Iranian Cinema Before and After the Revolution Essay
Differences between the Iranian Cinema before and after the Revolution
In the recent past, the Iranian cinema has received much praise from regional and international forums, analysts and scholars. In particular, the distinct themes and style, manifestation of culture and nationhood, and the dedication of the authors/directors have been unique, attracting international audiences. However, it is worth noting that the increased appreciation of the Iranian cinema on the international scene was primarily achieved after the Iranian Revolution of 1979. The post-revolution government permitted the adoption of Western and Eastern classics and ideas, and started focusing on political, social, cultural, feministic, and religious aspects (Esfandaiary 54). This paper argues that the 1979 Revolution was a major landmark that separated the old and the contemporary Iranian cinema, suggesting that the country experienced a “cinematic revolution.” Therefore, the aim of the paper is to develop a comprehensive discussion of the differences between the Iranian cinema before and after the sociopolitical revolution of 1979.
A brief history of the Iranian pre-revolution cinema
The history of the Iranian cinema can be traced back to 1906 during the first constitutional and social revolution that changed the internal structure and nature of the nation. The introduction of cinema as an artistic expression in late 1904 shows that film watching began with the royals because the first film was watched at the royal court (Naficy 12). The popularity of the film grew rather slowly, especially because it was perceived as a product of the western culture introduced by Armernians, Zoroastrians and Jews (Esfandaiary 59). In addition, most political, social and cultural leaders perceived the film industry as anti-Islamic.
In 1920s, the Iranian cinema industry began to emerge as a strong form of artistic expression. In particular, Reza Shah’s seizure of power in 1926 brought widespread economic, social and political changes, primarily focusing on modernization (Zeydabadi-Nejadm 127). The new regime brought radical social changes in the country. In particular, a modernization program was used to reduce the number of rural dwellers by forcing people to live in urban areas. The increasing population of urbanized people required new and accessible forms of entertainment. Consequently, film makers and other entrepreneurs realized the potential market in urban entertainment. These factors brought a strong wave of films in 1930s, with “silent” movie centers established in various urban centers. The Shah regime banned the “Ta’ziyeh”, a traditional performing art, arguing that it was of “anti-modernization” nature (Zeydabadi-Nejadm 127). Consequently, the occupation of Iran by the United States in 1942 and the 1953 coup against Mosaddiq gave life to cinema by making it a commercial object (Naficy 18). The educated middle-class society was the primary target population. Although the new regime encouraged commercial production of films to focus on local culture, most middle-class people were interested in Hollywood and Bollywood films.
The nature and characteristics of the Iranian cinema before the revolution
Between 1920s and 1960s, cinema was not a commercial product, although the urbanization programs under the Shah regime encouraged the modernization process. The noteworthy fact is that the cinema industry changed significantly and became a major commercial sector in 1960s. However, the major themes, styles and focus on culture, religion and political issues were similarly pictured throughout the pre-evolution period.
First, the initial cinematography introduced in Iran was obtained from France after the Shah’s visit to Paris. It was purely for entertaining the noble. In addition, the films were imported from France and Belgium and had themes related to the Western culture as well as the social and cultural activities of societies in Europe.
Secondly, as the cinematography became increasingly popular among the noble and the rich, their servants became interested but unable to own films and the related electronics. Therefore, the public was entertained with cinemas during social and cultural occasions such as circumcisions and weddings.
It is also important to note that the initial films in Iran were presented in aristocratic settings. The focus was mainly aligned to the French comedies and comedy shorts. The importation of these materials and products was made from France through Russia due to the improved political and diplomatic association between Russia and Shah’s Iran (Zeydabadi-Nejadm 97).
When the public cinema was introduced in 1904 in Tehran, Mirza Ebrahim Khan Sahaf Bashi used the back of his antique shop as the hall. Then, he opened his first movie center in Tehran’s Cheragh Gaz Avenue (Naficy 34). In both cases, there were no chairs but the viewers were required to sit on a floor carpet, representing the Mosque culture of the Muslims. These factors attracted a large number of audiences. Unfortunately, the Bashi’s film industry was considered abusive to the Islamic beliefs, leading to the closure of the business and expulsion of Bashi from Iran (Zeydabadi-Nejadm 99).
The political and cultural settings that were included in Islamic ideas did not offer the cinema a favorable environment for growth. For instance, the “film farsi” genre of films that dominated the Iranian cinema between 1930s and 1960s was mainly imitating the Indian, Egyptian and other foreign styles (Naficy 71). The country did not achieve a national cinema due to the import of styles, themes, and ideas. Moreover, the imported ideas portrayed images and themes focusing on sexuality, dancing and female figures, which attracted political and religious criticism, condemnation and banning.
In order to survive and grow in the Muslim culture, society and political setup, most filmmakers were forced to focus on and popularize the old and current Iranian culture, Islamic values, traditions and prediction of the future. With increased censorship of films that began in 1920s, most producers turned to politics and local literature, making a big emphasis on the latter. Between 1950s and 1960s, the notions of the film director as an auteur and cinema as an artistic expression were introduced (Esfandaiary 68). Book and poem authors became increasingly involved in writing for the filmmakers. For instance, the film The Cow by Daryuush Mehrju provides an example of the new cinematography in Iran. It was presented at festivals and celebrations, and was considered the pioneer of the “NEW Wave” or “New Iranian Cinema” genre. Similarly, the Qeysar by Massoud Kimia’i provides another example of the films that contributed to the evolution of the Iranian cinematography between 1950s and 1960s (Siavoshi 509). Several authors focused on the local themes, sociopolitical issues, and locations. For instance, the tribal and rural social life, urban poverty and life, and anti-government or pro-government politics were given a special focus. Again, Mehrju’s The Cow and Massoud’s Qeysar are outstanding examples (Siavoshi 509).
Nevertheless, these films did not achieve a “world cinema” status, primarily because they were directed by young people. In addition, they failed to achieve a mass audience within Iran, despite the fact that they attracted an international reputation. For instance, the art films in Iran were watched and appreciated by a small section of the society, especially the elite and bourgeois. In addition, appropriation, rather than censorship, was the major method used by the Pahlavi regime in response to social or religious criticism of films (Zeydabadi-Nejadm 81). In order to thrive in this environment, successful filmmakers such as Amir Naderi and Daryush Mehrjui had to develop personal, social and business relationships with the ruling elite.
The 1966-1977 decade, however, witnessed a major transition in the Iranian film industry. Among other phenomena, the entrance of many young filmmakers and sensitivity to the local culture and comparison with foreign themes contributed to the transition. Accordingly, the Iranian filmmakers focused on producing educative films, especially documentaries, animated and feature films. The new and young filmmakers brought fresh and new perceptions and approaches to the industry. In particular, the growing mass media brought far-reaching changes to the Iranian Cinema. For instance, the establishment of the National Iranian Television (NIT) in 1969 as well as the National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT) in 1972 brought changes to the film industry. These institutions were statutory and were actively involved in airing films to the public (Esfandaiary 26). The control of the film industry rescinded because the new organizations were seeking to gain a national audience through entertainment and educative programs. Therefore, they could hardly achieve these objectives without featuring films. Moreover, film clubs such as Farabi Film club, Kanun Film and the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Arts emerged in Tehran. Similarly, the emergence of film clubs in various universities contributed to the transition of the industry (Siavoshi 509).
The establishment of the School of Television and Cinema in 1969 transformed the government and public perceptions of the cinema. To compete with regional and international industries, the government of Iran funded, through NIRT, the new institution. It facilitated student’s technical training program, with all the fees and expenses covered by the national government.
During this era, the government and NIRT encouraged filmmakers to focus on local and regional culture, themes and traditions. In addition, the globalization of the Iranian culture and systems was a major point of focus. While the films attempted to avoid themes that were likely to be in conflict with the Islamic way of life, the integration of international perceptions of the society was evident. For instance, women became increasingly involved in film production. The number of female graduates of the school of television and cinema was almost equal to that of males. The international ideas of feminism were also among major themes in films. For example, the position of women in the society and their contribution to the social, economic and political system were included in the documentaries and animated films. In addition, the Iranian cinema aired on the national television sought to express the humanitarian values and ideas, and promote understanding of local culture on the international level. The NITR and the government focused on producing films for children and young people in order to create the understanding of the cross-cultural themes (Esfandaiary 32). For example, the coexistence of Muslim and non-Muslim cultures were encouraged through educative films meant for the young people.
The Iranian cinema after the 1979 Revolution
The social and political revolution of 1979 had significant impacts, both short-term and long-term, on the society and industry. Consequently, these impacts were evident in the Iranian cinema (Mirbakhtyar 17). It is worth mentioning that the revolution took place at the time the freedom of cinematography was improving. The government support for the industry was almost at its peak after a decade of transition from oppression to media freedom (Duhnkrack 32). The revolution also took place at the time when the graduates of the school of cinema were providing their knowledge and skills to transform the industry, focusing primarily on promoting the understanding of the local culture and the knowledge of global cultures (Mirbakhtyar 26).
The short-term impact of the revolution was mainly devastating for the cinema. Firstly, similar to the situation in 1930s-1960s, the new regime banned films and filmmaking in the country. However, the public had been exposed to films through television for more than a decade. The perceptions of the film and its impact on the culture and region had changed significantly, reducing the number and effect of critics (Duhnkrack 39). Therefore, the new regime decided to allow filmmaking and support directors on conditions that they agree to focus on and propagate Islamic values and culture. Nevertheless, unlike the public perceptions of 1904 to 1960s, the Iranian public showed little interest because the appreciation of globalized ideas had already been appreciated (Duhnkrack 37).
Soon, the government control of the cinema lost grounds. Moreover, the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-1988 became an important theme for most directors. The film industry increasingly became an object of educating the public about the need for cultural integration and coexistence. The primary aim was to reduce the risks involved in propagating the ideas of anti-Sunni or anti-Sufi mysticisms, which had been affecting the neighboring Iraq (Duhnkrack 54).
By the time the Iran-Iraq War was over (1989), the national perceptions of the cinema had undergone tremendous changes. Unlike the pre-revolution cinema, the post-revolution films were popular, especially those that did not portray themes such as sex or other issues likely to violate Islamic and cultural values. For instance, the adaptation of western and eastern classic narratives became popular. Issues of technological and economic development in most Arab and Islamic nations and comparison with the western or eastern world became common, especially in documentaries (Mirbakhtyar 41).
Unlike the pre-revolution era, the Iranian cinema had gained grounds on the international scene, especially in 1990s. While few directors had won international recognition, Iran’s post-revolution cinema became one of the finest in the world. Iranian filmmakers participated in the regional and global film festivals. For example, film directors such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Bahram Bayza’i, Dariyush Mehrju’i and Abbas Kiarostami produced numerous films that gained international recognition (Duhnkrack 68).
Feminism ideas in the Iranian film became more common than in the past. While the pre-revolution cinema was highly critical of the role of women in the economic and political sectors, the post-revolution cinema increasingly allowed women to participate in filmmaking (Abdolkhani and Nasrabadi 89). For instance, Rakhshan Beni E’temad released her famous film Blue Scarf in 1995. The film gained local and international applause for its critical approach of the traditions that made women remain stuck at home and veiled when leaving their houses (Abdolkhani and Nasrabadi 91). In addition, Tahmineh Milani’s Two Women released in 1999 provided evidence of the local appreciation of the changing roles and positions of women in the society (Abdolkhani and Nasrabadi 94).
Another difference between the pre-revolution cinema and the modern Iranian cinema is the focus on the role, position and life of children, adolescents, and the young people in general (Sheiban 55). While the older films focused on Islamic teachings such as folktales and madrassa, the post-revolution films raised concerns over the experiences of children, adolescents and the young people. For example, Bashu the Stranger (1989), The White Balloon (1995) and The Children of Heaven (1997) dealt with the lives of Iranian children. Similarly, The Need (1991) and The Sweet Agony (1999) focused on the concerns and issues affecting adolescents. The films Leila, Two Women and Red highlighted the psychological and social problems associated with abusive marriage, polygyny and divorce (Sheiban 64). These aspects were not common themes in the pre-revolution Iran. In fact, integrating such themes would attract public and political condemnation and criticism, leading to the arrest of the directors or ban on the entire industry.
The evolution of the Iranian Cinema has taken more than a century. The Iranian cinema of 1900-1979 experienced periods of growth and degradation due to the political changes and interferences, which were often backed by diverse religious and cultural perceptions. While the transition of the industry is said to start with the foundation of NITR, the nature of the films, diversity of thematic approaches and attainment of international recognition were achieved after the 1979 Revolution. After the revolution, increased freedom of themes and styles, globalization of the industry and focus on social, political and cultural issues that affected the population became common. Therefore, the 1979 Revolution was a major landmark that separated the old and the contemporary Iranian cinema, suggesting that the country experienced a “cinematic revolution.”