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!