In exploring Iran’s important cinematic history, the most striking characteristic is the overwhelming presence of a liberated cinema which, for example, boasts an incredible representation of women in cinema, but which also bears the mark of a heavily oppressed and marginalized industry (heavy censorship).
There is a wealth of material attempting to make some sense of why this contrast exists, or how these two elements can manage to co-exist, with most authors narrowing in on the two basic and essential periods of Iranian cinematic history (defined as pre war: 1900-1929, and post war: 1950’s and on). What these two periods share is the following characteristics:
1. The prevalence of Iranian cinema as a “social cinema” (As it says in the article, History of Iranian Cinema, both the cinema of the first period and the cinema of the fifties and sixties must be seen primarily as a “social-oriented cinema”)
2. The growing privatization of the industry (which pushes back on cinema’s social interest)
I found that researchers tended to differentiate between these two characteristics in this way- nationalism (social cinema) and globalization/international (capitalist cinema), with one of the most fascinating aspects of Iranian cinema being the inversion of these ideas- the development of social cinema happens outside of its borders, while capitalism, or globalization governs cinema inside its borders. This leads to some interesting analysis about why this is this case.
(The first period) “was often critical of society and social conditions, of crude modernity and western invaders of an essentially traditional society, of the implications of society’s rapid urbanization and the disappearance of domestic values… (dealing with) the authentic problems of Iranian development…
due to the inherent demands of cinema, its nationalism, its reliance on the capital of the private sector and the return of that capital from the audience, it is forced to find clichés that are attractive to the public, and must give importance to the economic aspect of cinema.”
– History of Iranian Cinema
Leading to this further observation,
“Perhaps this very importance—a constant presence in countries where cinema depends on the private sector—is what pollutes cinema, and brought unwanted harm to Iranian cinema in its second period.”
As the author goes on to suggest,
“The start of film production in 1929 was the natural consequence of the general Iranian movement toward modernization. It was the wish of the system and the people to create a national cinema industry as yet another sign of advancement, and its failure was also a natural consequence of society’s rejection of the essence of modernity, for society had not yet released its stronghold on tradition or even clarified the existing relationship. Cinema, contrary to many other manifestations of modernity, was not a simple tool to be nationalized with the scanty efforts of a few westernized citizens and intellectuals.”
So, while encroaching, Westernized ideals start to creep into the Iranian landscape, cinema’s ability to lend a critical lens to certain social realities is crippled, pushing the social commentary of Iranian cinema outside of its borders, where it was able to speak more freely, resisting nationalist pressures in order to find and build a recognizable national identity. While capitalism appears to be a wanted value (the privatization of the industry in line with the American ideal), weirdly, on of the problems is that capitalism/nationalism and censorship, which is typically representative of more socialist leaning societies, appear side by side in Iranian Cinematic history, forcing Iranian filmmakers to “be aware of the dangers of both.” The end result? Out of his awareness births a recognizable national cinema and cultural identity, helping to give shape and voice to relevant social issues and creating a very real local industry and culture in a Country where heavy censorship and the need for progress (by way of capitalist pursuits and privatization) still co-exists.
With all this in mind, as I’ve been working through all the material I have been reflecting on this question- where does the power of film to change, influence, shape, create, and develop culture on a sociopolitical level come from, and what can Iranian Cinematic history teach me about the relationship of film to these sociopolitical realities in my own Country?
Cinema, The Development of the Modern Nation-State, Revolutions, and An International Cinema
Farshid Kazemi writes in Iranian Cinema about how the development of cinema in Iran is “inextricably linked to the development of modernity and the nation-state.”
“The cinema in Iran was an important site where modernity (tajadud) and the nation (mellat) were respectively constructed, contested, and negotiated throughout the long 20th century and into the new millennium.”
Kazemi goes on to talk about how the history of Iranian cinema was essentially defined by two revolutions that helped to determine its modern development (1905–1911 and the later Islamic Revolution in 1979). Considering that it is the Islamic Revolution where Iranian cinema finally starts to grow into something recognizable, a part of Iran’s specific and uniquely developed “revolutionary language”, a language shared by cinema around the world, is especially attuned to modern issues. And yet it is language that is rooted in a very real understanding of its past and Iran’s need and desire to develop a social cinema.
Reflecting on why Iran creates some of the world’s best films, author Hamid Dabashi, in an article published for BBC Culture back in 2018, wrote that, “There has never been a moment in the long history of Iranian cinema when it was confined to its current frontiers.” This gets to the heart of why and how we find such a deeply held focus on things like representation in Iranian film in a Country where censorship persists in ways that are usually seen in non-capitalist societies. Again, what is interesting is to note how Iran’s somewhat ironic journey towards a functioning industry was built through maintaining a consistent international presence. What makes this interesting is that the development of a strong and functioning cinematic identity typically depends on the ability of a Country to establish a national industry first, on which then allows it to establish its influential “as” a recognizable industry and culture on the international stage. What has often threatened smaller industries around the world is when their local industries are absorbed by international entities which then hinders and threaten a Country’s ability to build and retain a true national identity (and subsequently, preventing them from having a global presence as well). As Dabashi notes, Iran’s decidedly long and difficult path to actually get to the international stage (read: festivals), came in the reverse, and even more surprisingly seems almost uniformly international in its presence on both sides of that narrative coin. “The historical formation of Iranian cinema took place on a transnational public sphere – both in its origins and its destinations – from the East India Company film studios in India where the very first Iranian films were made, to these European film festivals.”
What you find is an Iranian film industry forced to develop a love for its Country and a social presence from outside of its borders, either making films from within the context of the larger empire,
“The very first Iranian sound film, Dokhtar-e Lor/Lor Girl, 1932, also known as The Iran of Yesterday and The Iran of Today, was produced by Ardeshir Irani and Abdolhossein Sepanta in the Imperial Film Company in Bombay. There is a larger frame of reference that extends from Europe to the Ottoman and Russian empires all the way to Egypt and India, which was the site of the rise of Persian prose and poetry as well as Iranian visual and performing arts.
or having to “smuggle” films from inside of its borders to the outside (see Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969). As Dabashi writes, “The global staging of Iranian film offered some of its best works international attention, a crucial component that fed back, aesthetically and thematically, into the country’s cinematic repertoire and inspired successive generations of Iranian film-makers.” Both of these things feed into this inversion of the usual mode of development, working from the inside (national identity) out (global presence).
A CINEMA IN CONTEXT
Regarding the first of the two recognizable periods in Iranian film history, it says in A History of Iranian Cinema, “During all those years, from 1900—the year the Gaumont camera was bought by the Qajar shah, brought to Iran and installed in a corridor of the imperial palace—until 1937—the screening date of Sepanta’s last Indian-produced film—with all the “ifs” and “buts”, must be considered the first period of Iranian cinema.” With the filming of the Shah (film was brought to Iran by the King as a tool of entertainment for members of the monarchy and the royal court), Iranian Cinema goes on to develop along these shared religious-sociopolitical lines, giving an interesting frame of reference for the competing socialist-capitalist interests, while also offering a frame of reference for how film was introduced within a clear social divide (with film being the entertainment of the grand royalty, and subsequent development beginning a journey of making film the voice of the Iranian people and culture).
So who exactly was Sepanta, as the Director of the very first talkie film in Iran? He was a scholar of the Persian world with a keen interest in finding and locating a true Iranian identity. Using the international industry (in India) as his inspiration, he, as a storyteller and historian (religious historian), he helped to plant the seeds of the Iranian cinematic identity and modern development. What’s so important about this, especially when set within the first period of cinematic development, a period that is considered largely inconsequential to the industries larger development, is that it helps to anchor the modern movement in Iran’s larger sense of history, formation, and influence. As it says in Iranian Cinema: Before the Revolution by Shahin Parhami,
“If one were to trace the first visual representations in Iranian history, the bas-reliefs in Persepolis (c.500 B. C) would be one of the earliest examples. Persepolis was the ritual center of the ancient kingdom of Achaemenids. As Honour and Fleming  state, “the figures at Persepolis remain bound by the rules of grammar and syntax of visual language…
After the Arab invasion and conversion from Zoroastrianism to Islam —a religion in which visual symbols were avoided — Persian art continued its visual practices.”
Given how this period of early development connects Iranian Cinema’s foundation to its storytelling past, the article goes on to say that “What has attracted international audiences to this national cinema is its distinct style, themes, authors, idea of nationhood, and manifestation of culture”, something that it owes to these older visual (and poetic) roots. And the reason why cinema is so important to this manifestation in terms of applying to the modern expressionistic landscape is that, “among all manifestations of modernity, cinema was the only one with a forty-year history.” (Iranian Cinematic History) So, even though the second period of Iranian is where we find the industry largely being defined and developed, predicated on the Iranian Revolution of 1977-1979, this early period was hugely important for establishing and protecting national roots beyond the nation’s borders where film was forced to develop.
Speaking more about this narrative influence as rooted in the history of the people and place,
“This cinema and this psychology and characterization, even its form and structure, is not rootless, but rather based on Iranian folk tales. The narrative mold is derived from the performance methods of storytellers and the structural mold, especially in comedies, is derived from Iranian performing arts such as takht-e hosi—traditional farcical theater performed outdoors—but transforms them to suit the cinematic medium. For dramatic molds it relies on a sentimental outlook and tone, highly emotional and mournful, which is the essence of Iranian folk tales.”
– History of Iranian Cinema
What the development of film at this time mirrors is the further development and exploration of these national roots as a part of true Iranian culture, which is the very thing that can bring clarity to the holding tension mentioned at the start of this blog.
A GROWING NATIONAL IDENTITY
What’s important to note then, as cinema shifts from being the concern of royalty to informing and being formed by the voice of the people, is the global development of Eastern and Western influences on this same historical front. Iran is a fusion of a deeply held, captured and protected sense of national identity that is tied to both its historical and religious roots (and Eastern ideals), even as Westernized influences competed to gain a foothold in the ongoing modernization of both industry and culture. Many of the articles listed in my sources talk about this marriage of influence and development as a key to understanding how it is that such a strong national industry emerges from what was predominantly an international stage. This fusion of roots is the central means by which social awareness and modernity is able to coexist alongside strong censorship and capitalism (privatization), which in itself remains a rather confusing mix of contradictory forces, allowing its given identity (in terms of historical placement and religious development) to hold ties with its sense of person and place while interpreting their culture from afar.
And it tracks this development through Evans Oganians, who “returned to Iran in 1929, with limited experience in cinematographic education but an ocean of enthusiasm, idealism and faith, in hopes of founding a “national cinema”, founding the School For Cinema Artists, which would lead the way for the building of the National Iranian Film Society in 1949 through Farrokh Ghaffari (shaped by the 1948 film, The Storm of Life, which is developed by way of Western, international, technological advancement in dubbing through filmmakers Esma‘il Kooshan and Ali Daryabeigi), and eventually, by way of the Iranian Revolution and Amir Naderi’s The Runner (shot during the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-1988 in 1984). In this string of connected presences we see the true development of a recognizable, national cinema that is built for the people, by the people, and through the people’s experiences, starting to take shape. Consider, for example, Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), a female poet and filmmaker who made the film The House is Black (1962). Her influence on shaping Iranian Cinema according to her strong interest in social awareness (it was filmed in a leper colony) comes by way of leaning into the power of old storytelling methods in order to flesh out and make sense of their modern reality. This is why “the years between 1948 to 1978 are on one hand Iranian cinema’s most productive periods and on the other the most misunderstood.” (History of Iranian Cinema)
“The most important characteristics of this cinema can be thus summarized:
The cinema of the first period is a very noble yet humble one. With very rudimentary and limited technical means, old and obsolete methods and no cinematic know-how, it is essentially based within the private sector. It receives no help from the government and must therefore stand on its own feet, relying solely on itself and its audience, and all this in the face of competition from the foreign films of the time.”
And yet, at the same time,
“It is at the same time a social-oriented cinema; often critical of society and social conditions, of crude modernity and western invaders of an essentially traditional society, of the implications of society’s rapid urbanization and the disappearance of domestic values. It deals with the authentic problems of Iranian development.”
leading to the ongoing working tension that flows from the social divide and which is made present in its Royal arrival, raising up the need for a people and Country to find their voice and identity in a slightly different way than normal.
New Wave and New Iranian Cinema: Distinct Styles and Modern Voices
More films start to get made in the 60’s after a largely silent period, leading to a period of New Wave films that would set the stage for the revolution as an “intellectually” based movement. This is defined though, once again, by a movement coming from outside it’s national borders (a Persian Literature movement, which held a distinct, sociopolitical romanticism). Here we see the legacy of Farrokhzad taking further root, with author Rose Issa writing,
“(Iranian film) champions the poetry in everyday life and the ordinary person by blurring the boundaries between fiction and reality, feature film with documentary… This new, humanistic aesthetic language, determined by the film-makers’ individual and national identity, rather than the forces of globalism, has a strong creative dialogue not only on home ground but with audiences around the world.” (Reel Fiction)
It would be soon after that we find the development of The College of Dramatic Arts, (1963), and the infamous story of The Cow (directed by Masoud Kimiai and Darius Mehrjui), the film that was smuggled out helping to establish the New Wave as a distinct New Iranian Cinema with a continued emphasis on a visual literacy, poetic imagery, and a fusion of fiction and realism. And it is out of this that we find the Iranian Revolution redefining the landscape as a whole. I found this lengthy descriptive from the Tavoos Quarterly regarding this transitioning from the first period to the second period to be helpful:
The storylines become simpler and easier. The dramatic turns are so matter-of-fact that they seem childish even to an average spectator. Of course the content still reflects the clash of tradition and modernity, but the narrative forms and themes have changed. The cinema of those years tried to compensate the shortcomings of society, thus, the most important social problem of those years being the growing gap between rich and poor, cinema attempts to close the gap through a fantasy approach. Of course the content of many films of the early sixties (and even later) still reflect the clash of tradition and modernity through new narrative forms. If the gap between classes in society is increasing, the classes are being reconciled in these films.
If in social reality, traditional values are being crushed by the forces of modernity, in these films, on the contrary, we witness a different phenomenon: many an urban woman who improves her life through knowing authentically traditional men, who takes refuge in religion and moral principles and thus reaches salvation; many a man who avenges women disgraced by citizens of no value, who rebels to regain values lost; and the dishonored women who have been victimized by men, who have through sheer will and effort defended their individuality against defamation.
All these various themes were already present in the cinema of the fifties, but in the sixties they become its main focus. Revenge, reconciliation of classes, and more than anything else, the tyranny of destiny, fatalism and religiosity are the dominant elements of narratives and themes. This very predestination which governs the lives of each character, rebellion against oppression and victim-adulation overshadow the content of the films (those of the first period as well as later films). They are so Irano-Islamic that there are no outstanding precedents in any other art form or period of art history in Iran… The importance of the cinema of these two periods lies in their focus on the social problems of Iran, and the socially critical mentality that is inherent in all of them. Consequently Iranian cinema of the fifties and sixties is a social cinema.
And yet, even in this time of change and in light of the revolution, the tension between social and capitalist interest remained and remains a demonstrable mark of Iranian Cinema, meaning that as the industry has developed from this point, it has continued to develop from the outside constantly pushing inward in an effort to capture, protect, and define a distinctly Iranian identity over against censorship and encroaching Western ideals. Rather than a consistency in policy, the consistency comes from a shared devotion to the cause of film and culture. This is where we find a persistent devotion to the raising up of modern voices, with the ebb and flow of the Iranian Cinematic development within its borders constantly being forced to bend to outside socialist concerns (such as in the election of Mohammed Khatemi, who provided the artists with more creative freedom within the borders of its Country).
Here we find another popular story in Iranian Cinematic History, the story of the 18 year old female Director Samira Makhmalbaf and her film The Apple which debuted at the Cannes Film Festival. Author Hamid Dabashi speaks of witnessing this moment, which helped reshape the public perception of Iran.
I was at the festival that year and saw how the global perception of Iran changed overnight from a bearded angry man (Khomeini) to the bright smiling face of a young film-maker. It was a transformative moment in the global reception of Iranian cinema and, with it, Iran itself.”
This is what is so interesting about Iranian Cinema. While it develops in international spaces with a real desire to build a National identity, the International stage at the same time is looking inward and measuring the face and shape of Iranian cinema based on what appears to be a confusing mixture of censorship and modernity giving way to a disorganized industry and a problematic culture. This is what makes Iranian filmmakers so integral and so important in their efforts to establish Iranian culture from the outside looking in. They had to do this while very much being stereotyped themselves. Which is why The Apple, and subsequently the undeniable and incredible rise of Asghar Farhadi, becomes so important. They are embodying Iranian identity through their representation and their art, and bringing it from those international places both to their home and back to these international places. “The global staging of Iranian film was a crucial component that inspired successive generations… outside Iran, and from the fertile ground of its transnational origins, a new generation of Iranian film-makers has emerged, chief among them Ramin Bahrani (Chop Shop, 2007) and Shirin Neshat (Women without Men, 2009). These directors, who have deep roots in the most enduring aspects of Iranian cinema, now carry its future into uncharted territories.”
This is where it is mind boggling and absolutely inspiring to consider that there are more graduates (from local film schools) and more female Directors than “most countries in the West”. This flips the script on how modernity happens and how cinema develops. The Diaspora, which collapsed many a global cinematic identity and culture, refused to see it as a set back, and did so in the face of danger, potential arrests, judgments and stereotypes, constantly having to adapt their language to constantly shifting and sporadic censorship, and ever shifting laws and lawmakers.
At the same time, imagine their relationship to the dominant voice of capitalism (privatization), democracy, and freedom of speech- America- has also been shaped through sociopolitical realities by way of ongoing hostilities, thus pointing them back towards the censorship within their own borders, and you have a cinematic industry that is built from the trenches and against enormous odds. And yet these filmmakers shine as bright lights, a way of travelling inbetween the competing forces of censorship and encroaching and powerful Western, capitalist ideals. An industry built as a social cinema, from the people, for the people, and while ironically built from the outside looking in, built with a love and care and concern for the culture and sociopolitical reality on the inside, both historical and present.
This is an excellent article for imaging the future of the industry, which looks even brighter as Farhadi continues to pave the way, proving that he is far from alone, and that Iranian filmmakers do not need to feel isolated in their shared endeavor:
Here is my Letterboxd watchlist of Iranian Films:
Close Up: Iranian Cinema, Past, Present, Future (2001) Hamid Dabashi
‘Real Fictions’, Rose Issa
“The Iranian Cinema: A Dream With No Awakening”
Iranian Cinema: Before the Revolution
M. Ali Issari, Cinema in Iran: 1900-1979
Iranian filmmakers and influence of Ancient Persian literature
Issa, Rose (1999). Life and art : the new Iranian cinema
Displaced Allegories: Post-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema
Iranian Writers, the Iranian Cinema, and the Case of “Dash Akol” by Hamid Nafici
Gönül Dönmez-Colin, Cinemas of the Other, Intellect
Hamid Reza Sadr, Iranian Cinema: A Political History
Najmeh Khalili Mahani, Women of Iranian Popular Cinema: Projection of Progress
Chaudhuri, Shohini. “Iranian Cinema.” In Contemporary World Cinema Europe, the Middle East, East Asia and South Asia. By Shohini Chaudhuri
Gaffary, Farrokh. “Cinema i: History of Cinema in Persia
Mottahedeh, Negar. “New Iranian Cinema.” In Traditions in World Cinema
Iranian Cinema under the Islamic Republic by Hamid Naficy
A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 2 The Industrializing Years, 1941–1978 by Hamid Naficy