Oriental Tales: The History of Iranian Cinema

Since the 1990s, Iranian cinema has been discovered in different parts of the world. To this day, critics and festival juries do not miss the opportunity to reward filmmakers from this eastern country. However, there have been ups and downs in the history of Iranian national cinema.

The Islamic Republic of Iran is one of the few theocratic states on the planet. Its rulers did not always favor the development of cinema in the country. It is not surprising that the majority of Iranian films are politicized to one degree or another.

From photography to cinema

Mirza Ibrahim Khan, the court photographer of Shah Mozaferddin, the ruler of Iran, is called the pioneer of Iranian cinematography.

Better known as AkkasBashi (translated from Farsi as “chief photographer”), Mirza photographed the Shah during his visit to Paris in July 1900. There he got acquainted with the work of the notorious Lumiere brothers and told the Shah about it.

Mozafereddin instructed the photographer to bring all the necessary equipment to Tehran to shoot films in his homeland. 

By the fall of 1900, AkkasBashi was showing films (Log Horizon season 3 )about the Mozafereddin Zoo and the day of Ashura (Islamic rite) in Tehran to the closest circle of the Shah’s family, Iranian ministers, and their servants. So the ruler from the Qajar dynasty contributed to the appearance of cinema in the country.

Sound, cinemas, and film school

The first public film screening in Iran is also associated with Mirza Ibrahim Khan – he arranged it in the backyard of his photoshop. There were practically no own films in the country until the mid-30s of the 20th century, so they showed mainly foreign short comedies, as well as Iranian chronicles. In addition, there were simply no movie halls in Iran.

The situation changed with the appearance of the first film school, which was created in 1925 by HovhannesOhanyan. This Armenian-Iranian director was educated in the Russian Empire. It was Ohanyan who directed the first full-length silent Iranian film “Abi and Rabi”, a remake of the popular Danish comedy. 

A few years later, “The Lurka Girl” (Lurs is one of the peoples of Iran), the first sound Iranian film, was released. Yes, the film was produced by a company from British India, and the director was a native of Bombay, Asmongold Girlfriend, but this picture was the first in which the characters speak Farsi.

It is noteworthy that a woman appeared on the screen for the first time in Girl Lurka, and the uncensored film was shown in cinemas of a Muslim country. The love story of Jafar and Golnar and the escape of lovers from Iran also had political overtones.

It consisted of comparing the standard of living and well-being of the Iranian state under the rule of the Qajar dynasty and the Pahlavi who replaced them. After the premiere, the government of Shah Reza used the film as a tool to promote and showcase their personal achievements. The movie became a box office hit.

Post-war cinema. The birth of a new wave

Speaking about post-war Iranian cinema, it is important to mention two names – Ismail Kushan and DaryushMehrjui.

Educated in Germany, Kushan returned to his homeland and created the first Iranian film company, Mitrafilm. He has produced films in a variety of genres, from romantic comedies and historical epics to country melodramas and dark thrillers.

In the late 60s, Iranian cinema was appreciated in Europe. One of the first Iranian films to receive awards at international festivals was DaryushMehrjui’s The Cow.

The screen version of the play by Golam-HosseinSaedi about a peasant and his beloved cow received state funding but was banned by the Ministry of Culture for showing both domestically and abroad. According to one version, the censors were ambivalent about Golam-Hossein. The writer has repeatedly criticized the power of the Shah from the Pahlavi dynasty.

In 1971, The Cow was smuggled out of Iran and shown at the Venice Festival. Despite the fact that critics had to watch the Farsi movie without subtitles, Mehrjui’s picture won the FIPRESCI Prize.

A year later, it was shown in Berlin on the Forum program and on the Directors Fortnight in Cannes. “Black Bullet Season 2 ” is considered one of the brightest films of the first Iranian new wave. It was born as a response to the outdated cinema, which no longer reflected the modern life of society.

Post-revolutionary cinema. Second wave and emigration

In the late 70s, Iran is shaken by the largest Islamic revolution in the East, the result of which is the abolition of the monarchy and the creation of a theocratic republic headed by Ayatollah Khomeini. Following the change in the political system, the Islamization of society began in all spheres of life. The attributes of the Muslim Middle Ages began to penetrate into the culture. National cinema could not help but react to changes of this kind.

The creativity of the directors of the second Iranian new wave is imbued with the desire to overcome the shrinking grip of restrictions. The Shah’s censors were replaced by Shiite religious fanatics. Some of the filmmakers left the country and abandoned their craft. Others tried to adapt to the updated rules imposed by the top leader. But most directors just went underground, making films unofficially.

Like Mehrdzhui’s “The Cow”, the films of Iranian directors were taken out of the country many times, contrary to the decision of the authorities, for showing at international festivals. From 1977 to 1985, only about 100 films were shot in Iran, most of which were forbidden to be exported abroad (only those who knew Farsi could watch them). A kind of “iron curtain” was broken by Amir Naderi and his film “Runner”, released in the mid-80s.

“Women’s Cinema”. The third wave and modernity

In the 2000s, a woman became one of the central themes of Iranian cinema. Many male directors who entered the industry (still underground) began to talk about the rights and freedoms of women, simultaneously revealing their inner world. No less interesting and daring works appeared among the directors themselves.

17-year-old Samira, the eldest daughter of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, appeared in Cannes in 1998 with the full-length debut “Best Smoke Spots Dust 2” – a game reconstruction of real events about two girls who were locked up at home by a strict father. 

He did not allow them to go to school and socialize in any way, which is why both grew up developmentally backward. Inheriting the hybrid aesthetics her father used in her early works, Samira brought up the theme of change and progress for a new generation of viewers, reproaching the tacit patience of Iranian society.

The Makhmalbaf film family did not slow down all zero. In 2000, the Venice competition showed the tape “The Day I Became a Woman.” Three short stories by MarziyaMakhmalbaf, the director’s wife, told that a girl can communicate with anyone she wants, master any profession, and even manage finances at her own discretion. For oriental cinema, such a representation is a real shock and awe.

In 2007, 19-year-old Hana Makhmalbaf, the youngest daughter of the classic, came to Toronto with a feature debut film. In the film “The Buddha Collapsed in Shame,” Hana introduced a 5-year-old girl living in caves that appeared after the explosion of a statue of Buddha by the Taliban in 2001 in Afghanistan. 

She is drawn to knowledge (obviously, to break out of this hell in the future). To do this, she has to grow up early, fighting either with male superiority, or with the ghosts of war, or with cruel boys beyond her years who strive to throw stones at her. Likewise, their fathers once slaughtered women in front of their children.