Beyond the Frame: An Introduction to Iranian Cinema



Today I attended a lecture/seminar on Iranian cinema. It was part of a series called ‘Beyond the Frame’ currently running at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London. Last week was the screening of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s The May Lady (above), from 1998. The film is quite incredible and one of the best that I had seen from this country.. For me the seminar this week was a revelation, since I have had a passion for Iranian cinema for quite a few years but have no real knowledge of the society and politics nor of the history of the nation’s cinema.. 

Here’s a few interesting tit-bits that were brought up..

It appears that the first Iranian films were made in 1900 and were films of the Iranian King of the time as he toured Belgium and France. The lecturer showed us a clip – apparently the King was ‘the one with the big moustache.’ These films were not shown in cinemas or peepshows etc but only in the palace to the King’s family.. Movies were not allowed as they were thought to taint the morals of the ordinary people.

Since I have some Armenian heritage and since there seems to be very little Armenian cinema out there – any recommendations anyone? – I was fascinated to hear that the first Iranian feature (made pretty late in 1930) was by an Armenian. Pity AAbi and Rabi is lost..

The first Iranian sound movie The Lar Girl (not lost) followed soon after in 1933. This was filmed in Persian and set and shot in India. We see a man trying to pull a woman to safety as she dangles on a rope hanging over the edge of a cliff.. Then some other guy comes and attacks him, so that every now and then while defending himself he drops the rope and has to run to grab it again.. She goes up and down – pretty thrilling stuff..

The 1950s was the beginning of Iranian cinema as an industry and that paralleled the modernisation and urbanisation within the country in general. Equipment was primitive. Documentary newsreels were made to be shown before the features. And, ha, I seem to recall something about Eisenstein feeling that images should move left to right across the screen to parallel with Russian script. It turns out the same thing was being said in Iran, where the documentarists were told to pan from right to left – as in Persian script!

Cinema became extremely popular in Iran in the 1960s – a film that was a hit was Croesus’ Treasure (1964.) There were also intellectuals making movies as part of the Iranian New Wave, many of them writers.. The female poet Forough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1963) is famous, is highly-acclaimed and is all about lepers. 1969 was the main break for the New Wave with the films The Cow and Qeysar. I’d seen The Cow before, which is pretty strange – about a man who is in love with his cow.

Qeysar had a revenge narrative – in some ways it looked a little more conventional, tho we only saw a clip of course..  It was interesting because it had a murder in a shower that seemed to me to be clearly influenced by the Hitch and Saul Bass scene in Psycho (1960.) Not as complexly cut, but attempting the sort of montage-effect that we saw there.. Specifically one shot was a cut-in to the the murdered person’s hand as it slides down the tiling and out of the shot, just as in Psycho.. The lecturer didn’t seem convinced.

Apparently TV earned the nickname ‘mullavision’ after the 1978-9 Cultural Revolution, since every time the telly was turned on you’d see a Mullah. A cinema was burned down, in which 300 people died.. Cinema was likened to ‘prostitution’ by the new clergy.

‘Islamic Cinema’ was defined by negation – among policies one included that it be ‘neither East nor West.’ The 1982 censorship regulations were very strict. They prohibited films which would lower the taste of the audience, which our lecturer suggested would be pretty useful all around the world. Emphasis here was put on improving production and artistic values which helped to develop Iranian cinema in an auteurist direction, putting the emphasis on directors and writers over actors. But the main point was to effect an Islamization of the country..

There was more I’m sure, which I may perhaps come back to.. tho I’ve done most of it I think. I’ve left out all the details of censorship since I’m sure you can find that elsewhere! Since I was more familiar with the more recent stuff, as will others of you, this doesn’t seem so essential to detail, to me.

Well, just to note about female filmmakers – it appears that before the Revolution there were only three female filmmakers who made one film each. Some point a little while after the Revolution there were many.. It appears many women were getting a good education – an odd stat the lecturer quoted was that 65% of those at university were women. I wondered if I got this wrong and asked him why it seemed that there were more educated women than men in this period. He seemed to misunderstand the question, at least I don’t think he gave an answer, so if anyone out there has any idea it’s something I’d love to know!?

One interesting element that the lecturer brought up from The May Lady was that it contains interesting examples of visual trickery used to avoid censorship. E.g. Since characters that are members of a family are not supposed to touch at all, for fear of giving the appearance of incest, we have at one point, in a darkened room, the son put a blanket around his mother; he holds the blanket in such a way that it looks as tho he is touching her and there is no blanket.. it’s done pretty well..

The strange thing is that this film about a 17-yr-old son who is so attached to his mother that he won’t let her have a relationship with another man is full of stuff which seemed to me deeply incestuous! Censorship has no reason nor rhyme of course.. Admittedly, my impression here may also be in part perhaps due to my not fully understanding the cultural dynamics of the mother-son relationship in Iran.. At one point, for example, we hear of a different son who has sold his mother’s house! The son must have inherited the house from a father who has passed away I assume, as I guess the law prescribes in this heavily patriarchal society..

I’d love to sit here and write my own thoughts about this movie but my bed is calling me, and I know if I start on that I’ll never finish! This is longer than I’d intended anyway.. Good night!

3 responses to “Beyond the Frame: An Introduction to Iranian Cinema

  1. ah how interesting, Should of told me about I would have come along being soas alumni and iranian!

  2. Hey, will let you know another time! Glad you liked this piece.. Do you have a favourite Iranian film or filmmaker?

  3. For anyone interested I have found a very interesting article by Roksana Bahramitash that answers my question of how it was that so many women were getting a strong education *after* the 1979 Cultural Revolution. This can be found by following this link.

    Here are a few key paragraphs from the article, which is somewhat polemical and may seem contentious to some:

    Much of the criticism leveled by people of all political leanings-even among feminists-was aimed at the perceived oppression of women under the revolutionary regime. These critics failed to ask why Iranian women joined Khomeini en masse if the Islamic revolution was so “oppressive” to women. The idea that Westernization is the only way to bring liberation to women has become an undisputed part of the ideology of both the political right and the left. Yet if we believe that Iranian women are rational actors and responsible individuals capable of taking their destiny into their own hands, as opposed to irrational and ignorant people who need guidance and enlightenment, then we must be able to explain the massive support that women lent to the revolution and in its aftermath.

    Some may now be puzzled by the fact that women who gained so much under the Shah ended up opposing him so bitterly. But the Shah’s reforms did not resonate; the beneficiaries of the Shah’s reforms were mainly from the privileged classes, and the right to vote was not very meaningful since there was only one party to vote for. For the majority of women who lived in rural areas, and for the working class and poor urban dwellers, the gains for women that resulted from the Shah’s reforms were marginal. While upper and middle class women became ministers, attended the Olympics, and even served as delegates to the Mexico City International World Conference on Women, the lives of most Iranian women remained unchanged. The labor force participation rate of women increased slowly during the late 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s but the new jobs were mainly for the members of the privileged class. Furthermore, the Shah’s liberation of women accompanied overall political repression and exacerbated income disparity. Even to many educated middle class women the tradeoff was not always worthwhile, and many middle class women-especially students-were highly critical of the regime. With the exception of the elite, the majority of Iranians became increasingly critical of the secret police and the lack opportunity for any political expression.

    The issue of separation of the private sphere from the public sphere has dominated feminist discourse for a long time. Many feminist academics have written about the fact that confinement to the private sphere has been a huge barrier to female emancipation. Breaking the barrier of confinement of the private sphere has been a major source of frustration for advocates of women’s rights. But the Islamic revolution broke the barrier overnight. When Khomeini called for women to attend public demonstration and ignore the night curfew, millions of women who would otherwise not have dreamt of leaving their homes without their husbands’ and fathers’ permission or presence, took to the streets. Khomeini’s call to rise up against the Shah took away any doubt in the minds of many devoted Muslim women about the propriety of taking to the streets during the day or at night. Always at the forefront of demonstrations, women helped to make the Iranian revolution one of the most peaceful ones as their presence at the front made it difficult for soldiers to shoot at unarmed Muslim sisters who on many occasions handed them flowers and asked them to join and stand for justice.

    When the Islamists won and came to power, Ayatollah Khomeini was well aware of his female constituency and the massive support of women that brought him to power. However, soon after the establishment of the Islamic Republic, Khomeini planned to send women back home to their traditional roles as mothers and wives. But two major incidents changed the Ayatollah’s initial plan-economic sanctions against Iran and the war with Iraq. The hostage crisis led to U.S. economic sanctions, and the United States supported Saddam Hussein in his attack on Iran, resulting a war that lasted eight years and claimed many lives. As disastrous as this time was for the country, it meant that the Ayatollah needed all the support he could muster. Once again, he turned to his very loyal constituency-the women of Iran.

    The Ayatollah announced several jihads, a jihad against illiteracy, a jihad to rebuild the country, and a jihad against foreign invasion and against the possibility of a coup. According to the doctrine of jihad, men and women are religiously responsible for following the order of their religious leader. As a result, millions of women joined these jihads, many because they were religious, some because they agreed with fighting illiteracy, building a strong economy, and preparing to defend their country. In fact, even the left and the pro-Soviet tudeh party backed the Ayatollah. This massive participation of women consolidated women’s presence in the public arena as active citizens of their republic.

    The literacy campaign brought millions of illiterate women into the Mosque to learn to read and write. These were women who would not have joined the Shah’s literacy programs because education was perceived as an agent of Westernization (or so their religious leaders told them). This time it was their religious leader himself making literacy a religious duty for women. Male relatives could not stand against literacy for their women without the fear of being persecuted by members of their community and local religious leaders. Mass literacy campaigns and free education was a major step towards increasing literacy and education for all Iranians in general but for women in particular.

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