Iranian Cinema & Performance Art

Farabi Cinema Foundation
By: Peyman Showqi

Fans of Iranian cinema remember that Seyed Mohammad Beheshti, the first manager of Farabi Cinema Foundation, had an interview with the Film Magazine exactly two decades ago. The interview's title read: "We shall succeed when Farabi Film Foundation doesn't exist any more!"

During the interview, referring to the factors resulting in the establishment of the foundation, Beheshti had explained the dire need of Iran's cinema in a government institution to assist the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. According to Beheshti, tackling the drawbacks encountered in the process of obtaining the initial license for film production and its distribution would have no positive result, but would rather end up in a constant limbo and the associated stagnant film market, the economic repression and the repulsion of the traditional spectators. A semi-government organization was required to end such a situation by handling the related affairs and tackling the open and secret drawbacks of the Iranian cinema without going through the cumbersome formalities of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance (the present Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance). Obviously the need for such an organization is merely noticed so far as the drawbacks and economic problems are not settled. Once such an objective is achieved, the dossier of Farabi Cinema Foundation would rather be closed or take once more its former status held during the past regime as "Farabi Club".

Meanwhile, he had reiterated that the measures taken by Farabi Foundation were being planned and implemented in such a way as to provide a new foundation for Iran's disorganized cinema. As a manager of the organization, he underlined to prepare the cinematographers to take charge of the related executive affairs. He might have meant to establish an integrated guild similar to the United States Film Association which has been successfully played its role of promoting the American cinema throughout the world behind the curtain. "That's why I predict the day when the application of the mentioned practical and theoretical strategies will result in the formation of an integrated complex of Iranian cinema capable to administer its own affairs without needing the assistance of Farabi Cinema Foundation," he concluded.

Now, 20 years later, "Farabi" is not only an inseparable part of Iran's cinematic structure, but gradually similar bodies and foundations aiming to help promote Iranian cinema are being formed. Beheshti happens to be the managing director of one of them! It may be a good idea to take a glimpse at the initial objectives and the basic nature of this supportive institution to find out the reason that the prescription has not worked and the persistence of the trouble has led to application of generic medicine!!

An Institution for all Seasons -- Given the background of the cooperation between the government and cinema in Iran as well as the projects and organizations developed towards the end of the former regime, whose founders didn't survive to witness their heritage being used by the young revolutionary managers, it can be said that in the early years of the 80s, the cinematic foundation of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance realized that it is not in position to administer Iran's cinematic affairs, given the special conditions dominating the country including the impact of the Iraqi-imposed war and the government approach to all artists and more important the existing bureaucracy, appointment of temporary managers and endless administrative affairs.

In addition to the existing tensions, the multiplicity of the official policies and the approaches common to various sections of the ruling system towards cinema, who merely agreed on the need for a new project, the administrative structure of the ministry claiming to promote a new culture in all dimensions in order to guide the public didn't allow for such ambitious moves. By the way, the experiences of a group of revolutionary youth, whose ideological outlooks corresponded the official beliefs, verified such a fact during the early years of the post-revolutionary era. Perhaps since the few revolutionary managers were closely familiar with the affairs of their charge, they had sensed the necessity to establish a semi-state institution professionally connected to the private sector, which would handle the affairs and make decisions without having to comply with the administrative discipline and in accordance with the professional and technical requirements, and had taken equally instant measures to the effect.

The charter of the former institution known as "Farabi Club" consists mainly of multilateral support and sponsorship of Iranian cinema, despite its non-government structure. Nonetheless, the charter was merely a written document and the institution just performed as a cinematic club. Given that in our country things are perfectly drawn up on the paper, the charter in question was too comprehensive and complete to serve as a foundation to establish an institution aiming to revolutionize Iran's cinema multilaterally and develop the taste of its spectators. Thus, Farabi Cinema Foundation was formed as the executive body of the cinematic institution after making some changes in the charter by adding or leaving out some its articles. Since the very beginning, the institution aimed to increase film production. Meanwhile, it took on to encourage and support young film producers and investors.

Providing facilities and purchasing new required equipment to raise the film quality and develop the visual taste of both the producers and spectators were among the measures taken in line with film production. In the meantime, a secret battle aiming to collect the equipment confiscated by other newly-founded institutions broke out. The confiscated equipment were either set aside in warehouses without being used or served to produce common-place and low-quality films by opportunist individuals by abusing the assets of such institutions in order to avail the existing limited facilities to the general entity of Iranian cinema. In many cases, the battle ended up in positive results, while it failed when it came to taking possession of the confiscated cinemas. Meanwhile, the inexperienced administrators of half of the country's cinemas have played a decisive role in repelling the spectators within the past two decades.

Farabi Cinema Foundation also felt the urge to administer and orient film production and attempted to proceed directly as a producer in cases where the private sector failed to handle production of films of particular genres in view of not relying on new approaches and being satisfied with profitable stereotypes. On the other hand, the government authorized Farabi to exclusive import of foreign films, to enable it earn an income to be spent on the domestic cinema and experience the cultural/artistic worries involved in purchasing foreign movies aiming to upgrade the spectators' knowledge and taste.

Another task taken on by the institution was to launch global marketing for Iranian films and constant participation in the professional film exchange markets. The measure following the short-term planning based on the experience gained through purchasing movies at those markets was quite successful. Though the achievement was not announced publicly, it was so important that eventually after many years it raised the protest of the private sector film distributors who accused Farabi Foundation's marketing department of exclusiveness and interfering with the presentation of their products overseas.

Moreover, accurate long-term planning to participate in the world film festivals of high reputation in accordance with the tastes of the officials in charge and the artistic identity of every festival, which was quite important in selecting the proposed movies, took place. Though the measure took several years to achieve the desired result, eventually in 1988 it became quite evident and it can be observed in world awards stand of the Iranian cinema in the Cinema Museum.

The Isolation and another Undertaking! -- It can hardly be imagined what would have happened to the Iranian cinema if such measures had not been taken by such an institution in those years. After all, such a multilateral attention to the quality and quantity of an art and industry such as cinema by a government institution as well as its supportive and educational roles is quite unprecedented in the world. The obvious examples of the fact can be observed in the European cinemas of today, which despite the existence of the government cultural commission and dazzling amounts of subsidies dedicated annually to making cinemas and films in those states. No more do indigenous cinemas actually exist in European countries and the industry is quite unsuccessful compared to the widespread distribution of American films, not to mention that their gifted cinematographers are crossing the Atlantic Ocean to migrate to the United States.

Nonetheless, unfortunately, the tragic disaster, namely the prevalence of personal tastes by the managers, hitting most of the administrative structures in the country has also affected this active institution. Promotion of a particular genres and the orientation of cinematographers towards production of such films is among the gravest damage Farabi underwent during the first phase of its lifetime, namely the first decade of the 80s. This new genre was mainly known as mystic cinema. During one of his last interviews with the Film Magazine conducted during the last months of his managerial term at Farabi Cinema Foundation, Beheshti openly pointed out, "The management of Farabi Foundation is not sympathetic to cinema. It rather takes the industry as a tool for promotion of culture and development of the public taste. In case of absence of such an outlook, movies such as Barahout, Narouni, Del-Namak, The Role of Love, etc., which reached a saturation point in the 80s, could not have been produced. In particular, the screening of foreign films aiming to promote religious mystics consisted of the dominating aspects of the films produced by Andrei Tarkovsky and Sergei Paradjanov and films such as Terese and the non-narrative movies from leftist revisionist artists including Gleb Panilov, Angelo Pollos, etc. which contributed to development of domestic policies. Such films repelled the spectators mainly choosing cinema to spend one to two hours having fun.

The other dimension of the approach giving preference to personal tastes prompted experienced filmmakers to produce outstanding ordered films. Given Farabi Foundation was the only refuge for non-commercial film producers, most of them had no other choice than cooperating, even in appearance.

Of course, the main point is that at some occasions, the foundation itself had no objection to producing and screening commercial box-office-hit films such as Golnar, Horizon, etc. The question was, "Why did it have a dual approach?" Meanwhile, the old issue of discrimination was also brought up and the managers had a open or secret list of the favorite filmmakers who were given priority from various dimensions.

On the other hand, the loan extended to film producers by Farabi Cinema Foundation along with other financial facilities such as buying films and extending services to foreign markets and festivals were among the tools whose application was constantly criticized by the main body of film producers. It should, of course, be admitted that Farabi's recent performance was mostly quite transparent and that cases which are criticized have been acquitted from being charged with corruption. In fact, the majority of Iranian cinematographers would approve that the first initial phase of Farabi Cinema Foundation was marked by the management of "Kind Dictators".

A Close Approach of the 2nd Type! -- The rule of the concerned managers over the cinema was so deeply established that the consecutive short-term administrators had no choice than to continue the generally specified policy aiming to promote the main anatomy of feature films, expand it as guild associations and make the industry independent of the government's assistance and interference. This is despite their personal tastes and compliance with the general policy of the cinematic department of the Ministry of Islamic Guidance, which in some cases totally negated the outlooks characteristic to the first phase.

As a matter of fact, the second phase of Farabi Cinema Foundation, falling between the resignation of the deputy head of the cinematic department, Fakhreddin Anvar, and Hassan Pezeshk's taking office, has been inevitably affected by the establishment of the "Cinema House" as well as the appearance of economic and cultural superpowers in the field of film production, while there has been no alternative than relying on short-term policies and eventually getting along with the general trend of the affairs. Of course, the economic blows of the recent years mainly arising from the conflict between the IRIB policies and that of the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance being manifested as campaign against film commercials and widespread screening of new American films displayed once more the shaky economic position of the Iranian cinema. This accounts for the concerns and worries of film producers and in general the cinematographers and resulted in their group withdrawal from their positions of relative independence. The government's executive body welcomed either to sponsor the non-obedient individuals, who had been playing around in the past few years, or at least promise them to do so in future, and encourage them to resume a `reasonable' and `righteous' policy!

From Here up to Eternity -- It may be too soon for a thorough assessment of the third phase of Farabi Film Foundation, one marked with attempts towards development and promotion of the "Government Cinema", specially because in recent years we have witnessed different events on the provisional or permanent issues and crises. Any way, there is no doubt that the role of Farabi Cinema Foundation in the main structure of the Iranian cinema industry and its entire various arenas has become so fundamental that it is capable to dictate its policies and have heard some examples of it in recent news broadcasts. It may be necessary to continue our discussion and analyze such performances and assess the dossier of the foundation's managers by assessing some sample cases. Nonetheless, it should be remembered that Farabi Foundation was initially intended to be used by the cinema as a crutch rather than a stool set behind its shaky feet! Meanwhile, turning to the beginning of the article, we should remind readers of the phrase, "Farabi was founded in the hope that one day it would not exist any more,".