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He Who Said No: Iran’s most controversial movie?

An epic portrayal of the Battle of Karbala has proven to be one of the most contested movies in Iran since the 1979 revolution
A still from the Iranian religious epic He Who Said No, which has sparked controversy in Iran, preventing its full release (rastakhizmovie.com)

He Who Said No, an epic portrayal of the Battle of Karbala, has proven to be one of the most controversial movies in Iran since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The historical religious film was first released early last year during the annual film festival but quickly faced a backlash and was pulled from theatres. The debate has continued to rage ever since, with various compromises failing to appease the two sides, and high-level politics complicating things even further.

The film, directed by the acclaimed director Ahmad Reza Darvish, depicts the uprising of Hussein ibn Ali in 680 CE against Yazid ibn Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan, the Umayyad Caliph.

Hussein bin Ali was the son of Ali ibn Abi Ṭalib, first Imam of Shia Islam, and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. He refused to pledge allegiance to Yazid, deeming his rule unjust.

The movie tells the story of Hussein as he leaves his hometown of Medina and travels to Mecca where he finds out that people in Kufa - some 170 kilometres southwest from Baghdad - have sent letters to him, asking for his help and pledging their allegiance.

While Hussein decides to travel to Iraq, his caravan is intercepted by Yazid’s army at Karbala - some 100 kilometres southwest of Baghdad - where he is killed and beheaded along with most of his family and companions.

The big-budget movie, which has been dubbed into English and Arabic, took 11 years to make. It premiered at the 32nd Fajr International Film Festival held in Tehran in February 2014 but was shown only once before it sparked outraged for allegedly distorted interpretation of history and for showing the faces of Abulfazl bin Abbas, Imam Hussein’s brother, and Imam Hussain’s sons Ali-Akbar, Ali-Asghar and Qasim, the son of Imam Hussain’s brother, Hassan.

Depicting the prophet and his household is a highly charged issue in Islam. Shia Muslims, just like Sunnis, are against showing the face of the prophet and his household, although they don’t have a problem with showing their legs and hands.

In Iran, the culture ministry gives licences to moviemakers, but this is only the first step and various hurdles may arise along the way. Parliament can always object to the subject of the movie, or the religious authorities can get involved. Iran’s culture ministry says that every year, around 80 to 100 movies are made and screened in Iran, but it does not release figures on how many get banned or edited by censors.

Darvish knew that his movie, which depicts a highly sensitive issue that arouses serious passions in Iran, would be controversial - every year Iranians across the country mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussein known as the Day of Ashura by mourning and crying over his ordeals. However, Darvish insisted that he had gained the approval of the Grand Ayatollahs while the movie was still in production.

Culture Minister Ali Jananti said that the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, had approved He Who Said No but stressed that Khamenei believes that the “fatwa” of other Grand Ayatollahs should be paid attention to and observed.  

Beside Ayatollah Alavi Gorgani, several other ayatollahs, including Grand Ayatollah Naser Makarem Shirazi and Ayatollah Hussain Vahid Khorasani, have condemned the movie, although it is unclear if they issued fatwas as Jananti said.

A still from the Iranian historical epic He Who Said No

The depiction debate

The issue appears far from clear-cut. Mohammad Taghi Fezel Meybodi, a lecturer in seminary of Qom and former adviser to ex-president Mohammad Khatami, told Middle East Eye: “There is no religious restriction to obstruct the depiction of great figures, unless showing the faces of the figures are regarded as an insult by people.

“There is no narrative in Islam or verse of the holy Koran forbidding the portrait of the great figures,” he added.

Bahzad Farahani, a well-known Iranian actor, director and screenwriter, told MEE that he was surprised the movie ran foul of some religious figures.

“There should be no problem for the movie to be screened, if Abulfazl bin Abbas isn’t insulted in the movie. But if his holiness Abulfazl bin Abbas is offended, the modifications should be applied.”

Jananti has also come out in favour of the movie. “No distortion of the history has been made in the movie,” he said back when it first stirred controversy in 2014.

A compromise was eventually agreed that Darvish would edit the three-hour movie down by an hour.  

“Some grand ayatollahs sent their representatives and saw the movie, and their logical and scientific opinions were applied on the film; besides, the other reason for shortening the movie was due to the cinemas, which aren’t able to show a movie that is 3 hours and 10 minutes long,” Darvish said.

“Therefore, we decreased the length of the movie to two hours and 10 minutes.”

After the edit, He Who Said No obtained authorisation to be screened in cinemas across Iran. However, once the screenings began in July, a group of protesters, believed to have political motives, gathered before the culture ministry building and some of the cinemas.

The protest was so intense that one woman, who was later apprehended, sliced her head open with a sword in protest. The incident caused so much of a stir that the ministry pulled the movie yet again.

The culture ministry has since said that the movie will not be shown as long as the grand ayatollahs do not give their blessings.

Amid the controversy, Deputy Culture Minister Hojatollah Ayyubi said: “Some political groups are enlarging and magnifying the issue of He Who Said No movie.”

Meybodi said: “I believe the information about the movie may have passed to the grand ayatollahs wrongly as many of them haven’t objected to the film.”

Political tool

According to him the only way that the movie could have provoked such deep controversy is if it was being used as a political tool by the hardliners in Iran who were seeking to descredit President Hassan Rouhani and his more moderate politics.

“My understanding is that the woman hitting herself in the head during protests was a sign that they are politically motivated,” Meybodi said.

“This kind of protests isn’t normal, and they just want to disrupt the activists of the ministry.”

Kouroush Narimani, a theatre director, also told MEE that he believed the Ministry of Culture should support artists and directors more than in the past.

In a statement, Darvish also said that He Who Said No had been the victim of a political deal.

He has blamed the culture minister for retreating in the face of protests, but not all supporters of the movie feel that the blame should rest with the ministry.

“The Ministry of Culture has done everything they could, the issue is not in the hands of the minister,” Farhani said.

The ministry has since scrambled to find yet another compromise.

“The solution we have found for the film and have passed it to the director is that they should put a halo of light around the faces of His Holiness Abolfazl bin Abbas and Ali Akbar bin Hussein, so that they can screen their movie in the cinemas,” the culture minister said in a statement in July.

But after all the twists, turns and concessions it remains to be seen whether Darvish – a well-known member of the so-called reform camp – will agree to this.

He has yet to make a comment on the offer, with the movie’s fate continuing to hang in the balance.