Cinema and National Identity

Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution (Mirbakhtyar, 2006) is an excellent book which looks at Iranian cinematic history from the opening of its first cinema in 1903, through the pre and post-revolution new waves, up to 2006 when the book was written. Author Shala Mirbakhtyar is an Iranian actress and writer, so her perspective is that of someone who has been intimately connected with Iranian cinema throughout her life.

Her account of recent Iranian cinema, from 1988 onward portrays the government in a slightly more positive light that other sources. Is this the truth? Are outsiders caught up in presenting a view of Iran which fits their expectations of it as a draconian theocracy? Or is an example of the subtle self-censorship to which Azadeh Farahmand refers in The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity (Tapper, 2002)? It’s difficult to be certain either way.

What interested me most in Mirbakhtyar’s book was the final chapter, titled Rising from the Fire of the Revolution: The Resurgence of the New Wave. In it she discusses why pre-revolution Iranian cinema, although of high artistic quality, didn’t achieve international acclaim:

The conditions necessary for this to happen did not exist before the revolution because of the political and economic structure of the country. The Iranian cinema was dominated by producers who for the most part had no knowledge of the art of filmmaking; they were businessmen who invested their money in the cinema largely to make a profit. They did not understand anything about the need for or importance of a national cinema, and were not interested in fostering development of films that reflected Iranian identity. (Mirbakhtyar, 2006 p158-159) 

Mirbakhtyar also notes that post-revolution, in the mid 1980’s, the desire of the Iranian government to improve the quality of films which propped up the cultural values of their regime led to an opportunity for young filmmakers to hone their craft:

Technique, or form, became the main preoccupation of many Iranian filmmakers during this period, although in most cases it mimicked or copied directly devices used in foreign films… One positive factor in the adaption of technique was that it continued to evolve, and gradually most filmmakers found their own voice through experience. (Mirbakhtyar, 2006 p160)  

But just as Farahmand highlighted the crisis in Iranian cinema in her chapter of The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, Mirbakhtyar too sounds a note of caution. Discussing the era of Iranian cinema which began in the mid 1990’s, she writes:

In this period the Iranian cinema began to struggle with two destructive forces. One was familiar: economics. Most of the films still did not make a profit. A new problem was that many artists were making films only to win prizes at film festivals in the West. These films did not perform well domestically, as they were no longer representative of Iranian society and featured mostly misleading images of the people and culture, meant to impress and shock juries and audiences with horrific stories. (Mirbakhtyar, 2006 p161) 

Mirbakhtyar refers to a comment made by the director of the Venice Film Festival:

Some of the Iranian film directors produce their works according to the directions and preferences of the international film festivals and this is a real danger for Iranian cinema. (Mirbakhtyar, 2006 p162) 

She goes on to identify what she calls a formula, used by Iranian filmmakers to create films specifically targeted for export to foreign film festivals:

It is built on the use of a real or semi-real event (often an isolated case that could happen anywhere in the world, but it is turned into a hot and critical social issue in the film), with the people actually involved in the story play themselves […] This development has put the sense of national identity of Iranian cinema in danger. (Mirbakhtyar, 2006 p162)  


This danger to the national identity of Iranian cinema is, I think, the crux of what I’m interested in. Is the West’s elevation of certain elements of a third cinema damaging to that cinema and the cultural identity of the country in which it’s made? And if it is, then what’s the solution?

Should international film festivals (and the West in general) look more closely at the kind of art that it supports and broaden its tastes? Or does the responsibility for diversity and national identity lie wholly within the country of origin? Should filmmakers be held responsible for the cultural effects of their art? Or should they be free to tailor their work to whichever audience they choose, free of judgment and responsibility to a country which may not support them?


Bayzai, B., (1972) Downpour, Mehregan Film

Mirbakhtyar, S., (2006) Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution, London: McFarland & Co

Mehrjui, D., (1969) The Cow, Iranian Ministry of Culture

Tapper, R., (2002) The New Iranian Cinema: Politics, Representation and Identity, London: I. B. Tauris


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