This article appeared on page G – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle.
The Iranian state is engaged in a ferocious war. No, not the nuclear standoff. This one is fought over the airwaves. And in recent months, the Islamic Republic of Iran’s propaganda machine has proven itself smarter than we think.
The state-run TV in Iran has been facing major competition since 2000, when Iranians in America started broadcasting banned entertainment, news analysis and commentary not allowed into their homeland.
Dissidents’ satellite TV broadcasts, mostly from California, home to a large population of Iranian Americans, have prospered. There are more than 20 satellite TV stations, stationed in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto, run by the dissidents broadcasting into Iran 24 hours a day. More than a dozen satellite radio stations are also broadcast into Iran.
With the exception of the U.S.-backed Voice of America, these satellite TV stations have small budgets. As a result, their programs mostly broadcast banned pop singers’ concerts and poignant criticism of the Islamic regime.
The Iranian state has responded by outlawing satellite dishes and jamming the signals at several crucial political periods – but these measures haven’t been nearly as brilliant as the latest strategy: entertaining the viewer.
With huge budgets provided by the state, new stations in Iran have produced extravagant TV series such as “Nargess,” “Zero Degree Orbit” and “The Forbidden Fruit.” The latter, for example, tells the story of a passionate love affair between an aged religious man who is married and a young, beautiful and independent woman – unprecedented since the revolution almost 30 years ago.
Beyond the amusement and entertainment, however, is a prefabricated message. Naturally, my family and I have found ourselves caught up in the latest chapter of this propaganda war.
Every week, for the past couple of months, my immigrant family has gathered on Friday nights in the living room of my parents’ three-bedroom apartment near UCLA to watch “Zero Degree Orbit,” an extraordinary program that some might call a historical soap opera. Trust me, it’s a far cry from the programming previously offered up by a state network better known for its drab entertainment and drab dress codes.
The 30-part series has created a huge buzz among Iranians in California as well as the relatives we left behind in Iran. The program, set in the 1930s and ’40s, focuses on an often overlooked period of Iranian history when the country was under the occupation of Allied forces. The main plot is amusing, cleverly written and multilayered, complete with parallel love stories that stretch across geographical as well as religious, ethnic and class lines. It’s nothing less than luscious.
On the show, a beautiful French actress, without the usual strict dress code, plays the role of a Jewish French girl, Sara, during World War II in Paris and Tehran. She’s in love with a Muslim – yes, a very handsome Muslim, whose name actually means “dear” in Persian. Her love story with this clean-shaven and articulate man reaches its peak when Sara actually takes her lover’s arm in the last episode.
While you may be ho-hum about this, our jaws dropped when we watched him touch her. You just don’t see this on state-run Iranian television. Remember, the guys who run this little network are still in censorship mode. Never before has a director been able to pass Islamic red lines to actually show a man and woman’s intimate relations on the screen.
Despite hard-liners’ objection in the parliament, Hassan Fathi, the screenwriter and director of the series, has the state authorities’ blessings to show scenes of flirting, romantic gestures, loving gazes and even (gasp, gasp) a direct touch between a man and a woman. Wow.
As much as the series is appealing, it also reveals its crafted message wrapped inside the love stories. What the viewers get in exchange for skin and beautiful strands of non-Iranian women’s hair is a skillfully designed plot in which beguiled Jews with a conscience are manipulated and killed by Zionist Jews. Two intellectual Jews, a French and an Iranian, are mysteriously slain by Zionist agents in France and Iran in this fictitious story imbued by historical events.
Their sin is to have voiced their dissent with the Zionist agenda, namely to encourage and fund Jewish immigration to Palestine to help establish the state of Israel.
Both killings are unraveled by a patriotic yet subservient government official who comes to represent the archetype of the eternally oppressed Iranians – those who fight for the independence of Iran and the rule of law in the country.
Many of my fellow Iranian American friends are furious with the TV series. They are angry at the misrepresentation of an actual junior Iranian diplomat, Abdol Hossein Sardari, who did in fact save the lives of many Iranian and French Jews in Nazi-occupied Paris by providing them with Iranian passports.
But Iran’s propaganda machine has an agenda of it own.
In “Zero Degree Orbit,” a decadent Germanophile diplomat tied to the Shah receives money in exchange for blank passports for stranded Iranian Jews under Nazi rule in Paris. But it is the handsome Muslim lover in “Zero Degree Orbit” who helps Sara and her mother escape to Iran by risking his own life.
Corruption in the weak Iranian state and lawlessness are among the main themes of “Zero Degree Orbit.” The title is taken from the subservient official’s short speech while unjustly imprisoned for killing a corrupt politician. The firing squad ordered by the debauched royal family in the TV series is reminiscent of nationalist army officials loyal to Mossadegh’s government in the 1950s – officials who were brutally killed by the U.S.-backed Mohammad Reza Shah’s regime.
Before his death, the subservient official states that as long as Iran is ruled by bribable German, British, or U.S.-supported politicians, no real reform will take place, forcing the Iranian people to always regress, never marching forward. His unjust death brought tears to many viewers’ eyes.
Growing up in Iran in the 1980s, I remember how the state-run TV was filled with anti-Israeli propaganda, strong disdain for any symbols of ancient Persian monuments, and no mention of the Holocaust anywhere in TV or our textbooks.
“Zero Degree Orbit” signals a different era; one in which the state goes as far as allowing foreign actresses to appear unveiled in TV series; showing the Holocaust, the glorious Persian empire and portraying love between a Jew and a Muslim without mandatory conversion to Islam, only to cloak their old messages in a new shroud.
This particular TV series has displayed historically fictitious conspiracy plots that are believable to the average Iranian because Iranian history is filled with conspiracies – including the CIA-sponsored coup that overthrew Mossadegh’s nationalist government.
In the end, though, the state-run TV loses on its own premises – savvy viewers know they will watch only what their political ruling bosses will ultimately allow on their TV screens. Despite Fathi’s supreme directing, coquettish French actress and beautiful cinematography, “Zero Degree Orbit,” with its fascinating conspiracy tales, remains a conspiracy at its best.
NOT LIVE, BUT IT’S DIRECT FROM IRAN
Iran has established two satellite TV stations in Persian as well as Press TV (in English) and Al-Alam (in Arabic).
With huge budgets, these stations produce extravagant TV series such as “Nargess,” “Zero Degree Orbit and “The Forbidden Fruit,” which are featured on Iranian satellite TV stations in the United States.
There are more than 20 satellite TV stations in Los Angeles, San Francisco and Toronto that are run by dissidents broadcasting into Iran 24 hours a day.
In addition, more than a dozen satellite radio stations are also broadcast into Iran to which Iranians listen in their cars via short waves.
In the late 1990s, Iran banned satellite dishes, but the measure has not succeeded: There are an estimated 4 million dish holders in Tehran and 20 million viewers across Iran.
California, particularly Los Angeles, is home to a huge Iranian community – and the
largest number of Iranian satellite TV stations in the United States.
In the Bay Area, the Iranian TV channel is Appadanna (ww.ipntv.com/main/Appadana_TV).
Access to most Iranian TV series is available at http://www.iran.tv.
The popular Iranian TV program “Zero Degree Orbit” (all 30 episodes) can be accessed at Iran.tv/tv/historical/madaar.htm.
Elham Gheytanchi teaches sociology at Santa Monica College. She writes about Iranian politics and culture.
Original story: here