Posted by: professorepler | October 6, 2010


Notes on Iranian Cinema History – taken from Hamid Nacify’s introduction to Iranian Cinema in “Routledge Companion Encyclopedia of Middle Eastern and North African Film,” ed. by Oliver Leaman.

Pahlavi Era 1926-1978
Shah and the IDO (Intellectual Development Organization)
-a part of the overall consolidation strategy
-1938 until Reza Shah’s abdication in 1941
-primary function was to inoculate the Shah’s ideology which included Iranian nationals (located in pre-Islamic times), devotion to the country and to the Shah, and Westernization, including unveiling of women.
-to accomplish this, they set up branches in charge of organizing conferences, developing radio programming and audiences, preparing school and general interest textbooks, teaching drama and performing plays, organizing orchestras and musical performances, improving the production and editing of a pro-government press. This budget was supported by  2% tax on movie ticket sales.
-the IDO also helped integrate film with other arts by including films in their lectures and performances in order to attract non-coerced audiences. The IDO created a network of relations among academics, writers, musicians, dramatists, filmmakers and radio producers, all of which viewed filmmaking and cinema favorably.

World War 2 stops film production, but foreign films continue to be imported. 60% USA, 20% German, France and Russia 5% each. All were heavily censored by the government.

Esmail Kushan, working in Turkey, helped dub several foreign films into Persian. The successful distribution of these films encouraged him to make the first sound feature inside Iran. He established Mitra Film Co. in 1948 produced 4 films in 3 years. His first film was not well received or made, but his second film in 1949 (Zendani-e Amir) or “Prisoner of the Emir” was well received. The US Dept of Commerce stated that ‘considerable improvement…has been made in sound, lighting, photography and direction, and the story and acting are superior.’ (a bit strange that the US Government was reporting on the status of Iranian film production)

Kushan then established a larger film company, Parsfilm Studio which continued to make films specifically for the local market, and which survived the revolution of 1978-9.

His successes caused swift change in film industry. Many companies were formed and numerous films produced. Most of them were structured on the model of silent-film genres – melodramas, situation comedies, adventure films. Most of them low-quality, formulaic and escapist. This can be explained by strict censorship, competition for foreign imports and the prevailing social and economic conditions.

Emergence of new fiction cinemas: 1960-78
Oil money was pouring in and the government was on rocky ground after violently crushing a public protest spearheaded by Ayatollah Khomeini (who was exiled).
The Iranian government’s need for political control of culture and art matched the interests of the US media companies for economic control of the world markets. American business interests thus overshadowed the regional media influences (India, Turkey and Egypt) which had previously been influential in Iranian cinema. With US oil money came American products and services: feature films, TV programs, television sets, studios, communications expertise and training. They sold not only consumer products but also a consumer ideology.

Two movements helped jolt the film industry:
1.) The tough guy genre,  Luti films
first one: Lat-e Javanmard or The Generous Tough, 1958 by Majid Mohseni.
2.) The New Wave film movement
-social realist

-filmmakers Gaffary and Golestan: Jonub-e Shahr or South of the City, 1958
-honest treatment and truthful portrayal of village life, using a sparse and somewhat primitive style. It had clear links to the Italian neo-realist cinema.
-in 1973, several filmmakers dropped out of the mandatory membership of the National Union of Film Workers to establish the Progressive Filmmakers’ Union.
-Their goal was to create a film industry ‘worthy of our culture and nationality, since all that the current films possessed of the rich Iranian culture was their Perian-language dialogue.’ They aimed to go around the distribution monopoly of the government and to satisfy the needs of consumers nationwide and their own desire to make films that ‘while representing our culture, national characteristics and artistic growth, could also ear the country some foreign exchange.’
-In this way, the desire to produce an independent cinema was also a desire to communicate with the outside world. Artistic films that went to festivals were a way to say ‘we are here, and we don’t all agree,’ and also to encourage a dialogue.
-But by mid-1970’s, the industry collapses. Imports were cheaper than national productions. Film box offices were taxed at nearly 25%. Inflation made equipment and services too expensive, while the government enforced low ticket prices.

Islamic Republic Era 1979-99
The Islamic Revolution was particularly favorable to cinema as a target for its anger. This was expressed most savagely in August of 1978 whn they set fire to Abadan’s Rex Theatre, which killed nearly 400 people. After this, burning cinemas became an integral part of dismantling the Shah’s regime. They claimed not to be against cinema, but against the ‘misuse’ of cinema by the Pahlavi regime to morally corrupt and politically subjugate the Iranians. While burning down the exhibition sites, they adopted cinema as an ideological tool with the goal of using it to transform Pahlavi culture into an Islamic culture, and a specifically Iranian culture “Neither East nor West.”
-20 years later, the Toronto Film Festival and New York Film Festival called the Iranian cinema of the 1990s one of the ‘preimenant national cinemas’ and ‘one of the most exciting’ cinema of the world.
-How did this happen?
– The state encouraged local production, although it was highly regulated and controlled. IN 1983, the Farabi Cinema Foundation is created by the state to facilitate national filmmaking and distribution efforts., which they did with great success.
-The government provided help: facilitating bank loans, rationalizing cumbersome rules and regulation, expediting the production and exhibition of films.
-Tax for local films went from 20 to 5%.
-Tax for imported films went from 20 to 25%
-Ticket prices increased 25%
-FCF payed no customs duties on imports
-Producers and exhibitors were given representation on the ‘screen committee’ that regulated distribution and exhibition.
-mid 1990s, the Rafsanjani administration privatized major industries, including cinema.
-a grading system which was for quality and censorship, nonetheless encouraged the production of artistic films, which would then get the best exhibition sites. For this reason, a very rare thing happened where the best films were also the most popular.

Auteur cinema flourished, and the income created by foreign film markets was no small change, due to the exchange rate. Selling a film to foreign TV or theaters helped boost the film industry financially and encouraged similar productions. The films did very well abroad, e.g. The Children of Heaven did $1million in one month in Hong Kong alone.
-ironically, if the film was banned in Iran, then the profits went directly to the filmmaker, as he as financially responsible. This lead to them being able to be self-sufficient and bolder in their works, but also led to the label of elitists, unpatriotic, even un-Islamic within Iran. For these reasons, many of them left to pursue filmmaking in other countries, which were ready to finance them (Amir Naderi leaves to NYC).


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