THE HISTORY OF IRANIAN CINEMAFINAL PART
THE GATHERING STORM
By: Massoud Mehrabi
Time for the Intellectuals
The first step towards a serious and thoughtful narrative cinema in Iran was taken 35 years after the production and screening of the first Iranian film, with Farrokh Ghaffari’s IVight of the Hunchback
(1964), although brilliant examples of documentary cinema were produced in the country by creative and talented artists before.
In 1958 Ghaffari directed Downtown,
which was banned pending removal of certain scenes. Ghaffari then tried to solve the financial problems resulting from the Downtown
project by making Which One is fhe Bride7,
a purely commercial film which actually created enough resources for the director’s next picture. Might of the Hunchback
is a modernized version of a tale from One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights).
The public did not receive it very enthusiastically, but its production was considered an event of major significance since it asserted the presence of the intel- lectuals in Iranian cinema. Local critics, who had until then ignored the mostly low quality home productions, were unanimous in their praise for Ghaffari’s film. “I can now announce with confidence the birth of the Iranian cinema and, what is more important, I can declare with joy that the baby shows all signs of a healthy start,” wrote Hajir Dariush, a filmmaker and critic. Another critic emphasized the hisoirical significance of the film: “Seeing Night of the Hunchback
so many years after its screening, one comes to realize its immense significance. For in our view the true worth and historical role of a film or any work of art can only be evaluated in retrospect as the work stands out from among the multitude of contemporary productions. Night of the Hunchback
was created at a time when our filmmakers were churning out melodramatic tearjerkers or films on belligerent lumpens.”
Brick And Mirror,
a fine and durable film made a year later by Ebrahim Golestan, buttressed the position of Iranian intellectuals in the cinema. The film, which rated ninth on the list of “Ten Best Films We Ever Saw” by 46 local critics, must be considered a thematic and stylistic trailblazer in Iranian cinema. It is the tale of a distressed and bewildered existence and is told with an effective sincerity and bitter satire. With its detailed and compassionate description of the daily lives of ordinary people Brick and Mirror
exerted a great influence on future realist filmmakers.
Concurrently with the release of Brick and Mirror,
the dream factory of the commercial cinema opened a new chapter with The Treasure of Gharoon.
year before that (1965) Siamak Yasami had successfully tried in Mr. 20th Century
a new formula for cashing in on the economic and social privations of unsophisticated audience. The Treasure of Gharoon
followed the same pattern in 1966 and the Gharoonist trend of filmmaking (an ironical, pejorative term coined by film critics) was started. The basic story line in The Treasure of Gharoon
and in its sequels involved a young, handsome, brave but poor man who suddenly and miraculously came into great fortune. At the same time the films adopted a phony stoic attitude, preaching the worthlessness of worldly possessions, and depicted the rich as miserable people who could not enjoy life the way the happy-go-lucky and penniless heroes did. The hero of The Treasure of Gharoon
is so poor he can not get provisions for New Year’s feast. But he won’t let that insignificant fact ruffle his cheerfulness; he goes on eating meat-stew and generaily enjoying himseif, for “true” happiness is only his lot. To this concoction was added scenes of dance and music, fistfights and jokes, and the recipe for providing two hours of escape from harsh reality was completed. The majority of the underprivileged moviegoers, who identified themselves with the handsome hero, watched the fulfillment of their dreams and went home temporarily relieved of their tensions. The Treasure of Gharoon
and the wave of imitations which followed it provided an unprecedented impetus for the local film industry enabling it to withstand the onslaught of foreign competition.The Cow, a Turning Point
The exceptional box office success of The Treasure of Ghroon
enticed many new investors to the industry and the annual production of about 40 films soared to 52 titles in 1967 and 80 in 1968. Not unexpectedly the best commercial successes were those which applied The Treasure of Gharoon
That film also provided the caricaturists with a wealth of themes for satire. And as the camaraderie of the poor was often feasted with meat-stews, expressions like “meat-stew films” and “meats-tew cinema” were applied to the commercial cinema. It is worth noting that in spite of the use of the phrase “meatstew film” in connection with The Treasure of Gharoon,
no critic ever reviewed the film, for they felt it degrading to write about such banal productions.
The Treasure of Gharoon
raised a great hue and cry, but not enough to subdue the voice of the serious filmmakers. Siavosh In Perspolis
by Fereydoun Rahnama was the most thought-provoking film of 1968, while The Husband of Ahu Khanom
by Davoud Mollapoor was the most popular picture in the same year. Set in a not too distant past and based on a novel of the same title by Ali- Mohammad Afghani, the film analyses in a simple and lucid manner the effect of male domination on the personality of Iranian women. The film is remarkable for its honest treatment of the central theme, and this more than makes up for certain flaws in its overall structure and its rather weak script. A charming naturalism and avoidance of exaggerated melodramatics characterize the acting style. Great ranges of emotions are often conveyed by controlled modulations of gestures and expressions.
Cow, and Ghaissar,
both produced in 1969, must be considered the forerunners of two divergent trends in Iranian cinema. Ghaissar,
directed by Massoud Kimiaee provoked one of the greatest critical controversies ever seen here. Stylistically and thematically it is a much inferior work than The
Cow, and actually falls into the category of entertainment cinema. In revenge of the murder of his brother and the suicide of his sister, who had been raped, Ghaissar starts killing the perpetrators and is finally gunned down by the police. The film’s structure and message, personal revenge, set off a great chain of debates among film critics. While Dr. Houshang Kavoosi led the front against Ghaissar,
Najaf Daryabandari admired the film as “... the first Iranian commercial film, that is both entertaining and executed with professional skill. Ghaissar
is not an exceptional phenomenon; it is the natural product of Iranian film industry and it has been crafted with taste and delicacy”.
Countering these remarks and those of Ebrahim Golestan, who had also praised the film, Kavoosi wrote with indignation, “Many elements in this jungle of knives are borrowed from the pistol-jungle of Dodge City in the Far West. They are channelled through the gutter of Iranian commercial cinema and are promenaded along the bazaar in downtown Tehran. The only differences are the architecture, local customs, the public bath and the domes and minarets”. Another film critic supported Kavoosi’s views saying: “Ghaissar
is undoubtedly one of the most reactionary films ever made in Iran. At the most critical moment when the local commercial and banal cinema was about to suffocate in the fumes of its own degeneration, Kimiaee blew new life into this decomposing corpse with his sentimental treatment of a tearjerker”. Dariush Mehrjui directed the Cow, the other significant and durable film of 1969
. The screening of the film must be considered the public received a turning point in the history of Iranian cinema as it with great enthusiasm despite the fact that it had ignored all elements of box office attraction of the commercial cinema. It thus gave the lie to this argument of the commercial filmmakers that the public only wanted superficial entertainment. Apart from his choice of a good story by Gholamhossein Sa’edi. Mehrjui had the support of experienced stage actors: Ezatollah Entezami, Ali Nassirian, Jamshid Mashayekhi, and Jafar Vali who came to work also in cinema and gave to the acting profession a new style and prestige. The
Cow is the only film that has always been praised by critics since its first screening. The latest praise accorded to the film is its selection by the Iranian critics as the best film they ever viewed. The
Cow was also successful outside the country and won the international critics’ prize in 1970 Venice Film Festival.
Set in a drab rural area, with arid lands and unyielding nature, The
Cow tells the sad fate of Mash Hassan, the owner of the only cow in the village. He passionately, loves his cow - the only source of income for him and dairy for the village - and when the cow
dies, Mash Hassan psychologically and literally replaces the animal. He lives in the stable,
eats fodder and moos. The
villagers try to
take Mash Hassan to a hospital in town, but he dies on the way.
The years 1970 to 1973 were fruitful years for the serious Iranian cienma. Mr. Simplefon
(Dariush Mehrjui, 1971), Reza, The Motomyclist
(Massoud Kimiaee, 1971), Goodbye, Friend
(Amir Naderi, 1972), Dash Akol
(M. Kimiaee, 1972), Downpour
(Bahram Bayzai, 1973), The Spring
(Arbi Ova-nesian, 1973), and Postman
(D. Mehrjui, 1973), are among the most remarkable films of the period.
Based on a play by Ali Nassirian, Mr. Simplefon
depicts moments in the life of a simpleminded provincial man who has decided to visit the capital. As in his previous great film, The
Cow, Mehrjui adopts a realistic approach in the treatment of his subject and creates a minor tragedy.
is an ingenuous picture which does not try to deceive the audience. This is Naderi’s first feature in which he introduces the element of violence in Iranian cinema, but the violence in Naderi’s film appears convincing and justifiable. Naderi at that period did not yet have adequate mastery over the film medium, but he exhib- ited an instinctive feeling for the pictorial language and in spite of a rather weak characterization managed to create an impressive picture.
1973 was a year of disappointment and economic crisis and low box office receipts, particularly in the first half of the year, forced many producers out of business. A number of them went bankrupt and some abandoned work temporarily. However, in spite of the economic crisis and the unpromising prospects, 90 films were produced in 1972 which to date remains the highest annual production figure in Iranian cinema.
The practice of copying foreign films that had proved their box office attraction reached a new height in that year. In retrospect it transpires that most of the films were much more than imitations: they were literally shot by shot rendering of imported pictures with local actors replacing their foreign counterparts. But the public who were often faced by both the original and the copy, often opted for the former, and this was one of the main causes of the economic crisis. Filmmaking in those years had been reduced to the level of a child’s game, and newcomers had only to learn the basic formula: sex plus violence equalled box office. The more successful pic- tures added the seasonings of sentimentality and jokes.
With an output of 85 films, 1974 was stilling a year of high productivity. Again most of the pictures were dull banalities, and the number of good or even tolerable films could be counted on the fingers of a hand. As in the previous years producers felt the pinch of low box office and complained of the strong competition of foreign films which had great attraction for masses of viewers. In fact the import of foreign films had soared to 500 films a year. Most of these films relied on sex and violence and were usually sold to the exhibitors at one fifth to one tenth the price of local films.
One outstanding event of 1974 was the release of Tranguility in the Presence of Others
by Nasser Taghvaee which had been banned for years. The released version was severely mutilated and reduced to 80 minutes from an original 120-minute version. Based on a story by Gholam-hossein Sa’edi, Tranguilify...
presents a dark view of a society in which women promenade as perverted monsters. The only exception is the colonel’s wife who can be regarded as a personification of love and selfsacrifice. The retired colonel, reduced to a mechanical existence by years of military life, demands unquestioned obedience from his family. He tries to fill the emptiness of his life by listening to martial music from outside the fences of a barrack, goose-stepping in the streets and reviewing lines of trees. Unfortunately no complete version of the filrri is extant, and the omission of a great number of scenes makes it difficult to have a balanced evaluation of the film.
Taghvaee’s third film, was screened in the same year and gave serious movie fans a chance to trace the development of Taghvaee’s thought. As it turned out The Curse
presented little relief from the dark pessimism of Tranquility... despite a number of years, which separated two pictures. Taghvaee adopted a more explicit naturalistic approach in the new film and removed the mask of social identities from the faces of his characters to reveal the instinctive animals that lurked behind them.
The End of an Era in Recession
Apart from The Earfh, a mediocre film by Massoud Kimiaee, two more remarkable films (The Mongols by Parviz Kimiavi and A Simple Event by Sohrab Shahid-Saless) were released in 1974 and were subsequently praised also at international film festivals. Kimiavi was an admirer of the French New Wave cinema, and The Mongols is an obvious homage to Jean-Luc Godard whose name appears on an Iron Gate in one of the scenes. Kimiavi even made use of the musical score of Pierrof le fou. Ironically The Mongols, which was financed by the National Television, is an attack on the spread of television in towns and rural areas, which the film compares with the invasion of the country by the Mongols centuries ago.
With A Simple Evenf Sohrab Shahid-Saless emerged on the Iranian film scene as filmmaker with a distinctive style. Adopting an almost documentary style, Shahid-Saless records uneventful moments in the lives of ordinary people. He has said, “A Simple Evenf has no plot. It is only a report on the daily life of a boy”. Working with a cast of non-professional local players, Shahid-Saless constructed his film with realistic images that almost corresponded with the temporal flow of rural life. The film is so simple and unadorned that it creates the illusion of having been made with no prepared overall design.
For all its lyrical charm, A Simple Event must be considered as a prelude or a preparation for Shahid-Saless’s great pic- ture Still Life which was awarded the Silver Bear for best direction and the critics’ prize in 1975 Berlin Festival. Still Life is the monotonous, uneventful life of a switchman living in a remote, desolate spot. For the old man and his wife everything ends on the day he recieves his retirement papers. A young switchman arrives and the old man has to move... to nowhere.
This poetical and elegiac picture is one of the best works produced in Iranian cinema. Shahid-Saless defends the basic human values, and at the same time exposes the horrible cruelty on which the bureaucratic system is based. All his life the old man repeats a simple job: lowering the fence on the road interesting the railway whenever a train passes. And Shahid-Saless presents the dull monotony of this life with an appropriate rhythm.
Shahid-Saless immigrated to Germany where he has made a number of films.
Still Life and A Simple Event appeared in those years in the 70s when the intellectual cinema of Iran had found its independent and national identity. And this was of course part of a general cultural rejuvenation in almost all-artistic fields. The decade was characterized by the re-assertion of the intelligentsia and the political groups whom the Shah had subdued in 1953 and again in 1964. And in the area of feature filmmaking, many creative and politically committed directors helped fashion f.he special character of the Iranian cinema with such films as The Secrets of the Treesure of Jinni Valley (Ebrahim Golestan, 1975), Prince Ehtejab (Bahman Farmanara, 1975), The Deers (Massoud Kimiaee, 1976), Stranger and fhe Fog (Bahram Bayzai, 1976), Sutedelan (Ali Hatami, 1977), The Cycle (Dariush Mehrjui, 1978), The Reporf (Abbas Kiarostami, 1978).
But things did not fare as well in the area of commercial cinema. Box office receipts continued to dwindle, and audiences were bored with local productions which compared miserably with the attractive foreign pictures. Annual production declined, reaching 38 films in 1978. This downward trend prompted certain critics to hint in 1977 that Iranian cinema was doomed to go bankrupt. By 1978 headlines such as “Death of Iranian Cinema” and “Iranian Cinema in Deathbed” often appeared in the papers. The controversy was not confined to the press and in the spring of 1978 the Rastakhiz Party arranged a number of meetings with people involved in film industry to discuss “the economic and financial crisis of the Iranian cinema”. The meeting bore no results, but the papers continued to discuss various aspects of the crisis. Under the heading, “Iranian Cinema’s Death Throes” Kayhan newspaper enumerated what it considered to be the causes of the crisis: generals rise in production costs, various municipality and government taxes, unpredictable censorship, and the competition of television.
Other papers took up the question and one newspaper, Ayandegan, devoted a column to its readers’ views. One of them wrote: “Finally the day has come when the self-styled bailiffs of the Iranian cinema are to shed hypocritical tears and mourn the death of their own misbegotten creature”.
1979 - the gathering storm arrived and swept away everything in its path.
The excited demonstrators set fire to many movie theaters in Tehran and provinces which they considered as centers of dissipation and corruption. The destructions were of unheard proportions and only in Tehran about one fourth of the movie theaters were completely ruined. The most horrible case occurred in Abadan. On August 19, 1979 an audience of 400 were trapped in 8 blazing movie theater while watching The Deers. The doors were locked and no one could escape. People held Savak (Shah’s secret police) responsible, claiming it was an attempt to discredit the revolutionary movement, while the Shah accused the opposition. On February 11, 1979 the Islamic Revolution wound up the history of half a century of cinema in Iran, and opened up a new chapter: cinema in the Islamic Republic, the history of which remains to be written.