THE HISTORY OF IRANIAN CINEMA
YEARS OF IDLENESS
By: Massoud Mehrabi
The last tow parts of this article dealt with the leading figures
within Iranian cinema, pioneers, the first movie theaters,
various techniques of dubbing and documentery filmmaking.
The following part will cover the rebirth of the Iranian cinema…
For twelve years (1936-48) a deathly silence and a spirit of listlessness weighed upon the Iranian film scene. No feature film was produced and a few short documentaries made up the entire cinematic output of the country. The same years marked a period of the greatest social and political turbulence for the world. Cinema had already created unforgettable masterpieces and had established itself as a powerful medium. Hollywood emerged as "the dream factory" and was to enchant the world for decades, and the prestigious Italian neorealism had overshadowed all other trends in the world cinema.
During those years foreign film distributing companies, assisted by movie theater owners, strengthened their hold on the Iranian market. With the outbreak of the World War II the country was plunged into anarchy and insecurity. Filmmaking was judged to be a risky business and no producer was prepared to venture into the trade. But other factors also helped bring about the lull in Iranian cinema.
There are no recorded documents except for a few notes by Sepanta. But by piecing together the available parts of the puzzle - various oral communications and anecdotes - one might come up with a fairly reliable picture of what was going on. The exceptional box office success of Sepanta's films should have led to the emergence of a local cinema, but that never happened. Foreign distributors' bitter experience in India, where they had lost a major portion of the market to local productions, must have brought home to them that indigenous film industries were potential sources of threats to their interests.
Many Iranians, with diverse motivations, tried to create a local film industry, but their efforts were invariably blocked by mysterious hands. The cases of people like Khanbaba Motazedi, Abdolhossein Sepanta, Ebrahim Moradi, were examples of such doomed attempts. Khanbaba had to content himself with running a movie theater, Sepanta was condemned to inactivity while Moradi, as the first deputy for the cinematographic affairs of the Ministry of Culture, Endowments and Handicrafts, labored in vain through the labyrinth of the reigning bureaucracy.
Since 1985, when my History of Iranian Cinema first appeared, I have been digging for clues to the enigmas of those years. I have come upon very interesting documents, but there are still missing links. Among the most remarkable records are those pointing to attempts by foreigners to make films in Iran and even to organize the Iranian film industry. But all their efforts came to naught and that was to be expected: for Reza Shah dreaded the unforeseeable effects and consequences of a thriving film industry as much as he feared a free press. In 1924 three Americans - Merian Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedsack and Margaret Harrison - travelled to Iran and made The Grass, a magnificent and beautiful film on the annual migration of Bakhtiari tribes. The film was not in line with the regime's propaganda and was not shown in Iran. The Yellow Caravan was another film made by a French group, which showed scenes of poverty and backwardness and was banned in Iran.
But the most absurd aspect of the situation was the involvement of high-ranking officials in the question of whether or not Arthur Upham Pope, an Iranologist, should be allowed to make a documentary film on carpet weaving in Iran. Parts of Pope's letter to the prime minister are reproduced below:
"... May I once again give you my personal pledge that all the regulations will be strictly observed in letter and spirit, as we have explained in our letter to General Mokhtari. We are quite ready to have the film sealed here by the police, the seal not to be broken except by the Iranian Legation in Washington. The entire film will be shown there subject to the approval of His Majesty's representative... the text will be submitted for approval to the Legation in Washington, and an exact copy will be filed with the police here..."
And if in this case only General Mokhtari (Reza Shah's ruthless chief of secret police) and the Prime Minister were involved, a similar case had to be relegated to the King himself:
"His Imperial Majesty's Special Bureau:
Mrs. Violet Kersi Fisher, a respectable British citizen... requests permission to make a film in Iran... she expresses her willingness to have the film sealed and proposes to air mail it at her own expense to the Iranian Embassy in London. The film will be developed in England under the supervision of the Iranian ambassador and will be returned to Iran for final inspection. Would you please inquire His Majesty's views on the subject and inform us of the same.
And here is the "confidential" reply:
"His Excellency the Prime Minister Letter No... was presented to His Majesty and Mrs. Violet Kersi Fisher's request to make a film was not approved.
What Did the "Father" to Iranian Cinema
A new, albeit short-lived, period of freedom was ushered in with the abdication (or rather deposition) of Reza Shah after World War II, which brought about fundamental changes in Iran as in many other countries; more restrictions were broken down and artists as well as political groups found unprecedented opportunities for action and self-assertion. People interested in filmmaking gradually established relationships among themselves and began to plan for a future cinema that could express their aspirations.
A pioneer group consisting of Ansari, Ziai, Yeganegi and led by Esmail Kushan founded Mitra Film, Iran's first film and dubbing studio.
A highly influential figure in Iranian cinema, during a long life Esmail Kushan was the photographer, director or producer of tens of films, and when old age confined him to the overall management of his studio, his sons faithfully followed in their father's footsteps. In fact Kushan's brand of filmmaking was more or less accurately adopted by all commercial producers. His film empire in Parsfilm, near Tehran, was pulled down a few years ago, but his spirit continues to dominate Iranian cinema.
Born in Tehran in 1915 Kushan travelled to Germany in 1942 to study economics. But he was instead enthralled by the magic of cinema after he saw a German dubbing of an Italian film. Through the intermediation of a friend, he started working at UFA studio. A year later he entered a film college, and later, on his way back to Iran he stopped in Turkey and bought two pictures - Girl on the Run
and The Cruel Woman
. He dubbed the films into Persian at Sesfilm studio in Istanbul with the collaboration of Iranian students in Turkey. Girl on the Run
the first foreign film dubbed into Persian was screened in Tehran in May 1945 and was favorably received by the public. With the proceeds occuring from Girl on the Run
, a dubbing section was added to Mitra Film. Other foreign pictures including Taras Bulba were dubbed and shown to evergrowing movie fans and the company's fortune was made. At the same time Kushan tried to reorganize Iranian cinema and to get it's rusty wheels rolling.
To begin with, he planned to get commissions to make short documentaries. With the acumen of a true organizer he wrote letters to the Shah and various government departments and even to the Iran Democratic Party and to anybody else who might have been of any help to him and trying to coax them into commissioning films. He thus gradually removed all obstacles that stood between him and the title of the "Father of Iranian Cinema."
He knew very well that to accomplish anything he needed connections and that success achieved through one's merits was the exception rather than the rule. His famous letter of September 14, 1947 to the Democratic Party proposing to film the Party's parade reveals what a shrewd judge of characters he was.
Another revealing document is the letter Kushan wrote to the Shah in the same year, in which he announced: "Our company would be most delighted to utilize all its facilities to make a film on the progresses that have been achieved in the country, with particular attention to what His Imperial Majesty had done for the nation".
Finally Kushan's efforts bore fruit and the twelve-year spell cast on Iranian cinema began to disappear. The second round of Iranian cinema began with The Tempest of Life
(1948). To guarantee the film's commercial success, Kushan made use of all the available resources. He assigned Ali Daryabaygi, a then prominent stage figure to direct the film. Nezam Vafa, a romantic poet much admired by the younger generation wrote the script. Khaleghi and Saba, two masters of Iranian traditional music, composed the scores while Rahi Mo'ayeri, another reputable poet, wrote the lyrics, which were performed by famous singers Banan and Iran Alam. The film's premiere at the Rex cinema was attended by Ashraf Pahlavi (Shah's twin sister). The Tempest of Life
was a flop in spite of all Kushan's calculations, and failed to stir up the storm Kushan expected. The picture was marred by many technical defects and did not run for more than three weeks. The financial disaster sent Mitra Film bankrupt.
Undaunted, Kushan was determined to carry on and soon he formed his own studio Kushan Film (which was later renamed Parsfilm). The early films produced by Parsfilm were more or less commercial failures but somehow Kushan managed to turn each defeat into a source of new inspirations. Spring Variety
marked the end of the successive defeats while The Shamefaced
was the beginning of Kushan's many successes. The latter was an exceptional smash hit and set up a trend that was to be followed in countless number of movies. Maryam, a country girl is seduced and abandoned by a young man from the city. Fearing the inevitable scandal, she leaves for the city without her fiance Ahmad's knowledge, and after a few melodramatic turns of events ends up as a popular cabaret singer. The mean seducer is put to death by the revengeful fiance, and Maryam who is by now rich and successful marries Ahmad and returns to her village.
All the elements of popular attraction-cabaret entertainment, dance and song, suspenseful trial scenes, the typical scoundrel character, the innocent youth, the ravished maiden and the delight of idyllic scenery plus sex and violence were there to ensure a flourishing box office. The pattern proved so effective that Kushan himself returned to it three years later in The Intrigue
. Again a country girl is raped be a city scoundrel and leaves her village to become a popular singer in the big city. This time around, however, the girl herself takes revenge on the seducer. By the time this pattern began to show signs of overuse, Kushan had prepared another prototype. The pseudo-historicals: The Hawk of Toos
, Agha Mohammad Khan Qajar
, The Illustrious Amir Arsalan
and Yaghub Layse Saffari
were among the notable productions of this "genre". The new model also yielded much results and Kushan started constructing at Parsfilm huge sets which gradually grew into what the critics humorously referred to as "Iranian Cinecitta".
Next, Kushan turned to soap operas of which Yussef and Zoleikha
and Arshin Malalan
were more decent examples.
For a period of almost thirty years, Kushan imposed on the Iranian cinema his commercial methods of filmmaking with an endless string of cheap, banal and, at best, sentimental plots which had a lasting effect on the mentality of their audiences. Years later in response to writers who glorified Kushan as the "Father of Iranian Cinema" a critic lamented: "Yes, he was the father of our cinema, but I wish Iranian cinema had been an orphan."
The Reign of Belly Dancers
After a twelve-year hibernation the Iranian cinema rose to a fresh start with redoubled energy as if trying to make up for the lost years. Although only four films were released by Parsfilm from 1948 to 1950, annual production soared to seven films in 1951, of which five were first productions of five newly founded studios, and to eleven in the following year. The box office success of Iranian films attracted more people to the industry and more studios sprang up. The new bloom in the industry brought forth nineteen films from ten studios in 1953.
Most of the cinematic output of that year were produced after the August 19, 1953 CIA-engineered coup d'etat which led to the suppression of the Shah's opponents. The coup provided the producers with the political stability they needed. The type of themes treated in films changed and the domination of Iranian cinema by popular dance and music began. The general cultural policies adopted by the Shah's regime from 1953 onward encouraged the brand of filmmaking that was allowed to be entertaining without stimulating serious thinking. It was a commercial run-of-the-mill industry referred to by the critics as "Filmfarsi", a derogatory term coined by the veteran film critic and historian, Dr. H.Kavoosi, designating inane commercial filmmaking as distinct from serious Iranian cinema. Working mostly on soap operas, "Filmfarsi" producers relied mainly on low comedy and ribald buffoonery. Lewd scenes of dance and music were included with or without narrative justifications, and for years a certain dancer called Mahvash, with a rather flabby, obese physique was the dominant sex symbol of the trend. The provincial cinema managers went a step farther and stopped the screening of foreign films midway through to present a dance scene by the stout dancer. And when this idol of the common folk died in a car crash, Studio Asr-e Talai conducted a public opinion poll on whether or not footages of the late dancer should be posthumously included in The Lost Flower. An overwhelming majority of positive responses was only to be expected. Mahvash was replaced by other dancers - Nadia, Tavoos, Jamileh, etc. - and dance and music scenes came to play such an important role in box office that the shrewd producers decided to make them even more attractive by shooting their preformances in color in otherwise black-and-white movies.
Iranian filmmakers learned from their Indian Colleagues the practice of including musical numbers in movies, irrespective of whether or not they could be classified as musicals. Almost any emotional pretext was employed so that heroes and heroines could sing their endless sadness. In most cases, real singers later vocalized the songs mimed by the stars. Even the mise-en-scene of the musical numbers, were copied from Indian movies: as a rule, a young couple would romp over hills and dales holding hands, whirling round each other and playing childish hide-and-seeks. At times the songs were sad and sentimental which reflected another trend in the Iranian cinema of the period to dwell on sorrowful tales of forlorn maidens, orphans and unrequited love, another box-office gimmick learnt from Indian productions. At the same time it is also true that general economic and social pressures and shortcomings were the basic causes of the public taste for tearjerkers.
A number of interesting anecdotes are recorded in the annals of 1953. The first Iranian color film was shot on the reversal stocks and, because of lack of suitable laboratory facilities in the country, was dispatched to the United States to be processed in Eastmancolor system. The film was reportedly heavily overexposed and was practically useless. Another remarkable event was the screening of The Familiar Face, an Iranian film with a breathtaking scene of a truck crashing down a ravine and catching fire. Those who had seen the film, described it as a brilliant example of cinematic tour de force. Little did they know that they had actually witnessed the first instance of cinematic plagiarism in Iran (the producing company - Parsfilm - had simply cut out the scene from a foreign picture and inserted it into its own).
Also during this year, Shahriyar Studio affiliated with the army, was reactivated by its managing director, captain Mohammad Derambakhsh to produce The Patriot.
Directed by Gholamhossein Naghshineh the film was screened at barracks for further edification of soldiers.
Mashhadi Ebad, the most extravagant film project undertaken in Iran up to that date was based on Ozeir Hajji-Bekov's (1885-1948) famous operetta (1910). A number of its scenes were copied from a picture of the same title made in Baku. The original operatta had already been staged in Iran on several occasions and had received enthusiastic receptions. And thus popular foreknowledge of the film's charming episodes plus its fine eastern music turned Mashhadi Ebad into an exceptional box office hit.
Interestingly, the Baku-made Mashhadi Ebad was the only Turkish-language film released in Iran during the reign of the Shah, and for years it was shown at a single cinema in Tabriz late into the evening in the month of Ramadan and was always enthusiastically received by the Turkish-speaking population of Azerbaijan province.
One problem the producers of the Iranian version of Mashhadi Ebad had was the cast's Turkish accent which made their rendering of the Persian lines unintelligible. To overcome the problem, it was decided to record a second rendering of the lines by Farsi-speaking actors and to dub it into the soundtrack. It seemed to work very well and gradually simultaneous sound recording was replaced by studio recordings of dialogs delivered by the actors themselves or by substitutes, a pernicious habit still plaguing the Iranian cinema.
Critic- Filmmakers and Superstars
During the decade (1953-63) the history of Iranian cinema presents no event of major significance. Public screens catered to the tastes of the mass audience with mass productions of utter worthlessness, and no sign of any rejuvenation or emergence of new talents brightened the prospects. Under the circumstances any hope for the birth of an avant-garde cinema for an intellectual elite would have been highly unrealistic. The rigorous censorship imposed after the 1953 coup d'etat made it impossible for the intelligentsia to dictate its elitist modes of thinking to people through a mass medium such as cinema.
The uneventful decade is marked by the presence of individuals whose roles in the history of Iranian cinema deserve brief considerations.
Iranian critics, who usually apply high standards of excellence in their review of films and rarely exhibit any degree of clemency in passing judgement over domestic productions, invariably fail to produce even medium standard films when they try their hand in filmmaking. An archetypal failure of this kind is Dr. Houshang Kavoosi, who studied film direction at the French film school IDHEC and later received his doctoral degree in film theory and history of cinema. Upon his return to Iran in 1953, Kavoosi started writing unsparing reviews of domestic productions which he pejoratively designated "Filmfarsi".
Kavoosi berated Iranian filmmakers for their "ignorance and lack of basic understanding of the cinematic language". He claimed that Iranian cinematic productions of the period were "below the threshold of common sense with hardly any sign of artistic sensibility".
Then in 1956 Kavoosi made his first film, Seventeen Days to Execution. Basing his film on a lukewarm detective story, Kavoosi avoided the usual box-office attractions such as cabaret scenes and sex and violence, but he failed to offer any other kind of attractions, and in particular his film lacked the suspense expected of this genre of films. No critic, not even those who shared his views, rose in defense of the film. Only two reviews were written on Seventeen Days to Execution (one by Hajir Dariush who later became the director of the Tehran International Film Festival). Kavoosi claimed that both reviews were motivated by personal grudge and unfair appraisals of his film.
In 1959 the first Iranian superstar emerged on the local film scene. Before that, actors only enjoyed short-lived and limited fame and success. In that year Mohammad-Ali Fardin, member of the national wrestling team, stepped into the spotlight with the film, Spring of Life, directed by Siamak Yasami, and for years he attractred huge crowds of fans to movie theaters. He was the idol of millions of viewers who identified with his persona on the screen and saw their dreams realized on the silver screen through his good looks and vitality.
Fardin had the most extensive and continuous coverage in popular magazines and his pictures hang on the wall of the remotest teashops in the country.
Starting with a low salary, Fardin gradually became the highest paid actor in Iran and at the height of his fame he received as much as 50,000 dollars for a single film project, but he also brought home to Iranian producers the advantages of working with a superstar.
Another personality of the period who merits a brief attention is Samuel Khachikian who achieved fame with two thrillers: Midnight Cry and One Step to Death (1961). Khachikian thus became a pioneer in "film noir" genre in Iran and gained the nickname of the Iranian Hitchcock. The sensational box office successes of Khachikian's two films brought in its wake a large number of thrillers and half of the 27 films produced in 1962 were based on crime stories. But most of these films were trite productions which relied on such overused gimmicks as low key lighting, bombastic music, etc. The only exception was perhaps the Horror another film by Khachikian which aroused great controversy. Some critics accused Khachikian of having copied Henri-Georges Clouzot's Les diaboliques (1955). But Khachikian denied the charge and said that he had never seen Clouzot's film.