A Low-Budget Sci-Fi Film Shatters Iran’s Sacred Red Lines

How a spoof on the Persian classic Shahnameh satirizes the Islamic Republic

A Low-Budget Sci-Fi Film Shatters Iran’s Sacred Red Lines
A still photo from “Velayatnameh” of a robot and a supreme leader set in a satirical future. Credit: Studio Kazoo

A sci-fi film lampooning the Islamic Republic and all that its regime holds sacred premiered quietly at a nondescript venue in Los Angeles in July. The title, “Velayatnameh,” is a spoof on “Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings,” an epic by Persian poet Ferdowsi, which recounts the history of pre-Islamic Persia. The shoestring budget film is set decades in the future and features all manner of things that include a robot, quantum leaps and the requisite cat video, shattering the mystique of the supreme leader — though arguably not for most Iranians who have long since broken that taboo as evidenced by the escalating rhetoric of riot slogans.

Divided into five segments, each unfolding in a different era in the future under a new supreme leader, the film shows a progression in the timeline but not so much in reform.

Set up to emphasize the digital aspect of the image, it opens with a despairing supreme leader seated in his living room in a futuristic high-rise summoning a drone with a camera to record his mea culpa. “I tried to stop the corruption but couldn’t. You pull the curtain and find bonyads plundering the country,” he says, referring to the shadowy parastatal structures that have a stranglehold on major aspects of Iran’s economy.

“I tried to solicit the help of officials to counter this, but was unable to,” he concludes.

And then the fun starts, intertwined with dark humor and moments that tilt just this side of blasphemy, at least for a staunch supporter of the Islamic Republic.

In developing the script, filmmakers Farid Shams-Dehkordi and Brandon Fenning drew on TehranBureau.com’s investigative journalism series on corruption as well as a wide range of influences from Matt Groening’s “Futurama” to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s “The Brothers Karamazov,” making “Velayatnameh” as entertaining as it is cerebral. (Full disclaimer: Co-author Rasha Elass worked at Tehran Bureau during the initial stages of conceptualizing this film. Co-author Kelly Niknejad is an executive producer of the film.)

There is probably not much about corruption in the Islamic Republic that is shattering news to those in the know, so the filmmakers aimed to show this corruption in a way that provokes the audience, including those inside Iran, and shake them out of complacency, a task that the filmmakers say has proved to be a tightrope to walk.

“It can’t all be serious,” Shams-Dehkordi says in an interview on the sidelines of the private screening that New Lines attended, referring to the script.

And it isn’t.

One scene unfolds at a quantum mechanics lab in the holy city of Qom, where a technician, initially going about her ordinary business of the day and monitoring the science, shrieks with horror.

“What happened?” her colleague rushes in and asks.

The most unthinkable of things, it turns out, has come to pass. The supreme leader of a future era has been accidentally switched with a cat!

Concerned (and opportunistic) citizens of the Islamic Republic show up in droves, each one convinced that their beloved feline is the one. How to tell which is the true leader and which the charlatan? Scientists at the lab conduct the Turing Test (devised in the real world by Alan Turing to determine sentience in artificial intelligence) and identify the supreme cat, but does that mean all is well once again?

The film alludes to all aspects of life in the Islamic Republic, which can appear under any oppressive regime where the people feel robbed of their own sense of free will, like a robot. So what happens when a robot aptly named Gholam (Arabic for boy or servant, a term prolifically used in early Islamic text), who is so dutiful he never skips a prayer and wants to do everything right by his masters, faces an existential crisis? And how will the robot’s actions — or lack thereof — bode for those in charge?

Then things get heavy, with a scene reminiscent of Dostoevsky’s “The Grand Inquisitor,” where Christ is reprimanded for returning because His appearance undermines the Church’s supreme authority. Those familiar with the inner workings of the Islamic Republic may conjure the crackdown after the 2009 presidential election when, in order to survive, the regime targeted individuals considered until then sacred and put them behind bars. But at its essence — and without revealing the spoilers — this segment especially shatters the overarching narrative that is meant to give credibility to the supreme leader and, by extension, the Islamic Republic.

Shams-Dehkordi, who was born in Iran’s central province of Isfahan, recalled to New Lines the genesis of his film career. It was shortly after the 1979 revolution, when he moved to the capital as a child with his family.

“Because kids in Tehran made fun of my accent, I became an introvert,” he said. He found creative refuge at the atelier of photographer Kamran Adle where Shams-Dehkordi went every day after school, training his eye and honing his craft. When he moved to the United States at 16, his brother was already a director of photography on film sets, so he started working with him as a production assistant.

“Film has been the pivotal point in my life. Always,” he says.

In 2004 he met Fenning, who was just out of art school and working on animation, and Shams-Dehkordi suggested they work on a film together.

“‘Why me?’” he recalled Fenning saying. “‘You’re probably the most intelligent human being I’ve ever met, so why not you?’ I told him. So this is almost 18 years later, and we’re still working together.”

“It’s very difficult to know where my contribution begins and his ends,” Shams-Dehkordi said. “I don’t think I have 1% more than him just because I speak the language. He’s very well read in Persian. He’s read ‘Shahnameh,’ he’s read Iraj Pezeshkzad, so he’s very well versed.”

Asked how he navigates his artistic imperative to speak his mind while managing the fear of having to face the consequences, Shams-Dehkordi lamented that fear continues to paralyze his fellow Iranians, both back home and abroad.

“I grew up in a culture that raised fearful kids. Fearful of everything. Fearful of authority, all the way from your parents to the king and supreme leader. This fear and reverence of authority is ingrained in us,” he said. “We’re not raised to be brave human beings. We’re raised to be like squirrels. Just try to go somewhere that is safe and gather as many nuts as possible for the winter.”

Though unrelated, there have been threats to Iranian Americans on U.S. soil as well as recent arrests of artists in Iran. On July 29, New York City police arrested an armed man who attempted to enter the residence of Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American journalist and dissident who lives in Brooklyn. Last year, four Iranians were charged with conspiring to kidnap Alinejad and forcibly return her to Iran, according to a federal indictment. And in July, Iran arrested three filmmakers, Jafar Panahi, Mohammad Rasoulof and Mostafa Aleahmad, in the country’s latest crackdown on its cinema industry and dissent.

Those filmmakers were “not afraid in Tehran to speak their mind,” Shams-Dehkordi said. So for anyone in Los Angeles to be afraid of what they believe to be the long arm of the regime, “that’s ridiculous.”

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