Iranian Cinema: A Political History

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September 29, 2008 02:28  |  1 Comment

Non-Fiction (Films & Performing Arts) | 791.430955 SADR | 2006 | 392pp | English

From the infamous introduction of cinema to Iran through the Iranian monarchy in the early twentieth century to the worldwide acclaimed post-revolutionary era, Sadr presents us with a highly readable history of Iranian cinema with its embedded and reflected social, political, cultural and economic contexts, lucidly written in a comprehensive book.

In the West, Iranian cinema has only relatively recently — during the 1990s — attracted considerable attention and thoughts, its earlier films hardly studied, indeed rarely even took itself seriously. (Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film only mentioned Farough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black as the earliest single important influence, made in 1962, despite having “screened the first Lumiere films, a year after they were made, in the Shah’s place in Tehran.”) Sadr, while acknowledging the lack of imaginative expression in mainstream Iranian cinema: the weak scripts, the poor performances, the repetitive and conservative nature and content and poor performances, argues for and analyses the political contexts and its constant shifts embedded within the apparently least noteworthy of Iranian films.

Arranged chronologically, the book starts with the “Early years: from 1900 to the 1920s” (sources are dated in Gregorian calendar) as its first chapter with the arrival of cinema and other western technology, bringing along with it challenges to traditions (e.g. taziyeh) and religion, whose tensions and conflicts will be the recurring motif in Iranian cinema. The next chapter, “The 1920s to the 1940s”, deals with the establishment of Pahlavi dynasty and Reza Khan’s secular, pro-military politics and its enforced, “Orientalistic” modernisation. The book then proceeds in decades — 40s, 50s, &c. — until it reaches 2000-2005, each time providing the relevant general history, although some events and films overlap. Recurring issues throughout are the censorship — both state intervention and ‘invisible’, ideologically conditioned self-censorship, the role of women and its political indication, the urban-rural conflicts (mirroring Western vs. traditional values), the xenophobic anti-intellectualism (with intellectual pretensions linked to Westernised presence) and the popular cinematic stereotype of luti.

The prominent rise of childhood imagery after the Revolution is analysed in conjunction to some of the most important features of cinema after the Revolution — the abandonment of the majority of familiar actors and actresses from the industry, and the exclusion of sex, song and dance, and the disposed codes and symbols used in the Shah’s era — as well as the root government agency, the CIDCYA/Kunan established in the 1960s. The use of children, Sadr argued, allows ideal projection of what people should be like and eases the problems of political judgement by depoliticising the audience’s reactions.

Disseminating the domination of ‘Iranian poetic realism’, Sadr wrote:

The history of Iranian cinema is dominated by the critical centrality of the group of films made between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, commonly described as ‘Iranian poetic realism’. This genre, however, cannot be traced back to a consciously thought-out and publicly circulated manifesto or movement. The term is a descriptive category that has evolved through critical discourse. The continuing interest in poetic realism lies in the fact that it is not a straightforwardly homogenous or unitary phenomenon but successfully crosses the boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow, tradition and modernity, serious engagement and pleasure. The films are relatively few in number, constituting no more than 40 or 50 over a period in which domestic film production figures were high.

The last chapter, 2000-2005, takes 9/11 and its effects on Iranian film-making, with the increasing scrutinisation of the problems of Afghanistan (refugees, ‘black market’, etc.), while also giving brief outlines of Afghanistan and Taliban regime. Sadr analysed the issues of female roles and female directors in Afghanistan, the initially overlooked Kandahar and its popularity after September 11 (as well as the controversy surrounding the use of HasanTantai/David Belfield), and Osama. Lastly, Sadr turns to the Kurds and their plight and rootlessness with Turtles Can Fly.

Compared to Dabashi’s more specialised Close-Up, this book is more suitable for general readers, and considerably more updated (released in 2006). The comprehensive analysis gives refreshing, up-to-date introduction to those interested in Iranian cinema and its socio-political dimensions and history, observing recurrent themes and genres as well as giving lights to lesser-known thematic concerns and figures. It is a slight pity all illustrations and photographs are in black & white (I’d love to see the colour stills from some of the hard-to-obtain films), but I wouldn’t complain for a book this informative. The book comes with an index.Non-Fiction (Films & Performing Arts) | 791.430955 SADR | 2006 | 392pp | English

From the infamous introduction of cinema to Iran through the Iranian monarchy in the early twentieth century to the worldwide acclaimed post-revolutionary era, Sadr presents us with a highly readable history of Iranian cinema with its embedded and reflected social, political, cultural and economic contexts, lucidly written in a comprehensive book.

In the West, Iranian cinema has only relatively recently — during the 1990s — attracted considerable attention and thoughts, its earlier films hardly studied, indeed rarely even took itself seriously. (Mark Cousins’ The Story of Film only mentioned Farough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black as the earliest single important influence, made in 1962, despite having “screened the first Lumiere films, a year after they were made, in the Shah’s place in Tehran.”) Sadr, while acknowledging the lack of imaginative expression in mainstream Iranian cinema: the weak scripts, the poor performances, the repetitive and conservative nature and content and poor performances, argues for and analyses the political contexts and its constant shifts embedded within the apparently least noteworthy of Iranian films.

Arranged chronologically, the book starts with the “Early years: from 1900 to the 1920s” (sources are dated in Gregorian calendar) as its first chapter with the arrival of cinema and other western technology, bringing along with it challenges to traditions (e.g. taziyeh) and religion, whose tensions and conflicts will be the recurring motif in Iranian cinema. The next chapter, “The 1920s to the 1940s”, deals with the establishment of Pahlavi dynasty and Reza Khan’s secular, pro-military politics and its enforced, “Orientalistic” modernisation. The book then proceeds in decades — 40s, 50s, &c. — until it reaches 2000-2005, each time providing the relevant general history, although some events and films overlap. Recurring issues throughout are the censorship — both state intervention and ‘invisible’, ideologically conditioned self-censorship, the role of women and its political indication, the urban-rural conflicts (mirroring Western vs. traditional values), the xenophobic anti-intellectualism (with intellectual pretensions linked to Westernised presence) and the popular cinematic stereotype of luti.

The prominent rise of childhood imagery after the Revolution is analysed in conjunction to some of the most important features of cinema after the Revolution — the abandonment of the majority of familiar actors and actresses from the industry, and the exclusion of sex, song and dance, and the disposed codes and symbols used in the Shah’s era — as well as the root government agency, the CIDCYA/Kunan established in the 1960s. The use of children, Sadr argued, allows ideal projection of what people should be like and eases the problems of political judgement by depoliticising the audience’s reactions.

Disseminating the domination of ‘Iranian poetic realism’, Sadr wrote:

The history of Iranian cinema is dominated by the critical centrality of the group of films made between the mid-1980s and the mid-1990s, commonly described as ‘Iranian poetic realism’. This genre, however, cannot be traced back to a consciously thought-out and publicly circulated manifesto or movement. The term is a descriptive category that has evolved through critical discourse. The continuing interest in poetic realism lies in the fact that it is not a straightforwardly homogenous or unitary phenomenon but successfully crosses the boundaries between highbrow and lowbrow, tradition and modernity, serious engagement and pleasure. The films are relatively few in number, constituting no more than 40 or 50 over a period in which domestic film production figures were high.

The last chapter, 2000-2005, takes 9/11 and its effects on Iranian film-making, with the increasing scrutinisation of the problems of Afghanistan (refugees, ‘black market’, etc.), while also giving brief outlines of Afghanistan and Taliban regime. Sadr analysed the issues of female roles and female directors in Afghanistan, the initially overlooked Kandahar and its popularity after September 11 (as well as the controversy surrounding the use of HasanTantai/David Belfield), and Osama. Lastly, Sadr turns to the Kurds and their plight and rootlessness with Turtles Can Fly.

Compared to Dabashi’s more specialised Close-Up, this book is more suitable for general readers, and considerably more updated (released in 2006). The comprehensive analysis gives refreshing, up-to-date introduction to those interested in Iranian cinema and its socio-political dimensions and history, observing recurrent themes and genres as well as giving lights to lesser-known thematic concerns and figures. It is a slight pity all illustrations and photographs are in black & white (I’d love to see the colour stills from some of the hard-to-obtain films), but I wouldn’t complain for a book this informative. The book comes with an index.

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: Founding director, c2o library & collabtive. Currently also working in Singapore as a Research Associate at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). Opinions are hers, and do not represent/reflect her employer(s), institution(s), or anyone else with whom she may be remotely affiliated.
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