THE HISTORY OF IRANIAN CINEMAPART ONE
By: Massoud Mehrabi
Laying the First Stones
At the turn of the century, Iran was still beset by the despotic rule of monarchs. But a growing intelligentsia, impressed by the cultural and technological advancements of European countries, was becoming increasingly vocal in its demand for freedom and constitutionalism.
Altough Ta’zieh (the passion play), enjoyed the patronage of their majesties, a souvenir Muzaffar-ed Din Shah brought back from his trayels to France -the magic lantern- soon turned out to be a strong rival for the traditional religious drama.
The shah visited France in 1900, and in Contrexville he chanced upon a cinematograph. Fascinated by the apparatus, he wrote in his diary, “the machine projects on the wall and shows people in motion.” Mirza Ebrahim Khan, the court photographer, was instructed to buy the cinematograph. Later in the same year the royal party were in Ostend at the time of the annual carnival of the town, and Mirza, in the words of the shah, “filmed the festivities and the young damsels who threw flowers at the spectators.” In a sense, Mirza Ebrahim Khan could be remembered as the first Iranian motion picture photographer. He is said to have filmed the shah’s private and religious ceremonies; but no copies of such films are extant However, the first professional Iranian motion picture photographer was Khan Baba Motazedi, who started his work a few years later, about the time when cinematograph was beginning to become a popular pastime. The following advertisement appeared in one of the June 1908 issues of Sour-e Esrafil newspaper:
“New sights to see through cinematograph, which depicts the world in motion. Recently imported and presented at one of the shops of the great Tajerbashi. Gentlemen are most welcome from one o’clock in the afternoon till two hours after dark.”
Before that, however, cinema had started in Iran as a genteel hobby in the Qajar court: the royal parties and religous ceremonies were filmed and presented along with films brought to Iran via Russia. So whereas elsewhere in the world cinema began as a popular attraction, in Iran it remained at the service of exclu ive circles of courtiers and aristocracy for a number of years.
In 1904, Mirza Ebrahim Khan Sahhafbashi opened the first movie theater -if indeed it could be called that- in Tehran. An innovative, liberal and enlightened man, he studied English literature at Iran’s first modern school and from 1897 went on business trips around the world. In May 1897, he bought a cinematograph in London, and he seems to be the first Iranian to have registered a full description of the apparatus. He also acquired a kinetoscope, which he installed in the corridor leading to his screening hall. His spectators, mostly of the upper middle-class, were entertained by nonstop screenings of short comedies and documentaries imported from Russia, while lemonade and other types of refreshments were sold during the shows. Unfortunately, Sahhafbashi was not able to run his theater for more than a month as his advocacy of a democratic political system soon led to the confiscation of his property and his banishment.
The Popularization of Cinema
The next prominent figure in the history of the Iranian cinema is Mehdi Russi Khan who was born to a British father and Russian mother. He started his work as a photographer and had the following advertisement in the September 5, 1907 issue of the Sour-e EsraDI:
“Mr.Russi Khan, the renowned photographer, has recently set up a studio a la France on the Ala’eddoleh street, ready to take superb protraits and other types of photographs.”
In 1907, Russi Khan bought a projector and started showing short (eight to nine-minute) films at the harem of Mohammad Ali Shah. A year later he opened a cinema and had a documentary on the Russo- Japanese war for its inauguration. Later he moved his theater to a new place and called it the “show house of Russi Khan and Boomer.” Among the films screened at the “show house” were documentaries of the Rostov city and the Madagascar Island. Russi Khan was against the constitutional movement, maintained royal court connections and was supported by the Russians. He was thus able to continue his work in spite of the fact that certain pressure groups were against the cinema. A curious circumstance in connection with Russi Khan’s movie theater; as the showdown between the constitutionalists and the forces of the absolute monarchy intensified, the warring armed groups chose a very unusual method of going to the movies. As if by tacit consent, they occupied Russi Khan’s movie theater on alternate evenings. Finally, however, the balance of power was disturbed and Russi Khan’s projectors and films were plundered or destroyed. After Mohammad Ali Shah’s escape, Russi Khan left the country and settled in Paris where he died in 1968.
Russi Khan’s film screening activity coincided with that of Aghayev who screened films at a teashop. An ugly rivalry between the two impresarios often led to rough encounters and bloody brawls. Be that as it may, the two men played important roles in introducing the cinema to the Iranian public.
But the man who started cinema in Iran as a permanent institution was Ardashes Batmagerian, known as ‘Ardeshir the Armenian.’ He opened his movie theater with the co- operation of Antoine Khan, the Pathe freres and Antoine Svruguin in 1912. A year later George Smailov set up a second movie theater opposite that of Batmagerian and before long others followed suit and intense rivalries ensued. Ta’zieh sessions were traditionally held from two o’clock in the afternoon and continued well into the evening. And movie theater managers scheduled their screening programs on the same hours, which were the leisure time of most sociaI groups. The inevitable and not unexpected outcome was that the irresistible magic of cinema soon drove the Ta’zieh organizers out of business.
Among the men who contributed to popularizing cinema in Iran in the first two decades of the century, the most notable were Russi Khan and Aghayev who were engaged in fierce rivalry with one another. Another forerunner in this field was Aradashes Batmagerian who opened the first regular cinema in Tehran with the help of two French companies said to have had a share of the revenues.
As more movie theaters started operation and attracted more spectators, theaters had to be closed down or turned into cinema, indeed a very simple transformation: a white curtain from the prop had to be hung from the proscenium.
Following the 1917 revolution in Russia, rich emigres arrived in Iran and started investing in many economic fields. In 1925, Arnold Jacobson set up Cinema Mayak in Tabriz and the following year he opended Cinema Iran in Tehran with the help of Alexander Levtn and Emil Surkov. To add glamour to the magic of the silent motionpictures, Levin and his wife played the piano in front of the screen.
Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, a very influential cleric, had declared watching films an unpardonable sin and very few pious souls dared go to the movies. On the other hand, impresarios were unable to organize screenings on a regular basis due to transportation problems. The only exception in this regard was the Grand Cinema, which presented new films on Mondays and Fridays. The fiims were still silent and cinema managers followed the suit of their colleagues elsewhere in the world to hire orchestras to play Persian tunes before the screenings and during the intermissions. A few years later, Cinema Iran played imported records on a gramaphone hidden behind the curtain.
The First Cinema for Women
Ali Vakili was the first movie theater owner to devote shows exclusively to women. In 1926, he set up a screening hall in the auditorium of a Zoroastrian school and had the following advertisement in Etela’ at and Iran dailies:
“The famous series by Ruth Roland, the renowned world artist will be presented at the Zoroastrian School from May 10, 1928. Watching the incredible acrobatics of this international prodigy is a must for all respectable ladies. Get two tickets for the price of one.”
Benign as such programs may seem today, they were considered daring innovations at the time. Cinema and theater managers were regarded as corrupters of society, and Vakili was accused to have set up a “house of love.”
Nevertheless, movie theaters for ladies grew fashionable. Later, mixed audiences, of course with the aisle dividing the men from the women, started screening films. The following ad from the Etela’at of September 4, 1928 may help reconstruct the atmosphere of the period:
“As a service to the public, the Grand Cinema management has demarcated parts of its hall for the ladies and from tonight parts one and two of the series The Copper Ball will be presented together. Thus all citizens including the ladies may enjoy the entire series: Measures will be taken with the cooperation of the honorable police officers to bar unchaste women and dissolute youth of no principle.”
The Arrival of Talkies
The inauguration of the Palace Cinema of Tehran in 1930 was a historical event. For the first time, the citizens .of the capital were entertained in a sumptuous hall with films in which people could be heard talk, laugh and cry, three years after the advent of sound in cinema.
In the early days of the Palace, skimpy equipment made the dialogue almost incomprehensible to most of the viewers. It was closed down after a short while, but by that time two other movie theaters had started showing talkies. Sound film, however, had already imposed its irresistible presence and the educated few who were familiar with foreign languages found audible dialogue indisensible, while the majority of movie goers thronged second-rate cinemas to watch action-packed serials. This state of affairs remained more or less unchanged until films began to be dubbed in mid 1940s.
The history of subtitles and interpreting was a fascinating story by itself. In the beginning, an interpreter would walk along the aisle, reading out the subtitles loudly. As the movie halls were not particularly orderly and people felt enough at home to keep coming in and going out at will, hilarious situations could occur, The interpreter’s narration could be superimposed with the cries of nut venders who continued to do business during the show. Or when the interpreter failed to show up, an illiterate substitute would take over only to make occasional mistakes, which could arouse objections from some attendants who happened to understand the diaiogue. The interpreter sometimes forgot the story line and had to concoct a plot on the spur of the moment.
The ‘narrative’ storytelling continued well into the early ’40s. In 1945, Henri Decoin’s Premiere Rendez-Vous was dubbed into Persian at a studio in Turkey and was screened in Tehran as the Girl on the Run. But for the next ten years, Roman studios provided the Iranian audience with most of the dubbing before workshops began to mushroom in Tehran in the 1950s.
Availing themselves of the gear and machinery in the country, the Italian-based, Iranian-owned dubbing studios learned by trial and error and gradually turned out rather acceptable jobs, mostly on Italian comedies but sometimes on works as memorable as Anna and Bitter Rice. As Italian films began to lose their novelty to the Iranian audience, dubbing studios turned to American films and soon the dream factory of Hollywood flooded Iranian market with its products dubbed here.
With the ensuing competition between a growing number of studios, each tried to cut the costs mainly by paying less and employing nonprofessional speakers, with predictably clumsy perfomance and results. But this was not the end of the competition. Managers of dubbing studios also began to alter the texts of dialogues in order to make the films more interesting to Iranian audience, and in some instances went to the extreme of rewriting the plots of film stories containing politically or morally unacceptable themes.
The constant shrinkage of wages forced the speakers and dubbing technicians to form a union, which was formally recognized by the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs in 1965. In 1968 the union members went on strike for the first time, but they succeeded in winning only parts of their demands as some members soon gave in to the pressure of managers.
In mid ’60s, representatives of film production companies started furnishing dubbing studios with tracks of sound effects, and the facility relieved the speakers from the necessity of imitating, say, the stomp of galloping horse by beating with their fingers on the table.
Flourishing dubbing industry attracted young speakers and technicians to the professiori. The competition of newcomers, insufficient salaries and irregular payments, disregard of the constitution of association of the union by studio managers, and soaring inflation led to the second strike of dubbing speakers in 1977. Film companies and dubbing studios, which had influential contacts in the ministries of Culture and Arts, and Labor and Social Affairs, managed to hire students of the College of the Dra- matic Arts and the College of Fine Arts to do the work. The Omen and The French Connection II were examples of the poor amateurish perfomances of those days. As the strikers had no choice but to go back to work, the strike ended after five months without any results and the dubbing industry remained as chaotic.
The history of documentary films in Iran is nearly as old as that of the cinema itself. In 1906, Mehdi Russi Khan opened his movie theater with a documentary on the Russo- Japanese war, which had been edited in two versions: the one Russi Khan presented was a pro-Russian propaganda. But after the triumph of the constitutionalists, which forced Russi Khan to flee the country, the version favoring the Japanese was shown.
Making documentaries in Iran began with the travels of Muzaffar-ed Din Shah to France in 1900. The royal entourage included Mirza Ebrahim Khan, the photographer who filmed the annual carnival of flowers in Ostend and thus created the first Irainan documentary. Back home, the monarch ordered Mirza Ebrahim Khan to make films “... to be shown to the servants.” And so the royal photographer started shooting scenes of daily life in streets and marketplaces, religious ceremonies and mournings, the lions in the shah’s private zoo, etc. A white curtain would be hanged in the palace and the elite was entertained with film presentations. The next figure in the history of making documentaries in Iran is Khan Baba Motazedi. Having left Iran during the reign of Ahmad Shah to study in France, Khan Baba returned home with a Gaumont movie camera after the 1921 coup d’etat of Reza Khan. With the ardor and enthusiasm of a present day youth who has just acquired his first 8 mm. camera, Khan Baba started filming people and objects around him, and his first subjects were naturally members of his own family. His second subject was Mohammad Hassan Mirza the crown prince, and then he recorded the inauguration of the constituent assembly. His fourth film showed Reza Shah taking the oath to remain loyal to the constitution.
Soon Khan Baba’s reputation as an experienced and skillful filmmaker was established and he started pouring out documentaries on the opening of the railway station in December 15, 1925, the inaugurations of Bank Melli, the wireless station, bridges, roads, and films depicting army parades, track races, etc. The films were shown in movie theaters in Tehran and at the army headquarters.
From his store of documetary footage, Khan Baba edited a short trailer type of film on which the first Iranian royal anthem was played. The film was screened before the main programs and the audiences were required to rise during its presentation.
Strict Censor Arrives
With First Revealing Documentaries
During the ’20s and ’30s, a number of documentary films were made in Iran by foreign directors, The most successful and famous of these early productions was The Grass.
After the First World War, ethnography and anthropology became subjects of great interest to some westem filmmakers who travelled to faraway lands to record the greatest of epic adventures, man’s battle against the natural forces. Following this trend, three Americans, Merian C.Cooper, film director, Ernest B. Schoedsack, photographer, and Marguerite Harrison visited Iran in 1924 and made The Grass about the annual migrations of one of the Bakhtiari nomadic tribes.
Defiant to the propaganda of Reza Shah’s regime (1925-1941), The Grass was not shown in Iran for years after its completion. After the advent of sound film, Rimsky Korsakov’s Scheherazade and narration were dubbed on the film in Britain. The narration was later reedited by Mojtaba Minovi, an Iranian scholar, to include folk satire and was finally shown in Iran.
The German railway syndicate produced the next important documentary in Iran, Iranian Railway, in 1930. The first part of the film depicted the rugged and primitive roads of Iran while the second part recorded the initial steps to the inauguration of the northem track. The public generally liked the second part, but found the first one disparaging to the national prestige.
Another documentary, The Yellow Cruise, was made by a French team including 21 scientists who had been commissioned by Andre Citroen, owner of the Citroen factory, to do research on the cultural and social aspects of Asian countries, while promoting his cars. The group of scientists and photographers arrived in Iran in April 1931 and proceeded to Afghanistan and China. The team’s photographer was Andre Sofame who was in charge of filming interesting sights. The Yellow Cruise presented scenes of poverty and backwardness and as a result was banned in Iran and its presentation in France prompted protests of the Iranian ‘progressists’. Alarmed by the public reaction to films like The Grass, Iranian Railway and THe Yellow Cruise, the government took action to impose a strict code of censorship.
With the outbreak of the Second World War and the subsequent occupation of Iran by the allied forces in 1941, reporters from many western countries swarmed the country to cover important political meetings including the tripartite Tehran Conference. They usually took advantage of the occasion and while touring the country, filmed scenes of rural and urban life.
In the early ’50s, the country plunged into political strife and world attention was focused on Iran. Foreign reporters and photographers kept visiting Iran to prepare reports and films on the Anglo-Iranian oil dispute, which was the main issue of the political division. Most reporters also filmed public demonstrations and the living condition of people in the suburban areas. The 1953 coup d’etat which toppled Mussadeq and brought back the Shah to power put an end to all that.
The Syracuse Group Sets Guidelines
As part of the program of cooperation between the Information and Cultural Relations Department of the United States, and the General Department of the Fine Arts of Iran, the Syracuse University sent a team of photographers to Iran in 1951.
Known as the Syracuse Group, the team started making documentary films which apparently were apolitical, but the narratives and the editing styles clearly betray the political stance of the producers: a tendency to gain control over the economic resources of the host country. The film invariably depicted Iran as an underdeveloped country, while the design of film credits, accompanied by “The American people presents, through the Point 4 program of cooperation” tried to introduce the U.S.A as a well-meaning friend or even a saviour. Structurally, the films were straightforward and simple accounts of poverty and ignorance among the lower strata of the Iranian society. Their titles, Preventing Diarrhea, Wells and Sewerage, Health and Nutrition, Tuberculosis Is Curable, Clean Water, Why Children Die? In themselves are indicative of the policies the Syracuse Group followed. The Syracuse method of documentary filmmaking, which was the basis of the same group’s teaching the craft at the College of Fine Arts, set the main framework for documentary propaganda film production in Iran. A review of the editing techniques and the texts of narrations in the films produced by the students of the group reveal the main traits of the Syracuse style of filmmaking, a specific type of re- portage-propaganda approach to documentary cinema.
While the graduates of the Syracuse group were mainly engaged in the production of documentaries, Iranian feature films were beginning to enjoy more popularity and box office success. At about the same time a group of young Iranian directors who had studied in film schools abroad returned home and started making documentaries of a different style. The year 1957 saw the height of this trend. Among the most notable productions of the period are From a Drop to the Sea, A Fire and The Perspective, all directed by Ebrahim Golestan, Historic Monuments of Isfahan and Isfahan by Mohammad Gholi Sayar (one of the graduates of the Syracuse group). The majority of documentary films in the 50’s cannot hide their characteristics as works made on commission. Nevertheless, filmmakers trying to avoid the degrading exigencies of the commercial cinema turned to government organizations to finance their projects. But any director who aspired to go beyond the prescribed framework was soon disappointed. The Night It Rained, Bordellos and Tehran is the Capital of Iran by Kamran Shirdel are examples of such ambitious, doomed works, shelved permanently almost as soon as finished.
Faced by numerous and exasperating restrictions in the production of documentaries dealing with social and political issues, filmmakers began to look for alternative areas of acceptable subject matters and chose themes of general human relevance with emotional overtones. The Voice that Became Antiquated by Khosrow Sinai, The Book of Babraz by Hassan Tehrani and The Penitentiary by Kamran Shirdel are films which mostly deal with individual human beings’ alienation from their environment. A characteristic feature of the documentaries of this period, in particular Pottery and The Rhythm by Manouchehr Tayyab and The Wave, The Coral and the Granite by Ebrahim Golestan and Allan Pendry, is a growing tendency towards formalism. In their effort to circumvent the restrictions of censorship, artists developed a highly elaborate, metaphorical and allegorical language, which gradually alienated them from the public. Sophisticated works like The Dawn of Capricorn (The Dawn of Light) by Ahmad Faroughi, The Date Palm by Nasser Taghvaee, The Silver Canvas by Kamran Shirdel and The Hassanlou Cup by Mohammad Reza Aslani are adorned with highly ornate symbolic modes of expression. In The Dawn of Capricom the camera pans over the artfully crafted mosaics of the historic monurnents of Isfahan; in the following shot we have general views of the ancient buildings as the camera follows a child roaming about the city as the director charges his images with symbolic significance. In the last scene, a fruit seller is dozing beside a pile of watermelons, while midday news on Vietnam is broadcast on the radio. We hear the reporter asking “What would happen if a bomb were to be dropped on the city?” and the camera cuts to a long shot of Isfahan. In The Date Palm the life of the people is depicted as closely dependent on the foodstuff and the director is exploring the implications of this interrelationship. When the palms bear fruit, a woman is shown carrying a kerosene can with the trademark of a foreign company on it, an oblique reference to the exploitation of the nation’s economic resources by foreigners.
The Unexplored Field of Documentary
Through the past few decades, Iranian documentary filmmakers have experimented with different styles and various themes. Concurrently, critics and scholars have been conducting researches and expounding the theoretical aspects of documentary cinema. Mohammad Tahami-Nezhad, a film researcher and historian, believes that “documentary filmmaking is progressing in various fields in Iran. Ours is a vast country with variegated topographical features and climatic conditions. The country offers the documentary makers an abundance of themes in its natural scenery, architectural styles, social customs, folk rites, production methods and working conditions. The result of the filmmakers’ en- deavors, with whatever merit, will enhance the culture of film appreciation at home, and will also help introduce our national identity.”
In 1964, Fereydoun Rahnama, a well-known figure in the history of Iranian cinema, remarked at a round table discussion: “Documentaries register the fact and should satisfy man’s basic need to know his environment. We need to know our past and documentaries can greatly help us acquire a better understanding of history. Whether we like it or not, we are involved in a cultural competition, and cinema, particularly documentary films, can contribute to the assessment of our potentialities for facing the challenge.”
Khosrow Sinai, who has a long record of making documentaries, once told me: “Our main drawback in documentary cinema is the lack of competent research groups. The insufficient information and data the filmmakers manage to gather at short notice make them resort to dwelling on formalism. So glaring is the lack of reliable documentaries that academics at the college of anthropology have had to make their own films for educational purpose.”
During the hectic days of the revolution, many amateur filmmakers appeared with 8 mm. cameras on the streets to record the demonstrations and confrontations with the Shah’s army. Films in 16 mm. and 35 mm. were also made. But most of these enthusiastic onlookers were only novices in the craft and the result of their works turned out to be hardly more than newsreels lacking technicai sophistication and enough aesthetic appeal.
The year 1979 could be regarded as the end of a period in which documentaries were usually screened before feature films, while the lights in the screening halls were still on and moviegoers were moving between the rows to find their seats.