a woman dancing. Set in a working class family, which the mother, Tuba, tries to hold together, Under the Skin of the City becomes a daring portrait of the social problems affecting Iranians. The son of the family in Under the Skin of the City dreams of success, which means getting out of Iran. For this, he needs money for a visa, and when a scheme concocted with his father to sell the house falls apart, he takes the quick-fix of a job driving a truck filled with drugs across Iran to the Turkish border.

Just how difficult it is to tackle the issue of drugs in films is revealed by Pouran Derahkshandeh, whose film Candle in the Wind dealt with a family getting separated because of addiction, AIDS and the use of ecstasy pills. But she says depicting women drug addicts in Iranian cinema is difficult because of the restrictions Iranian cinema places on the portrayal of women in film: “It is easy to show a boy going toward drug addiction, but there is a restriction in showing a girl…we don't like to see the ugly situation women face by addiction.”

In a report in The Scotsman, a reporter, Angus McDowall visited a drug treatment center in Tehran named Persepolis which wanted to open a new center for women only but couldn't secure the funding.

Despite the fact that drug use is a criminal offense punishable by lashing or even execution, drug use has soared, fueled by unemployment among the growing young population and the easy availability drugs. There are a 1.2 million drug addicts in Iran and 800,00 regular users, but NGOs say that the true figures are much higher...


Milos Stehlik's commentaries are generally broadcast Fridays during the noon hour of the Worldview program on Chicago Public Radio, 91.5 FM. Views expressed are personal views of the author and not necessarily those of Facets Multimedia or Chicago Public Radio.