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.