Iran's Syria intervention gets cinematic treatment

by Marc Jourdier
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Iranians buy tickets for the film "Be Vaght-e Cham" ("Damascus Time") by Iranian director Ebrahim Hatamikia at a cinema in Tehran on May 1, 2018

While Iran's presence in Syria raises global fears of an all-out conflict with Israel, one cinematic version of its intervention has been a Tehran box office triumph.

Released for the Persian new year at the end of March, "Be Vaght-e Cham" ("Damascus Time") pulled in almost 1.4 million viewers, making it the second-most popular film in the country according to cinematicket.org and is now being touted abroad.

It tells the story of father-and-son military pilots running a rescue mission for refugees in Syria, only to be caught up in a deadly hostage-taking by the Islamic State group (IS).

Filmed in Syria and Iran, it features the sort of expensive special effects rarely seen on the Iranian silver screen.

It ends with an act of melodramatic self-sacrifice as one of the main characters gives his life to prevent an attack on the presidential palace in Damascus -- an ending that reportedly left Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif with tears in his eyes when he attended a screening earlier this year.

"I have a feeling this film gives a better sense of what's happening in the region than what we see in the foreign media," said Shahabi, a student, as he left a showing in Tehran recently.

- 'Not political' -

Iran has sent military advisors, along with thousands of Iranian, Afghan and Pakistani "volunteers" to fight in Syria.

But that aspect of the intervention is barely seen in the film, which focuses on explaining "what is Daesh (IS) and what are its crimes", according to director Ebrahim Hatamikia.

Hatamikia built his career on the back of films about the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and has occasionally run into trouble with censors over his depiction of social problems.

He told AFP he is a man of the left when it comes to critiquing society but a man of the right when it comes to "defending the regime... for which we have given many martyrs."

"Damascus Time" was about presenting his "vision as a Muslim", he said.

"This film is not political. It's a human and humanitarian film. We are faced with Daesh, which displays the flag of Islam but is a satanic deviation," said Hatamikia.

He met AFP at the offices of Ouj, a production company financed by the Revolutionary Guards, as seen on memorial plaques to the country's martyrs on every floor of the building.

"The United States is always proudly announcing how they sent so many soldiers to Normandy to save humanity (during World War II), the same has been happening here in the Middle East where we wanted to help people who had the same culture and religion as us," Hatamikia said.

As well as blockbusters like "Damascus Time", Ouj has made hundreds of TV documentaries and the hugely popular comedy show, "Paytakht" (Capital), now in its fifth season, which recently had an episode in which the main family was kidnapped by IS.

Iran has couched its Syrian intervention in religious terms, saying it is "defending the shrine" of Zeinab, a granddaughter of the Prophet Muhammad and key figure in Shiite Islam.

Western powers say Iran's intervention is helping to "destabilise" the region, while Israel fears the growth of Iranian forces on its border and has launched a series of deadly air raids against their positions.

Tehran emphasises that it is in Syria at the invitation of its long-standing ally, President Bashar al-Assad, and that its support for an established government is the exact opposite of destabilising.

- 'Regrets' Panahi ban -

Despite his fervent support for the regime, Hatamikia said he "really regrets and does not understand" the decision of the authorities to ban his fellow filmmaker, the multi-award-winning Jafar Panahi, from working or leaving the country.

Panahi was blacklisted after trying to make a documentary on the mass protests of 2009.

His latest film "Three Faces" was shown at the Cannes Film Festival this weekend, but the director was banned from attending the festival by the Iranian authorities.

Following its success in Iran, "Damascus Time" is now looking for foreign markets, with its promoters saying it has already signed contracts with Japan, South Korea, Lebanon and Poland.

Iranians buy tickets for the film "Be Vaght-e Cham" ("Damascus Time") by Iranian director Ebrahim Hatamikia at a cinema in Tehran on May 1, 2018

Released for the Persian new year at the end of March, "Be Vaght-e Cham" ("Damascus Time") pulled in almost 1.4 million viewers, making it the second-most popular film in the country

Hatamikia built his career on the back of films about the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, and has occasionally run into trouble with censors over his depiction of social problems