Ali G Scotten, theguardian.com
Songs of My Homeland is part love story, part propaganda to convince Arabs that Iran is a bulwark against the west and Isis
Image from article, with caption: A promotional shot from upcoming Iranian film Songs of My Homeland.
At a dusty compound in Robat Karim, a town just outside Tehran, a thickly-bearded commander in military fatigues gives a rousing speech in Arabic to a group of armed young men ready for martyrdom. The black flag of the Islamic State (Isis) flutters in the background.
Suddenly, from among a crowd of onlookers, a man yells in Farsi: “Cut! If you say it right once, it’s a wrap. If not, we’ll be re-doing this a hundred times!”
This is the set of Songs of My Homeland, a film commissioned by Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) and set for release in the coming weeks. IRIB is touting the film as a groundbreaking counter to Isis propaganda.
The target audience lies outside Iran. The dialogue is completely in Arabic and features mostly Lebanese, Egyptian and Syrian actors, although it will be dubbed in Farsi for Iranian moviegoers. Zeynab Mughniyeh, sister of the late Hezbollah operative Imad Mughniyeh, has a speaking role.
Most of the film was shot in south Lebanon, though some explosion scenes were filmed in Iran. The plot, a love story between a Muslim man and a Christian woman, sees Sara kidnapped by Isis while Nasser is away from the village arranging their wedding. Nasser must find a way to get her back. The filmmakers say the script is based on events in Rableh, Syria, probably referring to a 2012 incident in which rebels fighting the Bashar al-Assad regime reportedly kidnapped hundreds of mainly Christian villagers.
The film comes at a critical time for Iran. In the wake of a nuclear deal with world powers, the Iranians are hoping to reclaim what they deem their nation’s rightful place as a regional leader. To accomplish this, however, the Islamic Republic needs an image makeover to convince the Arab world that its rise can benefit them.
Songs of My Homeland suggests Tehran is embarking on a new phase of public diplomacy, seeking to entertain Arab audiences while conveying pro-Iranian messages - in this case that Iran is concerned with the fate of all regional inhabitants, including Sunnis and Christians, and that the main threat to the region comes from the west and its allies.
That could prove a tall order. Iran’s image has cratered in recent years, less than a decade after it was riding high on a wave of popularity on the Arab street.
Back in 2006, Tehran was basking in the perception that it was the centre of resistance against both the west, whose occupation of Iraq was in its third year, and Israel, which had just fought a brief but destructive war against Hezbollah in Lebanon. Tehran’s decades-long support for the Palestinians, as Arabs lamented their leaders’ lack of action, legitimised Shia Iran’s role in a Sunni-dominated Middle East and lent credibility to its self-professed role as defender of the Islamic world.A poll by the Washington-based Zogby Research Services in 2006 found Iran’s favourability rating in Arab and Muslim countries at around 75%. But following Tehran’s unequivocal support in 2011 for Assad crushing his predominantly Sunni opposition, the Islamic Republic has come to be seen by many as a Shia Goliath.
In late 2014, James Zogby, managing director of the polling agency, noted that by 2011 the attitude of most Arabs toward Iran had dropped by 60-80 points. Furthermore, “In our 2014 survey, when we asked Arabs whether Iran ‘contributes to peace and stability in the region’, between 74% to 88% of Jordanians, Egyptians, Saudis and Emiratis responded in the negative,” he said.
And today, relations between Iran and the Palestinian group Hamas - once the Sunni jewel in Tehran’s Islamic resistance crown - remain strained as each supports opposing sides in the Syrian civil war.
Tehran’s current public diplomacy in the Arab world appears intended to fight back against what the supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, sees as a western “soft war” against the Islamic Republic - a conspiracy that, according to Khamenei, poses a greater threat than military attack. “Economic and security infiltration is not as important as intellectual, cultural, and political infiltration,” he warned a group of Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) commanders in September.
Isis looms large in this battle. Most Iranian officials, including the supreme leader, argue that the group’s rise is the outgrowth of an effort by the US and its allies to sow discord among Muslims - to weaken them and ensure western and Israeli hegemony in the Middle East. Mohsen Rezaei, ex-commander of the IRGC and currently secretary of Iran’s Expediency Council, has explicitly claimed the US created Isis. Many Iranian officials believe the west has fabricated a distorted, violent form of Islam to frighten the global public and justify its regional interventions.
Songs of My Homeland operates within this narrative. It’s an attempt to switch attention away from Iran’s role in regional conflicts and rally the Arab public against an outside enemy. Director Abbas Rafei says that one of his goals in the film was to “uncover the false and American Islam” that the west is propagating in the region, which he suspects is part of a CIA plot to spread Islamophobia.
In the movie he also made sure to “show Isis’s American weapons and to say that most of their equipment was provided by the Zionists,” he said in an interview with Aviny Film website. According to Rafei, the west’s support for extremism has backfired, and “Isis has now become their kidnapper as well.”
With the nuclear agreement in the initial stage of implementation, the Islamic Republic is preparing for a new era. Looking forward to the easing of sanctions, European businessmen are flooding Tehran’s hotels. Iranian diplomats are returning to Vienna after being invited to engage in peace talks on Syria.
Yet, the Arab world remains sceptical over Iran’s rise. Can the Iranian entertainment industry change their minds? Probably not on its own. But popular stories on the silver screen - and fewer of Assad’s barrel bombs on the news - might be a start.