Films from “Banned Countries” / Part I

Iran, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Chad, Somalia, North Korea and Venezuela – they're all on the American government’s latest travel ban, greenlit by the Supreme Court last week pending appeal.

They’re also all countries undergoing severe hardships – civil war, financial collapse, authoritarian rule, humanitarian disaster, massive migration, militant groups, you name it.

But from strife can come artistic inspiration, and filmmakers from these countries or simply interested in them are finding ways to share their stories with the rest of the world – once even smuggling a film out on a thumb drive hidden in a cake.

In honor of those directors and their stories, and to celebrate Saudi Arabia’s lift this week on a 35-year movie theater ban, here is Part I of a two-part series on movies from or about “banned countries.”

A Banned Director’s Taxi Ride

In the first 15 minutes of Jafar Panahi’s dash cam filmed “Taxi,” we meet Iranians debating capital punishment, dealing in pirated DVDs of banned movies and shows, and skirting rigid inheritance laws.

It’s a lot of social scrutiny in a short amount of time. The Iranian authorities apparently thought so too, refusing to allow it to screen in Iran despite a top prize at the Berlin Film Festival, claiming it spread “misunderstandings” of their country.​​

Panahi was banned in 2010 from making movies. He also isn’t allowed to leave Iran, but he keeps managing to sneak work out. His ironically-titled “This is Not a Film” was on the USB sent to Cannes in a cake in 2011, an event that plays a role in “Taxi.”

The fact that he’s out filming on the streets of Tehran seems daring. The view outside his windshield is that of a modern metropolis. But the view inside shows a people grasping at freedom under tyranny.

The highlight is when Panahi’s smart-talking niece hops in and starts filming him for a class project. She’s constrained by absurd censorship guidelines – most of which “Taxi” has already broken.

The whole affair feels like an inside joke. Only there’s nothing funny about it.

An Iranian Journalist’s Arrest

Directed by Jon Stewart (yes, that Jon Stewart) and starring Gael García Bernal, “Rosewater” is based on the hair-raising book by Iranian journalist Maziar Bahari, who was imprisoned and tortured for his 2009 coverage of the disputed Iranian presidential elections and subsequent protests.

Stewart smartly squeezes some of this gripping historical context into the movie through voiceovers, documentary footage and superimposed images and words, including trending hashtags and headlines from the period.

Bahari’s story has other intrinsic appeal as well in its principled hero’s fight for his life in a country on the brink of revolution.

But Stewart’s “Rosewater” almost blows it by pandering too clearly to a Western audience. It wasn’t filmed in Iran, for obvious reasons, though there is footage of Tehran.

More irksome, it was shot in English with mostly non-Iranian actors. García Bernal justifies his casting in the second half of the film when Bahari triumphs over the hopelessness of prison. But in the first half, his Bahari seems more wide-eyed witness than worldly reporter.

In real life, Bahari today helps fight for freedom of expression in Iran – no small job.

A Syrian Father’s Desperate Search

“Inescapable” is set in Damascus months before civil war broke out in 2011, but it was filmed in Johannesburg. Shooting outside the Middle East was one of several concessions the Canadian-born director of Syrian descent, Ruba Nadda, had to make to get her film produced.

As she told Filmmaker Magazine, other concessions included the hiring of a well-known American actor (a reasonably believable Marisa Tomei playing a Syrian woman) and a genre shift from character drama to a more marketable thriller.

The story follows a former Syrian military officer (Alexander Siddig, reunited with Nadda after 2009’s seductive “Cairo Time”) who was forced to flee to Canada as a young man under suspicious circumstances and now must face his past when his daughter disappears in Damascus.

The use of English here is explained by the main character’s new life in Toronto – his Arabic has supposedly gone stale. It’s one of several inconsistencies in the script that undercut the talented Siddig’s performance.

Where Nadda’s film feels most genuine is on the margins of the spy tale, in the portrayal of everyday people forced to live under a palpable oppression, and in the careful set design that has recreated a dated, ominous Damascus. These are tantalizing glimpses of the film she might have made with full creative freedom.

Nadda told IndieWire she wants to “shine a spotlight on my culture and heritage and show we’re no different than you.”

Movies have that special power to create proximity with people far removed from our own lives. It’s up to us to watch them.


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