In my intro to this ongoing series about the New Iranian Cinema (NIC), I laid out my plan to look at the work of four key Iranian directors roughly from 1987 to 2012. For these purposes, it will first be useful to place Iranian cinema in its historical and socio-political context because film in Iran already had a long and often turbulent history way before the birth of the NIC, so here comes the background info.
Up until the late 1950s and early 1960s, Iranian cinema primarily consisted of formulaic melodramas and musicals which were commercially popular. During the regime of the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, supreme leader of Iran, the Tehran film industry was releasing 60-70 films per year, but films making any kind of social critique or political comment were either heavily censored or banned altogether.
But it’s precisely at this moment, under these circumstances, that the first event relevant to our story occurred. In the early 60s, what is now known as the first Iranian ‘New Wave’ took place, bringing a more artistically ambitious type of cinema, the like of which had never quite been made before in Iran. It goes without saying that without this first new wave, the second new wave (that is, the NIC) 25 years later would simply not have happened.
Films such as The Cow (Dariush Mehrjui, 1969), or The House is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, 1963), brought a kind of realism to Iranian cinema which had hitherto been missing. Also, these films took modernist literature, a significant presence in Iranian culture since the early 20th century, as one of its main influences, leading to a blend of the poetic with the naturalistic. The Cow, for example, tells the story of a peasant farmer who regards his beloved cow as his most prized possession, but after it dies he slowly begins to go mad until he thinks himself to be a cow. This plot, told in subtle realistic strokes, displayed a poetic symbolism which was miles away from the musicals and melodramas which previously made up the bulk of Iranian cinema’s output.
As for The House is Black, it is a deeply humanistic and poignant documentary shot in 12 days at a leper camp, which manages to cast an empathetic gaze over the residents without ever being voyeuristic. Its director, Forough Farrokhzad, was herself a key figure in the modernist poetry movement and her legacy as one of the most influential Iranian poets remains today, once again reminding us of the close bond between Iranian art cinema and poetry. I will return to the subject of poetry later in this series, as it is an indelible influence on Persian culture.
Films as original as these usually open up new avenues for later directors to come through, and the domino effect did indeed follow in the 1970s, with directors such as Sohrab Shahid Saless, whose A Simple Event (1974) is a known influence on Kiarostami. Speaking of Kiarostami, of the four filmmakers I plan to focus on, he is of course the oldest and the only one who was already active in the 1970s. He made his first feature, The Traveler (1974), while working at the film division of the Centre for the Intellectual Development of Children and Adolescents (Kanun-e Parvaresh-e Fekri Kudakan va Noja-vanan, also known as Kanun for short).
Kanun became the focal point of a new generation of young filmmakers, including Kiarostami, and the fact many NIC films focus on child protagonists owes a lot to Kiarostami and others getting their break at Kanun, making films for and about children. The Traveler was already a mature feature debut, showcasing Kiarostami’s subtle realistic style in telling the simple story of a boy who dreams of travelling to Tehran to watch the national football team play. One day he skips school and tricks other kids into giving him money so he can afford the bus fare. He arrives at the stadium early and decides to have a walk around before the match starts, but ends up falling asleep and missing the football altogether. It was a moral parable without being judgmental, because rather than criticising the young boy, it made clear to us throughout the film the hardships he went through in his everyday life, perhaps leading us to understand why he dreams so much of this escapist afternoon trip to a football match.
But while Kiarostami was quietly working at Kanun, the political landscape in Iran was changing, with protests against the Shah’s dictatorial rule becoming more fervent. The tide was swinging towards the pro-Ayatollah traditionalists, many of whom were deeply suspicious of cinema as something too “western”. In August 1978, tragedy struck when a cinema in the city of Abadan was set on fire by anti-Shah militants, causing over 400 deaths. In 1979 the revolution drove the Shah into exile and the Ayatollah Khomeini took power, with the goal of transforming Iran into a fundamentalist Islamic state. The film industry now became a symbol of the Shah’s secular regime; 195 of the 525 existing cinemas were burnt down or destroyed, and film production itself slowed down drastically. The first few years after the revolution were dark times for Iranian cinema.
Yet, unexpectedly, out of these literal and metaphorical ashes would rise the beginnings of the NIC, and less than a decade later the first films of Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf would get international acclaim. Followed in the 90s, by Jafar Panahi, and Mohsen’s daughter Samira Makhmalbaf. In part 3 I shall begin to focus on these four directors, and on how, after all these highs and lows, Iranian cinema became one of the most celebrated national cinemas.
Thanks for reading! To be continued…