A brief history of Iranian cinema, from Haji Agha to Agha Farhad
To best understand the roots of Iranian cinema, one must perhaps travel back to the early 20th century, when the Qajar monarch Mozaffareddin Shah was shown cinematographic footage during a visit to France. The cinematograph, invented in 1892, was the successor to the kinetoscope that granted viewers the ability to watch quality, illuminated images on a screen, as opposed to through Thomas Edison’s ‘peephole’. Enraptured by the projected pictures of ships crossing the River Seine, street scenes, and camels traversing the Sahara, the Shah ordered his personal photographer, Mirza Ebrahim Khan ‘Akasbashi’ (lit. ‘Master Photographer’), to buy all the equipment necessary to bring film to Iran1. The first cinema there was opened in the backyard of an antique dealer in 1904, and soon afterwards, similar establishments cropped up all over Tehran. Such places were initially frequented by the upper classes, mainly, until cinema took over as the most popular form of entertainment, with ticket prices kept deliberately low in order to attract audiences from all backgrounds.
This national interest in cinema also resulted in the opening of the first film schools, most notably Ovanes Ohanian’s Cinema Artist Educational Centre in 19302. An Iranian of Armenian origin, Ohanian had honed his skills at Moscow’s School of Cinematic Art, and was determined to establish a film industry in Iran. Ohanian went on to collaborate with a handful of his graduates on his first feature-length comedy, Haji Agha, Aktor-e Sinema (Haji Agha, the Cinema Actor, 1933), the follow-up to the commercially successful Abi o Rabi (Abi and Rabi, 1930). Haji Agha, starring the director himself, centred on a filmmaker’s attempts to film an unwilling subject, went as far as to praise the virtues of cinema itself. In Nader T. Homayoun’s 2006 documentary, Iran: A Cinematic Revolution, the film historian Mohammad Saninejad claimed that Haji Agha
… 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.
Despite its innovative approach to cinema, Haji Agha did not turn a profit, partly due to technical setbacks, and also because it happened to coincide with the release of the first audible Iranian film. Abdolhossein Sepanta, a student of Persian history and literature, developed an interest in the cinematic arts after travelling to India in the late 1920s to study Zoroastrianism and ancient Iranian culture with Parsi scholars. Upon his return to Iran, his 1932 film, Dokhtar-e Lor (The Lor Girl) heralded the advent of sound in Iranian films, and was well-received. Other filmmakers were inspired to try their hand as well, and by 1936, Sepanta had made four more pictures.
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.
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.
The 1970s continued this trend, with sex, fisticuffs, and shallow plot lines dominating. Entertaining the masses for profit became the primary goal, and women were increasingly portrayed as little more than objects of lust. One 1971 film, Fereydoon Goleh’s Zir-e Poost-e Shab (Under the Skin of the Night), focused on a cinema vendor’s quest to lay an American tourist he had just met. The use of erotica in a working class context, as well as scant traces of Iranian culture, were typical of the cinema of the era.
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.
Films also began to take on a far more experimental tone, most notably in documentaries such as Forough Farrokhzad’s Khaneh Siah Ast (The House is Black, 1963), the poet’s only film before her death in a car accident four years later at the age of 32. Combining shots of the Behkadeh Raji leper colony with her own poetry and passages from the Koran, Farrokhzad’s film is significant in that it attempted to turn into a metaphor the human condition through depictions of life in the colony, and that it presented a far more introspective take on social conditions in Iran compared to many other films of the era.
Iranian cinema has long served as a mirror, reflecting a nation that has absorbed foreign influences, defied restrictions, and expressed hope for its future, all the while proudly drawing upon its own ideologies and deeply-rooted tradition of storytelling
As the tastes of Iranian audiences began to change, a group of filmmakers developed an alternative style of cinema now referred to as ‘Iranian New Wave’. Their films tended to put an emphasis of the realistic portrayal of the lower classes, and were often documentary-like in format. They also used figurative devices such as allegory, poetry, and childlike narrative perspectives. Such films were subtly critical of contemporary society, with directors such as Hajir Daryoush focusing on themes of youth alienation and the Westernisation of rural communities. Another contributing factor to the shift in preferences can be attributed to the founding of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults in 1965, for the purpose of nurturing and promoting literature and the arts amongst Iranian youth. Managed by a director with strong leftist ideals, the Institute became a hub for aspiring artists who wished to question the status quo. With additional support from UNESCO, the centre had a significant impact on raising the standards of domestic cinema, with filmmakers such as Abbas Kiarostami, Amir Naderi, and Ali Akbar Sadeghi amongst those who honed their craft there.
Iran was given its first antihero in 1969 with Massoud Kimiai’s Gheysar (Kaiser), a film that revolved around a young man’s quest to avenge his sister’s rapist and brother’s murderers in southern Tehran. A bitter story that questioned the listlessness of Iranian society, the picture smashed box office records. In the words of Kimiai, who was only 24 when he conceived the film,
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
The Times They are a-Changin’
Politically, the winds of change were in the air by the early 70s, with the Shah becoming increasingly viewed as a puppet of Western powers6. 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, 20017. 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 year9. 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.
The targeting of the US Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 did little to assist Iran’s international relations, and drew negative attention to the Islamic Republic. Just as diplomatic relations between the US and Iran were severed, a new threat arose in the form of the eight year-long war instigated by Saddam Hussein. As filmmakers continued their activities during this period, conflicting ideas as to how to portray the Iran-Iraq War emerged. The conflict was increasingly shown as a glorious affair, with promises of shahadat (martyrdom) offered to those who participated. Death itself was an enviable achievement in these films, and even an enviable path to redemption in the afterlife. Conversely, Amir Naderi’s decision to film Jostojoo-ye Do (Second Search, 1981) in the middle of war-torn Abadan ruffled censors due to its hellish portrayal of how ordinary people had been affected by the turmoil of the war; as a result, the film was never distributed. Bahram Beyzai’s 1989 feature about a war orphan, Bashu, Gharibeh-ye Koochak (Bashu, the Little Stranger), was met with similar criticism, and saw its distribution delayed for four years.
Fly Like an Eagle
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
In the meantime, filmmakers in Iran continued their battle with the censors. Narges, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s 1992 love story, with its sympathetic onscreen portrayal of an ageing prostitute who had to accept her lover’s marriage to another, was deemed overly controversial. Jafar Panahi encountered similar issues with the criticism he faced for the treatment of women in contemporary Iran in Dayereh (The Circle, 2000). According to Panahi, he received a 20-year ban on making films in 2010. He has, nonetheless, made several pictures since then, including Taxi Tehran (2015), which was awarded the Golden Bear at the 65th Berlin International Film Festival.
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.
Projects are also no longer confined to Iran itself; through the work of graphic novelist Marjane Satrapi and the 2007 French-Iranian animated film, Persepolis, the world discovered Iran’s ever-evolving political scene, while cinephiles were treated to a Spaghetti Western/vampire hybrid with Iranian-American director Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014). As Iranian filmmakers explore new territory and seek new collaborators, their work continues to reach new audiences and raise standards for filmmaking the world over. Iranian cinema has long served as a mirror, reflecting a nation that has absorbed foreign influences, defied restrictions, and expressed hope for its future, all the while proudly drawing upon its own ideologies and deeply-rooted tradition of storytelling.
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Cover image: Naser Malekmotiee (left) and Behrouz Vossoughi in Gheysar.