Iranian Cinema and Revolution
The Third Chapter
by Massoud Mehrabi
These days coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Islamic Revolution; an ideological revolution which changed all aspects of Iranians’ lives. In the heat of the revolution, such places as banks, cabarets, bars, and cinemas were set on fire in protest to dependent capitalism and the culture of nudity and immorality. About one-fourth of Iranian film theaters were burned by demonstrators who sought to topple former Shah’s regime. They maintained that cinema was a symbol of the monarchial regime’s corruption where obscene movies were screened against moral rules of Islam. The chaos became so rampant that, as claimed by revolutionary leaders, agents of Shah put Rex Cinema in Abadan on fire in January 1979 after locking its doors, burning about 400 people alive in order to defame revolutionaries.
The revolution opened the third chapter of the Iranian cinema. That cinema had already gone through two chapters; from 1930 to 1937 and after an interregnum, from 1946 to 1979. There were no clear regulations for film production up to 4-5 years after victory of the Islamic Revolution on February 11, 1979. New rules and regulations were introduced in 1983 after Farabi Cinema Foundation was established and Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance developed a cinema department. New regulations did not allow pre-revolutionary “corrupt” and “immoral” filmmakers to be active in the new period. Thus, about 70 percent of pre-revolution actors and directors were phased out and almost all film theaters were confiscated. Instead, those filmmakers who had founded a social and avant-garde cinema before the revolution were allowed to work within the framework of new regulations which prohibited any form of physical contact between men and women. They constituted a connecting bridge between the second and third chapters of the Iranian cinema. That chapter began with films made by such directors as Amir Naderi, Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Alireza Davoudnejad, and Nasser Taqvai. After Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Majid Majidi, Rasoul Molla-Qolipour, Mohammad Ali Talebi, Abolfazl Jalili, Ebrahim Hatami-Kia, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Kiyanoush Ayyari, Kamal Tabrizi, and Behrouz Afkhami (most of whom were raised by the Islamic Filmmaking Training Center and Arts Department of the Islamic Propagation Organization) joined them, the new current turned into the dominant current (though not mainstream) of the Iranian cinema.
This group of filmmakers was both admired in international festivals and in the country and most of their works were displayed in competition and international sections of Fajr Film Festival as indicators of the quality of the Iranian cinema. Enthusiasm for those films depended on the range of their audience; films focusing on the elite and intellectuals attracted less audience, as is the case all over the world.
Undoubtedly, Mohammad Khatami’s term as minister of culture and Islamic guidance (1983-1992) was influential in growth and prosperity of that cinema current. He and his friends in cinema department of Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance and Farabi Cinema Foundation offered generous support for production and screening of films made by this group of directors. Due to his policies (which also covered other cultural areas) Mohammad Khatami was forced to resign by those who opposed those policies. That current, however, came to no remarkable harm from the time of his resignation as a reformist and intellectual Muslim until he returned as reformist president of Iran. After he was elected president (May 1997) the second generation of post-revolutionary filmmakers had emerged. They included, among others, Bahman Qobadi, Samira Makhmalbaf, Parviz Shahbazi, Alireza Amini, Hassan Yektapanah, Asghar Farhadi, Bijan Mirbaqeri, and Saman Moqaddam who represented a new face of the Iranian cinema. This generation is different from the past generation in that despite choosing more radical subjects for their films, they are not concerned about their screening in Iran. Since production cost in Iran is low (about 200,000 euros on average) and given the small market for such productions in western countries, there is a risk that the Iranian viewers may get easily disconnected from socially protesting films. In fact, western moviegoers sometimes watch Iranian movies that the Iranian audience knows nothing about! Of course, what is screened in western festivals is not the whole Iranian cinema. Each year, an average of 80 feature films are made (excluding hundreds of short and documentary ones) and such films account for 20 percent of that figure with the rest constituting the “mainstream” of the Iranian cinema.
Before the revolution, most major American film companies had a branch in Iran, but they all left after victory of the revolution. New regulations passed in 1983 greatly restricted screening of foreign movies, especially American ones, in order to support domestic production. Although this policy led to prosperity of the Iranian cinema, it did not lead to creation of a “national cinema” in its true sense. In addition to different and artistic works, a great number of films were made and claimed the lion’s share of the market (more than 60 percent of annual sales) without any concern for competition. Such B and C rated movies have not thrived enough during the past two decades to confidently expand their domestic market and add to their audience. Their directors try to meet the cheapest demands of the audience in order to attract more viewers. Some filmmakers actually wasted the free atmosphere created under Khatami instead of making the most of it. They made so-called “boy and girl” movies garnished with very superficial political slogans. Therefore, they not only failed to advance the “mainstream” Iranian cinema, but also lost a golden opportunity.
Few artistic and thought-provoking films can be screened in domestic theaters (because theater owners are not willing to show them), but enthusiasm is high for comedies, mostly unimportant ones. The groundbreaking The Expelled was screened in early 2008, but illegal CDs of the film were unexpectedly distributed in the fourth week of its screening, though it became the bestselling movie in the whole history of the Iranian cinema. It was about a group of hoodlums in south Tehran who go to Iran-Iraq warfronts for fun and achieve salvation. Nobody could have approached that subject under former president, Khatami. However, the minister of culture and Islamic guidance visited director on the set several times and appreciated his work. During the same year, comedies such as Tambourine, There's always a Woman in Between, 10-Digit, and the uninteresting comedy, Obstinate (which was screened up to early February 2009) were bestsellers.
The third chapter in history of the Iranian cinema is the story of a single ground and a number of dreams: dream of a totally religious cinema, dream of a secular cinema, dream of a populist cinema, dream of an artistic cinema, dream of a dream cinema as the ship keeps sailing by many captains.
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