Iranian Cinema: A Political History

Iranian Cinema: A Political History (Sadr, 2006) analyses the full history of Iranian cinema from its earliest forms in the 1900’s right up to 2005. It covers similar topics to Iranian Cinema and the Islamic Revolution (Mirbakhtyar, 2006) which was released in the same year, but delves even deeper, offering a fascinating insight into Iranian cinema, and recent Iranian history as a whole.

The spectre of censorship looms large in Sadr’s book, just as it does in Iranian cinema. In discussing the historical films of the 1950’s he writes:

It is evident that the real obstacle in the path of decent historical features was not a lack of capital or equipment but the dominance of censorship. Iranian history is so enmeshed with the presence of charismatic leaders, sultans and monarchs that the smallest deviation from the norm in their depiction has been perceived as an implicit critique of leadership. The historical features of this period were therefore subjected to both state censorship and, just as ominously, to self-censorship. (Sadr, 2006 p64)

And he also lists the code of conduct created by The Ministry of the Interior in June 1950 for the production and exhibition of films and plays. In it, the following were outlawed:

Films in conflict with the foundation so of Islam and the twelve Imam versions of Shi’ism.

Films in opposition to the constitutional monarchy, his Grace and his immediate family.

Depictions of political turmoil in any country leading to the dethronement of the monarch. 

Films that encourage political revolution with a view to changing the regime. 

Films that promote beliefs and practices contrary to the law.

Any film where the criminal characters do not get punished.

Any prison riot leading to the defeat of the military authorities.

Films that encourage workers, peasants, students and other classes to oppose the military, or engage in sabotage of factories or schools. 

Films opposed to the nation’s customs and traditions. 

Films that create disgust and despair in audiences.

Films depicting female nudity (defined as the presentation of naked breasts and private parts).

Films containing foul language or derision of local accents (especially during dubbing).

Films depicting a ‘naked’ couple in bed prior to the act of lovemaking. 

Films corrupting public morals and those containing ‘gangster’ vocabulary.

Films that intensify ethnic and religious tensions within society. (Sadr, 2006 p66)

Later, when discussing cinema of the 1960’s, he notes that these rules were expanded to become even more punitive in 1965 (Sadr, 2006 p108).

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However, filmmakers didn’t always follow the state’s directives:

In early 1959, the Exhibition Department circulated a stern directive to all film studios to the effect that any transgression of the censorship guidelines would result in immediate prohibition. Despite such threats, gangsters, murderers and criminals began to permeate an ever-larger number of films. The lives of ordinary people remained as far from the screens as ever. (Sadr, 2006 p69)

Yet the fear of reprisal for blatant disregard of the government’s edicts began to permeate Iran:

Throughout the 1960’s, a mixture of explicit and implicit propaganda campaigns, and a build-up of official as well as unofficial gossip, gradually created a mythical image of the national security services, the infamous SAVAK… Rumours about the arrest and torture of dissidents by SAVAK abounded, and not all were exaggerated. (Sadr, 2006 p102)

mohsenmakhmalbafda2

In discussing censorship Sadr also quotes Mohsen Makhmalbaf from an article in Sight and Sound’s April 1997 issue. Makhmalbaf refutes the Western idea that censorship can be, at least partially, a good thing for encouraging creativity:

…Makhmalbaf expressed his dismay at the popularisation in the West of the notion that restrictions placed on filmmaking somehow contributed to the quality of cinema: ‘This is nonsense. You can’t create in such a restrictive, controlled environment.’ (Ditmars, 1997 p 10-12) He argued that the best Iranian films came out in 1985-90, when censorship was at a low ebb, adding, ‘Every time there is a bureaucratic shake-up, a whole new set of technocrats comes in. At the beginning they cause a lot of problems. But after a few years, things got better. They come to love cinema. Because good cinema makes people more human.’ (Ditmars, 1997 p 10-12) (Sadr, 2006 p206)

Sadr also discusses the concept of an Iranian national cinema when writing about the early 1980’s:

After the Revolution, filmmakers repeatedly interrogated the question of a national cinema. In the early 1980’s, some filmmakers strove to create a militant cinema designed to combat the exploitation of the masses; some moved away from demonstrative cinema towards factual films. The main question was: how could the public be reached? There was a subsequent attempt to make political films, to analyse the struggle f the working classes. Yet there was little attempt to work with the very people whose ambitions and preoccupations these filmmakers were trying to express. (Sadr, 2006 p173)

He also writes about the realism which became a crucial part of Iranian cinema’s aesthetic:

On the one hand their stylised artistry and fictional narratives constituted a divergence from real life, and on the other hand they could be seen as a true reflection of the bizarre reality that characterised Iran… [they] were personal artistic statements and at the same time films about contemporary Iran. (Sadr, 2006 p224-225) 

And he connects this to the difficulties in the creation of a national identity through cinema:

The major impediments to the creation of a self-image that Iran could embrace were excessive social problems, poverty and unemployment. But there were dangers in endorsing to strongly its opposite: namely, material affluence. (Sadr, 2006 p225)

He goes further, linking this realism to the conflict between idealism and pragmatism which is particularly prevalent in the immediate aftermath of revolution:

Since implicit in the creation of a new society is a vision of utopia, and idea of that kind of society is desirable and what sort of citizens should inhabit it, forms of mass culture can become instrumental in embodying the tension that results between the utopia ideal and the bedrock of practical considerations to which it must be linked. (Sadr, 2006 p225)

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The topic of political ambiguity also appears in Sadr’s discussion of Abbas Kiarostami. He quotes an interview with the director from Sight and Sound’s February 1997 issue :

Any work of art is a political work, but it’s not party political, It doesn’t approve one party and attack another, and doesn’t support one system over another. Our understanding of ‘political cinema’ is that it should always support one specific political ideology. I think if you look at my films from this point of view, they are definitely not political … I think that those films which appear non-political, are more political than films know specifically as ‘political’ films. (Hamid, 1997 p 22-24)

References

Ditmars, H., (1997), Talking Too Much With Men, Sight and Sound, 1997 (April), pp.
10-12

Hamid, N., (1997), Near And Far, Sight and Sound, 1997 (February), pp. 22-24

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

Sadr, H. (2006) Iranian Cinema: A Political History, London: I. B. Tauris

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