From Pop Films to Exile Cinemas: A Conversation about Iranian Film History with Hamid Naficy

[Editor’s Note: Corrections and amendments were made to this transcript on March 15th, 2015.]

Hamid Naficy’s four volume book, “A Social History of Iranian Cinema”, has come to be recognized as the definitive text on Iranian films since its publication four years ago. The collection was more than three decades in the making and its arrival filled a big void in the study of Iranian cinema. We have referenced the books, as well as Mr. Naficy’s other works several times on our podcast, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with him about his work and Iranian cinema. The conversation below took place on March 7th, during TIFF Cinematheque’s “I For Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema by Its Creators” series, where Mr. Naficy was introducing Ovanes Ohanians’s Mr. Haji, Movie Actor (Haji Agha, Actor-e Cinema, 1933) and Sohrab Shahid Saless’s Still Life (Tabiat-e Bijaan, 1974) which we have already discussed on the podcast.

Hamid Naficy
Hamid Naficy

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Amir: When you started your book, did you think of it as the definitive text that it has become, or did you think it would cover the entire history of Iranian cinema? Tell us a little bit about its evolution.

Hamid: It was very haphazard in a way. It began with an article I wrote on documentary films, which I published in Jump Cut, the radical US leftist film magazine, and then another article on Iranian fiction films for Quarterly Review of Film Studies. It began with those two, but maybe even earlier. It began in 1975 when I was in Iran for a few years between 1973 and 1978, and I was part of the group that created the Free University of Iran – Daneshgaah-e Azad-e Iran. At the time I was working there, I was also teaching a documentary film course at the National Iranian Radio and Television College of Cinema and Television – Madrese-ye Aali-e Cinema va Television. During teaching that year I realized that there was no text on documentary film in Persian, so I began working on that. I produced a two-volume book on the topic, Film-e Mostanad (Documentary Film), which the publishing house of the Free University of Iran published. It contained many pictures, almost all of the ones for the Iranian cinema part of it I had obtained by using physical frame enlargements from the 35mm in our laboratories. They were beautiful. Other publishers wouldn’t publish so many pictures but my university, which had the largest publishing house in the country then did it. It immediately became really popular. It came out during the revolution and by then I’d already left Iran but I heard from everybody who had taken film courses that the book sold out and it was still in use 20 years later. That became the germination of my efforts to do a book in English on Iranian cinema. My contract for this book was for one volume with Duke University Press and I have to hand it to them for rolling with the project. When it became large and I thought it was going to be two volumes or maybe more, they said “well, this is a lifetime’s work and it’s not gonna be repeated easily so we’re going to go with it. We’ll raise funds for it through our own sources and you raise extra funds. We both did. The whole object of it was to have the books be affordable by students, so the idea was that each volume should be less than $30, so all four would be less than $100. They lived up to that and they did a great design.

Amir: Iranian cinema really evolved as you were in the process of writing and you stuck with it. How frustrating was it to leave the project in 2010?

Hamid: The hardest part and perhaps part of the success of the volumes is that I wanted to have this not just be a chronological retelling of the best films made or the greatest directors. I wanted to have some theoretical and methodological approach that was consistent throughout the volumes. One of these, for example, was the importance of cinema as an agent of modernity and modernization. That line runs through all four volumes, and it also helps to then sift through all the developments that relate to this theory. Or the idea of how cinema brought about individuation amongst the spectators through its narrative style. Or the impact on cinema of the Iranian and Islamic traditions, not just oral, but also other traditions like Ta’ziyeh or Rowzeh-khaani or poetic traditions. All of these are incorporated in the films and the film industry in various ways. I wanted to show how Iranian cinema would be distinguished from Mexican or Arabic cinemas which come from different cultural beddings. I also wanted to show that Iranian cinema was from the beginning multicultural and transnational. That’s a line that goes through all of the history and now we have a huge diaspora of Iranians producing a variety of films. Even the Iranian diaspora itself is multicultural. It isn’t just Muslim, for example. In fact, at one point Iranian ethnoreligious minorities probably dominated in the diaspora.  Islam also had a major impact on cinema, the representation of women, the presence of women in cinema. It was all very complicated; and we see these factors related to women and cinema during the Qajar period and then again in the Islamic period. All of this gave continuity to the book. It was an incredible process.

Tina: What has your experience been seeing people outside of Iran in Western countries delve into Iranian cinema as a point of academic study, both compared to how it’s academically treated inside Iran and also to critics in the West and the way that they interpret and process Iranian cinema. These are three different groups of people all going after the same thing with different access levels and different visions.

Hamid: A study of Iranian cinema is always haunted by the specter of the revolution and the hostage crisis; by that I mean the history of study of Iranian cinema in the West. That revolution and the hostage crisis afterwards unfortunately forever marked Iranians as a certain kind of society; a fundamentalist, irrational, uneducated mass of people with their fists in the air shouting stereotypical things like “Death to America” and “Death to Carter”. That partly coloured how the media in the West and academics thought about Iran. On the one hand, these Westerners were affected by it. On the other hand, the critics and festival curators and academics wanted to see and show the opposite. There was an effort through programming and curating film festivals and through academic writing and film criticism to celebrate Iranian cinema more than it perhaps deserved, because the art cinema went against all the expectations of a political Iran. “If it’s so backward, then look at all the films they’re making, look at how clever and well made they are, how enigmatic and poetic they are.” It’s very hard to separate the quality of Iranian films and the reception of them from that political background.  A nation’s political notoriety beings automatic attention abroad to the works of its artists, especially the works of those who critique the state.

Tina: It’s not like there was really much interest before all of these events took place. Film scholars weren’t really talking about Iranian cinema in the 1960s.

Amir: And when every few years or so something would premiere at a festival but it wouldn’t start a current to study these films as part of a national cinema.

Hamid: Yes, Iranian cinema wasn’t considered a national cinema before the revolution, it was just the authorial cinema that outsiders were interested in, like the films of Mehrjui’s or Kimiavi.  But now the quantity of art house cinema after the revolution has increased so much as to constitute a kind of ‘national cinema’.  The other thing was the impetus within the Iranian film culture to want to reach out to the world and not to be locked in within the Islamic Republic’s domain, so filmmakers participated in film festivals. It’s also part of globalization. As the number of film festivals increased, people began to invite these filmmakers and they and their films traveled abroad extensively. Each time that one of the filmmakers was held at the airport or didn’t get a passport, that became the news. There were controversies from Iranians in exile as well. On the one hand, exiles contributed to the popularity of Iranian cinema, because suddenly you had hundreds of thousands of Iranians abroad who clamored to the movies to see Iranian films, so they provided audiences. On the other hand, those Iranians who had left the country during the revolution as exiles and were opposed to the Islamic Republic (some of them in the film business), took an oppositional stance to the postrevolution films. They made these festivals controversial. That also contributed to the recognition of Iranian cinema. I had my own experiences with these people.

Amir: This mixing of politics and cinema is something we are still not rid of. You think of how this year’s win for Taxi at Berlin was received here and in Iran and it’s impossible to find an article that talks about the news of its win and doesn’t mention anything about the filmmaker and his political situation. Perhaps because of these politics, one of the things I always come across with people interested in Iranian cinema is their curiosity about two particular areas of Iranian film history: the New Wave of the 1960s and 1970s and the Golden age of the 1990s. Where would you direct them next? What’s the blind spot that compels you the most?

Hamid: That’s a good question. One area which is just beginning to gain interest among scholars is the popular films of the second Pahlavi period, the 1950s-60s. There are two sub-genres, of which the main category would be filmfarsi. That itself could be divided into the jaheli or looti films (“tough guy films”) and the other would be the stewpot films, or abgooshti. These have been less studied and by and large have been disdained by Iranian critics. Almost all the pre-revolution critics and, even more so, post-revolution ones condemned these films because they were considered to be formulaic, badly made and popular with less educated people and lower classes and full of sex and violence. The nomenclature, too, filmfarsi, is somewhat pejorative. But I think gradually people are getting to see what’s special about them. In fact, I think that these two sub-genres are the most “Iranian” of all films.

L to r: NAsser Malek Moti'i, Fardin and BEhrouz Vosoughi, the three biggest stars of Pre-revolutionary Iranian Cinema
L to r: NAsser Malek Moti’i, Fardin and BEhrouz Vosoughi, the three biggest stars of Pre-revolutionary Iranian Cinema

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Tina: Why do you think there is now more of an interest in these films?

Hamid: I think it’s a generational difference. Almost all of the older critics like Hooshang Kavoosi and so forth who were disdainful of this type of film have gone. A new interest in pop culture has come to be. It’s not just intellectual culture and intellectual literature anymore but pop culture, pop music, pop film, pop things in general.

Amir: It’s happening recently here as well. You think of people studying something like “vulgar auteurism” and the growing interest in things that aren’t considered high culture. I find that there’s this public perception, not critical, that these films were all the same in Iran. I know of concerted efforts in Iran to make collections and preserve some of these films. I was able to purchase a few on the so-called “free black market” in Iran recently. I bought Fardin’s films and Froouzan’s. They’re not the same thing at all. There’s this misconception about abgooshti films all being same, but that’s not true. There’s a lot of interesting things going on.

Hamid: There are certain things that give these films a certain narrative and stylistic patterns, which interestingly are derived from Iranian oral tradition. If you look at oral traditions before writing, in order to remember things people developed a culture that included the use of well known phrases, sayings (masal) and the sort of things that we still use in Iran all the time. These masal were used creatively by poets. In fact, the art of poetry had to do with how well they put together these well known phrases differently from other people. So they used the building blocks that everybody knew because everybody had passed on these things to each other orally but they would artfully combine them to create new utterances. During Homeric times, a similar kind of oral culture was in existence, so repetition and rhythmic iteration of existing building blocks and stereotypical characters and icons became an important part of many Iranian arts—music, tilework, handicraft, carpets, poetry, theater, and now cinema. The other important factor in Iranian art and cinema was improvisation and the third factor the presence of audiences who would by their own reaction encourage the poet or the performer to continue along this line or that line. You still see some of this behavior among certain people who go to the movies. Even in the US, if you go with a group of African American audiences to a black film, you will see them talking to the movie a lot more than white audiences, because there’s that oral tradition of speaking back at the preacher, at the poet, a sort of call and response aesthetics. If you go to the church the same kinds of interaction is going on. If you go to a poetry session in Iran right now, when someone is reciting poetry, everyone is going “bah bah, aali gofti” (Wow, you said it beautifully.) They encourage interactivity. If you look at Iranian genre films such as, filmfarsi, a lot of the stories are along these lines. They’re familiar and have come down to Iranians from texts like Shahnama and the characters are typical. They’re not individual. The jahel is a jahel. I cite situations in my book for a film that involves, say, Fardin or Malekmoti’i, one of the character actors of these filmfarsis, and the director says, “well, you know what a luti does. You should act in this film the way that you acted in that film,” so Fardin already knows his role very well and he doesn’t need to be given a script. Not only is the improvisation an oral tradition that is part of the acting and storytelling, but also part of the filmmaking. A number of these filmfarsi filmmakers were not professionals. They were not educated, hadn’t even finished high school in some cases, let alone having gone to film schools. So they would not have a script ready for shooting. They would come and ask Fardin to do Fardin and Malekmoti’i to do Malekmoti’i and they didn’t need to have a dialogue written for them. Everybody was ready to improvise. The camera people would set things up right there and then. That’s why there are mistakes in these films, like entering from this door and exiting from the same one. Things like that don’t make sense logically. It’s because they’re improvised, with the resulting discontinuity. You could say that these are bad filmmakers, but you could also say they’re following a different logic of filmmaking. It’s important to not just focus on the films as texts but also on the production process itself, which often times determines what the text will turn out to be.

Amir: It’s interesting that the form and content of these films engaged with each other in a way that encouraged that type of DIY, artisanal filmmaking to flourish. Maybe the industry was artisanal and the necessary production values were not in place to make better films, but many cultural elements encouraged the filmmakers to be artisanal as well.

Hamid: That’s why I think you have to look at cinema not as an imposition from some other place, especially in a country like Iran where cinema really dates to the very beginning, to see how the cinema gets domesticated. That’s part of the Iranian history, to assimilate other cultures and to absorb new things from other cultures. If I could say that Iranians have one characteristic that stands out – they’re not unique in it, but they’re good at it – it’s that capacity to mix and match, to hybridize, to absorb, to adapt, and adopt. If you believe the history of Iran, even the pre-Islamic history, Dariush is said to have conquered so many countries and yet allowed all those countries to have their own autonomy and cultural forms. In many ways, the central Acaemenid government absorbed features of the conquered societies and cultures. If you look at Persepolis’s architecture and sculpting, for example, some of those iconographies and imageries come from countries that he had conquered. You could also say that Iranians are good copiers and imitators, of course. At the same time, they add something to what they imitate and copy and, I think, that difference is what makes Iranian creativity long-lasting.

Amir: Are you aware of any concrete effort to restore some of these older Iranian films and introduce them to a wider audience, like we saw with the restoration of Mehrjui’s The Cow (Gaav, 1969) by the National Archive?

Hamid: No, unfortunately I’m not. I’m surprised that Iranian authorities haven’t really thought of what they have in their films not only as cultural treasures but also as a commercial enterprise. During the 1980s, the black market on video was rampant and the government decided to join this black market and created its own video distribution network. Yet, they weren’t running the company like a commercial enterprise, but a government entity. Some of the art cinema films are in distribution abroad but almost none of the silent films or early sounds film, or even the 1960s films new wave or filmfarsi films are being distributed in good versions. Partly that’s because the filmfarsi movies are generally not subtitled, and that’s an obvious necessity; partly because the government disdains these films. On the other hand, if they had looked at them commercially and considered that there would be a lot of people who want to show these films, they could make a lot of money.

Amir: I’m curious about your opinion today’s Iranian cinema. We come across articles decrying the death of Iranian cinema at least once a year from some prominent film critics. With all these previously above ground filmmakers now making underground films and others making films abroad and the increasing commercialization of the domestic productions, do you think these concerns are legitimate?

Hamid: I think the idea of national cinema in general is in crisis, partly because of globalization, partly because of the triumph of Capitalism and partly because of digital technology and the internet that allow people to make underground films with a $500 camera and edit them on their little laptop with really high quality, and then distribute them to millions of people. All of these developments are problematizing the idea of national borders and national cinemas. Filmmakers are not bound by the structures of funding from nation states as much. Look at Kiarostmai who lives inside Iran and makes his films abroad now in foreign languages with non-Iranian actors. His films don’t get shown in Iran very much but he doesn’t leave Iran. Look at Makhmalbaf’s entire family who left Iran and live and make films in exile, or at Ghobadi who left Iran and makes films. The first films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Bahman Ghobadi made outside of Iran, Rhino Season and The Gardener, are unsuccessful films, they are meandering and unfocused. Making films internationally is a complicated issue. Not everyone can do it and Makhmalbaf himself, before doing this experiment of going into exile, made films in neighboring countries in Turkey and Tajikistan and Afghanistan first. I have a thesis in the book that it was only in the Islamic Republic that filmmakers revived the idea of the Persian Empire, as many filmmakers made films in the neighboring countries that have Persianate cultures. Ironically, this did not happen during the Pahlavi era, when the state invoked the Persian cultural heritage as state policy, but happened during the Islamic Republic era, which was hostile to the Persian predecessor to Islam.  During both epochs you observe the cultural resistance of the filmmakers to state policies, some of it perhaps unbeknownst to themselves. None of the filmmakers who made films in the neighboring countries made films in any of the Arab countries. Now that the Makhmalbafs and Ghobadi are in exile, they are not as successful. Their next films might change that, of course.

Amir: When you read about domestic cinema in Iran dying, do you roll your eyes and go “oh, not another one of these”?

Hamid: I think Iranian cinema will evolve. It may not be the same art cinema of the 1980s and 90s and 2000s even. It will be a different cinema that will have more popular films and underground films of various sorts. Underground everything has now become de rigueur: music, publications, fashion, film, parties. I think things will evolve and that’s a good thing. The other thing that defined Iranian cinemas of the 80s to 2000s, at least the art cinema, was that they were mostly bounded by the nation state and by its censorship apparatus, which then forced certain allegorical and textual approaches onto films. Once Iranians became globalized and could make films in different places with different moneys for distribution in different places to different audiences, they were no longer bound to the national rules. Films will be less uniform. There might be more variety and experimentation and more mistakes, but the best will come to the top. I’m certain that it will be a younger generation. The older one, the ones who already made a name for themselves and for Iran, like Kiarostami, Beyzaei, Mehrjui, Panahi, Majidi and Bani-Etemad and others are… I mean, even these filmmakers evolve. Look at Rakhshan’s films. She’s not locked into one style or one type of film, making documentaries and fictional films. She’s constantly evolving. Part of this is because of her daughter. I think the younger generation is keeping the older one straight and on their toes. Another thing that’s interesting about Iranian cinema now is the family structure of the filmmakers. I’m calling it a family mode of production in my books. Almost all of the major filmmakers are making films with their families. The Makhmalbafs work on each other’s films. Bani-Etemad’s husband produces her films and her daughter stars in them. Mehrjui’s wife was the designer on his films; Beizai’s wife acts in his films. Farhadi and his wife work together. This is a new phenomenon that didn’t exist before. New production forms will produce new cinemas and film forms.

Faramarz gharibian in tall shadows of the wind
Faramarz gharibian in tall shadows of the wind

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Amir: Every guest we’ve had on the show says their favourite Iranian film is Close-up, except your colleague Nick Davis, who picked Taste of Cherry. We laughed about the fact that even he picked another film by the same filmmaker. I suspect that wouldn’t be your answer, but asking your “favourite” Iranian film is perhaps too broad a question. What is the film that most compels you to speak about it?

Hamid: I think Close-up is a very unique film that can be talked about a lot but I also think that Kimiai’s Gheysar (1969) is an important film cinematically and culturally. I also think that Mr. Haji, Film Actor is a very unique film and you see some of Eisenstein and Vertov’s city symphony films in it in the way it celebrates Tehran as a modern city. All the experimentation that he engages in is great. Bahman Farmanara’s The Tall Shadows of the Wind (Saaye-haaye Boland-e Baad, 1979) is another one. Mehrjui’s The Cow I think is a very powerful film. Every time I show it in my class, the students are overtaken with the power of that simple story. No one thinks you can make a film about someone who becomes a cow, but he does it in such a powerful, convincing way, with such attention to the psychology; partly because Gholamhossein Saedi was a psychiatrist who wrote the original story on which this is based and worked with Mehrjui to adapt it, and Entezami who acted in the film as such a seasoned actor. Bani-Etemad’s The May Lady (Banu-ye Ordibehesht, 1999) is a very good film, cinematically and socially. Here is a woman who’s single, a filmmaker, a professional and wants to maintain a love relationship with a guy to whom she’s not married, all of which are no-no’s. I think she does a great job. There are so many. I don’t have a single favourite really.

Tina: It’s probably impossible for you.

Hamid: Yeah, this is very hard. Also, Shirdel’s The Night It Rained (Aan Shab Ke Barun Umad, 1967) is a prophetic film for its time .

Amir: That would probably be my answer. I’ve always loved that film but seeing it on the big screen for the first time was remarkable. The mostly non-Iranian crowd responded to it really well, too. It’s such a riveting experience, so funny and detailed and layered.

Hamid: We showed it at Berkeley last year and I was interviewing Shirdel on stage. It was really fun. That’s part of the transnationalization of Iranian directors. Shirdel was exposed in Rome to Italian films and neorealism and to the new wave of French cinema. Self-reflexivity came to Iranian cinema very early, before revolution with Shirdel and Kimiavi—two European-trained filmmakers. It wasn’t by Kiarostami or others after the revolution. Also, Farrokhzad’s film (The House Is Black), and not to forget, Ebrahim Golestan’s Mudbrick and Mirror (Khesht va Ayeneh, 1965). It’s a great film, especially the way it shows the fear and anxiety of that period; all those dark and tall buildings in the dead of the night. It’s a really great film.  So are Shahid Saless’s Still Life (Tabiat-e Bijan, 1975), Kimiavi’s The Mongols (Mogholha, 1973), Naderi’s The Runner (Davandeh, 1985), and Beyzai’s Bashu the Little Stranger (Bashu, Gharibeh Kuchak,1985).

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Episode #11: Interview with Documentary Filmmaker Roya Akbari

Welcome to the eleventh episode of the Hello Cinema podcast. As regular listeners of the show are aware, TIFF Cinematheque is hosting “I For Iran: A History of Iranian Cinema by its Creators”. Fifteen feature films and three shorts from Iran will be screened as part of a series that was initiated by Thierry Jobin, the artistic director of Fribourg International Film Festival. On today’s show, we’re honoured to host documentary filmmaker Roya Akbari, whose film Only Image Remains (2014) is opening the retrospective.

Roya Akbari in Only Image Remains Roya Akbari in Only Image Remains

Akbari started her career in cinema with a short but memorable voice performance in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (Dah, 2002), alongside her sister, Mania. Her first work as a director was a short documentary called Dancing Mania, about a film her sister was directing about dance in Iran. Her latest, Only Image Remains, is the most recent entry in a TIFF Cinematheque retrospective that includes films as old as Haji Agha, The Movie Actor (1933). In this film, which Akbari directed on the occasion of Fribourg festival’s Iranian retrospective, she discusses this national cinema with filmmakers such as Bahram Beizaei, Amir Naderi and Rafi Pitts.

We asked her about her motivations for making this film, the history of Iranian cinema, the cultural significance of producing Iranian works in diaspora, the difficulties of making films as a woman, and TIFF Cinematheque’s retrospective series. Akbari will introduce her film, as well as The Night It Rained (An Shab Ke Barun Umad, Kamran Shirdel, 1967) and P Like Pelican (P Mesl-e Pelikaan, Parviz Kimiavi, 1972). For a complete schedule of events at the retrospective, click here.

You can download an .mp3 version of this episode here, or subscribe to our show on iTunes.

Works Cited
Music: “Sonatine” by Maziar Heidari