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Iranian Cinema After the Revolution
An introduction to Iran:
Iran or Persia as it was previously known was founded more than 4,000 years ago and is thus one of the oldest surviving nations of the world. Iran had been primarily ruled by series of dynasties including such illustrious families as the Achaemenids (500-330 B.C.), the Sassanians (A.D. 226-650), and the Safavides (1500-1722). Iranian dynasties have been synonymous with victories and land acquisition but at the present Iran has s 1,648,195 square kilometers of Middle Eastern territory under its command. It is situated close to former Russia and two former Soviet republics (Azerbaijan and Tajikistan) are its close neighbors. Some other prominent neighbors include the Caspian Sea in the north, Turkey and Iraq in the west, and Afghanistan and Pakistan in the east. And in the south it has the Persian Gulf and the Gulf of Oman as its neighbors. The country is divided into various provinces today which are known as ostan. With 24 ostan, 195 districts, 513 cities, 602 towns, 2,100 villages, and 104,000 hamlets, Iran is not exactly a small country. Tehran is the capital and some important cities include Mashhad, Isfahan, Tabriz, Shiraz, Kermanshah, Ghom, Oroomieh, and Rasht. A census conducted in 1991 revealed that Iran is the most populous country in the Middle East with a population of 58,110,227. The interesting part of this population includes its age-group makeup. Iran's young population i.e. people under the age of 15 form 45.5% of the total population. Urban-rural gap is not as big as it is in some South Asian countries with 57% urban and 43% rural population.
Iran has always been a great seat of learning. With a predominantly Muslim population, the country has usually favored religious changes and supported religious clerics. The most important change was seen in 1979 when a national referendum brought Ayatollah Khomeini to power and this led to the religious revolution that changed the face of Iran for years to come. The country during those years was headed by religious clerics who oversaw all judicial and legislative activities to ensure complete compliance with Islamic laws.
Brief overview of cinema in Iran
Cinema has not always been a part of Iranian culture. Or should we say its growth was slow yet steady in a country ruled by Islamic rules and regulations. The first ever shots taken in Iran are believed to go back to mid 19th century when Nasser-al-Din Shah's son and successor, Mozaffar-al-Din Shah learnt about films during a visit to France and asked his photographer, Mirza Ebrahim, to learn to use the camera. It was only in early 20 tyh century that Iran was first exposed to imported kinescope and soon after Iran witnessed the birth of first public theater with seating capacity of around 200. But film screening began much later in 1913. Iran mostly showed French pictures since it did not have a film industry of its own and "on busy days the performances were accompanied by a piano and a violin, and refreshments appropriate for the season were served" (Gaffary, 1990).
The first film ever made in Iran was a silent movie produced in 1921 and talkies came later in 1933 when first sound movie Dokhtar-e-Lur came out. This marked the beginning of Iranian industry which was technically inferior to many advanced film industries of the world. While the industry was suffering because of lack of technical expertise, audience's appetite for foreign films didn't help the situation either. Most theaters therefore screened foreign films only and Iran rarely produced any movies for first fifty years. By 1947, Iran had produced only 2 films, in 1952 the number reached 20, by 1962 it increased to 30 and in 1971, Iran had produced 88 films. In 1977, the number of domestic films came down to 50 while foreign films during that period totaled 504 (Asadi & Mehrdad, 1975, p. 85).
Number of Theaters in Iran
Source: Compiled based on data in Asadi & Mehrdad, 1975; Mohsenian Rad, 1992.
Though film production was slow, Iran was definitely improving where number of theatres was concerned. From 1968 to 1977, the number of theaters tripled but this trend came to a screeching halt with the uprising of 1979.
Iranian Cinema after the Revolution
Islamic Revolution of 1979 brought an end to the already slowing industry of Iran. Theatres were targeted around the country as demonstrators destroyed these buildings believing they were symbolic of moral decay that had plagued the society. Film industry on the whole represented western lifestyle and thinking which Islamic clerics had been revolting against. In fact the burning of a movie theater in southern Tehran on March 27, 1978 was a high point of the revolution. This triggered a series of such riots which resulted in burning of 120 theaters across Iran. (Mohsenian Rad, 1979, p. 16) Theatres were also targeted for they were seen as hub of western ideas and values which was seriously incompatible with Islamic laws. Soon after the revolution, Islamic government made major adjustments to social institutions of the country including film industry and theatres. The government worked on some new policies and "instituted a four-step monitoring procedure to ensure full control over the content of each film, as well as final determination of who is "fit" to work on it. The script must first be approved. Then the producers must submit the names of the proposed cast and crews in order to receive a production permit. When the film is finished, it is reviewed by a board, and if approved, the producers may apply for a screening permit." (Akrami, 1987, p. 139)
This saw the decline of Iranian cinema as even fewer movies could now be produced and imported films were also largely censored. However the one positive change was the sudden decrease in vulgar or indecent movies as Akrami (1990) observes:
One positive result of the government's film policies [for domestic production] has been to put an end to the production and screening of so-called film farsi, which had dominated the Persian film industry for fifty years. Films no longer contain elements of gratuitous sex and violence or mandatory musical numbers. Instead, they are oriented to issues and to attracting audiences through the appeal of story lines and production values. Another positive development has been the decentralization of film making. Before the revolution, Tehran was the sole production center in Iran. Now films are made in major cities in several provinces, with local talent and local facilities which has made the medium more accessible to a greater range of potential talent and opened the way to a new generation of film makers. (p. 577)
While the movies on the whole were not being produced as frequently as before, the audiences developed some new tastes which indirectly helped the Iranian cinema. With fewer imported movies available, people began turning to domestic movies and by 1990, out of 80.5 million moviegoers, it was learned that 80% were interested in domestic films. Censor policy was rigid and usually 75% of content was either chopped off or seriously edited. This confusion resulted in fewer women entering the industry. Some really good films produced during this time include Naderi's Jostoju ('Search', 1982) and Bai za'i's two films Cherikeh-ye Tara ('Ballad of Tara', 1980), and Marg-e Yazd-e Gerd ('Death of Yazd-e Gerd', 1982)- all of which were unfortunately banned.
Many film makers left the country during this period. Islamic clerics however declared they were not against cinema, but simply against its misuse which had been rampant during Pahlavi regime. In 1983, the government formed Farabi Cinema Foundation which was meant to encourage domestic cinema. The films had to follow Islamic regulations but at least a new healthier environment was created. During 1983 to 1986 which can be seen as the rebirth period for Iranian cinema, local productions increased manifold. New breed of bold directors started producing some quality films which included Baiza'i's Bashu, ghatibeh-ye kuchak ('Bashu, the little stranger', 1985); Naderi's Davandeh ('Runner', 1985); Taqva'i's Nakhoda Khorshid ('Captain Khorshid', 1986); and Mehrju'i's Ejarehneshinha ('Tenants', 1986). Among these new directors, Mohsen Makhmalbaf was the most illustrious with high-quality film Dastforush ('the pedlar', 1986) to his credit. This period also marked the re-entry of women in the field and they also gained new status in the industry as complex roles were created for them.
There were still some rules to be followed during acting. Male and female actors were not allowed to engage in sexual or indecent activities of any kind. They were also prohibited from directly gazing into each other's direction and a modest means of interaction was encouraged. The high quality films of this era resulted in tremendous growth of the industry as banks started extending loans to film producers. The high quality films were also shown in up-market theaters to encourage other producers to follow suit. Quality was immensely stressed upon and government offered subsidies to film-makers using advanced equipment…[continue]
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