REPORTING FROM TEHRAN AND BEIRUT -- Iran has pulled the plug on the independent Iranian House of Cinema, an organization bringing together thousands of people in Iran's film industry.
The minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Mohammed Hosseini, said the institution was operating illegally, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported Wednesday.
According to Iranian media reports, the guild received a letter from the Culture Ministry on Tuesday in which it demanded the center halt all operations by Thursday. In December, the ministry said IHC officials had established the organization "without legal formalities" and "other illegal acts," Iranian media reported.
But critics remain skeptical and suggest the real reason for the shuttering of the film-promotion institute is political, noting that the decision comes as preparations are underway for parliamentary elections in March.
IHC's managing director, Mohammad-Mehdi Asgarpur, fired back at the Culture Ministry in a news conference, saying the decision itself is "illegal" and that the organization can only be shut down by a court ruling or by the decision of its general assembly.
"I believe this letter has no legal weight since disbanding a nongovernmental organization with a verdict issued by the executive power is impossible; however, we are still waiting for the court date, which is on Jan. 11," he was quoted as saying in local media reports.
The closing of the institution, active for more than 20 years, stunned some members of Iran's artist community.
"Since last night when I heard the news, I've just been really depressed," said Marzieh Vafamehr, an Iranian actress who says she was detained for starring in the film "My Tehran for Sale," deemed controversial by Iranian authorities. "I feel concern about where this will lead. Will it spread to other guilds? The House of Cinema was established around 20 years ago and the disbanding of it implies narrow-mindedness."
But Hosseini defended the decision on a talk show that aired on Iranian state TV Wednesday, calling it justified and lawful. Among other issues, he said there were problems with the organization's articles of association and the fact it held elections for its board of directors without government supervision.
Representatives from the IHC did not take part in the show. The presenter said its head had been invited to take part in a debate but was unable to make it because of a "busy schedule."
IRNA quoted Hosseini as saying that some "celebrations held in the House of Cinema show that this institute has turned out to be a politicized institute."
The center was also criticized for issuing a statement condemning the arrest of six Iranian documentary filmmakers in September last year, who were accused of working for the BBC's Persian-language service service, which the Iranian government charges is trying to incite strife in the Islamic Republic.
"The problem is deeply rooted in political trends," contended one influential Iranian film critic who declined to be named.
Iranian producer and screenwriter Fereshteh Taherpour, who previously sat on the board of the IHC, said she was pinning her hopes on a fair trial that might save the institute.
"It should not matter that some people in the House of Cinema during the election time expressed their ideas as independent citizens," she said. "I think those who have decided to disband the House of Cinema might have been ill-advised. Anyway, I do hope a fair court will judge about the destiny of House of Cinema."
-- Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran and Alexandra Sandels in Beirut
Photo: Marzieh Vafamehr, in a publicity photo for "My Tehran for Sale," says she is depressed by the shutdown of the independent film organization. Credit: UCLA Film and Television Archive.