Iranian Cinema: Before the Revolution
By: Shahin Parhami, December 1999
Courtesy of www.offscreen.com
Years of Absence
The period of 1937 to 1948 marked a decade of non-productivity in the history of Iranian national cinema. One can find many reasons for these years of cinema hibernation. The most obvious causes are: Iran's general political crisis generated by the Second World War; the country's occupation by allies; the undermining of the cinema industry by the establishment; and, of course, the domination of foreign films (especially Hollywood).
Reza Shah, the first monarch of the Pahlavi dynasty, came to power in the early 1920s. Despite his fascination with modernisation and technology, the Shah could not understand the importance of a film industry. The only contributions to cinema he made were the 500 Toman awarded to Mo'tazedi for his newsreel based on the Shah's coronation.
After being impressed by a Mo'tazedi's newsreel documenting the installation of an Anglo-Persian oil company in Khusestan, the Shah ordered the construction of a new movie theatre in Tehran. The industrial sights of his country on celluloid overwhelmed the Shah. As Mo'tazedi remembers, the Shah remarked: "Marvelous! How well done! What modern installations! But alas they [British oil company] give Iran little money...." Right after the screening, the Shah ordered the police chief to start building a movie theatre in the poor part of town. The name of the theatre was Tammadon (civilization!). This was the most generous contribution made to Iran's film industry by Reza Shah's regime.
Reza Shah's superficial depiction of civilization and modernity brought many Western values to Iranian society. For instance, he banned the chador for women, dictated a Westernized dress code for men, and forbade Iranian passion plays. Because of their long history of colonial interest in Iran, the Shah thought the British and Russians untrustworthy. So he turned to Germany for professional and technological knowledge. By the end of the 1930s there were about 400 German skilled labourers working in seven German based companies in Iran.
During World War II, the Allies found Iran to be a critical strategic zone for supplying Russians with military hardware. In spite of Iran's proclamation of neutrality, the Allies demanded the deportation of German citizens from Iran. Due to negative responses from Reza Shah, Iran was invaded by the British (in the South West) and the Russians (from the North) on August 25, 1941. With American troops entering in October of the same year, Iran, as 'The Bridge of Victory', suffered the woes of occupation by three Western powers. Reza Shah was sent to exile by the British and was replaced by his son in September 1941.
Both the physical existence of Western powers and the cultural domination by Allies, made imperialism ever-present in the media. For propaganda purposes more cinema theatres were opened to show dubbed newsreels and expository documentaries. Hollywood productions dominated the screens and left no space for any local cultural activities. Dubbing was one of the few means of participation for Iranians in the film industry during this era.
Since a large percentage of Iran's population was illiterate, they were incapable of reading the explanatory inter titles, and many were unfamiliar with European languages. Dubbing was the ideal solution for distributors and cinema owners to gain further profit. For this purpose, many dubbing studios were establish between 1943 and 1965. The demand for the development of dubbing systems in Iran resulted in many local exports in the field of sound reproduction. But it also had its side effects, most notably that of slowing down the development of sync sound recording on the set for future activities.
In 1947 Esmail Kooshan, an economist with a secondary degree in communications from the Univerum Film Aktiengesellschaft (UFA), returned to Iran. On his way from Berlin he bought two European films which he dubbed in Persian in a studio in Istanbul. The commercial success of these two films increased his concern of the local film industry. Soon Kooshan established Mitra Film with the association of a few relatives and friends. The first feature production of the Studio was Toofan-e-Zendegi (1948) (Storm of Life), a critical social drama directed by Ali Daryabegi, a theatre director/actor who had no experience in filming. The film was a total failure at the box office and received no praise from critics.
Despite withdrawal of a few partners from the company, Kooshan did not give up and made his second film in the same year. This time Kooshan photographed and directed the film himself. Zendani-e-Amir (Amir's Prisoner) had a relatively better rate of success, which encouraged Kooshan to proceed in his career as filmmaker. Finally, after another disappointing post-production response from Varieteh Bahar (The Spring Festival, 1949), Kooshan made his ground breaking film, Sharmsar (Ashamed, released in 1950). Sharmsar was produced under the name of Kooshan's new company, Pars Film. This romantic musical with a woman as the main character depicts the story of a village girl who ends up in the city after being seduced by an urban man. But soon she recovers from her shock and employs her talents to achieve fame and fortune, then returns to her village. The lead character of the film was Dilkesh, a popular singer of the time. Indeed it was her presence which guaranteed the financial success of the film.
Meanwhile, other Iranians in the private sector, tempted to test their luck in the film business, stepped into the picture. Mohsen Badie produced the next blockbuster in the history of Iranian cinema: Velgard (Vagabond) by Mehdi Rais Firuz. This film, released in 1952, is a melodrama with moralistic overtones, accompanied by songs and suspenseful action. Issari suggests: "It was the combined box office success of Sharmsar and Velgard, [...], that gave the Persian [Iranian] film industry a shot in arm and saved it from extinction."
The movie that really boosted the economy of Iranian cinema and initiated a new genre was Ganj-e-Qarun (Croesus Treasure), made in 1965 by Siamak Yasami. Yasami had worked with Kooshan prior to establishing his own company; Porya Film, in 1960. A huge financial success, Ganj-e-Qarun grossed over seventy million Rials (one million dollars). The theme of the film concerns the worthless and desperate life of the upper middle class in contrast with the poor and happy working class, which is 'rich' in morals.
Four years later Masud Kimiaie made Qeysar, an award winning film at the 1969 Tehran Film Festival. With Qeysar, Kimiaie depicted the ethics and morals of the romanticised poor working class of the Ganj-e-Qarun genre through his main protagonist, the titular Qeysar. But Kimiaie's film generated another genre in Iranian popular cinema: the tragic action drama.
From 1950 to the mid-1960's the Iranian film industry grew rapidly. Many studios were established as well as others that entered the cycle of the film industry independently. There were 324 films produced during this period (1950-1965). By 1965 there were 72 movie theatres in Tehran and 192 in other provinces.
The foundation of that new-born cinema was commercialism. It was saturated with dominant themes of dance, music, simplistic dramas and Persianized versions of Western popular movies. But it also brought about the possibility of an independent national cinema. One of the first efforts for such cinema was Farokh Ghafari's Shab-e-Ghouzi (The Night of Hunchback, 1964). Filmed in a magic-realist form and based on a story from One Thousand and One Nights, Shab-e-Ghouzi was the first feature film selected for international festivals. The other notable film in this category is Khesht va Aiene (Mudbrick and Mirror, 1965), produced and directed by Ebrahim Goulestan, the owner of Goulestan studio. Goulestan created an alternative environment out of which sprung several outstanding documentaries throughout its operation until 1978. One of the best known production of Goulestan Studio is Khaneh Siah Ast (The House Is Black, 1963), a documentary written and directed by Forugh Farrokhzad, a leading poetess in contemporary Persian literature. This film was selected as the best documentary in the 1963 Oberhausen Film Festival.
By 1970 Iranian cinema entered into its mature stage. The College of Dramatic Arts, instituted in 1963, produced its first graduates at the decade's beginning. Many progressive film co-ops and associations came into existence; and there were a few regular film festivals taking place in the country.
Young Iranians showed a great interest in avant-garde forms of cinema, which reflected their activities. One of the best known of such efforts was Cinemay-e-Azad (Free Cinema). The collective was formed by a group of cinema students and interested individuals in the mid-1970s. They started to screen experimental and short 8mm films by their members and soon supported and participated in each other's projects. This movement spread around the country and in a short time they had their own national festival. The Ministry of Culture and Art also organised similar associations under the name of Anjoman-e-Cinemay-e-Javan (The Young Cinema Association) with collaborations by National TV.
One of the most important organisation which was (and still is) a great help to development of national cinema is The Institution for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults. The institution was founded by Lili Jahan Ara, a close friend of Farah Diba (The Queen). With the support of Farah Diba, a library became the first project of the Institution. And in 1969 it started its cinema department. Soon many young talented filmmakers and animators joined the organization. The main attraction of the institution was its title, which could provide the artists relatively greater freedom of expression than elsewhere. Many prominent directors of Iranian national cinema started their careers there or made films for the institution. Among them are: Bahram Baizai, Amir Naderi, Abbas Kiarostami, Reza Alamzadeh and Sohrab Shahid-Sales.
The 1970s was a special decade for Iranian cinema. As Goulmakani states: "the seventies saw the height of the Shah's confidence in his social and political successes. Deluding itself into believing that it had grown unassailably stable, the regime now allowed the making of a few films with critical social themes."
Many important filmmakers emerged from the pre-revolution era. Including Parvis Kimiavi, who made the reflexive masterpiece Mogholha (Mongols, 1973), a film which allegorizes the cultural imperialism of TV by comparing that situation to the invasion of Mongols. Bahram Baizai is the director of one of the ground-breaking films of the Iranian New wave, 1972's Ragbar (Downpour). Sohrab Shahid-Sales is an auteur director who embodied his original style in his 1975 film Tabiat-e-Bijan (Spiritless Nature). Abbas Kiarostami is now a well known director of the 1990's who directed one of the last films that screened before the revolution in 1978, Gozaresh (The Report). Dariush Mehrjui, a UCLA Cinema and Philosophy graduate, directed Gav (Cow) in 1969 and the controversial Dayerehy-e-Mina (Mina Cycle, 1975), which was banned for three years. The latter's subject matter dealt with people involved in the blood business. Interestingly, the film was only banned until the government opened its first blood bank.
The new cultural, political and economic environment from mid-sixties to late seventies created a unique national cinema that had roots in Iranian perspectives of art, literature and culture. The mainstream commercial cinema in the 1970s encountered an innovative form of cinema. The counter cinema was a political cinema that developed its symbolic language due to a long history of censorship. This "Third" cinema was very different from that existing in Latin America, Africa or any developing countries, because of different social-historical contexts. Some of the filmmakers of that period were forced to leave the country for political and cultural circumstances. Those who stayed challenged the new fashion of religious and moral censorship of art and culture. It should also be noted that the attractive Iranian cinema of today is the outcome of a tradition developed in the pre-revolution era.
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*** Note: This article is originated from Offscreen ( www.offscreen.com ).