Producing nostalgia: Iranian diaspora TV’s rebranding of the Shah

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When TV producer Mostafa Azizi returned to visit Iran six years ago, he was surprised to find that almost everyone he knew was watching the then relatively new TV channel, Manoto.

“What guaranteed the channel’s success was their access to Iranian archive footage from the period before the revolution,” he said in an interview with The Listening Post.

These images take viewers back in time and paint a glorious picture of pre-revolutionary Iran – women are walking unveiled, Iran’s royal family are dining with world leaders, arts and culture are celebrated, men and women dance together.

If Iran was so great back then, you might wonder, why did the 1979 revolution and the overthrow of the Shah ever happen?

“Just as the Iranian government selectively choses footage to create a very negative image of that time, Manoto cherrypicks glorious and beautiful archives that do not provide a true picture of historical reality to viewers,” said Azizi, who used to produce films for Iran’s state broadcaster but has not been back to the country since he was arrested in 2015 for “insulting the supreme leader” on social media.

Nearly four decades ago in Iran, protesters pulled down statues of the Pahlavi family and called for the then-Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, to step down. He was seen as a “Westoxicated” leader, disconnected from the masses and kept in power by a coup in 1953, which was backed by the CIA and British agents.

By the end of his reign, he had become a despot, obsessed with controlling newspapers, the parliament and cinema – using a brutal secret police force, the Savak, to intimidate those who crossed the line.

This nostalgia has been a generated by the Islamic Republic itself. Rather than basically creating a new generation that detests the pre-revolutionary period, they’ve actually produced a new generation that are much more interested in what that period was about.

Ali Ansari, history professor, University of St Andrews

Those mass protests became the Islamic Revolution and in 1979 a new government was formed. The regime changed but the Iranian obsession with controlling the media remains. Today, in the Islamic Republic of Iran, all broadcasters are state-controlled and satellite dishes are officially banned.

Unofficially, however, satellite dishes dot the skyline, meaning Iranians have more access than ever before to uncensored entertainment, for the most part, produced and published abroad.

Diaspora channels popped up in the immediate aftermath of the revolution, first in Los Angeles and then in Dubai, Toronto, London and other places.

Manoto, which started broadcasting out of London in 2010, has become one of the most popular.

“Manoto started its broadcast for audiences inside Iran to provide them with entertainment and news that they would otherwise not receive,” said Nazenin Ansari, managing editor of diaspora news outlet Kayhan London.

“Certainly, all the channels inside Iran are censored, certain topics are taboo. Manoto provided those topics such as monarchy, which has been the biggest taboo.”

Manoto’s stock in trade is entertainment laced with nostalgia. Politics isn’t absent from its programming – it’s just less hamfisted and glossier. The channel showcases Iran’s rich pre-revolutionary culture, the social freedoms enjoyed by Iranians, and the achievements of the Pahlavi monarchy, while skirting past the oppression, censorship, inequality and human rights abuses during the regime.

“I believe that they are targeting the middle class inside of Iran, [who] at this point in time are feeling nostalgic towards those social freedoms which were taken from them,” says Azizi.

“[Manoto’s] programmes have caused the new generation, who haven’t experienced life in the Iran of the 1970s, to now own the nostalgia that once belonged to their parents and to view that time as a lost paradise.”

Source: Al Jazeera

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