The film begins with a dark haired man in his mid 20s lying naked on a bed, hands behind his head, casually enjoying sex. Reaching out, he takes hold of the camera and swings it around to reveal the attractive brunette who's on top of him. About the same age and wearing nothing but a smile, she rides him, coolly allowing a creaking twin bed to make all the noise within the red-hued confines of the small, dimly lit room. The pleasure on her face is unmistakable and, to many in the strict Islamic country of Iran, so is the face itself.
Zahra Amir Ebrahimi is one of that nation's most ascendant actresses, known for portraying religious, morally upstanding characters on a trio of the past few years' top rated TV soaps: Help Me, Strangeness and, most famously, Narges, a prince-and-the-pauper-type drama about the trials and tribulations of a wealthy patriarch's three children, which was watched by 68 percent of the Iranian audience during its run. Now here she allegedly is, both dominant and submissive, on a 26 minute and 17 second recording, giving a performance that's causing a storm in her homeland. Nicknamed Narges 2, the film seems to depict three encounters of tender lovemaking involving scenes of leisurely foreplay, fellatio and ejaculation. Though dimly lit and photographed with a not always advantageously positioned camera, the home movie is burning up the Internet, and a DVD has sold an estimated 100,000 copies and grossed about $4 million -- a record in the annals of Iranian moviemaking -- since the story broke last October. But all may not be as it seems, at least according to Ebrahimi.
Dubbed Iran's Paris Hilton and interrogated multiple times at the request of Tehran's hard-line chief prosecutor, Saeed Mortazavi, Ebrahimi strenuously denies participating in the sex tape, which her ex-partner and co-star has reportedly claimed they filmed at her apartment a couple of years ago. Instead she insists the man authorities call Mr. X -- identified by our sources as Shahram Shahamat, an aspiring film director -- employed a look-alike actress and professional montage techniques to create a fake video in order to ruin Ibrahimi's career after she jilted him because of his infidelity. If her story is true, he did a pretty convincing job. If not, she could be in real trouble. Were she convicted of violating morality laws, Ebrahimi would face the possibility of a public lashing with a leather strap, jail time or worse.
Initially rumored by the Iranian media to have committed suicide while in police custody, Ebrahimi has been barred by authorities from speaking publicly. However, she made a statement to the Iranian Labor News Agency in November 2006, saying in a sarcastic tone, "I wish to reassure or at least inform my friends that I, Zahra Ebrahimi, the so-called actress who looks very much like the one who appears in the movie that's been exchanging hands since the middle of Ramadan, am in good health, and as yet I haven't found enough reason to kill myself."
Whatever the truth, Ebrahimi has had the ironic experience of becoming a fixture on the front pages of several of the independent but tightly controlled daily papers (on state-run TV and radio the story got minimal play) while watching her career go down the tubes. Although Narges was on hiatus when the scandal broke, release of her two recent movies, A Trip to Heidaloo and It's a Star, has been delayed on the advice of authorities while the investigation continues. Since she hasn't been charged, no ban has been ordered, but in Iran it would be more than a little foolish to ignore such advice. Within a year of the 1979 revolution that saw the Ayatollah Khomeini overthrow the Shah's government, Iran was converted from the region's most Westernized society into a restrictive Islamic republic. For many this amounted to a hijacking -- the democratically chosen replacement for a royal despot transformed the country into a hard-line theocracy. The subsequent mass migration, coupled with the countless executions of activists and deposed power brokers labeled mofsed e fel arz -- the most corrupt on earth -- left behind a population composed of people who either supported the government or were too exhausted to resist, all of whom were expected to reject Western values in favor of strict Islamic law. Once the government realized this was impossible to enforce, it settled for public obeisance to morality laws and focused on raising a new generation that would passionately embrace the regime.
It was targeting a large group. Iran is now home to around 70 million people, but because of mass fatalities in the war with Iraq in the 1980s and an officially sanctioned baby boom, the country has a median age of 25, one of the world's youngest. Yet despite the government's indoctrination, it appears that many young Iranians have rejected traditional beliefs. The Ebrahimi scandal provides us with a window into the psyche of people who quite simply have developed their own philosophical outlook: Live now, and let the future take care of itself. More important, the Narges 2 video exposes the double standards within Iranian culture that toy with Islamic rules, lifting the veil on a schizoid society that juxtaposes religious fundamentalism with a youthful lust for sex, drink, drugs, parties and material possessions. The very idea that Ebrahimi could have been a willing participant flies in the face of a society torn between tradition and modernity, unsure of its identity and ambivalent about moral values and social norms.
Regardless of country or jurisdiction, there are legal repercussions whenever a personal sex tape is made public without all the participants' consent. However, in Iran a person can be in trouble just for having made the film. Westerners can generally do what they want in private, but in the Islamic world each person has a moral duty to publicly acknowledge his or her transgressions. And since religion underpins the society, moral obligations have become legal ones, too.
In Iran, sharia law governs everyone's life, private and public. Islam differs from other religions that discourage nonprocreative sex by acknowledging a man's sex drive, though it ignores a woman's. This has resulted in a culture that allows men to gratify themselves but expects women to be submissive. But with Ebrahimi or Madame X clearly enjoying herself, the sexual role of Iranian women is being redefined -- or will be if authorities don't clamp down soon. Camcorders weren't around when sharia law was conceived, and now it is trying to play catch-up amid a torrent of vivid images and divided opinions. No one is quite sure where to draw the line.
"These DVDs are targeting our youths and endangering family morals," declared a letter from 150 members of the Iranian Parliament to Ayatollah Hashemi Shahroudi, the country's judiciary chief. "The government should accelerate the process of arrest and conviction and then hand out the harshest penalties." The letter called for those who produce and distribute sex films to be punished by hanging.
In response, acclaimed writer and political activist Emadeddin Baghi wrote an open letter to Parliament, calling for moderation. "Execution will resolve nothing," he asserted, pointing out that excising the root of the problem should be the primary concern. "The question to be asked is why this immoral DVD has broken Iranian film-industry records by making $4 million. That figure shows the extent of our social problems."
Among those problems is prostitution, particularly teenage prostitution. The reputable Iranian Labor News Agency has estimated the number of prostitutes to be between 300,000 and 600,000, and the proposed remedies diverge just as widely. One female parliamentarian called for public hangings of prostitutes, while several prominent clerics suggested legalizing brothels. This stimulated a national debate, with the government vowing to address the root causes, which it identified as poverty, unemployment, drug addiction and family conflicts. It also recognized that men marrying later and the increasing divorce rate have left more single males around to drive up demand.
But condemning prostitution and porn is easy for the authorities. It's another matter to deal with the titillating image of a naked actress with a Brazilian wax enjoying sex in multiple positions. Ignoring it could be perceived as legal approval; punishing it could open a can of worms -- try enforcing a ban on all such behavior at a time when more and more people are filming their own sex sessions.Even with several months having passed since the sex-tape story broke, simply raising the incident in any cafe or shopping area is enough to illustrate its impact. Just as the O.J. Simpson case gave Americans a way to discuss and confront their feelings about such difficult subjects as race, sex and police power, the Ebrahimi scandal is allowing Iranians to confront their attitudes about sex and construct rationales for accepting or not accepting what they've seen. We spoke to a variety of urban, middle-class Iranians, and though we received a range of reactions, none were condemnatory. Some even found the film exciting. "My husband, Mani, and I watched the film without feeling guilty," says Yasmin. (Fearing government retribution for publicly expressing their opinions, those interviewed for this article have asked that their surnames be withheld.) "Personally I don't care if it was Ebrahimi or if she was drugged. We watched it as a porno movie. The sex was hot. I kept saying, 'What great love.' My husband kept saying, 'What great sex.' Watching this kind of movie isn't a sin."
Curiosity drew Pejman, a high school teacher, to the film. "My primary reason for watching it was to see how much naked sex Ebrahimi has in the movie," he admits. "I always liked her in Narges, and I think she is very pretty. I also wanted to see if it was really her."
Even conservative Iranians have seen the film. Mehri, a 30-year-old Tehran woman who describes herself as very traditional, watched the film just to confirm what her husband had described taking place. "That she did something sacrilegious and immoral makes me very angry at her," she says, "but the fact that her reputation has been forever destroyed makes me feel very sorry for her."
Behnam, a young graduate student at the University of Tehran, watched the "supermovie," as Iranians often refer to porn flicks, with nine fellows in his dormitory. Each chipped in around $4 to buy the DVD -- at one time the going rate was as high as $50, equivalent to the average weekly wage in Iran. "Most of the guys saw the film at least a couple of times," Behnam says. "Once to check if it was really her and then to actually enjoy what was going on. Afterward the dorm walls were covered with Zahra Ebrahimi's pictures, some torn from magazines of her wearing a veil and others nude screen grabs from the movie."
Behnam says he did not enjoy the film. "I couldn't watch it all the way through," he says. "I got sick during the part where the guy forces her to have sex from behind and she cries. Clearly she is unhappy. I thought it was inhuman."
Most who have seen the film would say Behnam is misreading the scene. Ebrahimi seems to be shedding tears of emotion, not pain; she writhes sensuously and caresses her lover with apparent affection. Even so, we often see what we want to see. Behnam's interpretation is typical of this conflicted society, where people move unpredictably between traditional thoughts and modern behavior, and modern thoughts and traditional behavior, and where it may be easier to feel sorry for Zahra the victim than accept the sight of a liberated woman enjoying sex.