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An Introduction to Iranian Cinema11 min read

14 July 2021 8 min read


An Introduction to Iranian Cinema11 min read

Reading Time: 8 minutes

No thanks to Western propaganda and pop culture influence, Iran is often thought of as a hostile country steeped in violence, oppression and chaos. However, for fans of world cinema, the country is also the birthplace of some of cinema’s most exciting, creative, and affecting works of art the world has ever seen. Abbas Kiarostami is no doubt the most internationally celebrated Iranian filmmaker — but he is not alone. 

Iranian film has always been intertwined with the country’s tumultuous history and politics, at one point seen as a tool for modernisation, and decades later to be demonised as an existential threat to religious society. It is this atmosphere of turmoil, compounded by draconic censorships across regimes, that has forced Iranian filmmakers to challenge the very definitions and limits of film expression, bringing to their works the same defiant energy as their precarious status as filmmakers in Iran would demand. 

The Asian Film Archive has produced a fantastic guide to Kiarostami’s films to coincide with their “Retrospective: Abbas Kiarostami” programme, now underway till 28 August 2021. We take this opportunity to add to the exciting celebration of the late auteur’s works with a crash course to the broad and endlessly fascinating world of Iranian cinema.

The Introduction of Film in Iran and The Pahlavi Dynasty

The story of Iranian film begins at the turn of the 20th century in 1900 when Mozaffar al-Din Shah, then-ruler of Qajar Iran, grew an interest in film during his travels in Europe. He was accompanied by Mirza-Ebrahim Khan Akkasbashi, the court’s cinematographer, who purchased a camera to shoot and detail the Shah’s travels. 

Mirza-Ebrahim-Khan Sahaf-bashi, a fellow courtier, would open Iran’s first public cinema in 1904, although religious pressure and denouncements from the clergy would force its closure soon afterwards, with a leading religious figure issuing a fatwa describing film watching as an unpardonable sin. This ties into the history of aniconism in Islam, where depictions of God, the Prophet Muhammad, human figures and other living creatures are to be avoided by artists.

The Qajar Dynasty, amidst revolutions and European powers dividing its land, would be toppled by Reza Khan Mir-Panj, a former Brigadier-General, through a coup in 1920, declaring himself Shah and establishing the Pahlavi Dynasty. Looking to emulate similar reforms in neighbouring Turkey, the Shah began a massive campaign to modernise Iran through industrialisation, secularisation, and Westernisation.

The Shah and his successor-son Mohammad-Reza Shah saw film as an important tool for propaganda. Imported Western films were censored, while films detailing stories and epics from pre-Islamic times were recontextualised to legitimise the dynasty’s rule. Conflating modernisation with westernisation also meant that secularisation was both encouraged and forced. Domestic films featured actors in Western suits and clothing. In society, women were encouraged to take off their hijab, with men and women able to freely congregate. The rapid secularisation and suppression of Islamists by SAVAK, the Shah’s secret police, infuriated the religious class.

Despite having America’s support, the Pahlavi Dynasty would be short-lived. Demonstrations began in 1977, only growing in strength with each violent response from the authorities. 

Till then, the film industry was mostly dominated by domestic imitations of Western, Indian, and Egyptian fares (known as ‘Filmfarsi’), with strict censorship narrowing the scope of how films could reflect Iranian society. Political criticism in locally produced films was virtually impossible without the use of complex metaphors. 

Films still emerged that challenged the general trend, such as The House is Black (1963), the only film directed by notable Iranian poet and feminist Forough Farrokhzad. Her film, which detailed life in a leper colony, is considered an important precursor to the Iranian New Wave for the poetic realism the film embodied. Mohammad Reza Aslani’s Chess of the Wind (1976) was critical of the Shah’s reign while featuring strong female leads and touching on the topic of homosexuality. 

However, even if opinion on literature and arts remained positive, public perception of the film industry was largely negative. The term ‘motreb’ was associated with actors — translating to ‘entertainer’ but more widely used as a derogatory term suggesting cheap entertainment.

By 1977, faced with competition from television and the lack of domestic support, the Iranian film industry would turn belly up. In 1978, the burning of the Cinema Rex in the city of Abadan, where hundreds were burned alive with no escape, would be attributed as an important spark to the Iranian Revolution of 1979. Film and politics would only be ever more inseparable from this point on, but Iran’s strong cultural tradition of drama, poetry and the visual arts (which had already survived centuries of turbulent change) would remain steadfast.

The Iranian Revolution and the Islamic Republic of Iran

“We are not opposed to cinema, to radio, or to television… The cinema is a modern invention that ought to be used for the sake of educating the people, but as you know, it was used instead to corrupt our youth. It is the misuse of cinema that we are opposed to, a misuse caused by the treacherous policies of our rulers.”

— Ayatollah Khomeini in his first speech upon returning from exile to Iran in 1979

The story goes that Ayatollah Khomeini, the founder of the Islamic Republic of Iran and its supreme leader till his death in 1989, admired Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969) for how it authentically portrayed Iranian life — so much so that it has been credited as the film that saved Iranian cinema from being completely banned after the Iranian Revolution.

Supporters of the Iranian Revolution were not all motivated by religion. The breakneck pace of the Pahlavi Dynasty’s campaign of westernisation, coupled with the bombardment of western pop culture, was alienating for many Iranians and their Shi’a Muslim identity. Iran’s oil industry had improved the country’s economy but its people did not feel the effects of growth with not enough jobs created to go around. Reports of the Shah’s extravagant lifestyle only added fuel to the fire.

The Islamic Republic of Iran was declared on 11 February 1979, bringing an end to 2500 years of monarchical rule in the country, replacing secular dictatorship with a theocratic republic. Film became a key target in the aftermath of the Iranian Revolution as it was seen as both of symbol of the corrupt Pahlavi regime and of Western decadence. Hundreds of cinemas were burned down during the revolution. Filmfarsi actors and filmmakers fled the country following the revolution uncertain about the future of their industry and fearing for their lives. 

Filmmaking did continue but had to be motivated by the purpose of promoting values congruent to the regime; there was to be an Islamisation of Iranian cinema. Films based on the atrocities committed under the Shah’s regime emerged, but the first key direction Iranian cinema took was surrounding the Iran-Iraq War, which began a year after the revolution. Sacred Defense Cinema became the starting point for several Iranian filmmakers still celebrated today, including Khosrow Sinai and Ebrahim Hatamikia. These films ranged from jingoistic fares celebrating the war effort and martyrdom to dramas tackling the war’s aftermath.

Censorship aside, where contentious political and religious themes were not tolerated, post-revolution Iran also brought another significant challenge for filmmakers: individuality was shunned by the belief that humans needed the paternalistic guidance of God and his representatives. Ironically, it seemed that this only pushed Iranian filmmakers to create some of the most innovative films of the 20th century. 

The Iranian New Wave and Beyond

“If you could give a message to Mr. Makhmalbaf…”

“What is it?”

“Tell him The Cyclist is a part of me.”

— Conversation between Hossain Sabzian, arrested for impersonating filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Abbas Kiarsostami in ‘Close-Up’ (1990)

The Iranian New Wave concerned itself with Iran’s social issues, often featuring working-class protagonists and women. It has been compared to Italian neorealism with the use of non-professional actors, on-location shoots, and long, ponderous takes. How Iranian filmmakers were challenged to find creative means to evade substantial restrictions in filmmaking (both during the Pahlavi regime and post-revolution), coupled with their raw emotions from the tumultuous history of the country, would become one of the defining characteristics of the Iranian New Wave.

The use of children as main characters, such as in Amir Naderi’s The Runner (1984) and Abbas Kiarostami’s Where Is the Friend’s Home? (1987), to evade religious restrictions on the portrayal of male-female relationships is one example. Similarly, how Iranian films avoid the portrayal of clerics also has the unfortunate side effect on international audiences of downplaying religious authority’s reach and importance in Iranian life.

The strict atmosphere Iranian New Wave filmmakers operate within have pushed them to constantly innovate and think outside of the filmic storytelling box. Samira Makhmalbaf’s The Apple (1998) (directed when she was 17) tells the true story of two daughters who were locked at home by their parents for eleven years, with each ‘character’ played by the actual people behind the event. 

The director’s father, celebrated Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, is the subject of Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990). The film follows the real-life trial of a man who impersonated the elder Makhmalbaf, with all involved reenacting the story. Made while the trail was still in progress, Close-Up intercuts footage of the then-ongoing investigations with reenactments of events.

Challenging film conventions and blurring the line between fiction and reality are constant themes with the Iranian New Wave. The first part of Jafar Panahi’s The Mirror (1997) sees Mina, a schoolgirl with one arm in a cast, finding her way back home after waiting on her mother to pick her up. However, right out of nowhere, Mina discards her cast, looks right into the camera and storms off the set complaining she doesn’t want to be a part of the film any more. The camera shifts to a puzzled crew unsure how they can complete the film, before realising that Mina is still mic’d and decides to continue rolling as the young schoolgirl truly makes her way home from the set.

Mina in ‘The Mirror’ (1997) / Image credit: Rooz Film

Like many Iranian filmmakers, Panahi would have several run-ins with the law and was subjected to arrests, interrogations and imprisonments because of his political activism. While under house arrest and banned from making films for 20 years, Panahi made This is Not a Film (2011). Legally barred from holding a camera, Panahi enlisted the help of filmmaker Mojtaba Mirtahmasb, who shot the ‘film’ with an iPhone and a digital camcorder. Panahi goes about his day-to-day life, getting on phone calls and sharing treatments for films he can no longer make. 

This is Not a Film would conclude with a defiant statement, expressed not through fists or weapons but with a simple act that brilliantly encapsulates Iranian’s pure love for cinema.

While the approaches employed can border on the experimental, Iranian films seem to never fail to move international audiences with their thought-provoking questions and affecting messages that often echo the simple joys of life. Asghar Farhadi’s A Seperation (2011), a raw family drama discussing the limits of the law, took the international film festival circuit by storm, becoming the first Iranian film to win Best Foreign Film at the Oscars amidst inflamed geopolitical tensions between Iran and the US. 

French New Wave pioneer Jean-Luc Godard once said, “Cinema starts with DW Griffith and ends with Abbas Kiarostami.” Although Iranian films oftentimes did not meet the same critical acclaim domestically as they did abroad, they have left a profound impact on world cinema — even Singapore. Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven (1997) deeply moved local filmmaker Jack Neo, and he has cited the film as an inspiration for I Not Stupid (2002). Neo would also adapt the film’s story for Homerun (2003). 

Today, Iranian arthouse cinema remains diverse, daring and potently affecting even as censorship and film regulations continue to oscillate with the political climate. A notable trend in recent years is the rise of female voices in Iranian cinema — prominent directors include Roqiyeh Tavakoli and Anahid Abad. This year, Asghar Farhadi’s A Hero (2021) is in competition at Cannes while Panah Panahi, son of Jafar Panahi, will be showcasing his debut film Hit The Road at the festival.

Don’t miss your opportunity to experience Iranian cinema on the big screen with the Asian Film Archive’s “Retrospective: Abbas Kiarostami”. From now till 28 August 2021, the programme will feature 37 works — 18 feature films, four short features and 12 short films — from the late auteur.

For full information, including ticketing details and the screening calendar, visit the programme’s official page here:

Follow the Asian Film Archive on InstagramFacebook and Twitter for more updates on their upcoming programmes and screenings. 

There's nothing Matt loves more than "so bad, they're good" movies. Except browsing through crates of vinyl records. And Mexican food.
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