“Head Wind” - Mohammad Rasoulof (2008)

Social control of public information in Iran is the subject of the documentary film, Head Wind (Baad-e-Daboor, 2008), written and directed by Mohammad RasoulofIt would seem that making any film in Iran must be a difficult undertaking, but making a film on this particular subject must have been fraught with extra concerns.  In this instance Rasoulof came up with an entertaining and relatively even-tempered work that  essentially captured the situation and general attitudes as they exist (at least in 2005-2007, anyway), but it probably didn’t satisfy the Iranian government authorities.

The availability of public information has exploded due to the globalization of mass media access, which has had massive social impacts everywhere, usually opening the doors of opportunity to large sectors of the population. But governments in authoritarian countries such as Iran often view these developments as existential threats.  They count on their governing elites to control the masses, and they know that restricting the population’s access to information is critical to their continued governance.  Up until recently it was relatively straightforward to burn books, shut down newspapers, and restrict broadcasts to achieve their ends, but what about those communication satellites flying overhead?  They can’t block those satellite signals, so people in range with receivers will be able to tune in and watch the broadcasts.  All the public needs to do this is to have access to a satellite dish.

So not surprisingly the Iranian government has banned the private ownership and usage of satellite dishes, but ordinary Iranian people still manage to get hold of them and use them, anyway.  These satellite dishes are crucial instruments of the public’s freedom to know, and how they go about doing this is the main topic of Head Wind
The documentary narrative of Head Wind goes through roughly five general topic areas that cover a broad spectrum of public electronic media access and usage in Iran.  The focus is on ordinary people – this is the general public that wants to see other things than what is delivered over the tightly regulated government media.

1.  Television to the Provinces
The first five minutes of the film examine the small village of Makhoonik in eastern Iran [1], where electricity was only introduced three years earlier than the time of filming.  The people there now have a television relay station that enables the local people for the first time to watch public (Iranian government controlled) television.  Since this is a small, rural town where tradition dominates, the village elders are suspicious of the corrupting influences of any kind of television – even the government sponsored material.  The kids love it, though, and it is interesting to see their excitement as they watch TV. 

2.  Satellite Dish Entrepreneurs
The big cities have already gone through this initial exposure to television that is covered in the first segment of this film.  What the more sophisticated urbanites want now is access to the richer and more diverse international media.  So this next section switches to the big city of Tehran, where despite the government prohibition, vast numbers of people have installed satellite dishes on their apartment building rooftops or in window frames.  The film focuses here on two individual private entrepreneurs who procure and install the dishes for their clients.  Advertising is done by word-of-mouth, but both of these dish installer have plenty of eager customers.  In fact from the estimates given, it seems that at least 70% of the people in Tehran have access to satellite TV. 

The electronics are imported via the black market, but the dishes themselves are made by local metalsmiths, who make the dishes as side operations to their ordinary business of making containers and fencing material.

3.  The People’s Views
Throughout the film there are people who face the camera and express their views concerning access to the satellite TV channels.  There are always two basic concerns acknowledged:
  • immoral content that could “corrupt” the public and lead to a deterioration of public morality.
  • political views and revelations that could lead to public dissatisfaction with the government.

The government, of course, says they are only concerned about public morality, but everyone knows that their primary worry is the second issue – people might learn a truth that the government doesn’t want them to know.

The film depicts a relatively broad spectrum of satellite users, including even an enterprising herdsman who powers his electronics with a petrol-powered electric generator.  Even some Basiji and Muslim mullahs express their views, which are, of course, scathing with respect to public media access.  The two that are interviewed both solemnly affirm that noone in their horizon uses satellites, which is probably something that they are trying to get themselves to believe, if not the film viewers. 

But in fact satellite dishes are everywhere, even in the pastoral villages.  One villager points out that the women of his village are not allowed to watch any of those films on satellite TV.  What about him?, he is asked.  “Very rarely,” he says, cautiously.

4.  The Police
Of course, since satellite dishes are illegal, there is always a danger of getting caught and punished.  The film shows how the police regularly go onto apartment rooftops and destroy satellite dishes that they find.  And the people just go out and buy new ones again in an endless game of cat and mouse.  In Iran, by the way, there is a rather strong cultural tradition, almost an unwritten law,  that while the government can be very strict about public morality on the street, it is not generally acceptable for the government to enter into and interfere with life in private dwellings [2].  So people who surreptitiously place satellite dishes (often homemade ones) in their windows can often get away with it.

5.  Other Media
The last part of the film goes beyond satellite dishes to cover other media, including, of course, the Internet.  A former journalist of a shutdown reformist newspaper talks about how he and others get around the Iranian Internet censors by using proxy servers.  This is another cat-and-mouse game, since the government can block a proxy server address when they discover it, but a new one will soon pop up and offer an alternate route around the authorities.

Besides the peoples' directly accessing the Web, there is the widespread exchange of DVDs containing movies that have been acquired by various means.  There are even underground professional dubbing studios that dub non-foreign-language films into Farsi [3] and perform subtle graphical edits that make the dubbed films suitable for general audiences in Iran. Again, all this is accomplished by means of enterprising Iranians, such as the cheerful diminutive DVD librarian shown here, who are in the private business of providing people with what they want.  As part of this underground media culture, there are also underground recording artists who make music that they could never perform in public and distribute their performances via electronic media.

One of the things I like about Head Wind is that, without preaching or harranguing, it lets the ordinary people point out the basic disconnect that lies at the heart of government media control. It all comes down to a basic misunderstanding of what information is all about. Conservative doctrines view any various dangerous (to them) influences as harmful substances.  Thus they want to control it like they control the use of alcohol – ban it, for the most part.  But information is not a substance; it is part of an interaction. The most successful societies set up norms and instruments of governance so that fruitful interaction is maximized among the constituents of society. Without widespread, fruitful interaction, the society cannot prosper. 

In this connection there are four areas of concern for successful interactive societies, which for brevity are labelled "RMDL".  The two most significant interaction types are communication interactions and the goods-exchange interactions.  To assure the safety and equity of those interactions, there need to be two public regulating mechanisms that assure the equitable and inclusive involvement of the entire society: democracy and the rule of law. Aggregating those four concepts, we can say that all successful interactive societies must provide institutional guarantees in the four RMDL areas:
  • (Human) Rights.  These include freedom of speech and, as covered in Head Wind, the freedom to watch and listen. These are fundamental forms of interaction that must be guaranteed and allowed to flourish. Those who are imprisoned merely for their conscientiously held beliefs become prisoners of conscience [4,5,6,7].
  • Markets.  There needs to be regulated exchange markets that allow the open and fair exchange of goods and services across society.
  • Democracy.  Some form of democracy involving broadly inclusive enfranchisement needs to be in place [8].
  • Law.  There needs to be a written set of laws that are made known to everyone and that can be changed by actions of the democratically-elected government. The laws provide regulation of the various interactions in the interests of the public good [7].

Note that the key to successful societies is that the RMDL institutional mechanisms enhance interactions, which include, of course, communication interaction, the message of which is information.  But traditional thinking has often seen information as a substance, which is believed to have some sort of mysterious power, independent of the associated interaction. People following this outdated line of thinking believe that simply controlling and "owning" information will give them power.  But by doing so, they restrict the entire sphere of social interactivity in their communities and thereby diminish the beneficial social externalities that come from widespread interactions on the part of the public.

Actually, even from a moral/religious perspective, it is beneficial to view information as an accessory to interaction.  The great religious messengers throughout history have all urged their followers to engage in compassionate, loving interactions with their fellow beings – interactions which are not only mutually beneficial to those involved in the interaction but also elevate the society as a whole. This is in accordance with the “Golden Rule”, which is endorsed by all religions [9]. The practice of suppressing communicative interactions may lead to quietude, but this only amounts to pious isolation and is not inherently that which elevates one to a higher level of consciousness. Confinement does not lead to virtue. Achieving a higher level of enlightenment requires loving interactions with others, not withdrawal.

The RMDL formulation is important, because all four of the RMDL institutional principles must be in place in order to assure the success of a society. If any one of them is missing, the society will suffer breakdowns.  Nowadays there are some Asian nationalists who believe that they can get away with having just a subset of the four, such as only Market capitalism and Law, without Rights and Democracy.  But I believe that they cannot reach their ful potential by following such a path; they will need to have all of RMDL to succeed in the long run.

Getting back to the people of Head Wind, you can see it written on the faces of the ordinary Iranians in the film that (a) it is interactive engagement with others that  drives their interests and (b) that satellite TV is a means to enhanced interactions.  It is similarly the same kind of personally engaged communication that sparks the underground musicians.  The faces of many of these people are animated and full of enthusiasm as they stare into the camera.  It is evident that whenever they look at the TV or computer screen, they are looking for enhanced human engagement – it is interaction that they seek.  But the naysayers, those who see information as something to be thwarted, do not see information as part of and in terms interactions.  Instead, they view information as a dangerous substance that is potentially damaging to themselves and others. Accordingly, the information suppressors punish people not just for political opposition but even just for trying to make information more freely available. So such a coercive and punitive line of thinking led to both Mohammad Rasoulof and Jafar Panahi being sentenced in 2010 to six years in prison, along with a 20-year prohibition from leaving the country, talking to the press, or participating in filmmaking [10].  The information suppressors currently hold power, but compared with the mass public, they are in the minority and are living in the past.

To be sure, the authentic way of thinking about information – that it is a component of interaction – is not obvious to everyone, whether in Iran or elsewhere. But this realization is intuited by young people, and it is implicit on the faces of the people shown in Head Wind, which is why the film stands as a valuable testament. It testifies to how an entire nation, with its rich cultural traditions that include Sufic wisdom, is working from the bottom up to find creative ways to exchange information in the face of obstruction.

  1. Makhoonik is near Sarbisheh in South Khorasan.
  2. This is discussed in some detail in Hooman Majd’s , The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran,   (Doubleday, New York, 2008).  Of course this is presumably an ill-defined boundary, and if there is a noisy party, for example, the “moral police” can storm in, claiming it is a public nuisance.
  3. Many Iranians prefer dubbed films to subtitled films.
  4. Saeed Kamali Dehghan and Anita Hunt, “Iran's Prisoners of Conscience – an Interactive Guide”, The Guardian, (21 May 2013), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/interactive/2013/may/21/iran-prisoners-of-conscience-interactive.
  5. Saeed Kamali Dehghan, “Iran Cracks down on Activists in Runup to Election”, The Guardian”, (21 May 2013), http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2013/may/21/iran-election-crackdown-rights-activists.
  6. Another human right is the right to personal privacy. So it follows that one must have the right to restrict “watching” of his or her personal affairs on the part of outsiders, such as the government.
  7. Laura Secor, "War of Words", The New Yorker, (4 Janurary 2016). 
  8. Laura Secor, "Election Monitored", The New Yorker, (7 May 2012).
  9. Tenzin Gyatso (the Dalai Lama), Towards the True Kinship of Faiths, (2000), Hachette Book Group, USA.
  10. Michael Sicinski, “When the Salt Attacks the Sea: The Films of Mohammad Rasoulof”, Cinema Scope, CS46 (2010), http://cinema-scope.com/features/features-when-the-salt-attacks-the-sea-the-films-of-mohammad-rasoulof/.

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