THE HISTORY OF IRANIAN CINEMA
By: Massoud Mehrabi
The first part of this article depicted a background of cinema in Iran, pioneers, the first movie theaters, dubbing and documenta- ries. This part begins with the Iranian cinema’s kind of coming of age: feature films.
In the late 1920s, the increasing number of movie theaters in Tehran and some provincial capitals made the importation of films a brisk business. In an age of great comedians in the West, time seemed ripe to begin to think of producing the localised versions of Keystone and Mutual silent comedies.
A Russian Armenian who migrated to Iran in 1929, Oganes Oganians (Ohanian) enlisted the financial support and encouragement of a fellow emigre, Sacuar Lidze, who already owned his Mayak Cinema, to establish a school of cinematog- raphy as soon as he was settled in his new home. An advertisement in Iran daily on April 13,1930 heralded the arrival of a new art in the country:
“The Artists Cinema School located on Ala’oddoleh St. will be inaugurated on April 15 by specialist male and female teachers, and damsels have exclusive classes. Applicants may report to the school’s office between 3.00 and 8.00 p.m. every day.”
Four months later, the precocious “actors studio” celebrated the graduation of its first and last students Oganians went on to the next stage. Casting Mohammad Zarrabi and Gholamali Sohrabi as leading actors, he made Aabi and Rabi, Iran’s first (silent) feature film, financed by Lidze. The cameraman, Khan Baba Motazedi shot it with a mav .al 16-frame-a-second Gaumont. Their developing facilities were makeshift wooden frames wrapped by the negative and immersed in the developers.
On Jan. 2, 1930, Aabi and Rabi had its premiere for the dignitaries, journalists and dramatists. Setare Ye Jahan daily’s review two days later had this to say about the film and its premiere:
“This film in which modern Iran’s progresses are fully explained and deals with the armed forces, royal audiences, festivities, prosperity of the country and the life style of the Iranians, is a good production despite the unavailability of equipment and other problems and, to be fair, cannot be criticized. Let’s note that we do not mean it is free from flaws. The piont is that with regard to the lack of means and the difficulties they have faced in producing it, not only does it not deserve criticism but is admirable and praiseworthy.”
So much for the first film review in Iran when the country had begun the euphoria of self-flattery for what was publicized as “gargantuan strides on the path of development and progress.” Anyhow, Aabi and Raabi was no more than an imitation of a series of popular Danish comedies made by Paladium Studios in the 1920s.
As the first feature film in the history of Iranian cinema, Aabi and Raabi had an enthusiastic reception from the general public. Although a poor imitation of a series of Danish comedies, the film was nevertheless accepted as Iranian. The casts as well as the director of photography (Khan Baba Motazedi) were Iranians while the director had an Iranian identity card. The film was processed in Iran and, most important of all, it was financed by Iranians.
Aabi and Rabi lacked a coherent plot and consisted mainly of some comic and burlesque sketches, somehow similar to all early comic films relying on farcical adventures with an illogicality of their own, as in Lumiere’s L’Arroseur arrose. Not all of the film was shot live and, wherever necessary, Oganians used paintings by Frederick Thalberg as a kind of illustrative cap- tions linking live scenes. In 1932 the only available print of the film was destroyed in a fire which burnt down the Movie Theater screening the film.
Five years after the advent of the talkies, Oganians, who had set up the Persfilm Company, made his second silent feature Hajji Agha, the Film Actor. As a pioneer he felt he had to go on making comedies in order to get people used to movies and to guarantee investors the return of their capital. With this idea in mind he conceived Haj’i Agha, the Film Actor as a comedy hoping to overcome Muslim religious scruples against cinema.
Hajji Agha, performed by Habibollah Morad, a student of Oganians’ “artistic school”, is antipatheitc to cinema; but his daughter and son-in-law, both students of a film school, manage to film him in various locations in the city, and when finally they show him the result, Hajji, delighted by his own image on the magic screen, applauds himself and the cinema and allows the young couple to go on making films.
Although failing to present a faithful image of the contemporary social conditions, Hajji Agha, the Film Actor did point to the ever-widening generation gap, intensified by Reza Shah’s policies. On the film poster given out by Persfilm the following advertisement appeared in Persian, French, and Russian:
“Witness the fantastic entertainment offered at the Pars Cafe including comedy, drama and Persian dance and music.”
The director of photography was Paolo Potomkin and the cast included H. Morad, Z. Oganians, A. Tahbaz, A. Edalatpur, G. Bahrami-fard and O. Oganians. And for the first time in Iranian cinema a stuntman and a second camera were employed when a man was to jump from the roof of Pars Cafe. The shooting of this scene reportedly attracted a huge crowd and some twenty policemen were called in to maintain order around the place. The second camera developed a technical breakdown at the moment it was to film the fall of the stuntman in a truck, which drove him away from the scene.
Hajji Agha... was premiered at the Royal cinema on January 31, 1933 and Ettela’at newspaper had this review on the following day:
“Hajji Agha, the film Actor at Royal cinema. An Iranian film made by Iranian artists was shown last night at the Royal cinema in the presence of dignitaries. The film had many technical flaws, it was too dark and the faces were almost unrecognizable. But, as was pointed out by Mr. Saiid Nafisi in his Opening speech, considering the fact that the film was made with outdated equipments and that owing to lack of negatives it had to be shot on positive stock, the efforts the cast, the crew and Mr. Oganians, deserve the highest esteem and appreciation.”
Unlike Aabi and Raabi, Hajji Agha... failed to attract enough attention: a formidable rival had just appeared on the scene. Exactly two months and twelve days earlier A Lor Girl, the first Iranian sound film produced at the Imperial Film Studio in Bombay was screened in Tehran and created a sensation. The arrival of the talkies in Iran set off the same controversies and conflicts that had started earlier in other parts of the world. Silent movies were already becoming part of a cherished past.
“THE CAPRICIOUS” AND ITS PROBLEMS WITH THE FISH
In 1930, Ebrahim Moradi started shooting The Revenge of the Brother or Body and Soul in Bandar Anzali, but for various reasons he was forced to call off the project midway through production. He screened in Rasht and Bandar Anzali the incomplete footage to which he had added a scene of belly dance, and then set out to try his fortune in the capital.
In Tehran, cinema was the talk of the town and with the establishment of the “artistic training center” and the graduation of the first group of filramakers, many would-be directors were already dreaming of the masterpieces they were going to create. The screening of Hajji Agha, the Film Actor has set off a chain of controversy between movie fans and its detractors, and the Iranian cinema seemed prepared for a brilliant start.
In this exciting atmosphere, Moradi’s yearning for making films redoubled, but the basic problem, finding a producer, had become well-nigh impossible after the box office failure of Haji Agha, the Film Actor. Finally he made the acquaintance of the managers of the Ohanians artistic training center, and formed the third Iranian film studio, Iranian Film Company Ltd., with the cooperation of Ahmad Dehghan, Ahmad Gorji and Mohammad Ali Ghotbi.
The company bought cinematographic equipment from Zeiss Ikon (Moradi’s equipments had been confiscated in compliance with the foreign trade law which gave the government monopoly over all import and export business) and in May 1933 the Tehran political bureau issued production license for a film entitled The Capri- cious. In June 1934, Moradi had an advertisement printed in newpapers inviting ambitious actors to join his company.
The Capricious was completed and premiered at the Mayak movie theater on May 12, 1935. The film told the story of a man who, after marrying a country girl, travels to the capital and starts an affair with a young girl. His wife tries to commit suicide when she finds out about her husband’s affair but she is saved. Later the man repents, returns to the country and discovers that it is too late to make up for the past mistake.
Moradi’s film thus attempted a comparison between the ethics and the living styles in Tehran and the countryside and became the pro- genitor of a long line of rural tales in Iranian cinema.
Mohammad Ali Foroughi, the Prime Minister of the time, saw The Capricious twice, and the parliament membets and other dignitaries attended the premiere. On May 13, 1935 Ettela’at had the following report:
“This is the third Iranian film screened in Tehran and it is a clear indication that film industry in the country is making great strides. On the opening night and amidst great applause of the audience, Mr. Moradi the manager of the Iranian Film Company, Ltd. was awarded a medal of academic merit by the minister of culture... The Capricious run for about an hour and lacked a tightly constructed structure.”
Moradi’s struggles against unfavourable conditions continued for many years until after about three decades later he was able to direct The Back Breaker which again was a financial disaster. During these years Moradi copied and manufactured many cinematographic equiments such as a subtitle printing machine and a dubbing apparatus, etc. But these were all futile efforts and he could never find a customer for his “inventions.” Moradi was among the first to prepare a project for the production of commercial advertisement films; he sent to a number of companies copies of a brochure in which he insisted, “...advertisement films are replacing older marketing methods, as the impression produced by the moving pictures is much greater than those created by other media. Movie advertisement is, therefore, greatly recommended to progressive business managers.”
In an interview with Etela’at on June 19, 1973, four years before his death, Moradi talked of his experi- ence as a fimmaker in the early days of cinema in Iran:
“The Capricious cost about Rls. 30,000 [10 dollars at the pesent day official exchange rate] and recouped nearly the same amount. During the screening of the film an orchestra played music which was amplified through loudspeakers... Another liability was the capital’s weak electricity generator and we had to print films with kerosene lamps and wash them in the courtyard pond. At first we were puzzled to find scratches on films; then it downed upon us that the fish in the pond nibbled at the gelatine coating on the film. Communication and transportation were in deplorable conditions. Negative film stock was carried by ship from Europe to Khorramshahr and after long delays at the customs they were transported to Tehran on trucks. The roads were rough and dusty and the stock reached us only after 18 months and was usually deterio- rated.”
A LOR GIRL
THE FIRST IRANIAN TALKIE
Ironically, the first Iranian sound film, A Lor Girl or Iran, Yesterday and Today was produced in India in 1932 at the Imperial Film Company (Bombay), owned by Ardeshir Irani. Abdolhossein Sepanta wrote the script and appeared in the leading male part, while other leading actors were Ruhanguiz Sami-Nezhad, Hadi Shirazi and Sohrab Puri. A Lor Girl was produced in seven months and was screened in October 1933 at two movie theaters MayaK and Sepah. Contrary to the expectations of theater managers, who relied on foreign films, A Lor Girl was an instantaneous success and set up a new record of sale and running period which was not beaten for several years. A Lor Girl is about Golnar, a teahouse maid who falls in love with Jafar, a government agent. She had been kidnapped by bandits in her childhood and now Gholi Khan, the chief of the bandits, has a lustful eye for her. Jafar engages in a struggle with Gholi Khan and finally overpowers him, and wins the hand of Golnar. Fearing the revenge of the bandits the couple flee to Bombay and later return home when they hear news of motherland’s progress.
Regarding the circumstances of the production of A Lor Girl, Sepanta once said: “Arde-shir Irani was the director of the Imperial Film Company in Bombay, one of India’s major film studios... Dinshah Irani’s acquaintance with Ardeshir gave me an opportunity to talk him into making an Iranian film.
I wrote the script under the technical guidance of Ardeshir who was a skilled editor, and shooting at the Imperial studio soon started.
The story was supposed to take place in Iran, and costumes and props to reconstruct Iranian location had to be brought from Iran. Sepanta had almost despaired of finding an actress for the Golnar character when Ruhanguiz Sami-Nezhad, wife of a studio em-ployee volunteered to appear in the role, but she had a heavy Kermani accent and Sepanta had to make changes in the script to fit her in. Casting for other parts presented no specific problems: Hadi Shirazi and Sohrab Puri could still speak Farsi despite their many years, of stay in India. Dialogues for Sepanta delivered himself in minor parts himself in altered voices
Although the film titles and posters credit Ardeshir Irani with the direction of the film, there is good reason to believe that Sepanta had a greater share in the creation of the film. Years later, in an interview with some researchers, Sepanta hinted that he had in effect directed the film:
“I, as director of the film... set out in one car, while the director of photography and other crew members followed in another... working with people who found themselves in front of the camera for the first time was not an easy job.”
Texts of publicity materials for A Lor Girl (as also the final sequence of the film) would seem to indicate that its producers were fully aware of the political atmosphere prevailing during the reign of Reza Shah, and of the fact that the regime relied heavily on mass media. The success of A Lor Girl induced the Imperial Film Company to set up an agency in Iran to market its productions.
Sepanta was a man of letters and a prominent scholar in pre-Islamic literature, but he seems to have been unaware of the social conditions of the country and was easily duped by the official propaganda about the country’s “great progress and the establish-ment of order and social justice”. A Lor Girl illustrates the effect of this propaganda on Sepanta’s nationalistic sentiments. However, Sepanta returned to Iran a few years later, and, embittered with harsh realities, took to the solitary life of a recluse. Concerning his motives in making A Lor Girl Sepanta explains:
“As it was the first Iranian sound film to be presented abroad I felt it should present a bright picture of Iran, and thus I fell more or less in line with government propaganda... But I have to admit that the film was a great boost for the nationalistic pride of expatriate Iranians.”
Years later, in an interview with, Film and Life magazine, Sepanta complained: “Making A Lor Girl without adequate equipments and with no experienced crew was an exacting task and it grieves me to say that critics in India and Europe valued my work more than my compatriots did... At home I encountered all kinds of hostilities and willful obstruc-tions; and as I fail to find any rational explanation, I can only ascribe it to a base feeling of envy.”
Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of A Lor Girl, Sepanta found cinema a superb vehicle for pictorial renditions of Iranian history and literary heritage. In 1934, he made his second film Firdowsi for the Ministry of Culture and premiered it at the millenary celebrations of the great Persian epic poet. Sepanta’s third film Shirin and Farhad was based on a popular romantic story from Nizami’s dramatic poetry. The film was shot at the Bombay Imperial Film Studio in four months and was screened towards the end of 1934.
Sepanta directed his fourth film, The Black Eyes at the Krishna Film Studio in India in two months and screened it in Tehran for four weeks. The plot revolves around the adventures of a young couple, Homa and Homayoun, who are sent to India by Nader Shah to gather intelligence he needed for his invasion of the country.
Ironically, a film on the Iranian invasion of India was produced in India and by an Indian investor. In fact, after the success of A Lor Girl and Shirin and Farhad, Indian companies raced with one another in gaining footholds in the newly discovered Iranian market.
The Bombay Imperial Film company set up a distribution bureau in Tehran without allowing any financial remunerations for Sepanta’s efforts. That was one of the reasons Sepanta went to the Krishna Company to direct The Black Eyes. Once again, Sepanta’s fifth and last film, Laila and Majnun, Which was produced by the East India Film Studio, was based on a full-scale dramatic poem by Nizami. The complete script for Laila and Majnun is available as are Sepanta’s other manuscripts. The script contains detailed information regarding exterior and interior scenes, dialogues, and actors’ movements, settings, costumes, lighting, sound effects and camera movments. Also explanatory notes on editing and film processing are offered and scene descriptions are mostly accompanied by carefully worked-out drawings. All this reflects Sepanta’s careful attention to detail and his comprehensive grasp of the film medium.
After Laila and Majnun, Sepanta prepared for shooting another script with the working title of The Black Plume. But the project never materialized, nor did another screenplay he had written on the life of Omar Khayyam. In 1935, he left Calcutta for home, hoping that he could enlist government assistance to establish a film production studio. But he failed to gain enough support for his project:
“In September 1936, I arrived in Bushehr with a print of Laila and Majnun. Due to bu-reaucratic complications, the film print could not be immediately released, and we had to leave for Tehran without it. Government officials’ attitude was inexplicably hostile from the beginning and I almost was sorry that I returned home. The authorities did not value cinema as an art form or even as a means of mass communication, and I soon realized that I had to forget about my dream of establishing a film studio. I even had difficulty getting permission to screen my film, and in the end the machinations of the movie theater owners forced us to turn over the film to them almost for nothing.”
The sad conclusion that as a filmmaker there was no future for him in Iran made Sepanta leave Tehran and start work at the secretariat of the wool industries in Isfahan. In 1944 he started publishing a weekly magazine which he continued to bring out until 1953.
Between 1934 to 1954, not a single film was produced in Iran and when filmmaking activity was resumed, Sepanta was living in seclusion. Finally after 30 years Sepanta took up filmmaking again but not as a professional. He bought an 8 mm Canon camera and made a number of short films between 1967 and 1969. The Autumn, one of his Smm films, was presented at the 26th session of the Free Cinema Workshop in 1971.
Sepanta died in Isfahan in 1969.