Iranian cinema and screenplay:
The Scissors of Trade and Politics
by Massoud Mehrabi
Despite its lofty status in the world and prizes it has won from creditable festivals, the Iranian cinema has been grappling with one major problem since production of its first feature film up to now: screenplay.
Robert Bresson has written in his book, Notes on Cinematography, that "When what is correct blends with what is incorrect, the correct will reveal the incorrect while the incorrect will try to prevent us from believing the correct. When an actor on the deck of a real ship and in the middle of a real storm is trying to pretend that he is afraid of drowning, we will neither believe the actor, nor the ship, nor the storm."
This is reminiscent of most screenplays of the mainstream Iranian cinema from production of the first feature film (in 1926) up to the Islamic Revolution of 1979. Trying to pass incorrect as correct, pretending to be reflecting the truth and demagoguery which was rife in screenplays written in that period caused the audience to neither believe the screenplay, nor the screenwriter and the result of his work on the screen.
The history of screenplay in Iran is pretty confused. Apart from few prominent Iranian films, which were made by informed and experienced directors, other films produced by the mainstream Iranian cinema were suffering from weak screenplays ever since the first film was produced. They were neither national, nor local, nor based on principles according to which their western counterparts were made. The first Iranian feature film was Abi and Rabi (Avanes Oganians, 1926), which initiated a process of inattention to screenplay and imitation. That popular film was copycat of a series of films made by a Danish comic couple, which had become a favorite of the Iranian moviegoers.
For those who started the Iranian cinema, screenplay was different from what it means today. Under the best conditions, they considered screenplay as something like a "piece" or a play because most of them had made their debut in cinema after spending long years on the stage. Film story became more important later when foreign films were imported and dubbed. Iranian filmmakers simply remade story of foreign films after they were translated into Persian. The main reason for copying foreign screenplays, which deprived the Iranian screenplays of originality, was a superficial way of thinking and lack of enough knowledge on the part of mainstream filmmakers. They neither knew ancient tales and literature of Iran and the world, nor had enough talent and initiative. Therefore, the themes of their films were either born out of a confused mentality or rose from a superficial approach to trivial and commonplace social issues.
When reviewing Iranian films made in those years, we would come across a main model on which all those so-called screenplays were based: a love relationship or rivalry (among poor and rich characters), some fighting sequences, some singing and dancing, an unexpected accident, finding about one's fault and feeling guilty, and the sequence in which the good would prevail over the evil.
The role of producers and cultural supervisors of the former regime of Shah in institutionalizing this model was very important. Screenplays were written according to inferior tastes of producers most of whom were businesspeople and for whom film was simply a commodity. They didn't even spend a cent on screenplay while an average of 70 percent of the film's budget was spent on two or three popular characters. The remaining 30 percent was handed out to other members of production crew. The monarchical regime could not tolerate the least opposition and did not allow them to focus on social problems. Absence of good themes in screenplays was so serious that committed writers and filmmakers said in secret that "in Iran, you can freely make films only about prostitutes and hoodlums!"
After victory of the Islamic Revolution, there was no more dancing, singing and nudity in movies. Hoodlums, dancers, and prostitutes gave way to special characters who were agents of the past regime or its intelligence organization (SAVAK) while action sequences were increased.
Up to four or five years after the revolution, there was no independent profession as screenwriting in the Iranian cinema and screenplays were written by directors. Since 1983 and after establishment of Farabi Cinema Foundation, councils were established for every profession in cinema and salaries were determined. The differentiation made filmmakers divide the salaries between directors and screenwriters each asking a different pay. However, what encouraged new people start writing screenplays was not differentiation in salaries, but introduction of a certain process for "approval of screenplays" and assignment of a council to oversee those screenplays.
Since film production started in Iran, their themes (like theatrical plays) had to be approved by state authorities. Up to 1948, the police did it while after that, representatives of ministries of culture and Islamic guidance, intelligence, and interior were added. No subject could have been performed on stage or made into film without being approved beforehand. The excuse was "supervision bylaw" to which all texts of theatrical plays and screenplays should have conformed. There should have been nothing insulting to the royal family or anything which would have exacerbated ethnic and religious disputes. After the revolution, the said bylaw was rewritten in the light of new conditions.
Since 1986, the council in charge of endorsing screenplays has rated them in A, B, C, and D classes. Class A screenplays could have availed of complete state subsidies while Class B and Class C screenplays stood less chance for using those subsidies and nothing was given to Class D screenplays. Since after the revolution all hardware facilities were monopolized by the government including films as well as cinematographic and stage equipment, producers making a Class A screenplay could have made their film on a modest budget (most of which was loaned from banks) and their film would have been also supported during screening (they were screened in the best time of the year, in the best theaters and at a higher ticket price). Therefore, Class A screenplays (whose themes were government's favorites) were like a magic lamp and at the time of economic recession and war, most directors were ready to do everything to find one.
In the late 1980s, screenplays were so popular that many people took to writing them. Every week, many screenplays were submitted to a relevant council, of which two or three were approved per week. Class A screenplays were exchanged at filmmaking offices and their price constantly increased, sometimes up to 20 times of the original price! Therefore, dealing in screenplays had become an independent profession. Out of enthusiasts, only a few became professionals and famous screenwriters. At present, Association of Iranian Screenwriters has about 130 members, but only 15 percent of them can be considered talented and professional.
Considering this background, if you asked a film critic or other people involved in the Iranian cinema, "What is the main problem with the Iranian film industry?" they would immediately answer, "Screenplay". An updated version of trade and politics scissors has still the first say in this regard.
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