Iranian cinema: documentary film
Digital Technology and Its Unconventional Companions
by Massoud Mehrabi
Awe and fear, amazement and infatuation, changes in worldview and novelty in many aspects were major features of the invention of motion pictures in late 19th century and though many analysts of human sciences are reluctant to admit, it is still much the same. When Lumiere brothers screened their first production about arrival of a train into the station (Arrivel of a Train at La Ciotat) on August 28, 1895, some viewers were dumbfounded with surprise and others skedaddled away. The Iranian king, Mozaffar-ed-Din Shah, saw that film at Paris Expo in 1900, became fond of it and ordered his photographer, Mirza Ebrahim Khan, to buy a cinematograph.
The Iranian cinema, like the world cinema, started with documentary films. A few months after Qajar Shah’s expedition and a few years before the Constitutional Revolution which targeted the Qajar dictatorship, they shot footages of everyday life of courtiers and ordinary people, which are now considered important documents of what went on inside the Qajar Royal Court and in Tehran more than a century ago. As photography in Iran had started five decades before the arrival of cinematograph, Iranians were quite familiar with developing films. Films shot by Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkasbashi and even the king himself, were developed at the Royal Court’s dark room and were shown to numerous people of the Court. Those footages, which were mostly limited to one minute greatly moved the viewers; they murmured words of happiness combined with awe and whispered spells under their breath. Those sounds gradually went beyond the palace walls into streets and markets. Whispers about the new evil phenomenon were heard day and night until even the ordinary people were fascinated by it.
After the fall of Qajar dynasty and establishment of Pahlavi rule (1925), film and cinema turned into the most attractive and finest hobby for people. Due to absence of such media as radio and the press (only two state-run newspapers were published then), silent dramatic movies in addition to news documentaries were people’s favorites; documentary films about the war between Russia and Japan (1905) with two Russian and Japanese versions (for two groups of audience)! The most prominent documentary films of the Iranian cinema under the first Pahlavi monarch are those made by Khan Baba Mo’tazedi. They include crowning of Reza Shah, inauguration of radio station, the beginning of construction of the national railroad and similar occasions. Those documentaries were screened at movie theaters before the main features and were totally meant for propaganda purposes. As Iran was occupied by the Allied in 1941, Reza Shah, who had pro-Hitler Germanophile tendencies, was sent into exile and was succeeded by his son, Mohammad Reza. As the Allied forces arrived in the country, they brought with them a number of cameramen who produced newsreels about the warfronts. Along their path, they also shot footages of people’s life which are now among the most important visual documents remained from a politically and socially turbulent juncture of the Iranian history. Simultaneous with presence of the Allied forces, documentary newsreels were screened in most movie theaters of Tehran and other big cities and people, who were suffering from famine, watched them to find out whether there would be food and freedom once fascism is dead.
Mohammad Reza Pahlavi expected the same from documentary films as his father: documentaries for propaganda. Therefore, Fine Arts Department, which was later turned into Ministry of Culture and Arts, opened a new office for production of such films. Cinematographers working for that department had learned making documents from cinematographers who worked with the Allied. In 1950, a new generation of filmmakers who were interested in non-dramatic cinema started to work independent of that department. Ebrahim Golestan, Farrokh Ghaffari, and Mostafa Farzaneh were few examples who made films for the National Iranian Oil Company. In early 1960s, some cinema graduates returned from Europe and joined documentary office of the Fine Arts Department, Hazhir Dariush, Manouchehr Tayyab, Ahmad Farouqi, Kamran Shirdel, Khosrow Sinai and some other filmmakers were sources of remarkable developments in documentaries made by that Department. Although the number of professional documentarians working with the national Iranian television in late 1960s had increased, Iranian documentary cinema was still dominated by propaganda. Before screening feature films, all movie theaters screened a documentary on the progress and development of the country. During three decades before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, non-propaganda documentaries which included beautiful, lasting and poetic works could be only screened at small intellectual circles and were devoid of any social impact.
During the revolution, which took about one year, the void of documentarians was quite felt. Shah’s regime did not allow any films to be made of demonstrations and street fights and cinematographers were not courageous enough to do it on their own. What has remained from the revolution which occurred 30 years ago includes scattered pictures which have been put together to make a few full-length documentaries. The paucity of pictures is so serious that documentarians making films about those days have to remake the scenes on the basis of photos. After the beginning of Iraq war against Iran (1981), documentarians were not given room to create independent and different films because all hardware facilities served at the battlefields to make war documentaries. Those documentaries were mostly meant for publicity and there were few films using diverse styles to show different viewpoints. After the war ended in 1988, documentarians were given more latitude to focus on social and critical themes. Although cinema authorities urged them to make publicity films, other documentaries were made which protested to the status quo. Developments did not stop there and rapid advances in digital technology gave unbridled powers to documentarians.
Iranian documentaries have changed since the late 1990s. Light and portable digital cameras have served unmediated cinema and a new generation of documentarians has looked at everyday life from different angles. A high number of such films have been made to attest to the reality of cultural conflicts and diversity. The advent of digital cameras has changed everything: computer memories have become bigger and less expensive, film compression software has become more powerful needing less memory, copyright laws have changed and, most importantly, the Internet has miraculously changed conditions in favor of combined use of sound, text and film. The last development, which is known as “New Media” has precluded censorship on documentaries made in public and private places. Taking advantage of these facilities, the Iranian documentarians have ushered in a new era of oral culture which is understandable to all; of course, it has entailed new challenges and unexperienced hazards.
So, it seems that a new chapter has begun in the history of documentary Iranian cinema since the beginning of the third millennium. However, following surprising developments which followed the 10th presidential poll, a new leaf has been turned not only in the history of the Islamic Revolution, but also in the history of the Iranian documentary cinema. Digital technology and its unconventional companions like YouTube, RapidShare, Last.fm, Facebook, and Twitter have broadcast documentaries made by unknown Iranian documentarians which rocked the world. After the lapse of one and a half century, the surprise and awe, amazement and infatuation resulting from watching such pictures has proven to be much more powerful than what Lumiere brothers screened at Grand Café or what Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkasbashi screened at the royal court.
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