On the Set

Iran's celebrated world of film

Wigs and moustaches sit eerily on display heads in the hair and makeup department on the set of Mokhtarnameh in Abadan. Each has a name tag stuck to its forehead-one each for Mostafa Zamani(the adult Joseph), Hossein Jafari( the young Joseph), Mahmud PakNiyat( Jacob), Davood Shaikh(Judah), and so on. In a cast that large, and a tribe of 1,500 techicians, it was easy for wispy bits of hair to get lost. {{name}}
01 June, 2012

IN HIS ACCEPTANCE SPEECH at the Academy Awards this February, filmmaker Asghar Farhadi, receiving the Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category for Jodái-e Náder az Simin (A Separation: Nader and Simin), pronounced that Iran “is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics”—a message meant to convey the long-awaited recognition of Iranian cinema on the American stage.

Iran is often referred to as a melting pot—shaped by centuries of foreign occupations and trade that have shifted its geographical and cultural boundaries. And so it’s not surprising that cinema in Iran traces its origins to an encounter with the West—and to the advent of cinematography itself.

In July 1900, while the Shah of Persia, Mozaffar ad-Din Shah Qajar, was in Paris during one of his three European jaunts, he attended the Exposition Universelle, the world’s fair, where the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière were exhibiting on a 25 x 15 metre screen 15 short films they had shot using a cinématographe, a film camera that was also a film projector and developer. Enamoured by the innovation, the Shah ordered his official photographer, Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi, who went on to become Persia’s first filmmaker, to purchase (as the king wrote in his diary) “all kinds of it [motion picture equipment] and bring it to Tehran so, God willing, he can make some there and show it to our servants”. A month later, Akkas Bashi was documenting the Shah’s visit to the Festival of Flowers in Ostend, Belgium. Cinema quickly became a diversion for the royal house, and the royalty supported the early years of filmmaking in Persia.

In 1933, Iran saw it’s first ‘talkie’—Doktar-e Lor (Girl of the Lor), a film about a young teahouse girl of the Lor people (an ethnic group in southwest Iran) who is kidnapped at a young age by a gang of thieves, and later falls in love with a man she meets at the teahouse, fleeing with him from the chaos of Iran to Bombay (where the film was actually shot). Between 1937 and 1948, Iranian cinema essentially went comatose under the combined assault of World War II, a paranoid establishment, and Hollywood; and then it grew at a frenetic pace from 1950 to the mid-1960s, with a majority of the 324 films produced during this period concerned with melodrama and entertainment.

By the early 1970s, filmmaking began to take a more serious turn. Cinema motefävet, literally ‘alternative cinema’, however shortlived and fairly mediocre—and led by young, foreign-trained intellectuals supported in part by the Shah’s ministry of culture and the National Iranian Radio and Television—broke the stasis, particularly after 1974, when strong-minded New Wave filmmakers left the official film workers’s union to set up the New Film Group and the Cinemay-e-Azad (Free Cinema). Five years later, they were clipped down by Khomeini’s revolution of 1979; a year after, only 28 films were made. Filmmakers went into self-exile in droves. Between 1979 and 1985, only about 100, heavily-censored films were released.

The establishment of the non-governmental Farabi Cinema Foundation (FCF) in 1983 was an act as much of an imposition of the 1979 Enghelābi Eslāmi government’s will as of finding a way around its theocrats. Today is the ‘third phase’ of the FCF, and while supporting ‘government cinema’ forms a large part of its mandate, it has built itself a history of supporting New Wave filmmakers, funding ethnic cinema (beginning in 1998) and encouraging Kurdish directors. Over the years, Iran has won an estimated 200 prizes in international film festivals and competitions. Not all of them are of the stature of Kiarostami, Makhmalbaf and Panahi, but hundreds of others create primarily for the local market.

The following photographs, taken in 2007, are part of a series on Iranian cinema from a larger ongoing photographic project on filmmaking around the globe called Cinema Mundi, which was initiated by Stefano de Luigi in 2006. From Iran to Russia, China and Nigeria, the photographer has travelled across continents to capture the diversity of cinematic productions that exist outside of the colossal Hollywood dream factory.