To study the development of cinema and the motion picture industry in Iran it is necessary to understand the elements of Iranian history, culture, religion, and social structure which are the major influences bearing on the development of cinema and the motion picture industry in Iran.
“One cannot ignore the fascinating and glorious heritage of almost three millennia (of Iran), for that heritage has formed the land and people of today so much so that even modern, economic development by foreigners can hardly succeed without a knowledge by them of the mores and temper of those to be served by that development.”
Being at a crossroads for traders and conquerors throughout history and in a land functioning as a gate between East and West, the Iranians share a strong, subconscious sense of insecurity. Sudden, often violent, changes left a sense of passivity and a feeling that one must hold on to what one can, while one can. This Iranian characteristic of national insecurity has affected the motion picture industry which requires long-term investments in technical facilities and production costs.
As various sections of the country are walled off from each other by high mountains, deserts, climatic extremes, families are walled off from each other by high mud-brick walls. This, and unique historical developments, has made the Iranians extreme individualists. Despite national traits of charm, friendliness and hospitality, the unspoken law is still basically “Every man for himself.” This self-reliance and social paranoia, made group or team work, which is the main requirement for film production activities, difficult.
Historical and Cultural Background of Iran
Archaeological evidence shows that from 100,000 B.C., various ethnic groups with similar cultures lived on the Iranian Plateau. But very little has been known about these cultures until the Aryan migration about 90,000 years later. Nonetheless, archaeological discoveries have shown that the people who lived in that area before the Aryans were people of peace-loving, agricultural, and artistic nature.
Airya or Aryans came to Iran about 3,000 B.C. At first they carried their new culture and Indo-European language to north-central Iran. After settling, they called their homeland “Aryana,” the Indo-European word for “courageous,” “noble,” and the name Iran has been derived from Aryana.
There was not a major cultural disruption until 550 B.C. when Cyrus founded the first empire, the Achaemenid Empire, the largest empire the world had known up to that time, from the Mediterranean Sea to India. Cyrus introduced many revolutionary concepts of government and social reform. Unlike many of his contemporaries, Cyrus governed the peoples of his vast territory through their own established institutions while at the same time he honored their local customs and beliefs. He issued a declaration of the rights of man that is very similar to the one that has been adopted by the modern United Nations.
The Achaemenid dynasty ruled over the civilized world of the day until 33 B.C., when Darius III, its last king, was defeated by Alexander the Great in the battle of Gaugamela. At this time Iranians accepted the conquering influence, but they synthesized it and transformed it into their own. As will be seen, Iranians have been ruled by many conquering powers from outside throughout their long history, but there has always been an internal resistance. In a sense, they conquered their conquerors by a process of assimilation.
Iranian culture and traditions, which had weakened under the pressure of Hellenism were restored by the Parthian dynasty, who brought a unique form of government. The country was ruled by local kings, under the supreme leadership of a king of kings, the Shahan-Shah. The official language became the Pahlavi language and the official religion, Zoroastrianism. The Parthian dynasty lasted about 480 years. They maintained independence and cultural heritage for Iranians against the ever-increasing pressures of the invaders from the east and the Romans from the west.
But rebirth of a nationalistic pattern started about 224 when the Parthians were succeeded by the Sassanian dynasty. This regime changed the government from feudal and non-religious to a centralized and religious one. During the 425 years of their dynasty they expanded the boundaries of the country almost to the extent of the Achaemenid period. They established a well-organized administrative system and continued Zoroastrianism as the official religion of the state. During their leadership, the culture and the civilization that was introduced by the Achaemenids reached the highest degree of perfection. “Situated in the center of the three great empires of the time, Constantinople, China, and India, the Sassanian Empire was to be for four centuries the point where the human mind exchanged ideas.”
The Sassanian dynasty established numerous learning centers at which Zoroastrian, Manichean, Christian, and Jewish scholars explored various fields such as medicine, mathematics, astronomy, astrology, and ancient Iranian and Greek philosophy. But most of these accomplishments, along with many great monumental works of art were destroyed by the barbaric nomadic Arabs in the name of their God and Islam. However some of the learning centers remained, and changed their language of instruction from Pahlavi to Arabic, becoming centers of Moslem learning.
During the reign of Khosrow I (531-579) Iran was struggling with internal problems. Corruption in government was at its highest. Active Zoroastrians became an establishment whose main concern was to preserve a formal structure. Thus it was possible for Monism, a more political movement for social and individual liberation and antithetical to Zoroastrianism, to attract many rebellious followers. But before Monism was able to change the shape of social structure in Iran, Khosrow I invited all its followers, somewhere around 200,000, to the capital for the sake of honoring their religion as an official religion. But on the day of the ceremony, Khosrow I ordered his guards to kill every one of Monism’s many followers. Mani himself was also executed, his skin filled with chaff and hung in effigy at the city gate, as an illustration of the state’s attitude toward personal and social freedom. These internal problems and Khosrow I’s faithless armies resulted in the complete defeat of Iran in the war (641) between the Arabs and the huge Iranian army.
Iranians celebrated every opportunity to gain their independence and used every effort to weaken the Islamic government and to free themselves from its control.
“An examination of the religious history of Iran reveals the fact that the Iranians, on the whole, have not followed orthodox Islamic tenets and that in fact for over two centuries, many of them gave their lives to fight Islam by sword, tongue, and pen. When resistance became useless, Iranians took over the new religion and molded it according to their own political, social, and religious ideas.”
One of these efforts was the invention of the Shi’ite branch of Islam which gradually spread throughout the country. Later, during the Safavid (861) dynasty, it became the state religion.
“They championed the cause of the house of Ali for nationalistic reasons. The Safavids established the Shi’ite sect as the religion of the state for political purposes. All along, Islam has changed; risen, or fallen at the convenience of one political power or another.”
Nevertheless, during the grandeur of the Islamic Empire, Iranian intellectual figures played a central role in areas of religion, philosophy, science, and politics. Some of these scientific and literary figures include Abu Bakr Mohammed Ibn Zakariya Razi, Abu Ali Ibn Sina, Ferdowsi, Nezam al-Molk, Sa’di, and Hafez.
Razi (ca. 860-925), known in the west as Rhazes, was the founder of modern chemistry. Over 200 works dealing with nearly every branch of science are attributed to him. Abu Ali Ibn Sina (980-1037), his great work The Canon, was an encyclopedia of medical knowledge, he is known in the West as Avicenna, the Renaissance man. Ferdowsi (d. 1020), the most celebrated epic poet of Iran, composed Shahnameh (The Book of Kings), which, after a thousand years, remains unsurpassed as the greatest popular writing in Persian literature. The stories of Shahnameh have been used by storytellers and orators in Persian coffee houses as a form of entertainment for the people who have gathered to hear the myths, legends, and historical reminiscences of the Iranian empire (one of the most popular form of mass entertainments before the advent of cinema in Iran). Nezam al-Molk (1019-1092), served Alb-Arsalan and his son Malek Shah as prime minister for thirty years. He was a superb statesman who founded the first university in Islamic world at Baghdad to promote religion and education. Six thousand students were in attendance. Omar Kayyam (d. 123), was a poet, philosopher, mathematician and astronomer. He reformed the calendar and made it more accurate than that ordered by Pope Gregory some 500 years later. Sa’di (1184-1292), the greatest humanitarian and ethical poet of Persian literature, wrote famous Gulestan (Flower Garden) a series of philosophical anecdotes mainly in prose, other famous book Bustan (The Garden) entirely in verse. Shams al-Din Mohammad Hafez (1320-1389), universally acclaimed as one of the greatest lyric poets in the world of literature, created a masterpiece called Divan-e Hafez which consists of 693 separate poems deeply immersed in Sufi doctrine. His is the only book revered by Iranians as much as the Koran.
Throughout the turbulent history of Iran then, while various cultures have predominated, Persians have adapted and contributed importantly to the prevailing society of the time. Despite the religious opposition to cinema in Iran, there has been an interest there in film throughout the medium’s history. When the leadership and/or intellectuals become involved in the making of films, and when the masses of the people learn to appreciate the cinema of growth vs. the cinema of appeasement, both the desire and the conditions for a truly Iranian cinema will foster the expression of a unique and potent vision.
BRIEF CRITICAL HISTORY OF IRANIAN FEATURE FILM (1896-1975)
The Advent of Cinema in Iran
Iran throughout its history has been a melting pot for other cultures. Repeated introductions of new cultures through conquerors and traders from Aryan civilization until today have developed a kind of social subconscious filtration system which absorbs only the useful aspects of the frequently imposed, ever newer external cultures. This factor made it easier for Iran to adopt the western-originated cinema, in spite of Muslim religious beliefs that opposed it. Yet, although superficially adaptable, deep down a majority of Iranians remain Persian, i.e. self-reliant individualists.
Before the advent of cinema in Iran, entertainment was a luxury afforded by only a small, well-to-do segment of the population while the great majority of the people had no money to spare. Morteza Ravadi, Iranian historian expresses this point very well:
“Class differences, lack of social and economic security and feudalistic wars (in the country) had the life of the people and particularly that of the great majority of the working classes so chaotic and unsure that people wished only for security and equal justice, to be able to make even a substandard living and continue their unbearable lives. Obviously, under such circumstances entertainment and recreation were of secondary importance…and the rich entertained themselves with drinking, love making with pretty girls and handsome boys, gambling, hunting, horseback riding, polo playing, music and singing, attending ceremonial chess and backgammon parties, watching the performances of clowns and comedians, attending dancing and singing parties, and listening to entertaining stories.”
In the West, cinema complemented the existing popular forms of entertainment such as theaters, traveling musical shows and the various kinds of stage productions. But in Iran, cinema virtually replaced most forms of mass entertainment for various political, economic, historical and cultural reasons. When cinema came to Iran it was a diversion for the well-to-do for about ten years or so before it turned into a mass entertainment medium. Since 1905, when the first movie theater opened in Tehran, the Iranian government has made a special point of keeping ticket prices low so that all segments of the population, at any economic level, might have access to this source of recreation. The early history of film making in Iran is far from clear because of a lack of easily accessible data, death of the early motion pictures pioneers and loss of almost all the early footage.
It is claimed that the first film made in Iran was of the coronation of Muzaffar al-Din Shah in 1896 photographed by Rusi Khan.
However there is no evidence to substantiate the claim. But it is certain that Shah during his visit to Paris in 1900 saw moving pictures, liked them, ordered his official photographer to purchase motion picture equipment. Thus cinema became a diversion for royal court and well-to-do section of the society when it came to Iran (1900).
The early film making in Iran was often supported by the royalty of the time who were interested only in the entertainment value of the medium. Therefore, most of films of this period are news reels of activities, such as various royal and religious ceremonies which were mostly screened in the royal palace. One could see these newsreels at the homes of dignitaries during weddings, circumcision celebrations and birth ceremonies.
The first pioneer of this film era is Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akasbashi who was the official photographer in the court of Muzzafar-e Din Shah, the fifth Shah of the Qajar dynasty. The second, Mandy Russi Khan, who originally was from Russia, filmed Moharram mourning ceremonies (processed in Russia and not shown in Iran) and Muzzafared-Din Shah’s coronation ceremonies.
By 1900, Ebrahim Khan Sahafbashi a nationalistic antique dealer, on the way back from Europe bought an Edison Kinetoscope film projector and a number of films. He converted the backyard of his antique shop into an open air movie house; the first movie theater in Iran came into being in 1905. The customers were mostly members of upper class families or royalty.
Khan Baba Motazedi, an Iranian electromechanical engineering student, brought home from Paris a 35 mm Gaumont camera, some raw stock, film processing chemicals and projector. At first he experimented with production of ‘entertainment films’ for private viewing featuring his family members and friends. Later, by order of the Minister of War, he became involved in filming the various ceremonies at the court of Reza Shah, the father of the last Shah of Iran.
1906 in Iran was the year of constitutional revolution, but the establishment of parliamentary democracy did not take place until 1911. Nonetheless the era of democracy did not last long. In 1921, the British government by supporting Reza Khan (later he called himself Reza Shah and established the Pahlavi dynasty) and staging a coup d’etat, overthrew Ahmad Shah, the last member of Qajar dynasty.
Considering that Reza Shah was one of the more progressive monarchs in the recent history of Iran, and since he was fascinated by the means of modernization, it is odd that he could not conceive the role and the importance of the motion picture industry in society. While he patronized the arts, revived ancient arts and crafts, preserving them from extinction, and even encouraged the modern arts, his efforts toward cinema were very small. Besides a few documentary films which were made to record the royal ceremonies and a few newsreels of the events, the rest of the film which were exhibited in theaters were imported from Europe, the United States, and Russia.
The first feature length movie, ABI AND RABI was not made until 1930, when Ovans Ohanian, a young Iranian-American, immigrated back to Iran from Russia where he had spent most of his life and had studied cinema at The Cinema Academy of Moscow.
From the very beginning he realized that making movies without a professional cast and crew is something next to impossible. He established a foundation for a film industry—-an acting school to train actors and actresses to be used in films. Since the general attitude of the people was that cinema could not develop into an art form and/or a profession, Parvareshghahe Artistiye Cinema (The Cinema Artist Education center) attracted only sixteen students and two instructors, Ohanian and Sa’id Nafici.
Ohanian, with the help of Motazedi as cinematographer; Sako Elidzeh, producer; two of his students, Zarrabi and Sohrabi as leading actors, wrote and directed the first Persian silent feature movie. ABI AND RABI, a 35 mm, black and white, comedy is the story of the adventures of two men, one tall and one short, and based on a Danish comedy series. It was shown in 1930 in Cinema Mayak, where it was well received. However, no copy of this film is known to exist.
The success of this film at the box office encouraged Ohanian and his crew to produce another comedy entitled HAJI AGHA (1932, the story of a religious man’s daughter and her fiance who want to act in a film.
If Ohanian’s contribution to Iranian cinema has been considered great, the trend he left behind was not harmless. Imitation of foreign films of mostly comedy and melodrama genres and almost total displacement of any realism in later films were the results of his early influence. At the time Iran was in an awakening stage, when the society was in desperate need of social consciousness and a modern understanding of life, and at a time when the formation of its modern economy was taking place. Entertainment in general and entertainment and escapist film in particular was the last thing that Iran needed at that time for progressive social growth. Spending hours in a movie theater and watching nonsense melodrama, Hollywood-Style and accomplishing nothing, was a luxury that Iranians could not afford.
A student of The Cinema Artist Educational Center in Tehran, Ebrahim Moradi, a ‘born and bred’ Iranian, began the second feature film. But a series of obstacles, including lack of adequate technical equipment and trained motion picture personnel, government restrictions on importation of cinema equipment, and lack of proper production funds prevented the film from reaching completion. The unfinished THE BROTHER’S REVENGE (1932), a black and white, 35 mm, silent, forty-five minutes in length was written, directed, and photographed by Moradi himself. This unsatisfactory experience motivated Moradi to establish the third Iranian film studio, Iran Film Company, Limited. The first production of this studio was SENSUAL (1934), a critical comparison between the pitfalls of city dwelling and the simple and unspoiled way of life in the village—a comparison of the change in social values in the cities because of westernization of Iran with the traditional way of life in the villages. From about 1925, the challenge of modernization of the big city against the simplicity and purity of the traditional way of life in Iranian society became a theme upon which to build stories that were popular with cinema-goers and safe from governmental censorship.
The first Iranian “talkie” entitled THE LOR GIRL was released (1933) in two Tehran cinemas, Mayak and Sepah. The story of the film was based on a comparison between the state of security in Iran at the end of the Qajar dynasty and during Reza Shah’s period. The star and script writer was a poet and a writer, Abdulhossein Sepanta who has been acknowledged as the father of Iranian sound movies.
This was a period of mostly newsreels. Some of the subjects were the arrival of Reza Shah at the National Constituent Assembly (December 15, 1925), horse races, and Army parades. Also, opening ceremonies of the trans-Iranian railway system, the Pahlavi communication center, the Bank Melli Iran (National Bank of Iran), and the opening of the installations of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in Khuzestan were typical topics. All of these newsreels were shot, processed and printed by Khan Baba Motazedi. Some of these newsreels were shown at the Royal Court but most were shown in the army compounds as well as in the theaters.
There were fifteen theaters at this time and all were located in the northern avenues of Tehran, Iran’s capital, where most of their customers were upper class people. Later, with financial aid from the government and with the supervision of Motazedi, the first movie theater was built in the southern part of Tehran where the poor lived. It is called Tammadon and is still operating.
Following Reza Shah’s coronation in 1926, the most controversial period of the contemporary history in Iran began. Those with a leftist point of view, as well as those with a religious point of view were antagonistic to Reza Shah’s regime. Those with a more ‘moderate’ view criticized lack of freedoms, yet they applaud Reza Shah’s modernization of Iran.
Overall social and political conditions at this period militated against the growth of the motion picture industry and audience size. For years, the Muslim clergy prejudiced the vast majority of people against anything new. There was social pressure against the showing of films and the establishment of movie theaters. Women were not allowed to go to movie theaters (later one theater created by Ali Vakili in the Zoroastrian school hall in Tehran was devoted to showing films to women only).
The shooting of THE LOR GIRL started in April 1932, took seven months to complete, in a place called Ghamoor on the outskirts of the city of Bombay, India. The financial success of the film encouraged The Imperial Film Company of Bombay and Sepanta to produce other Iranian films, in India, such as, FERDOWSI (1935), the story of life of the most celebrated epic poet of Iran; SHIRIN AND FARHAD (1935), an Iranian classic love story which is believed to be partly true, takes place during the reign of the Sassanian king, Khosrow I, known as Anushirvan, “The Just” (531-579); BLACK EYES (1935), the story of Nader Shah’s invasion of India in 1737, and the effects of the invasion on the relationship of two lovers; and LAILI AND MAJNUN (1937), an eastern love story similar to western story of ROMEO AND JULIET. Upon the completion of the last film, Sepanta returned to Iran, hoping to continue his film-making activities in his home country. But various obstructions and lack of financial support by the government or the private sector, forced him to part with cinema. He started the Sepanta newspaper in 1943 in Esfahan (a central city of Iran), and by the mid-1950’s he became the Iranian assistant of the United States Aid program in Esfahan. Throughout his life (1907 Tehran-1969 Esfahan) he wrote or translated eighteen books and made five Iranian feature films which for many years will be remembered because of their themes, quality, and technique. With Sepanta’s departure from cinema, the production of Iranian sound movies in India came to an end and no feature films were made in Iran until 1947, when the new Iranian film industry was founded by Esmail Koushan. Koushan was hardly a sincere artist, but rather seemed more interested in the commercial exploitation of cinema.
Experimentation and New Film Industry (1938-1965)
As World War Two ended, the film industry in Iran took a new form. A group of new film-makers experimented with news reels and documentaries and the Iranian and United States governments as well as other organizations in Iran sponsored their efforts. Also, a number of technicians, cinema enthusiasts, and financiers found dubbing of foreign films into Persian (Farsi) an easy and profitable job. The private sector which came to existence after occupation of Iran by the armies of the three big powers (USA, USSR, and England). As American troops entered Iran in October 1941, they used the cross-country railway as well as main roads to send military hardware to Russia—-“The Bridge of Victory”. This act, beside many undesirable side-effects for Iranians, created many new jobs, improving the economic condition of a certain segment of the population. As a result, new entertainment centers were opened, and cinemas became more popular. And since dubbing foreign films into Farsi was increasing the number of cinema-goers, all indications were that producing films in the Iranian language (Farsi) would be a successful business to undertake.
From 1937 till 1947 because of the world economic conditions and then the involvement in World War Two, the motion picture industry in Iran did not produce a single film, but the flow of foreign film to Iran did not stop. In 1947, Esmail Koushan, a young Iranian who had received film training in Germany at Universum Film Aktienge-Sellschafe (UFA) returned to Iran. While in Turkey, he had dubbed two foreign films into Farsi, ARCHIN MAL ALAN, a Russian film and THE FIRST RENDEZVOUS, a French film. With the help of some of his colleagues, he established Mitra Films (1947), the first real film company in Tehran, Iran. Through their persistence, local feature film production was born and survived.
The first Mitra Film company production was TUMULTUOUS LIFE (1948), a black and white, 35 mm film which is a critical drama about the pitfalls of arranged marriages, a common practice in Iran. The film was released in Tehran in April 1948, but because it did not have the glamor of Hollywood films the audience was used to, it did poorly at the box office.
Despite the box office failure of the film, Koushan insisted that the company produce another film. Finally he managed to convince his associates to produce his second film, THE PRISONER OF THE PRINCE (1948), a story adopted from “A Thousand and One Nights” folk-tales. This film also did not bring an immediate financial success and Mitra Film closed down. But Koushan continued his efforts and established a new production company in 1949, Pars Film Studio, which developed into the most active studio in Iran, producing cheap formula feature films for the local market. Koushan has been named “the father of the Iranian film industry” by Georges Sadoul.
After Koushan’s Pars Film Studio, many film production companies were formed, and many films produced. The great majority of these films were modeled on silent film genres, melodramas, situation comedies and adventure films. If film-makers produced higher quality films they were blocked from distribution for two reasons, the low expectation and escapist needs of a relatively unsophisticated audience and strict censorship.
The first attempt to challenge the Iranian film industry to produce higher quality films which reflected the social conditions of the time, was in 1958 by Farrokh Gafary, a French-educated film-maker, who studied cinema at Cinematheque Francaise. His first film was SOUTH OF THE TOWN (1958), a take-off of Vittoria Desica’s UMBERTO D (1952), but a purely Persian expression of neorealism concerning the poverty-stricken life of the southern district of Tehran. It is a description of the psychological values of the pop culture in its sociological setting. Gafary’s intention was to make a kind of “film d’sutre” film with a social comment on the poor district of Tehran. The film was not successful even in poor sections of the country, because the movie-goers were accustomed to seeing movies as a means of entertainment or escape from reality vs. social comment. Subsequently, Gafary made a crime drama, THE NIGHT OF THE HUNCHBACK (1964). At the same time another pioneering Iranian writer-cum-film-maker, Ebrahim Golestan, made ADOBE AND MIRROR (1963), a dramatic film. Both films were met with public apathy and were subjected to censorship.
During the (1938-1965) period, the Iranian film industry’s main productions were purely entertaining or escapist. Also at this time, the film and television markets were monopolized through an explosion of investment by foreign countries, particularly the United States. Erik Barnouw’s comment in The Image Empire expresses this point to some extent:
Some of the company’s marketing television films also sold receivers and transmitters; some sold consultant services, some invested in foreign stations, production companies, dubbing services, animation studios, and theaters.
INDEPENDENTLY PRODUCED FEATURE FILMS VERSUS STUDIO-SPONSORED FEATURE FILMS 1948-1965
|Year||Number of Studio Produced Films||Number of Independent Productions|
Dubbing and Importation of Foreign Films
The dubbing of foreign films into Farsi was to some extent a catalyst raising the technical and artistic quality of film production in Iran and, consequently, the expectations of the Iranian audience. These improvements were accomplished through years of experimentation with different sound systems such as the interlocks, and raw stock such as 17½ mm tape magnetic sound stripe on 35 mm composite print. Magnetic sound stripe became the standard procedure in Iran’s dubbing industry (except for the films with sterophonic sound which were dubbed with a new optical track) with almost perfect lip synchronization. However by the late 1960’s some major movie theaters, to satisfy a small number of Iranians and foreigners, were showing films with their original language sound track one night a week.
As early as 1943, a number of technicians and financiers established the first dubbing studio in Tehran, called Iran-No Film. The studio’s first dubbed film (1945) was JEN VA PARI (THE GENI AND THE ANGEL). At first the company experienced various technical and managerial difficulties, but by 1947 the studio was reorganized as a production studio as well as a dubbing studio. Meanwhile a group of Iranians in Europe after the war realized that European “B” pictures could be bought and dubbed inexpensively with the technical facilities available in Europe, and would be able to compete with Hollywood films in the Iranian market. The first such effort was DOKHTARE FARARI (ESCAPING GIRL), a French production and DOKHTARE KOWLI (GYPSY GIRL), a Spanish film. Both were dubbed in Turkey by Esmail Koushan. And both films were exhibited in Iran in 1946 with excellent box office success. DOKHTARE FARARI earned twenty millions rials ($625,000). DOKHTARE KOWLI earned fifteen millions rials ($468,750). Tickets prices in the first class cinemas ranged between fifteen, twelve, and eight rials. At that time, thirty-two rials were equal to one U.S. dollar; now, seventy rials is equal to one U.S. dollar. The financial success of these two films encouraged many Iranians in Europe and in Iran to become more involved in dubbing activities. This led to the establishment of dubbing studios in Tehran. Some of these studios later expanded into film production studios. Dubbing is a more popular form of transliteration or translation, for example, subtitles, which require split concentration. The market that gave rise to the dubbing studios was the mass audience of entertainment and escapist films. Modern dubbing of foreign films into Farsi has emerged from a tradition that encountered and overcame both technical and cultural barriers. After years of experimentation with various raw stocks and machinery the dubbing studios came up with a unique procedure. They cut the part with optical sound from the film and glued a new 35 mm optical track in Farsi over the original soundtrack of the composite print. The Aryana Studio in 1950 was the first studio which dubbed an American film, THE SONG OF SCHEHEREZADE using this system. After continued screenings, however, the added soundtrack began to separate from the visuals and this method was replaced by a more permanent, the binding of magnetic tape onto the composite print, keeping half of the optical track uncovered, (Since part of the optical soundtrack was not covered with magnetic sound stripe the films could also be exhibited in their original language.) This system of magnetic sound stripe, recording mixed Farsi soundtrack on a striped portion of optical track, became the standard procedure in Iran’s dubbing industry.
Besides the technical problems which the studios had to overcome in order to dub a foreign film into Farsi, there were cultural and political barriers. Often, the whole concept of the film was changed in fear of censorship, or because of cultural taste. For example, Jerry Lewis’s song in the Cops Cafe in the movie PATSY, was replaced with an Indian song because Iranians were much more receptive to Indian music, culturally closer to their own, than American nightclub music. And much of John Wayne’s dialogue was changed to the Iranian vernacular, concerning the heroic and the macho. As time went by, dubbers learned to almost flawlessly imitate any foreign actor in Farsi. The translators learned that the originality of the films had to be preserved and that finding Farsi words to achieve a very close lip synchronization was crucial. Obviously the studios with excellent dubbing facilities produced better soundtracks, and the general quality of dubbed films improved. However dubbing foreign films into Farsi in Europe ended by 1961, and almost all the foreign films are now dubbed in Tehran, Iran.
“Dubbing of foreign films into the Farsi language in Tehran has improved to such an extent that the films distributors have discontinued having their films dubbed in Italy, as was the practice in previous years. The reasons for this are lower costs in Tehran and a large variety of local voices.”
Before 1930, the main sources of feature films which were shown in Iranian cinemas were generally silent movies, and imported from the United States, France, Germany, Russia, and other European countries. However American film dominated the Persian market and kept their number-one place throughout the period of this study. Talkies came to Iran only a few years after their invention in the West, i.e. by the end of 1930. After 1930, importation of all films to Iran started to decline because of the general world economic situation (which lasted until the outbreak of World War Two), and governmental restriction on the sale of foreign money in Iran.
“Film importers, in common with all others dealing in so-called luxury goods, were faced with the greatest difficulty not only in obtaining a permit to purchase exchange but in finding the exchange itself, so that few orders could be placed abroad. In consequence, what appeared to be a promising field for exploitation at the beginning of the year (1930) left acutely the effect of the current economic crisis…”
NUMBER OF MOTION PICTURE FILMS IMPORTED INTO IRAN, 1928-1930
|Country of Origin||1928||1929||1930|
“Nevertheless, in spite of the lack of new films, interest in the cinema on the part of Persians did not wane, and an attendance throughout the country increased steadily.”
If this situation created difficulties in importing new films at that time, it encouraged a number of Iranians to start producing feature films locally between 1929-1937, despite the inadequate technical facilities and adverse social conditions. However, the number of Iranian films produced during this period was not large enough to make any significant difference in the importation of foreign films. And at this time cinema owners were forced to look outside the country in order to fill up their programs. Between 1930-1940 as the American films retained its popularity, German and Russian films surpassed the French films because they were easier to obtain.
“Between March 22, 1940 and March 21, 1941, approximately 60 percent of the films shown (in Iran) were from the United States, 18 percent from Germany, 12 percent from the Soviet Union, and 5 percent from France.”
From 1945 to 1950 European productions, such as French, German, Italian, and British films, reappeared in the Iranian market, as American movies continued their predominance in spite of their higher cost.
“Between August 15 and November 1, 1948, the commission of theaters granted 93 new permits for showing full-length films. Of this total 63 were United States productions, 13 Russian, 4 French, 4 Indian, 3 British, 2 Egyptian, 2 2 German, and 1 Italian. One was produced in Iran.”
In spite of the development and growth of the local film industry during the 1950’s and 1960’s, foreign films continued to hold the market. After the American films, the Italian and Indian films replaced German and French films. Italian and Indian films were less expensive to get hold of, also they were easier to dub because of similar cultural values which allowed for more of the original soundtrack to remain. Russian films lost the popularity they had during the war years.
“In 1946-1965, 523 reels of feature films produced abroad were imported by Iran. The biggest film exporter to Iran was the United States, followed by Italy, India, Britain and the Soviet Union. On an average, about 2,000 million rials ($28,571,430) in foreign exchange is spent each year on the import of foreign films. Foreign film imports continue to increase, keeping pace with the growth in the number of new cinema houses and cinema-goers.”
From the first showing of American movies at the Grand Cinema in Tehran (1925), until the end of this study (1974), the United States has been the biggest exporter of feature films to Iran, and not without influence. The film language established and elaborated in Hollywood has become a standard of expectation in Iran. Most of the films imported from elsewhere are usually attempts to copy the Hollywood style and as a result suffer from their status as bastard sons. Some appeals of American film have been the general technical superiority and the simplicity of content. Also, the scale and grandeur of such films as EL CID and DOCTOR ZHIVAGO have drawn large crowds in Iran. So the Persian attraction for things glorious and luxurious is re-enforced by Hollywood.
Iranian National Film Industry Takes Shape (1966-1976)
In the decade of 1966-1976 of film-making in Iran, various factors provided the production of a large number of feature, documentary, and animated films as well the entrance of many young film-makers into the arena of film-making with fresh, new perceptions and approaches. Some of these factors are the establishment of film schools; National Iranian Television (NIT) in 1969, National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT) 1972; numerous film festivals; film clubs, such as Kanun Film, Farabi Film Club, the Cinematheque of the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts and various film clubs at the universities; film production companies with government assistance, such as Tel Film, Film Industry Development Company of Iran (FIDCI), and the New Film Group; the emergence of foreign trained Iranian film-makers as a collective force which abandoned the traditional film formula, characters and situations; and a new generation of socially conscious writers.
The school of Television and Cinema was established in Tehran in 1969. It was fully financed and supported by the government of Iran through the NIRT (National Iranian Radio and Television). After passing the entrance exam, the students went through a technical training period of two years along with their regular courses of study which related one way or another to film-making. All expenses were paid by the government. Included were the use of film equipment, raw stock, processing, animation materials, and the student’s housing and board costs, plus a stipend of about $300 a month. In return, students were required to work for the government after their graduation for a period of five years as a camera-person, soundperson etc., usually at NIRT in Tehran or its branches in the other cities.
The government established this school to train technicians for the expansion of NIRT. Later, a graduate school was added, The Graduate School of Television and Cinema. Any Bachelors degree was accepted, which meant that the Associate degree undergraduates of The School of Television and Cinema could not be considered for the program. Graduate students of Television and Cinema did not go through the same technical training the undergraduates did. Their curriculum dealt more with theory than practice. After graduation they were employed in government offices and institutions as audio-visual experts and programmers. Most were absorbed by the programming section of NIRT or the Ministry of Education of Iran. These students were treated better financially by the government than the undergraduates both during and after graduation. Most graduate students were married and the number of women was as large as the men, while the undergraduate school was composed of 95% men.
During 1977-1979 (a period in which I taught animation and made a few films there), the Fough-e Diplom (Junior College Section) had 370 students and about 50 teachers, and the Fough-e Lisance (Graduate Section) had 130 students, 10 full-time and 15 part-time teachers. Both sections of the school were located in Tehran (Vozara Ave. and Pahlavi Ave., respectively) about a mile apart and five miles from NIRT. Both sections of the school cooperated with each other but were run independently under the supervision of the NIRT. The undergraduate section was furnished with thirteen Steenbecks, twelve Eclair movie cameras, tape recorders and other equipment, along with photography and graphic departments. All lab work including processing, printing, and special effects were done free of charge by the huge NIRT lab. Computerized Oxberry animation stands were also freely available. All films as a result were expected to meet government approval. Film rights went to the government of Iran but the students could have their personal print, again, free of charge. Despite the foundation of the NIRT primarily as an instrument of propaganda, functioning to justify government actions through direct propaganda on one hand, and occupying the peoples’ minds with nonsense entertainment on the other, it had a noticeable impact on the Iranian film industry. In trying to reach the educated beyond the cinema’s normal mass audience, NIRT brought in some exceptional programming such as Bergman films, THE ASCENT OF MAN, and the like. By doing this, they inadvertently raised the expectations of the general public which began demanding quality television and quality film. Television also made inroads despite the Moslem opposition to visual media thereby enlarging the film audience as well. And it functioned as a training ground for film-makers and technicians who later worked in the commercial field. Finally, television functioned as a secondary financial source for cinema by showing Iranian films after they ran in the theaters. Overall, the impact of Iranian television has been to raise audience appreciation and to secondarily support the film industry and must be considered an important factor in the development of film-making in Iran after 1960’s.
The Tehran International Film Festival (1972) was organized to promote the art of Cinema that expressed humanitarian values and promoted understanding and exchange of ideas between nations. By its third year the festival drew 177 films from 54 countries. The juries were chosen from notable film-makers from Russia, Britain, America, Italy, Poland, Iran, France, India, Brazil, Hungary, and the United Arab Emirates. Also the International Festival of Films of Children and Young Adults was established in 1966 in Tehran to recognize and support films for children under 14. Films dealing with developmental and cross-cultural themes were sought. In its first year twenty-five countries sent in 111 films. Similar was the Education Film Festival (1963) which awarded prizes in three categories: scientific, personal growth, and development, and general knowledge. The main purpose for establishing the Sepass Film Festival (1969) was to honor and encourage the Iranian motion picture industry. In this respect it is similar to the Academy Awards in the United States, however, aside from feature length films, prizes have also been awarded to short films of 8, 16, and 35 mm. And finally, the amateur film field was covered by a major festival established in 1970, the Cinema-ye Azad of Iran Festival (1970). It was organized by the Cinema-ye Azad (Free Cinema of Iran) and the International Festival of Super 8. Judging of competition films is done in collaboration with The School of Television and Cinema. This festival functioned to promote amateur film-making of humanistic and artistic values and encourage understanding and friendship between Iranian amateur film-makers and those of other nationalities.
There was an emergence of a new generation of socially conscious writers, such as Gholam Hossein Saedi (the author of The Mina Cycle. The Cow, and many other stories of the life of underprivileged Iranians), Sadegh Chuback, Mohud Dolat Abadi, and Hushang Golshiri, etc, who cooperated with the young film-makers in the development of stories and scripts. These progressive and politically active Iranian writers, were typically anti-government, nationalistic and seekers of social justice. Their lives and their writing displayed a passion for their fellow human beings, especially the oppressed. Most of them had modern educations as well as a more traditional understanding of life. Their writing is powerful, rich in content, and communicable to all people. Most of them, if not all, have been arrested and sometimes tortured by order of the last Shah of Iran (Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi). In the last 80 years poets, painters, musicians, film-makers, intellectuals, educators, writers—any segment of the society which did not function in the direction of the established system, was the object to rejection and destruction. For this segment of Iranian society it was a matter of choice–“to stand dying or to die standing.” A careful opposition developed that is discernible in the various media, including film.
These interrelated factors created a mood for some of the most celebrated Persian film-makers to produce movies such as SIAVASH IN PERSEPOLIS (1965), by Rahnema, AHOO’S HUSBAND (1966), by Davood Molapour, GHEYSAR (1966), by Massoud Kimai, THE COW (1968), by Daryoush Mehrjuie, DOWNPOUR (1970), by Bahrain Beizaie, THE POSTMAN (1970), by Mehrjuie, THE SPRING (1970), by Arbi Avanesian, TRANQUILITY IN THE PRESENCE OF OTHERS (1971), by Nasser Taghvaie, BITA (1972), by Hajir Daryoush, SADEGH THE KURD (1972), by Taghvaie, TANGSIR (1973), by Amir Taheri, STILL LIFE (1974), by Sohrab Shahid Saless, THE MINA CYCLE (1974), by Mehrjuie, PRINCE EHTEJAB (1974), by Bahman Farmanara, THE STRANGER AND FOG (1974), by Beizaie, THE CROW (1976), by Bahram Beizaie, and THE REPORT (1976), by Abbas Kiarostami.
But these Iranian films represented only a small fraction of the 480 feature films that were made in Iran between 1966 and 1973. Sixty-two percent were categorized as drama or melodrama, 19.3 percent as comedies, and 12.3 percent as crime and adventure films. Mostly, they were inexpensive and low quality song and dance, or sex and violence, melodramas.
Despite a crisis of creativity, competition from foreign films, government competition with the private sector, strict censorship, and rampant inflation, all of which led to a sharp decline in both the quality and the quantity of films being produced, the Iranian cinema made immense technical and aesthetic progress in this period. Since the new historical era with its rise of social, economic and political consciousness, intellectuals have been getting involved in the making of films.
“The Persians have been ever the artists of the Near East, and world music, painting and architecture all have been enriched by Persian contributions.”
There is promise that Iran will now contribute an even greater share to the expressive arts in the main stream of civilization.
Thus what was introduced in Iran three quarters of a century ago (1900) as a diversion for the rich elite, has become the most important means of mass entertainment in that country. (1975)