|Ezzatollah Entezami in The Cow. Courtesy REORIENT.|
… Argues cinema’s case eloquently. It presents this art as a modern, progressive tool, in contrast to traditionalist thoughts and values. Ohanian does not tell a story. He had the good idea of showing Iranians their world, setting up a dialogue between them, their thoughts, and the outside world.
|A still from Haji Agha, the Cinema Actor. Courtesy REORIENT.|
|A still from Abi o Rabi. Courtesy REORIENT.|
What followed afterwards was a relative period of inactivity in Iranian cinema, with strict government censorship, a lack of interest in the medium, and the country’s preoccupation with the Second World War all serving as contributing factors. As a result, the industry stagnated somewhat between the late 30s and 1950. Many industry professionals found themselves tasked with creating propaganda, or relegated to dubbing foreign films. It is also noteworthy that the Iranian filmmakers of the period were fixated on emulating Western cinema, with little interest in establishing a cultural identity of their own. Sepanta proved to be the exception to this rule, however, with Persian art, poetry, and dance finding their way into his films.
|‘Jafar!’ (Rouhangiz Saminejad as the Lor Girl). Courtesy REORIENT.|
Reza Shah Pahlavi, who came to power in 1925, brought with him a desire for modernisation and Western values. Despite the development of railways, the education system, the banning of the chador, and the implementation of a Westernised dress code, the Shah had little interest in cinema. It was only during the reign of his son, Mohammad Reza Shah, that cinema came into its own. The introducer of the ‘White Revolution’ (Enghelab-e Sepid), which sought to put an end to feudalism, promoted cinema as a further step towards Westernisation, with a view to winning the favour of the lower classes. The result was that the 50s and 60s saw a deluge of cheaply-produced films that aped the styles of Indian and American cinema. These pictures, belonging to a genre known as Film Farsi, featured song, dance, and an air of Hollywood glamour that sought to convey a sense of extravagance. One such film, 1962’s Delhoreh (Anxiety), contributed to Iranian-Armenian director Samuel Khachikian’s title of ‘Iran’s Hitchcock’.(3) Displays of wealth, decadent sets, and women in low-cut gowns became de rigueur, and Westernised modernity continued with films such as Siamak Yasami’s Ganj-e Gharoon (Korah’s Treasure) in 1965, and Amir Naderi’s Khodahafez Rafigh (Goodbye, Friend) in 1970, both of which borrowed heavily from American aesthetics.
|Morteza Aghili and Suzanne Giller in Under the Skin of the Night. Courtesy REORIENT.|
Keeping it Real
Between the late 50s and the late 70s, certain filmmakers began to venture away from ornate, fabricated movie sets in favour of shooting on location. In films such as Farrokh Ghaffari’s Jonoob-e Shahr (The South of the City), social realism began to creep in, with directors struggling to capture the underprivileged areas of Tehran and its underclasses, perhaps for the first time in the history of Iranian cinema. Out of fear that it would be used as Soviet Union propaganda due to its depictions of an impoverished Iran, the film was banned by the Shah’s government. A desire to portray reality nevertheless continued, with similar themes explored in films such as 1963’s Tehran Payetakht-e Iran Ast (Tehran is the Capital of Iran). Speaking about the film, director Kamran Shirdel claimed that audiences ‘refused to believe that [my] images were real’.(4) With homeless subjects shown sleeping on the streets, Shirdel’s aim was to reveal the disparity between Iran’s celebrated wealth and its deprived reality.
|Naser Malekmotiee (left) and Behrouz Vossoughi in Gheysar. Courtesy REORIENT.|
Gheysar set out a different point of view. In fact, that’s what made it different from cinema at the time. This cinema resembled a huge ocean liner filled with dancers [and] singers, [and] overflowing with optimism. Gheysar, on the other hand, was steeped in bitterness. It presented reaction as a totally essential act, while questioning the inertia of society. The film spoke to people in simple terms, and the public responded well. The intelligentsia grasped its pertinence. It’s as simple as that! Whether ‘New Wave’ or not, it was certainly the start of a new way of thinking.(5)
|A promotional poster for Gheysar, starring Behrouz Vossoughi. Courtesy REORIENT.|
Politically, the winds of change were in the air by the early 70s, with the Shah becoming increasingly viewed as a puppet of Western powers.(6) This, coupled with the Pahlavi dynasty’s extravagant spending habits against a backdrop of nationwide poverty and economic privations led to a series of demonstrations and strikes in the latter years of the decade. This activity intensified when revolutionary cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini claimed political dissidence to be a necessary part of Shia Islam. Traces of the forthcoming Revolution were reflected in the cinema of the time, most notably in Fereydoun Goleh’s Kandoo (Beehive, 1975), the story of an individual’s violent reaction to the contrasting decadence and poverty surrounding him (again starring Gheysar protagonist Behrouz Vossoughi). Similar themes were also present in Safar-e Sang (Journey of the Stone), Massoud Kimiai’s 1979 portrayal of working men working against the Powers That Be, in which the Koran was drawn upon for vindication. In this film, religion was not just a lifestyle choice, but also a political tool in itself.
In August of 1979, the Cinema Rex theatre in the Persian Gulf city of Abadan was razed to the ground (many believed it to have been the doing of anti-Shah militants) in what would later be described as the largest-scale terrorist attack in history before September 11, 2001.(7) Cinemas came to be reviled as symbols of Western decadence, and by the time Khomeini came to power following the Shah’s exile and abdication, hundreds of movie theatres were destroyed, and most of those that were closed down never reopened. Cinema regulations were in disarray and the future of production companies called into question. It was only through a chance television viewing of Dariush Mehrjui’s Gav (The Cow, 1969), that focused on the relationship between a troubled villager (Ezzatollah Entezami) and his cherished cow (and what ensues after the animal’s death) that Khomeini amended his stance on cinema. ‘We are not against cinema’, he said; ‘we are against what is ungodly. Gav is an instructive film’.(8) The new government approved of Mehrjui’s simple, realistic style, and found no fault with the film’s modest representation of women – one of the main reasons cinema was viewed as problematic before 1979.
The new Islamic Republic tasked itself with constructing a film industry that reflected its traditional values. A significant step was the creation of the Young Iranian Film Institute, an establishment that allowed filmmakers to work with a relative amount of autonomy, despite the ultimate control exercised by the state. Emphasis was placed on the creation of filmmakers rather than films, with a resulting 5,000 people being trained every year.(9) Supporting the movement was key in the establishment’s eyes, and nurturing aspiring filmmakers with a shared philosophy was the priority, as opposed to making profits. Portrayals of sex and gratuitous violence were eradicated, and skilled directors such as Kiarostami, Mehrjui, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Abolfazl Jalili adapted their styles to suit government requirements. Despite the new challenges brought about by a different form of censorship, new life was breathed into the Iranian film industry following the Revolution.
|A still from Amir Naderi’s Davandeh (The Runner, 1985). Courtesy REORIENT.|
|Susan Taslimi in Bashu, the Little Stranger. Courtesy REORIENT.|
The end of the Iran-Iraq War brought with it a renaissance of Iranian cinema. Films were increasingly snuck out of the country and brought to the international stage. Interest in film was also regenerated with the first annual Fajr International Film Festival in 1982. Masoud Jafari Jozani’s Jadeh-haye Sard (Frosty Roads, 1985) became one of the first Iranian films to receive international attention when it was screened at the 37th Berlin International Film Festival, while Kiarostami’s Khaneh-ye Doost Kojast? (Where is the Friend’s Home?, 1987), with its gentle storyline and themes of kindness, aided in softening the violent and fundamentalist image of Iran conjured by the West. Kiarostami’s later picture, Ta’m-e Gilas (A Taste of Cherry) succeeded in bringing the cinema of the country international acclaim when it was awarded the Palme d’Or at Cannes in 1997. Of the state of the industry at the time, Makhmalbaf said:
Cinema was supposed to promote the authorities, but gradually it slipped out of their grasp. We then went from a hesitant little chick to a big eagle soaring in the sky. At one point, they’d had enough of the eagle, but it was too late. This cinema had become famous, it had forged links all over the world and won admirers everywhere.(10)
|A still from Where is the Friend’s Home? Courtesy REORIENT.|
Asghar Farhadi’s Jodaee-ye Nader az Simin (A Separation, 2011) became the first Iranian film to win an Academy Award when it was named Best Foreign Language Film at the 2013 ceremony. Kiarostami, meanwhile, has gone on to work on projects in Japan and Europe, while actors such as Peyman Moaadi (who starred alongside Leila Hatami in Farhadi’s film) have found success in international roles. With the world keeping a closer eye on it than ever before, the Iranian film scene is nurturing its future artists, breaking new ground, and becoming even bolder in the subjects it tackles.
|A still from Persepolis. Courtesy REORIENT.|
Clips from Tehran is the Capital of Iran and The House is Black courtesy IMVBox.com.
Zara Knox is a creative writer for IMVBox, the largest online Persian film distribution platform outside of Iran. More of Zara's writings, as well as thousands of free Iranian films can be accessed via IMVBox.com.