This article was co-conceived and written with Houshang Golmakani.
There was an Iranian cinema before Abbas Kiarostami. It was a cinema rich enough to foster figures like Kiarostami, and it featured enough seeds to grow more masters of the form. We can see it if we step back nearly half a century, to the year 1962, when, after a period dominated by popular commercial filmmaking that had lasted for twenty years (mostly influenced by Egyptian, Turkish, Indian and Hollywood cinemas) there came a shift. Three years after the premiere of two early landmarks of the French Nouvelle Vague at the Cannes Film Festival (The 400 Blows by Francois Truffaut and Hiroshima mon Amour by Alain Resnais), the winds of change started to blow in Iran, and its own new wave was ushered in by the hauntingly poetic The House is Black, made by a poet, Forough Farrokhzad.
By the mid-1960s, further suggestions of a new kind of Iranian cinema were emerging, but for the most part the films remained indistinct, uncertain and lacked the drive of those that were yet to come, starting in 1969, the year in which The Cow by Dariush Mehrjui and Qeysar by Masoud Kimiai reached the screens. The Cow became the first mature attempt at marrying Iranian Marxist literature with modern cinema while Qeysar, a massive commercial hit, cleverly combined many elements of Iranian popular films with a different cinematic rigor. It also credits a young Abbas Kiarostami, who designed the title sequence for the film.
The intense period of creativity and cinematic inventiveness that continued until 1978 is the subject of a retrospective at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which will present some of the best—and some of the least seen—films from pre-revolutionary Iran.
Rediscovering this period is essential to understanding the more celebrated Iranian cinema from the 1990s to the present day. Contrary to a common narrative of Iranian film history, which tends to divide it into two separate periods of pre- and post-revolution, a hidden continuity begs for discovery. Not to mention that its major directors and technicians were active in both periods.
Even the Iranian cinema that most people know, or think they know, didn’t originate in the nineties, but some twenty years prior, when Kiarostami was developing his craft with short children’s films. Sohrab Shahid-Saless, Kiarostami’s aesthetic predecessor, was already a full-fledged filmmaker who had established the formal and thematic foundations of the modern Iranian cinema in two consecutive masterpieces, A Simple Event and Still Life.
The political symbolism and the literary basis of the cinema of Ebrahim Golestan, Bahram Bayzai, Dariush Mehrjui and Nasser Taghvai continued after the revolution (although Golestan migrated to the UK). The poetic cinema of Forough Farrokhzad and the clandestine documentaries of Kamran Shirdel alike provided a backbone for many nonfiction films that followed. The revolution couldn’t bar these films from entering the cinematic imagination of future generations. And the post-revolutionary social realist cinema owed a great deal to those oppositional filmmakers of the 1970s, such as Kimiai and Amir Naderi, who were often consciously imitated by younger filmmakers.
The first golden age of Iranian cinema in the 1970s was short-lived and came to an abrupt end when real revolution interrupted the cinematic one. It is with reference to this historical juncture that the Edinburgh retrospective is called “Interrupted Revolution: Iranian Cinema 1962 to 1978.”
Not surprisingly, the attempt to interview the key figures of Iranian New Wave cinema turned out to be an intercontinental affair. Tracking down the masters of that period, who are scattered across the world, proved that their lives were as “interrupted” as their cinema.
In the following interviews we asked three directors to give their answers to each of these four questions: (1) “How conscious were you of a New Wave in Iranian cinema during the 1970s?” (2) “What did you achieve in your film(s) in this period which hadn’t already been tried in Iranian cinema?” (3) “After four or five decades, how do you think those films stand in your career, and in a larger context, in the history of Iranian cinema?” And (4) “What were your cinematic influences?”
Dariush Mehrjui (born 1939)
A filmmaker who has reinvented his approach to cinema in every decade since the 1960s, Mehrjui can move from the somber tone of a Salinger adaptation, to a hilarious comedy of sorts. From humble beginnings this restless father of the New Wave went on to study philosophy at UCLA. Upon his return to Iran he was assigned to direct a James Bond-type thriller in Cinemascope, which had nothing to do with his authorial ambitions. His second feature, The Cow, based on short stories by Gholam-Hossein Saedi, became an instant classic of the New Wave. After the film was banned from export, one of Mehrjui’s French friends smuggled a print out to the Venice Film Festival, where it was shown without subtitles and became one of the first films of the Iranian cinema given international appraisal. A lover of western literature, in 1972 Mehrjui directed Postman, based on Georg Büchner‘s Woyzeck (four years before Herzog!) and later he made other films based on works by Ibsen and Dostoyevsky. He is still active as a director and makes a new film almost every year.
1. “While making The Cow I had no idea what effects it would have on the history of Iranian cinema. It was more a reaction on my part to the trend of the totally commercial and somehow vulgar film industry dominating that period. At the same time I was under the influence of what was happening in modern cinema around the world, with the rise of masters such as Bergman, Fellini, Buñuel, Italian neorealism and the French Nouvelle Vague. These events had a decisive impact on me, and I already knew this was the kind of cinema I would like to create. Therefore, it was with the intention and awareness of making an art film, but totally unconscious of its potential for becoming an international success or opening the way for a new wave, that I made that film. So to answer your question, I think it was more the result of a synchronicity with the spirit of the times, and art and cinema in the 1950s and 60s in the world in general, or ‘Il faut etre absolument moderne’ [one must be absolutely modern] as Rimbaud said.”
2. “A new space, a simple story easily understood by everyone. I always wanted to make a film in a village with rustic spaces, especially after seeing Au Hazard Balthazar by Bresson and Los Olvidados by Buñuel. So it was an occasion to go into a village, far from the ‘sullied’ modernity of Tehran, back to original ‘pure’ spaces. It was this simplicity of story and space which made it different. There were films by Ebrahim Golestan and Farrokh Ghaffari which also tried to have this different spatial quality and could be seen as precursors to The Cow; but the main difference was that The Cow managed to engage international viewers as well as Iranians, and not so much through dialogues but through its cinematic language. It was after The Cow’s success in Venice and other film festivals that many Iranian filmmakers were encouraged to create similar films, and suddenly there was a new movement in Iranian Cinema. I remember in one of my press conferences abroad I criticized the censorship that the Ministry of Arts and Culture was exercising and how that Ministry encouraged the production of banal and even vulgar films. Then some journalists covered these issues in Iran and some film critics named us the ‘New Wave.'”
3. “I consider The Cow as one of my best films and am still surprised how such a simple film could have become so important in the history of Iranian cinema and create a new movement along with Taghvai’s Tranquility in the Presence of Others and Kimiai’s Qeysar. It is interesting that after the revolution The Cow again played an important role in the fate of Iranian cinema, which had become quite precarious. As you know, movie halls were burnt down and cinema in general was not considered ‘halal’ [permitted by religion] at all and was more on the side of evilness and decadence. The whole film industry was shut down for the first two years, until The Cow was shown on TV and Ayatollah Khomeini watched it… and luckily for all of us, he liked it. The next day, in a speech which became fateful for Iranian cinema, he said that he did not mind films which would be like The Cow; he just would not tolerate corrupting and decadent films—this is the typical extent to which he would show his liking. This simple speech allowed Iranian cinema’s revival and many young directors continued this neo-realistic style which became so popular at international film festivals in the 1980s.”
4. “I had the chance to study film and philosophy at UCLA at a time when it was the apotheosis of art cinema in the late 1950s-’60s. There were several theaters in LA which specialized in art films: this is where and when I discovered Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni, etc. And these theaters were always packed and quite popular. I had such a passion for going to these kinds of movies that once I had to ride six hours on a bus to get to a tiny theatre in Berkeley to see The 400 Blows by Truffaut, and I never regretted it on the six-hour ride back. There are of course other favorites of mine: Orson Welles, Chaplin, Kubrick, Ford on one side, and Godard, Resnais and the other Europeans on the other. I would watch them avidly and become impregnated with ideas through them.”
Kamran Shirdel (born 1939)
One of the giants of Iranian modern cinema, Shirdel is mostly remembered for his clandestine documentaries about poverty and injustice as well as his Rashomonesque The Night It Rained (1967) which became an instrumental film in the birth of the New Wave. It’s rarely noted that he was also responsible for remaking À bout de souffle under the title The Morning of the Fourth Day (1972).
1. “In 1965, after finishing film school in Rome (Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia), I returned back home for a family visit, and I encountered the unbelievable and ridiculous socio-economico-political situation in Iran. No Iranian school of filmmaking existed and there were very few [educated] film directors—mostly graduated from foreign film schools trying to do their best at the only place existing for documentary filmmaking in Iran, which was The Ministry of Culture and Art. And the filmmaker’s job was to satisfy The Ministry with their commissioned orders. Under these circumstances I had the rare chance to be called—quite accidentally—to make a series of so called propaganda films for the Iranian Women’s Organization (headed by Ashraf, the twin sister of the Shah!). The subject of the films opened the tightly closed doors of the hidden worlds of, respectively, Women’s Prison and Tehran’s red light district (in Farsi, Shahre’ No) which I showed in Women’s Quarter, as well as other poor slums of southern Tehran. I took hold of this rare chance and benefited from this unexpected situation—relying on my zero experience in the field of documentary filmmaking, which was balanced by my desire to approach socio-political problems. I directed them one after another and in a very short time.
“I did not consider my act to be heroic and was never aware that changing the aims of the films from being commissioned to DECOMMISSIONED, along with my personal approach, would become in part a pillar of a newly born Iranian Nouvelle Vague. What I tried to achieve was to be more close and possibly more honest and direct toward presenting the Truth behind the propagandistic slogans of the Regime. That is the main reason why all my first films were brutally banned, confiscated and harshly censored, one after another, on the first day of screening at the Ministry where they were sent for distribution permission!”
2. “Frankness, truthfulness, love and respect for recording and presenting the reality, despite all barriers and prohibitions. Putting your camera and your cinema at the service of the simple and ever-cheated people in the streets.”
3. “Well it is not my role, my aim and my target to define the place for my films in my professional, artistic curriculum. Time passed by and the history of our last fifty years showed and proved whether I was right or wrong!”
4. “The film directors I am very humbly devoted to are Rossellini, De Sica, Pasolini, Pontecorvo and neorealism in general. Also Godard, Resnais, Marker and Ivens. And last but not least, the Great Luis Buñuel to whom I owe a great deal!
“But do not forget that our list of preferred artists and those who practically influence us can be also filled with the holy names of writers, poets, painters, sculptors, architects, philosophers, etc. I have been a keen and devoted student of all this incredible wealth all my life and devoured them as best as I could.”
Masoud Kimiai (born 1941)
In Iran, he is the most popular director of the New Wave, yet elsewhere his masculine dramas about camaraderie, revenge and friendship are hardly seen or understood, even his Deer (1976) which is considered by many Iranian critics and filmmakers as the best film in the history of Iranian cinema. Kimiai passionately loves classical Hollywood (he was even an assistant director to Jean Negulesco on The Invincible Six, made in Iran) and one could argue his cinema since the 1960s has been an active reinterpretation of his favorites within the context of a traditional society fragmented by greed and inequality.
1. My views on cinema in those days were completely different to the common understanding of cinema in Iran. Still, when I finished making Qeysar I couldn’t guess what effect it would have on society. When it comes to people’s or critics’ responses to a piece of work, nothing can be anticipated.”
“The truth is that no conscious, pre-planned movement will ever work in cinema. Some spontaneity is always needed. But it is true that I couldn’t see myself as a part of the Iranian cinema of that period. Things were ready for me. The zeitgeist, the prominent literary figures and the genuine film experts who came and supported me with Qeysar and whatever I made afterwards were all important factors. A history which is waiting to be changed or rewritten by a film becomes the agent of the change itself. It moulds and then it gets moulded. Many luminary figures who have made history have mentioned the right timing for such change. I was my own witness in that regard.”
2. “There is no doubt that these films were like a bit of fresh air for our cinema. No piece of work in cinema can beg or plead its immortality. The film should have its own power.”
3. “Still when I watch them, which is becoming rarer these days, I admire their boldness and brevity; their brevity in form, which was never repeated [in Iranian cinema] because it was dictated by the time and the unique social and cultural milieu. If a film is not made at its proper time and place, it becomes a pitiful thing. One hits the bull’s eye only when he is ready for it.”
4. “Our cinema was the ‘movie theater cinema,’ not the ‘film study cinema.’ Theories came to help later. First and foremost, it was what we were seeing onscreen which made the difference and was absorbed in our minds. I learned my trade from westerns, learned my editing lessons from the movie serials of Republic and such. I learned my editing, composing and acting by watching the films of Anthony Mann, Vincent Sherman, Fred Zinnemann (anything he made but his Oklahoma), Sam Fuller and Raoul Walsh. Whereas the cinema of Ingmar Bergman and Alain Resnais didn’t have the familiar faces of the people on the streets.
“But admiring filmmakers was another matter. Antonioni and his invisible tennis ball; Visconti; Fellini of 8 ½ and many more, they were not ours but we made them ours. We were fast learners. And the more humane the films, the faster they were becoming a part of us.”