(Tavoos Quarterly,Nos.5&6,Autumn2000-Winter 2001)
Contemporary Iranian cinema is a symbol of our civilization,culture and art; a vanguard of the dialogue among civilizations and an emblem of the creative Iranian mind. Few international festivals have been held without the participation of a film from this country. Iranian films have taken the top prizes of many festivals and thus presented Iranian beliefs, emotions and arts to the world. Film magazines throughout the world have devoted many pages to the introduction and analysis of Iranian films. Iran
is one of the few countries to produce national independent features in the era of Hollywood
’s undisputed dominance, and now competes with other Asian and European films in global markets. Our presence in this market may be a minor one, but with the flourishing of Iranian cinema, it shows signs of increase. On the other hand, the increasing number and growing variety of national productions have generated a great deal of enthusiasm within the country as well.
Introduction to an Analytical History of Iranian Cinema (1929-1978)
From Roots to Cliches
Based on the definitions and characteristics that “cinema” (with all its synonymous concepts) has taken on during its hundred-year history, Iranian cinema is not yet a hundred years old, despite the fact that we are celebrating its hundredth anniversary. The available historic documents and data show that the first cinematic feature produced in Iran is Abi and Rabi (1930), made by an Armenian filmmaker named Ovaness Oganians, although there is nothing left of this film except some faded photographs and a few lines in reports and articles about its screening in Tehran’s cinemas.1 The first Iranian film still in existence is Haji Aqa, the Cinema Actor (1933) also made by Ovaness Oganians. There is a complete copy of this film, as well as quite detailed comments about the conditions in which it was produced, reports on its early screenings and a few articles in the Tehran press of the time.2 The screening of this film by chance coincided with screening of Iran’s first talking feature The Lor Girl (1933) made by Ardeshir Irani and ‘Abdolhossein Sepanta. This film, which has always been labeled an Iranian film and is the result of Sepanta’s endeavors—he has the multiple function of screenwriter, actor and songwriter, and has even been occasionally credited as its director3—was produced at the Imperial Studios of Bombay and is in fact an Indian production.
Consequently, these two films must be recognized as the beginnings of Iranian cinema, yet both led to dead-ends and a complete standstill of the Iranian film industry. The failure of Haji Aqa, the Cinema Actor ended Oganians’ film career,4 and Sepanta, after making a few more films in India—based on ancient Iranian mythology5—was not able to continue, and the production of Iranian films in India also came to a stop.
The production of feature films in Iran comes to halt in 1933, and that of Iranian films in India stops in 1937; the cinema halls of Tehran and the provinces are once again the monopoly of imported foreign films. No more developments. Iranian cinema is extinct and forgotten.
During all those years, from 1900—the year the Gaumont camera was bought by the Qajar shah, brought to Iran and installed in a corridor of the imperial palace—until 1937—the screening date of Sepanta’s last Indian-produced film—with all the “ifs” and “buts”,
must be considered the first period of Iranian cinema; a period which was not very productive, neither in quantity nor in quality. Historic documents tell us that apart from those films produced in India, between the years of 1929 and 1933 only four films were produced and shown, most of which were not successful with the public. The reasons behind their failure are complex and not the focus of this article, yet it is necessary to reflect upon them in order to gain an understanding of the social conditions and the cultural milieu of the early years of the 20th century, and to grasp how Iranian cinema did reshape itself a few years later and was able to achieve success among the general public.
Oganians returned to Iran in 1929, with limited experience in cinematographic education6 but an ocean of enthusiasm, idealism and faith, in hopes of founding a “national cinema”.7 Instead, he found that cinema had yet to be properly established. His first endeavor, even before the making of films, was to found “The School for Cinema Artists”, an art school for the teaching of acting and other cinema-related arts. In reality, he began to make films in order to put his theoretical lessons into practice, and to further encourage his students. Oganians put his efforts into making a silent film, without the knowledge (or maybe despite the fact) that talking films were on their way. One can guess how he must have felt while putting the finishing touches on Haji Aqa, the Cinema Actor for its release in late 1933, and knowing that the first talking film in the Farsi language, The Lor Girl, had already been on the screen for three months. Perhaps he did not accept failure, or perhaps he had no choice but to finish it and have it shown. Perhaps he still hoped for a way to add sound to his film. In the end he did accept his failure, and chose to screen his film with the slight hope that his film (and his efforts) might be understood and appreciated by a public as yet unfamiliar with the language of cinema and still (and perhaps even now) lacking an understanding of the culture of image.
For nearly fifteen years film production in Iran ceased altogether. These fifteen years coincide with one of Iran’s most turbulent periods of socio-political change; the fall of the Pahlavi king Reza Shah, the beginning of the second World War and subsequent occupation of Iran from North and South, famine, harsh living conditions, disclosure of governmental corruption and widespread opposition to Reza Shah’s despotism. But at the same time the modernization that had entered traditional Iranian culture from the beginning of Reza Shah’s reign was now being firmly established and consolidated.
Therefore the start of film production in 1929 was the natural consequence of the general Iranian movement toward modernization. It was the wish of the system and the people to create a national cinema industry as yet another sign of advancement, and its failure was also a natural consequence of society’s rejection of the essence of modernity, for society had not yet released its stronghold on tradition or even clarified the existing relationship. Cinema, contrary to many other manifestations of modernity, was not a simple tool to be nationalized with the scanty efforts of a few westernized citizens and intellectuals.
Bur among all manifestations of modernity, cinema was the only one with a forty-year history. The cinematographic camera was introduced to Iran in 1929, as yet another tool of modernization. The establishment of cinemas and the screening of foreign films began quite early on, as an apparently profitable business and, due to its attractive and popular content, soon flourished. The vast cultural differences in Iran caused cinema, like theater, to be a pastime of the wealthy and high classes of society. For forty years, despite the background which photography had in Iran, the attraction it had for people of all classes as well as the royal court, and even the growing trend of westernization in Iran, cinema remained an elite manifestation of modernity among the high classes. It is interesting to note that Iranian photographers were never inclined to use the cinematographic camera to record reports or documentary films, and there are no surviving newsreels or documentaries from that forty-year period.
It is therefore quite normal that film production in Iran would lead to failure, because Haji Aqa, the Cinema Actor was essentially a film d’auteur. Ovanians has in reality written a film, just as Abi and Rabi exploited the comedic models of silent comedy. And The Lor Girl, as the first talking film which was to shape the mind of the audience and thus create certain cinematic symbols and even clichés, remained unsuccessful in creating a productive image-culture, for was never repeated. Sepanta’s work is like Iranian merchandise produced abroad and then imported into the country, while Ovanians’ films could be thought of as Iranian merchandise produced in Iran for export. Neither made use of the opportunity to acquaint their audience with this new culture and language. It in fact takes fifteen years for the socio-cultural conditions of Iran to allow cinema to start a new cycle, with characteristics now more familiar to a more educated audience, one that is more used to all aspects of modernization. With the establishment of leftist tendencies in Iranian politics and the growing inclination of a younger generation towards higher education, layers of modernity and modernism with a nostalgic view of tradition infiltrated social life; while economic growth, the complete reshaping of social strata, as well as urbanization and other factors created a favorable background for this new beginning.
Iranian cinema has a fresh start in 1948. The story unfolds as before. A western-educated Iranian, a young adventurer full of hopes and ideals, returns to his homeland bringing filmmaking equipment and his limited technical knowledge. Esma‘il Kooshan—an economist educated in Germany—pioneers the technique of dubbing films in Farsi, and founds Mitra Films with ‘Ali Daryabeigi, resulting in the 1948 film The Storm of Life.8 Mitra Films is dissolved but Kooshan and Daryabeigi each continue their filmmaking careers. Their paths are not that different, the outlook is the same and the technique is quite elementary, their attention as well as that of all those attracted to this new industry/technique is concentrated on establishing and advancing a national industry. Eventually the efforts are fruitful and cinema becomes a “home” industry.
The years between 1948 to 1978 are on one hand Iranian cinema’s most productive periods and on the other the most misunderstood. This thirty-year period has always been mistreated by critics and analysts of Iranian cinema. This period has often been labeled “Film-farsi”, a prejudiced term coined by the film critic and historian Hooshang Kavoosi, a haunting pejorative that has prevented a truly serious, objective and analytical approach to this cinema. Whereas in reality, whether we like it or not, all contents, styles and points of view always have and always will be shaped by this view; this yardstick and probing device, which, though not yet well-defined has been transformed into a tool for reviewing and criticizing all Iranian films of the past fifty years.
All critiques, reviews (summarized and generalized) and public opinions on Iranian cinema have been unconsciously shaped by this term, and they consider the films produced in the second thirty-year period as having common characteristics; a common and general psychology, an easy and commonplace structure. The general attentiveness of this cinema to public taste reflects the value it placed on a superficial, degrading and low culture, and had impact on the low quality of this cinema. But this outlook is a bit too simplistic. When Iranian cinema began its new life in 1948, it had no survey or analysis of the audience’s preferences or outlook. The experiences of the first period, i.e., the few films made in Iran and India between 1929 and 1936 are not only completely forgotten, but have failed to resolve a single issue for the new generation of film-makers. Iranian society from the years of 1946 to 1952 bears no comparison in terms of socio-political and cultural transformations to the period between 1929 to 1936, and this new cinema had to start on a trial and error basis, to establish a new relationship between film and audience, and experiment with it in order to arrive at new meanings alongside the known structures, and thus achieve a new relationship.
In a general and summarized look at the cinema of 1928 to 1979 (the year of the Islamic Revolution), it can be divided into three distinct periods:
The First Period:
This period begins in 1948 and reflects the early efforts to institutionalize this new activity. The establishment of a studio system, which began with the founding of Mitra Films and later Pars Films by Dr. Kooshan himself took on a more serious aspect by the early fifties. The Iranian studio system, like that of other countries, strives to utilize the box office results, public taste and critical reactions in order to create stable clichés with recurrent yet novel meanings; a mold or structure suitable to the reactions of the audience. This event took place relatively late in Iranian cinema. In fact during its first period (which more or less lasts until 1961) Iranian cinema is going through a repetitive cycle of trial and error. Certain meanings and clichés are emerging and the models produced will bring practical solutions for the second period.
The cinema of the first period is based on several elements, one of them being academic theater in Iran.
Theater first takes shape in Tehran (and a few other provinces) in the 1940s. This theater achieves great importance and prosperity in the years from 1940 to 1953. The roots of this theater were less based on the efforts of the playwrights of the late Qajar and early Pahlavi eras and more on the enterprise of Armenian directors, who establish an academic western theater through performing their translations of western plays in the Armenians’ Clubs of Rasht, Tabriz and Tehran.
These efforts give rise to serious developments in the 1920s; the works of Reza Kamal Shahrzad and later Mir Seyfeddin Kermanshahi and the training of actors and the establishment of schools for acting in the theaters of Lalehzar Street. Experienced and educated actors and risk taking directors and playwrights searching for a western theater with Iranian meanings create a type of entertainment/art that continues into the 1940s. The high points of this extremely productive period were the establishment of Tehran, Farhang and Ferdowsi theaters by ‘Abdol Hossein Nooshin. In the last years of the decade, the scattering of the Ferdowsi theater and the founding of Sa‘di theater by Nooshin’s students and its subsequent closing led to the end of the golden era of theater. This was also the end of the first pe riod of productive theatrical activity in Esfahan; those active in theater were all drawn to the new medium of cinema. Among them were Parviz Khatibi, Majid Mohseni, Tafakkori, Taqaddosi, Halati, Fekri, Hamid Qanbari and others, who were drawn to the new studios to create a new relationship with the audience. If the audience of the street theaters were an educated elite from the urbanized upper middle class, cinema’s audience, especially from the middle fifties onward, was the common people of the bazaar and back streets. A certain type of comedy takes shape in this cinema that has its early roots in the comic plays of theater. Tafakkori, ‘Ali Tabesh and later Nosratollah Vahdat become active in the early fifties. In his early films, Vahdat, alongside Nooshin, tries to achieve a kind of homemade comedy by acting out Iranian jokes. The comedic performances are special and particular to Iran; they do not fit any of the stereotypes used in the rest of the world. It is a combination of situation comedy and comedic dialogue that are sometimes based on various accents and dialects, and the use of slapstick comedy. The second element on which the cinema of the fifties based itself was the serial writings and pulp fiction that appear in the popular weeklies of Iran. The stories of Hosseinqoli Mosta‘an, Javad Fazel and the weekly serials are emotional and tragic dramas. They are based on a black and white psychology, good versus bad, simplified human relationships, dependence on accidents in the narrative course and simplicity in execution and structure. The structures are utterly oversimplified. The camera is an immobile witness, having no interference in the course of story telling. This static point of view is also a legacy of theater. This boxed-in cinema, like the boxed-in theater that preceded it, is successful with the audience.
But this cinema and this psychology and characterization, even its form and structure, is not rootless, but rather based on Iranian folk tales. The narrative mold is derived from the performance methods of storytellers and the structural mold, especially in comedies, is derived from Iranian performing arts such as takht-e hosi—traditional farcical theater performed outdoors—but transforms them to suit the cinematic medium. For dramatic molds it relies on a sentimental outlook and tone, highly emotional and mournful, which is the essence of Iranian folk tales.
The essential quality of the films of this period is the clash of tradition and modernity; peasants confronted with urban society, an event that was actually happening in real life. Majid Mohseni’s first films are all based on this theme. Vahdat’s first few films also used this storyline, and contain within the film all its later consequences: a simple, unpretentious peasant that has fallen deep into the urban trap, or else when confronted with the manifestations of modernity shows certain reactions that shape the basic framework of Iranian comedy.
The most important characteristics of this cinema can be thus summarized.
The cinema of the first period is a very noble yet humble one. With very rudimentary and limited technical means, old and obsolete methods and no cinematic know-how, it is essentially based within the private sector. It receives no help from the government and must therefore stand on its own feet, relying solely on itself and its audience, and all this in the face of competition from the foreign films of the time.
It is at the same time a social-oriented cinema; often critical of society and social conditions, of crude modernity and western invaders of an essentially traditional society, of the implications of society’s rapid urbanization and the disappearance of domestic values. It deals with the authentic problems of Iranian development.
On the other hand, due to the inherent demands of cinema, its nationalism, its reliance on the capital of the private sector and the return of that capital from the audience, it is forced to find clichés that are attractive to the public, and must give importance to the economic aspect of cinema. Perhaps this very importance—a constant presence in countries where cinema depends on the private sector—is what pollutes cinema, and brought unwanted harm to Iranian cinema in its second period.
The Second Period:
In the early sixties transformations in society, economic growth resulting from the rise of oil prices, the growing urbanization brought on by unplanned migration of peasants to cities, changes in consumer models, growing contact of Iranian urban dwellers with foreign countries cause naturally unwanted implications, i.e., social class divisions, westernization and cultural division along with the weakening of traditional values giving them a nostalgic aspect. These are changes that embrace the whole of society, and naturally bring major changes to Iranian cinema. The toning down of traditional values and the establishment of branches of European and American film companies and the ease with which films are imported to Iran, as well as changes in public taste, influence the existing clichés of comic and social films in Iran. One example is the film Korah’s Treasure (1964)—which soon became a cult classic—where we find a clear instance of this formal transformation. This new cinema has now passed its trial and error stage and has found its popular clichés, but is forced to continue transforming in order to sustain itself and survive, and therefore turns even further to easily accepted clichés. The storylines become simpler and easier. The dramatic turns are so matter-of-fact that they seem childish even to an average spectator. Of course the content still reflects the clash of tradition and modernity, but the narrative forms and themes have changed. The cinema of those years tried to compensate the shortcomings of society, thus, the most important social problem of those years being the growing gap between rich and poor, cinema attempts to close the gap through a fantasy approach. Of course the content of many films of the early sixties (and even later) still reflect the clash of tradition and modernity through new narrative forms. If the gap between classes in society is increasing, the classes are being reconciled in these films.
If in social reality, traditional values are being crushed by the forces of modernity, in these films, on the contrary, we witness a different phenomenon: many an urban woman who improves her life through knowing authentically traditional men, who takes refuge in religion and moral principles and thus reaches salvation; many a man who avenges women disgraced by citizens of no value, who rebels to regain values lost; and the dishonored women who have been victimized by men, who have through sheer will and effort defended their individuality against defamation.
All these various themes were already present in the cinema of the fifties, but in the sixties they become its main focus. Revenge, reconciliation of classes, and more than anything else, the tyranny of destiny, fatalism and religiosity are the dominant elements of narratives and themes. This very predestination which governs the lives of each character, rebellion against oppression and victim-adulation overshadow the content of the films (those of the first period as well as later films). They are so Irano-Islamic that there are no outstanding precedents in any other art form or period of art history in Iran.
The creation and appearance of dancing and singing and cabaret scenes in films responds to the needs of an audience which is middle-class or low-class and has come to seek fantasies in answer to these needs. At the same time these scenes have gradually become necessary clichés of lower-class entertainment. Indeed Iranian cinema feels responsible as an entertainment medium for the middle and lower classes, and therefore aims for a level of language, structure, psychology, characterization, point of view and development that moves lower and lower in order to be at the level of understanding of these classes, or what the filmmakers believe this level to be.
The cinema of the sixties, which actually continues into the seventies, follows the social pattern of the times, and all the socio-cultural changes of society can clearly be seen in these films: all types of social class reconciliations, the proximity of poverty and wealth, the union of tradition and modernity—which is not easily accessible in reality—are predominant in these films. The importance of the cinema of these two periods lies in their focus on the social problems of Iran, and the socially critical mentality that is inherent in all of them. Consequently Iranian cinema of the fifties and sixties is a social cinema. Contrary to popular belief, this cinema was not always brash and vulgar. Like any other cinema, out of the fifty or so films produced every year, only a few are outstanding and reliable, while the rest are commonplace works that make up the usual corpus of this entertainment/ technique/ industry.
From a general and distant point of view, fifties cinema is the cinema of the oppressed; strongly moral, humanistic, full of controversial social issues, while the cinema of the sixties seeks to become an entertainment/industry. A cinema with distinct industrial and economic aspects, self-reliant and backed by private investments, but at the same time constantly striving for self-improvement.
What is referred to as “New Iranian Cinema” was actually born of this very established and public-oriented cinema. This cinema tries to expand cinematic language through a new approach and different structure, but the same stories, themes and clichés as before. It is interesting to note that most of these films, at least in the beginning of this trend, not only utilize the elements of this established and public-oriented cinema, but also share common points in terms of point of view and content. Everything emerges from within the heart of those clichés. When Mass‘ud Kimia’i makes Qaysar in 1969, it actually issues from the heart of those existing clichés, but has evolved according to the outlook of an evolving audience, one with changed needs, demands and preferences. In reality, the Iranian cinema of the sixties reflects all the socio-cultural characteristics of its time: its fondness of and belief in the power of destiny which comes from the religiosity of this cinema and its film-makers, the presence of profound (and not superficial) individual and social differences, a degree of respect for traditional and native social values, focus on the challenges existing in an evolving society, namely the clash of tradition and modernity. This is a cinema that responds to the needs of its society. This response is in many cases unsuccessful and in many relatively successful. The percentage of success or failure is similar to any other national cinema.
The Third Period:
Iranian cinema of the seventies is not a well-delineated one, lacking a perceptible beginning or end. Perhaps its end can be traced to the fire in Abadan’s Rex cinema in the summer of 1978, but the beginnings are the socio-cultural and cinematographic problems that began before this event.
With the birth of New Wave cinema in Iran—which takes place in 1969—independent and national film production is divided into two branches:
The main body of cinema which confidently moves forward, and the young generation that has just come of age and are seeking art films and films d’auteur. The new cinema is fed by two sources: a young generation that has departed from the main body of popular and established cinema and hope to arrive at a fresher, newer, yet still popular and public-oriented cinema, with the potential to be transformed into an artistic medium; and another part of this young generation that have been educated in art and cinema abroad. They have gained experience in documentary cinema and in the cultural milieu of the sixties, and find themselves drawn to the cinematic medium as a tool of expression similar to poetry or painting. This second path not only leads to an intellectual and specific public-oriented cinema, but by being recognized in festivals and appreciated by the ever-increasing number of intellectuals and students practically threatens the existence of the main body of cinema.
The main body of public-oriented cinema has its own crises at the end of the sixties. Film production has become expensive and costs are mounting. The star system—an inevitable outcome of this sort of cinema—swallows up most of the production budget and destroys what little variety there may have existed. The import of foreign films is uncontrolled and very cheap. The surplus in oil revenues, which Iran does not know how to spend, has brought a certain superficial social affluence. Urban society is mostly constituted of an affluent middle-class, which through contact with abroad is experiencing another shift in consumption patterns, needs and demands. All this apparent social development, alongside the real and visible cultural growth that takes place in the sixties, creates a large gap between the intellectual class and the rest of society. The general public and the middle classes are no longer satisfied with what they see in films. The cinemas are filled with vulgar foreign films. Sex and violence inevitably get out of proportion, for by the early seventies cinema is thinking only of its own survival. This very survival instinct, the unbalanced competition with foreign films, the preservation of old clichés and the increase of popular elements—in their most degraded state—all bring about the regression of this cinema. The absence of future planning, coupled with the failure to understand society, i.e., the spectator whom the films addresses, brought the downfall of Iranian cinema (and not only general public-oriented cinema, but also specific and intellectual cinema), even before the fire of Abadan’s Rex cinema. 1974 and 1975 were critical years in terms of quantity and quality for Iranian cinema. The main body of cinema dies out, and the specific, intellectual cinema attempts to take its place, but cannot survive the general crisis society is undergoing. The death of Iranian cinema is the turning point of the beginning of the end of an era.
Throughout its fifty-year history, Iranian cinema has a profound as well as superficially religious essence. Certain Iranian qualities have always been deeply embedded in Iranian cinema. Character psychology, human relations, narrative forms and content are all religious in outlook, indeed this religious angle is the unifying element of cinema. All the women who repent reach salvation, and all the noble, traditional men who avenge their family honor are of a religious and traditional nature. But the most significant quality of this cinema is the expression of the tradition/modernity problem, which has been for over a hundred years the main cultural question of this country and its people: how to bridge the gap between its own local religious culture and the manifestations of modernity, how to deal with destiny and accept its consequences, while hoping for salvation through respect of human values, religious codes and ethical principles; for the moment it moves away from the familiar inner values of these people—its real audience—and allows manifestations of modernity to obscure traditional values, it denies itself any chance of true salvation.•
1. There are no existing prints of this film or any of the films of the first period. These films were produced by the reversal method, and there was only a single copy made of each one. The original print of Abi and Rabi has apparently been destroyed in a fire. For more information, refer to The History of Iranian Cinema, Jamal Omid, Rozaneh Publications.
2. But there are existing documents on Haji Aqa. A relatively complete copy is kept at the National Iranian Film-House. For more news and critiques refer to No. 1.
3. Older sources, publications and cinema references often spoke of Sepanta as the director, or author of the film. But Ardeshir Irani’s name appears in the film credits as the director.
4. The events of Oganians’ life are a fascinating story. For more on his biography, refer to No. 1.
5. Sepanta came to Iran for Ferdowsi’s Millennium Anniversary. Alongside than making a film based on the life of Ferdowsi, he also made Leili and Majnun, Shirin and Farhad and Black Eyes. There are no existing copies of these films, at least not in Iran, and investigations into the existence of copies in Bombay have so far been inconclusive. For more information refer to No. 1.
6. The few existing sources on Oganians speak of him as a graduate in Film Studies from Moscow, though this is still a subject of dispute.
7. Oganians’ efforts were directed towards creating national, Iranian films, with an Iranian disposition and focusing on the issues concerning Iranian culture. Therefore he can be considered the originator of national Iranian cinema, even though he failed in his attempts.
8. For more on the meeting and partnership of ‘Ali Daryabeigi and Esma‘il Kooshan, and subsequent collaborations in Mitra Films, refer to No. 1.
Seasoned, Serious, Stern but Orderly
The oldest film festival in Iran, and essentially one for educational films, the Roshd Film Festival was once again held in Tehran and 24 other cities, showing more than 290 short and feature films. The most significant point to consider is the amount of organization that is required in a festival of such proportions.
Of the 290 films taking part, 108 Iranian and 23 foreign films were shown in the main part of the festival, the international competition section, and 160 other films were screened in other sections, such as reviews and special screenings.
This year 522 films had been sent to the festival office, in addition to the films of the competition section 19 feature films were shown in the “Family Films” section, 26 films took part in the “Iranian Family Films” section and 15 films were shown in the “Festival of Festivals” section. The films were shown in 8 cinemas in Tehran. The morning sessions were devoted to classes of schoolchildren who attended the screenings according to prior scheduling. The discussions and press conferences were held at the Qiam Cinema in Tehran. The discussions focused mainly on educational film themes and the use of television as a tool for the development of educational cinema.
Among other topics discussed at this year’s festival was the role of documentary filmmaking in educational cinema and how drama can be used to advance a culture of education in the age of information and modern communication.
The screenings had small audiences, perhaps due to the history of the festival; both the audience and those involved in the industry have become accustomed to its presence, and it no longer holds its former appeal.
The awards presented at the closing ceremony of the festival were:
The Golden Book for Best Feature Family Film: The Child and the Soldier by Reza Mir Karimi, from Iran;
The Golden Book for Best Science Film: The Mysteries of the Pyramids by Luc Martin Gosset, from France;
The Golden Book for Best Educational Film: The Third Dimension by Reza Mianji, from Iran;
The Golden Book for Best Short Educational Film: The Green Dream by Hossein Mahjoob, from Iran.
Also awarded honorable mention were the films Sanam by Rafi‘ Pitts, First Year Arabic by Behrooz Hassan-Begloo, The First Brick by ‘Ali Vafa’i, Memories and Souvenirs by Mostafa Razzaq-Karimi and Farhad Varham; also mentioned was the Short and Documentary Films Collection of Iran.
The special jury prize was awarded to Iran Is My Home by Parviz Kimiavi and Hooram’s Story by Farhad Mehranfar.•
5th National and 17th International Short Film Festival of the Iranian Young Cinema Society
October 26-31, 2000
A Limited Yet Effective Presence
This year the 17th National Festival of Short Films was also in the 5th year of its international competition. The first 12 years had been organized on a national scale, but 5 years ago it was decided that this festival should take on an international dimension.
The festival began with the screening of the 13-minute film Everlasting Moments by Hossein Setareh, and ended its 6-day duration with the film Illusions of Presence by Mohammad Zarqani. The president of the Young Cinema Society—who is also the chairman of the festival—made the following statement in his opening speech: “The history of cinema begins with the short film, and Iranian cinema has been part of this history since the very beginning. Even though the short film has not been a constant presence in Iranian cinema, today, in its hundredth year, it has achieved a unique standing.”
This year’s festival was marked by two significant features. The first was the volume of events. The sections of the festival were:
The Iranian competition section-Part A was comprised of 35 millimeter and Betacam films. 105 films were entered in this section.
The Iranian competition section-Part B was devoted to films made with amateur video cameras, in VHS or S-VHS forms. 80 films were entered in this section.
The jury panel for Part A consisted of Sa‘eed Haji-miri, ‘Ali-Mohammad Qassemi, Zaven Qukassian, Kianoosh ‘Ayyari and Nasser Taqva’i; the jury for Part B consisted of Ahmad Zabeti-Jahromi, Mass‘ud Emami, Mojtaba Ra’i, ‘Ali Shidfar and Reza Sobhani.
16 Iranian and international films were screened in the Children and Teenagers Section of the festival, with 3 films shown during special screenings. Two of these were from the Iran Wildlife collection and had been produced by the BBC. The other film was A Time for Drunken Horses by Bahman Qobadi.
Among other interesting events were the reviews: a review of the films of the late (martyred) Morteza Avini, a tribute to the animated short films of the National Film Board of Canada, a tribute to Dutch short films and a tribute to French short films. A new addition to the festival was the section entitled “Dialogue among Civilizations”, where 8 Iranian and international films focusing on global dialogue were shown.
Two other important sections of the festival were a look at the films of Vahid Musa’ian, the young director of short films, in which 13 of his films were displayed, and the other section—the most important area of competition—was the international section, comprising 53 Iranian and international films. The jury for this section consisted of Zita Caruahosa, curator of the “Museo da Imagem Edo Som” and the founder and president of the Sao Paulo International Short Film Festival, Lassaad Jamoussi, president of the International Sfax Festival and jury member of the International Clermont-ferrand Short Film Festival of France, Asako Fujioka, Japanese filmmaker and production coordinator of NHK documentaries as well as being coordinator of New Asian Currents section of the Yamakata International Documentary Film Festival, Roger Gonin, director of the prominent Clermont-ferrand International Short Films Festival of France, and Dr. Ahmad Alasti, the Iranian film educator.
The awards of the festival were:
Cash prize for Best Dramatic Film to Charshou, by Mahvash Sheikholeslami
Award for Best Experimental Film to Composition for Four Stairways and a Person, by Olaf Geuer, from Germany;
Award for Best Documentary to Rougegiran, by Mehrdad Osku’i and Ebrahim Sa‘idi from Iran.
In addition to the above, cash prizes, other awards and diplomas of honor were awarded in other fields. The Grand Prize of the festival—$2900 in cash—was awarded to the film Yamouth, a Home, a Tribe, by Farshad Fada’ian.•
Eighth Biennial of the Holy Defense Films
28 September-3 October 2000
Patience and Daring
The Eighth Biennial of the Holy Defense Films was held from 28 September to 3 October 2000, on a much larger scale than the past episodes. Organized ever since the end of the Iran-Iraq war to acclaim the cinema of the war and commemorate eight years of defense against the enemy, this festival was often dedicated to the representation of Iranian films dealing with the subject, but this year it bore extra importance because it addressed identity and situation of this cinema in relation with its audience.
In fact, the declining interest of cinema-goers in films dealing with the Holy Defense, which was perhaps due to the repetitive nature of their themes and plots, their tone and ideological mood, changes within the society itself, and the receding memory of the days of the Holy Defense, was indeed discussed by the cinema press, the experts involved in the cinema of the war and others whose thoughts were aimed at the growth of this type of cinema. Therefore, the most significant feature of this year’s festival was its organization of discussions concerning this type of films. On another hand, this year the festival was held only in Tehran. Hence, the dialogues and expert discussions were warmly welcomed by the public and knowledgeable figures. Yet, the cinema presenting the films of the festival was far from crowded, despite the fact that the films were shown without charge. The films were mostly reruns that had been repeatedly shown on television. On the contrary, the representations of recent foreign war films at the Cinema House with Persian subtitles gathered a large crowd. These were Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick), Seven Years in Tibet (Jean Jacques Annaud), Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg), The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe) and Platoon (Oliver Stone). But, undoubtedly, the most important section of the festival concerned the discussions held by experts and the problems of the Holy Defense cinema raised by the producers of this cinema and other individuals involved. These auto-criticism sessions were particularly fruitful, because the participants meticulously but boldly delved into the matter without going into the usual niceties.
The first specialized session, entitled “Knowledge of the audience and means of attracting spectators”, was held with the participation of two filmmakers of the Holy Defense, Mojtaba Ra‘i and Habibollah Bahmani. Ra‘i said: “In Iran the cinema of the war is not a living cinema. Our war films are weak in terms of filmmaking. When a film is not good, even if it deals with our values, it becomes an anti-value because of its weak structure.”
The second specialized session, entitled “Is cinema an art or an industry?”, was held with the participation of Sayfollah Dad, Culture and Islamic Guidance vice-minister of cinema affairs (himself one of the first film directors of the Holy Defense), Behrooz Afkhami, M.P., Manoochehr Mohammadi, film producer,
and Mojtaba Ra‘i. Dad said in his lecture: “Cinema is both an art and an industry.” Afhkhami believed that “Cinema is an industry and not an art.” Mohammadi noted that: “Considering the small output of 50 films a year in Iran, the Iranian cinema cannot be called an industry.” And Ra‘i said: “Cinema, in any of its forms,
bears artistic traces. Even an art film is an industrial product in virtue of its creation process.”
Rassul Molla-Qolipoor, Akbar Nabavi and Morteza Sarhangi were the lecturers of the third session, entitled “Reality in the cinema of the Holy Defense.” Bitterly criticizing the history of this cinema, Molla-Qolipoor attributed the lack of public enthusiasm to the absence of realism in this cinema, adding: “We have devoted our efforts to showing only what is appropriate.” And Sarhangi said: “We must not be afraid to express and show adversity.” Others spoke of difficulties hampering the production of war films in Iran.
The fourth session, entitled “Characterization in the cinema of the Holy Defense”, was held with the participation of two screenwriters, Ensiyeh Shah-Hosseini and Qassem-‘Ali Farasat, the film director Rassul Molla-Qolipoor and the film producer Fereshteh Ta’erpoor. The screenwriters spoke of the lack of characterization in our war cinema. Shah-Hosseini said: “They didn’t let us deal with things that accompany any war.”
The festival was concluded with prizes being awarded, while most of the organizers and participants hoped that, taking into consideration the way in which this year’s session was held, new means of perpetuating this cinema and bringing it closer to the values of the Holy Defense would be found.
Book from Heavens, Parviz Sheikh-Tadi
Lost Half, Mohammad-‘Ali Ahangar
Hiva, Rassul Molla-Qolipoor
Best special effects:
Lost Half, Morteza Akbari
Book from Heavens, Ro’ya Taymurian
Best director of photography:
Lost Half, Nasser Mahmoodiyeh
The special prize of the jury was awarded to four filmmakers of the Holy Defense: Rassul Molla-Qolipoor, Ebrahim Hatami-Kia, Kamal Tabrizi, ‘Azizollah Hamidnezhad.
The jury of the festival consisted of Majid Majidi, Rakhshan Bani-E‘temad, Mojtaba Ra‘i, Mohammad-Mehdi Asgarpoor and Mass‘ud Farasati.•
The 15th International Film Festival for Children and Young Adults, Esfahan, October 14 -20, 2000
Dry as the Zayandehrood River
This year the International Film Festival for Children and Young Adults was once again held in Esfahan. The opening ceremony took place on the 14th of October at Baq-e Noor, though the screening of films had begun since that morning. Other than a few years when the festival took place in Kerman and Tehran, most years the festival was held in Esfahan.
This year’s festival, like all others, was composed of different sections. The international section was devoted to films from all over the world, most of them very recent productions for children and young adults. The international section was the important and productive area of competition, and among this year’s participants were Hope Beyond the Crimson Sky (Japan, 2000), Ollie Alexander (Slovakia), The Golden Balloon (France), Star Sisters (Sweden, 1999), On Our Own (Denmark and Sweden, 1998), The Sufi’s World (Norway), Marty’s World (France), The Canary Yellow Bicycle (Greece, 1999), Dubashi (India, 1999), Saroja (Sri Lanka, 1999), The Climb (France), The Magic Pearl (India, 2000) and Lawrence in the Land of Liars (Germany). There were also three Iranian participants in the international section: A Time for Drunken Horses by Bahman Qobadi (internationally praised and the winner of the Golden Camera at Cannes 2000), Sanam by Rafi‘ Pietz, and Whisper by Parviz Shahbazi.
The interesting and much awaited section of the festival was the Iranian Children and Young Adults Section. As well as reviewing the work of previous years in this section, there were also films which had been made during the past year: Once Upon A Time by Iraj Tahmasb and Silence by Mohsen Makhmalbaf.
Another significant part of this festival was in recognition of the achievements of the internationally acclaimed Iranian filmmaker Abolfazl Jalili. Most of Jalili’s films had not been screened due to censorship, but he has garnered many awards at international festivals across the globe. All of his films were screened at this year’s festival: Scabies (Gall), Dance of Dust, Det Means Girl, A True Story, Know(Don) and all of his early short films.
Another section was dedicated to Mohammad Reza ‘Aliqoli, the renowned composer of Iranian film scores.
In the opening days of this festival, due to the fact that it took place at the beginning of the school year, the films did not seem to be well received. But with the passing of a few days the audience grew in number. As in previous years, schoolchildren of elementary and secondary grades participated in screenings in the morning and afternoons. The children showed exceptionally enthusiastic reactions to some of the films. Another positive aspect of the festival was the adult attendance of the films. Long lines in front of the cinemas clearly demonstrated their enthusiasm.
Another section of this festival, which has been a constant presence during the years it has been held in Esfahan, is the section devoted to discussions on children’s cinema. These discussions took place late at night at the ‘Abbasi Hotel. The discussions often led to heated debates among the participants, one of whom declared, “Iranian children’s cinema has dried up like the Zayandehrood!”, a reference to how the Zayandehrood river has suffered in the drought which Iran is currently experiencing. This sentence was met with disapproval from many of those present.
An international panel of judges presided at this year’s festival:
Shong McCarthy, the chief executive of the Cinemagic Festival of Ireland; Vinod Ganatra, the Indian documentary filmmaker; Jean-Jacques Mitterand, president and planner of the “Art and Experience” theaters of France; Dr. Samir Nasr, a Canadian filmmaker, educator and film critic of egyption origin. Majid Majidi, the Iranian director, was the president of the panel. The winners of this year’s festival were:
International Competition Section
· Diploma of Honor: Klaus Härö, for the short film Into the Night, from Finland
· Diploma of Honor: Mozaffar Shayda’i, for the animated film Apple, from Iran
· Diploma of Honor: Somarante Dissanayake, for the feature film Saroja, from Sri Lanka
· Golden Butterfly: The animated film Shangool and Mangool and the short film The Mother, both from Iran
· Golden Butterfly for Best Direction: Denis Bardiao, for the film Marty’s World, from France
· Golden Butterfly for Best Film: The Canary Yellow Bicycle, from Greece
Iranian Competition Section
· Golden Butterfly for Best Short Film: The House Is White, by Tayyebeh Falakian
· Golden Butterfly for Best Feature Film: A Time for Drunken Horses, by Bahman Qobadi
· Special Jury Prize: The Mother, by Layla Mirhadi, and honorable mention for Sharpnel in Peace by ‘Ali Shah Hatami
· Diploma of Honor for Best Short Film: Shangool and Mangool, by Farkhondeh Torabi and Morteza Ahadi, and Green Dream, by Hossein Mahjoob
· Diploma of Honor for Best Feature Film: Once Upon A Time, by Iraj Tahmasb, and Sharpnel in Peace by ‘Ali Shah Hatami
International Video Section
· Golden Butterfly: The Bear, by Hillary Audus, from
· Diploma of Honor: Acceptance, by Mohammad Shirvani from Iran, and an honorable mention for Mani Tarokh, the young director of Deep Blue
Iranian Video Section
· Best Film:, Acceptance, by Mohammad Shirvani
· Best Direction: Children of the Sea, by Mohsen Shah -Mohammadi.
The CIFEJ Jury Choice
· The Canary Yellow Bicycle, by Dimitris Stavrakas
Jury of One Hundred Children’s Choice
· Honorable Mention for the film Bahador by ‘Abdollah ‘Alimorad
· Diploma of honor for the film The Mother, by Leila Mirhadi.•
Cinema in the Second Century
Diversity, Rediscovery and a Quest for Lost Individuality
What path will the cinema of tomorrow, the cinema of the second century, take? I do not know.
Perhaps the cinema of tomorrow will draw closer to the individuality of the human being, that which has succumbed to the onslaught of modern technology. This new technology even prevents us from reading our own handwriting. Modern man communicates by electronic mail and digital images. Individuality is lost in these exchanges. Uniformity is spreading among humans. The blurring of geographical and cultural boundaries and the confusion of global exchanges have taken control of our distinctive cultural traits. Differentiation no longer exists. All this is due to modernization and technological advances that are manipulating our world. Perhaps cinema, in its second century, will correct these shortcomings. This is the inevitable turn which events must take. Maybe cinema will achieve what mankind has lost. It will seek those qualities that have been surrendered, the individuality that has been lost. Perhaps cinema will move towards addressing the sense of isolation that is brought on by the bustling pace of modern life. The modern world is one of confusion midst the fierce assault of technology, and the uniformity it brings. Yet there still exist films that have maintained their integrity in this age of technology, the cinema that places greater value upon the individual.
There was a time when cinema had an exclusive role as a new medium. When human aspirations first became large images displayed on a screen, cinema had a specific role. The rapid pace of technology reduced cinema to a technical art. In this technical art, a single concept produces a million prints, forcing the spectator to choose one of the available models. The creative mind is left in the shadows of modern advancement. Specialization in every field transforms the traditional concept of cinema; from the absolute product of mental creativity to something wholly different.
This trend has brought us to a new definition of cinema. It may yet prove successful, but reactions to this new definition will act as an anti-thesis. This new cinema, when brought in contact with new technology will undoubtedly produce an effective synthesis.
It is plain to see that the simple handycam has become a direct tool of expression for the creative mind. Perhaps the boundless freedom of this new form, in avoiding the constraints of a purely technical cinema, will yield new interpretations of cinematic expression. Perhaps the new century will prove that this new form can also be a part of cinema, perhaps it shall be its own unique
form of this art. I believe there are people today who have personal websites on the internet where they have placed an unmoving camera to record 24 hours of a human life on film. People often pass in front of the camera, going about their lives, and voices may be heard without people being seen. In this view, there is no movement or selectivity. There is only an original setting and 24 hours of ordinary human activity. Perhaps the second century will see the beginning of this sort of new cinema. In order to escape the assault of technique, the relationship between the autonomous, indefinable filmmaker and the spectator—which had remained severed for so long—shall regain existence in this simple, direct form.
Until recently, cinema possessed a definition and a history. Certain facilities existed; they could easily be categorized: equipment, sound, camera, lights, actors, scripts, etc. But these definitions have been transformed. There is astounding diversity in contemporary cinema. This diversity is a new occurrence in itself. Cinema is no longer molding image and sound to a preset form. Cinema is the very expression of the disorientation of today’s man. Cinema is on the verge of rediscovering itself.•
I used to think that cinema halls were kept dark so that the picture could be better seen. When I stared at the way every single person was coiled up in his seat, I realized that the darkness has a more important function. The darkness is meant to separate people, to isolate them so that each one can go deep into his seat and into himself, side by side, yet completely separate, and so that each one can build up his own world while watching the film.
Out of a city, out of those fields, these people or those objects that appear on the screen, he can build up his own special spaces and characters. Everyone making his own special film out of his own special world, resembling no other one.
Cinema does not recount one world, but a different world, neither does it one reality but a myriad realities, nor a unique story but a variety of stories.
For the cinematographer, just as for the spectator, truth isn’t anything outside the system of cinematographic conventions. But it is easy to see that this order is changeable. The reality of daily life and of its happenings isn’t something that is external and objective. It is something that we make up and bring to life. The world of each work of art, the world of each film, reveals a new truth to each one of us. It creates a special and unique vision, in the darkness and privacy of any cinema hall and on any seat, in a moment of aloneness, and it allows everyone to achieve one’s dreams and inward wishes, and to freely express and repeat them. If art is to bring about change and innovation, it can only do so through a creative process closely related to the viewer’s freedom. There is a solid, unbreakable and eternal relationship between the self-made and agreeable world of the artist and the world created by the viewer, which is a mental and liberal world. Art allows man to create truth in the way he desires and thinks is correct or the way he wishes it to be, without being subjugated by imposed-upon truths.
Cinema allows each filmmaker and each viewer to discover, to portray and to make one’s own the ultimate truth of human suffering from the pains which simple people endure in their daily life. If we believe that a filmmaker can be committed to change daily life, this commitment must be found in the freedom given to the viewer for creating meanings. When the film creates a world full of contrasts and contradictions, it also creates the possibility of changing the viewer. There is a world which we perceive to be real but do not find right. This world is not created by our mind. We don’t even accept it. Through the medium of cinema, we create a world that is many times more real, more just and more beautiful than the
world surrounding us. Not because it is a deceptive image of the world, but because it rather bespeaks contradictions; the contradictions between the ideal world and our real world. It is more laden with signs of wishes, sadnesses, jealousies, possessions, and deprivations, joys, sufferings, successes and defeats. It is an
infinitely beautiful world in which ugliness and disorder are more conspicuous. Personal experience plays an essential role in this process. When the world of a film is spread out in front of the viewers, it is through personal experience that each of them learns how to build a special world out of it. Not satisfied with what is, they will look for what it should be. There is a relation between the reality that we build up and the world as it is made, and which is not to our liking.
Here I would like to refer to Godard, who said “Reality is a badly made film”, and also quote Shakespeare, who wrote “We are made of the stuff of our dreams,” meaning that we are more similar to our dreams than to our real life. Cinema is a window that opens onto our dreams; dreams through which we recognize ourselves and by the consciousness and passion we gather from them we alter our lives to the benefit of our dreams.
We isolate ourselves in cinema seats and, retiring into our inner selves, we deepen our self-knowledge through our dreams. Perhaps nowhere else than in a cinema are we as close to one another and yet as isolated from one another. This is the miracle of cinema. The cinema seat is more helpful than the psychiatrist couch for knowing one’s self and needs. The viewer can make his own film with the help of our half-made film. In one instant, hundreds of viewers make a film that belongs to them and is suitable to their own singular interior world.
I want to point out again to Godard who said “What is alive is not what is on the screen, but what goes on between the viewer and the screen.” In this reading of cinema, the filmmaker and the viewer have equal parts, not because the filmmaker charms and the viewer gets charmed. This is not equality. The viewer is truly creative and deserves a part equal to his creativity. Sometimes viewers imagine a film which is much better and in a way a better-made film than the one we have made, and this shows that they can be more creative than we are.
I always think about a cinema which gives more opportunity to the viewer, a “half-made” cinema, an unfinished cinema which gets completed and perfected by the viewer’s creative mind, and the result of this process is hundreds of films produced by the creative minds of hundreds of viewers. It is a reality that the nonfiction film is not popular amongst most viewers. But the narrative must have blanks in it like crossword puzzles that the viewer fills in—like an investigator in a detective story. It’s up to the viewer to discover it. Like in a puzzle, the viewer must discover the connections that are proper to him and build up his story in the way that suits him. He has to discover the story in order to make it his own.
I believe it is this creative implication of the viewer from which we can expect to give life to the picture on the screen. Otherwise both the viewer and the film die out.
Narratives which are so completely and perfectly molded that nothing can be added to or subtracted from them have one great advantage and one great disadvantage: namely that nothing can be added to or taken away from them, and that no mind can penetrate and alter them. This is why viewers with different cultural and intellectual capabilities arrive to the same and only film, and why this varied audience becomes uniform when confronted with our work.
In the second century of cinema’s life, it is impossible not to respect the viewer and not to accept him as an understanding and constructive member of the filmmaking process. In order to arrive at this important aim, maybe it is necessary for the “God of the screen” to descend from his ivory tower and become a simple viewer, and introspectively coil up in the director’s chair (which chair in Iran?!) as in a movie hall seat in the dark and view what is happening in front of the camera, becoming the viewer of the film all the while that it is being shot. Not to neglect or underestimate the role of contingency and accident in this process. To believe that it is not always possible to execute the constructs of our minds. This is only feasible in animation films. In live cinema and with live beings (actors or non-actors) in front of the camera, the role of unpredicted events and incidents must be taken seriously. There is no such thing as a particular and prefabricated form. Everything depends on the interaction of the live and constructive elements of a film. It is a necessity to be the viewer of the film while making it and to go along with that which is alive, full of energy and independent of us. For one hundred years, cinema has been the domain of filmmakers. Let’s be hopeful about its second century.•