TEHRAN — As the trailer for “Argo,” an Oscar contender and a thorn in the side of the Iranian government, played in a conference room in a hotel here this month, Mehdi Tondro shook his head in disapproval.
A self-described “specialist in anti-Iranian and anti-Islamic films,” he fumed over scenes of angry Iranians storming the gates of the American Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
“We Iranians look stupid, backward and simple-minded in this movie,” Mr. Tondro said. “Hollywood is not a normal industry; it’s a conspiracy by capitalism and Zionism. We need to come up with an answer to this and other films.”
Around him sat 130 foreign guests who had been brought to Tehran by the government to debate exactly that question. It would prove harder than expected. Introduced by their Iranian hosts as “unsung heroes seeking truths,” a diverse group of people promoting “alternative thinking” had gathered to discuss what they said was the hidden agenda behind major American movies — an ideology they called “Hollywoodism.”
Leftist activists, Muslim converts and a former American senator were interviewed by a stream of Iranian state television camera crews, which introduced them as Western “professors, researchers and critics.”
Each participant had his own problems with Hollywood. E. Michael Jones, an American and the editor of Culture Wars, a conservative Christian magazine, said he was impressed by the way Iranians had managed to ban all exhibits of sexuality from their society. “There was a reason Iranians burned their cinemas during the revolution,” he said. “Their desexualization of their culture has been so efficient; I am truly impressed by that.”
Others said they were there to build bridges. Mike Gravel, a former Democratic senator from Alaska, said Hollywood had brainwashed its audiences into thinking negatively about Iran. He said it was “fundamental” to discuss the American movie industry’s ways of portraying Iran in order to prevent “an insane war.”
But the Iranians had more straightforward complaints. “Hollywood gets away with everything,” said Nader Talebzadeh, an Iranian-American filmmaker who hosts a popular television show on state television called “Secret.” It has featured panel discussions on influential people not paying back huge loans, criticism of economic policies and an interview with Dennis J. Kucinich, the Ohio Democrat and former presidential contender — a first for Iranian television.
To Mr. Talebzadeh, it was clear that “Argo” was part of a larger plan by the American entertainment industry to remind a younger generation of the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis. “It’s the only example of aggression they have against Iran,” he said. “ ‘Argo’ just tears open the wounds in order to prepare the minds. This movie is no coincidence. Timing matters.”
Then Hassan Abbasi, an Iranian political strategist, took the stage. In Iran he is known as a provocative thinker, but outside the country he is mostly famous for his theory that the American cartoon figures Tom and Jerry are part of a Zionist conspiracy.
Mr. Abbasi said popular TV series like “The Simpsons,” “Lost” and “South Park” were part of a ploy to present famous Hollywood directors as new philosophers, pushing “a mix of ideologies,” which all accumulated in “Hollywoodism,” he said.
“They entertain us, but indoctrinate us at the same time,” said Mr. Abbasi, who drew applause from Iran’s minister of culture and Islamic guidance, Mohammad Hosseini. “Hollywoodism” revolved around sexual thoughts, he added.
On a screen, Mr. Abbasi showed an image of a book about sexual fantasies called “Who’s Been Sleeping in Your Head,“ by an American writer, Brett Kahr, and said that American movies caused sexual problems. “The images you see pollute your sexual fantasies,” he told the audience.
Then a group of teenage schoolgirls in black chadors took the stage to sing a song in English about their love of God. But their voices were drowned out by a male voice on a recording, because according to Shiite Islamic tenets, women’s singing voices are arousing.
“We want to show the world that Iran is open to debates, we want to break the Western cultural embargo against us,” said Mr. Talebzadeh, who was one of the organizers of the conference. He said he wished that Ben Affleck, the director of “Argo,” would come to Iran to see the country for himself. “Be sure he would change his mind — we are not what Hollywood says we are,” Mr. Talebzadeh said. “He is welcome.”
After lunch, the delegates again convened for a round-table debate on “Argo,” which Mr. Talebzadeh said was “anti-Iranian”; “Zero Dark Thirty,” which he called “outclassing Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda”; and “Unthinkable,” a 2010 film in which Samuel L. Jackson’s character tortures an Iranian agent who is trying to set off nuclear weapons in three American cities.
“This is a class-A anti-Iranian movie,” Mr. Talebzadeh said of “Unthinkable.” “It is just a neocon fantasy.” The other participants agreed.
“These movies are weapons of mass destruction against humanity,” said Isabelle Coutant-Peyre, a French lawyer who married the terrorist Ilich Ramírez Sánchez, better known as Carlos the Jackal, in a prison ceremony in 2001. Franklin Lamb, an American lawyer known for his strongly pro-Palestinian views, said that lawsuits were the only way to rein in Hollywood. “Hit them where it hurts: their pockets,” he said, before allowing that he had not seen a movie in years.
A Muslim activist from Chicago, Abdul Alim Musa, urged the creation of satellite networks that adhere to Islamic values as the only way to counter the “cultural invasion” by Western movies.
“I used to be a big drug dealer,” Mr. Musa said, saying the police pushed him to sell narcotics. “Another way the government controls the people.”
Mr. Talebzadeh urged the participants to focus on solutions in other debates. “We have lots of work to do,” he said. “We must enlighten the U.S. audience, tell them the truth.”
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