Iranian documentary

by Hamid Naficy

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 41-46
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005


In order to understand the political and social climate in which cinema in general and documentary film in particular had to survive, we must look back and review briefly Iranian history from the late nineteenth century to the present.

The seven shahs of the Qajar dynasty ruled Iran from 1796 to 1925. The Pahlavi dynasty which followed reigned until It was overthrown by a popular revolution in 1979, at which time the Islamic Republic of Iran was created.

From the nineteenth century onward, the independence of Iran depended upon the delicate balancing of the forces of the two imperial and imperialist Western powers, Russia and Britain. In fact, we can attribute the relative independence of Iran during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, compared with those of most other countries of Asia and Africa, to this balance of power. [1] The fear of total war discouraged military entanglement and provided the setting for a peaceful economic rivalry between these two great powers. The Russian and British entrepreneurs as well as their respective governments gained exclusive and lucrative concessions to organize military units, build railways and roads, work the mines, construct irrigation canals and other agricultural and industrial enterprises, and establish national banks. These and other concessions, which in effect mortgaged the country's future economic development, indicated the increasing manipulation of feudal Iran by Russian and British pressures. The Iranian ruling class and royalty for the most part tended to take advantage of the big power rivalry to pay for their own extravagance and corruption and to prolong their stay in power.

But, from 1890 onward, the time for quiet or muffled acceptance of these actions had passed. A new element, an aroused public, upset the balance. This new element emerged in 1890 after Naser ed-Din Shah conceded to a British entrepreneur a complete monopoly over the production and sale within the country and the export of all Iranian tobacco. Massive protests, first led by the ulama (religious leaders), resulted in a nationwide boycott of tobacco. The sense of nationalism and the outrage against the shah's policy was so widespread that even the women in his own harem participated in the boycott, eventually causing the government to cancel the concession. The shah himself, six years after he had granted the concession, was assassinated by a nationalist.

This public awakening brought together three segments of the Iranian population who have ever since then participated in the major opposition movements: the clerics, the merchants, and the intelligentsia. These groups, incensed by the continuing granting of monopolies to foreigners and the desperate economic conditions of the country, once again arose in protest in 1905 in what is known as the Iranian Constitutional Revolution and demanded an end to foreign loans and concessions, the initiation of social and political reforms, and the limitation of the power of the court. Muzaffar ed-Din Shah procrastinated until he was on his deathbed in 1907, when he finally signed the new constitution into law.

That same year, as dark clouds of the First World War were drifting closer, Britain and Russia, fearful of imperial Germany, signed an entente which divided Iran into spheres of influence, an agreement about which the Iranians were neither consulted nor informed. Meanwhile, Mohammad Mi, a cruel and despotic man, had replaced his father on the throne and, aided by Russia and Britain, worked to thwart the revolution. Eventually, despite the fact that he was forced into permanent exile by public opposition (leaving behind his twelve-year-old son, Ahmad, as successor), the pressure brought to bear by British politics and Russian troops helped bring the constitutional revolution of Iran to an end in 1911.

During WW1, Iranian neutrality was violated when Russian and British troops occupied the northern and southern parts of the country. Ahmad Shah was nominally in power, but the Russians and the British effectively ruled the country. The war brought widespread devastation and famine to Iran, but it also rekindled the nationalist movements.

In 1921 Reza Khan (the father of the shah) was brought to power with assistance from the British, who were anxious to see "law and order" restored to the country. Reza Khan established a centralized modern army and began to reform the financial system of the country under the guidance of U.S. expertise. In 1925 he officially deposed the Qajars and enthroned himself, the first shah of the Pahlavi dynasty. From 1925 to 1941 he endeavored to Westernize Iran rapidly and forcibly. "Education, industry, transportation, communications, and the army were greatly improved." [2] Industrialization and Westernization assumed top priority and agriculture assumed a secondary importance. It is worth noting, however, that his agricultural policies strengthened the landlords and impoverished the peasants, and he himself amassed a great wealth and became by far the largest landlord in the country.

Many traditional and religious beliefs and institutions were forcibly squelched or outlawed. Confident of the support of his army, he began disregarding and trampling the constitution and the institutions it had envisaged; the legislative, the judiciary, political parties, unions, and the free press. In 1941 Reza Shah was forced to abdicate by the Allies, who feared his German sympathies and who were seeking to establish a supply line to Russia. His son, the twenty-two year-old Mohammad Reza, was placed on the throne. Soon after, the young king enlisted the services of the U.S. advisors to reorganize the Iranian army and gendarmerie as well as to combat the Soviet-supported autonomous republics of Azerbaijan and Kurdestan.

However, the public dissatisfaction and the disruption caused by war, foreign interference, and the dictatorial regimes, of the Pahlavis had created a socially volatile environment. The fuse that finally set off this social time bomb was the dispute over the role of the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil company (AIOC) in Iran. In the 1950 election, the nationalization of AIOC became a central issue on the strength of which Mohammad Mossadeq later became prime minister. As a result of the election and his loss of popular support, the shah fled the country. When Mossadeq nationalized the company, the major Western oil companies, supported by the British and American governments, instituted a worldwide boycott of Iranian oil, discouraging such potential customers as Italy and Japan. Mossadeq's pleas to the Eisenhower administration for loans or assistance were ignored. Instead, the U.S. government and the CIA (with assistance from the British and the Iranian reactionaries) moved to reinstate the shah in August 1953. Kim Roosevelt, the grandson of the U.S. president, and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf, formerly of the FBI, were the main operatives in the 1953 coup. Immediately after the coup, the U.S. offered $45 million in emergency aid to the shah. Thereafter the U.S. aid, military support, and loans continued to consolidate the position of the dictator, making way for the launching of full-scale capitalist development.

In 1957 the U.S., which had now replaced both Britain and Russia as the main foreign power in Iran, helped establish and (with Israeli aid) train the manpower for the shah's national secret police, SAVAK, which institutionalized the policy of summary liquidation of dissidents, progressives, and leftists. The increasing revenues from oil and U.S. assistance gave the regime a new lease on life. The shah, urged by President Kennedy, initiated his most sweeping reforms under the grandiose title of the "White Revolution." [3] The most important features of this program were land reform and enfranchisement of women. However, there were serious discontents due to his heavy-handed approach, along with economic crisis, the opposition of some of the ulama to the reforms, public fear, and mistrust of both a total royal dictatorship and of capitulation to Western powers (especially the United States, from wham the shah had accepted a new and unpopular Status of Forces agreement). These all contributed to an ulama-led uprising against the shah in 1963. After three bloody days, the army regained control, leaving a reported 5,000 persons dead. [4]

From this date onward, in order to pave the way for his brand of forced and bogus industrialization and Westernization, the shah moved to suppress all political, social, and artistic activity, earning for Iran, according to Amnesty International, the dubious credit of having the "worst record of human rights." [5] As far as national economy was concerned, agriculture was forgotten and a compradore and ersatz form of industrialization was encouraged. Corruption and graft prevailed. One of the largest items of expenditure in the annual budget was that of the security forces and armed forces. The near $20 billion military procurement from the U.S. in the 1970s helped the U.S. economy, but it also placed a megalomaniacal dictator in command of "the most extensive armoury of weapons outside America, Russia and Europe." [6] The shah's own personal assets have never been revealed, but the assets of his Pahlavi Foundation alone are estimated to be around $3 billion. [7]

Inevitably, high inflation (approximately 30%), along with many of the other ills and oppressive measures already mentioned, created an extensively eroded social and economic terrain ripe for the final confrontation between the shah and the Iranian people. This confrontation contained at its core an explicit ultimatum to the foreign powers, and most particularly to the U.S., who had meddled in Iranian affairs for decades. It is in this light that the recent events and anti-U.S. government sentiments in Iran should be viewed. Peaceful sporadic demonstrations in various parts of the country in 1977 led to more direct action in 1978. Strikes in key industries (e.g., oil) and businesses (e.g., bazaars) crippled the economy and the machinery of the state. Open armed struggle developed and defection in the ranks of the armed forces proceeded at a high pace. Ayattaolah Ruhollah Khomeini, who had been exiled to Turkey and then to Iraq in 1964 and 1965, now took up residence in a village near Paris, where he gained the attention of world news media.

In this new uprising, once again the coalition of the clergy, bazaaries, secular intellectuals, and the leftists was at the center of events, although the revolution had become a mass, nationwide affair in which people from all walks of life and classes participated. For various economic, political, and strategic reasons, the massive protest by the public was united under the banner held by Ayatollah Khomeini, and it finally achieved its immediate goal when on 16 January 1979 the shah left the country.

Notes to political history

1. Richard W. Cottam, Nationalism in Iran (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1978), p. 158.

2. Ibid.,  p. 20.

3. Fred Halliday, Iran: Dictatorship and Development (Middlesex: Penguin, 1979).

4. Ahmad Faroughi, "The Internal Opposition against the Shah and Foreign Domination," in Iran Erupts, ed. Ali Reza Nobari (Stanford: The Iran-America Documentation Group, 19), p. 72.

5. Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman, The Washington Connection and Third World Fascism, vol. 1: The Political Economy of Human Rights (Boston: South End Press, 1979), p. 6.

6. Anthony Sampson, The Arms Bazaar, from Lebanon to Lockheed (New York: Bantam, 1978), p. 275.

7. Chomsky and Herman.


The Iranian cinema dates back to the origins of cinema itself, yet it suffers from a lack of understanding and appreciation since most of the early films and filmmakers disappeared and died before any systematic research was conducted. In examining the history of Iranian nonfiction film, it may be helpful to delineate three major periods: Infancy (1900-1937). The Rise and Fall (1938-1974), and From the Ashes (1975-1980).

INFANCY (1900-1937)

Cinema in Iran, as elsewhere, began with simple documentaries of everyday events produced by interested entrepreneurial individuals. However, unlike their U.S. counterparts, the Iranian filmmakers were immediately patronized by the royalty and upper classes. They took up filmmaking at the royalty's behest and on their behalf.

Mazaffared-Din Shah, the fifth shah of the Zajar dynasty, visited Paris in 1900 and viewed, for the first time, the newsreel films of Africa and Asia. Impressed, he ordered the court photographer, Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akasbashi, to purchase some film equipment. On August 18, 1900, the first Iranian film was made in Ostend, Belgium. It documents the "feast of flowers" in which women in carriages parade past the shah throwing flowers. Back in Iran, Ebrahim Khan filmed religious ceremonies, royal events, and the palace zoo, setting the tone of much of the documentary footage which would follow in years to come. These early films were shown at the houses of dignitaries and at the royal palace during marriage, birth, and circumcision ceremonies.

Ebrahim Khan Sahafbashi, a progressive antique dealer and technology aficionado, was the first semi-independent nationalist filmmaker. He purchased an Edison Kinetoscope projector and some films in Europe in 1900. He screened these films in the backyard of his antique shop until 1905, when he converted the shop into the country's first movie theater. Although patronized mainly by the royalty and upper classes, Sahafbashi was no royalist. He pursued his cinematic efforts during the constitutional revolution of 1905-1911 and was outspoken about the backwardness of the country and the corruption and cruelty of the Qajar rule. He advocated constitutional government and joined one of the revolutionary societies which had cropped up across the country. Due to his antiroyalist politics, religious opposition to cinema in general, and severe financial problems, Sahafbashi soon was exiled from the country and his property confiscated.

In 1980 Mehdy Russi Khan, a Russian national, began showing films in the harem of Mohammad Ali Shah and later in a public theater in Tehran. He mostly showed French comedies starring Max Linder and Prince Rigadin but also made some films himself. He shot an 80 meter newsreel of the mourning ceremonies of Meharram, which was processed in Russia but never shown in Iran, perhaps due to religious opposition. Although Russi Khan's royalist politics and his cinema involvement were condemned by the clergy, he was able to continue due to Russian and royal support. During the constitutional revolution, his theater was a center of conflict between the opposing factions. One night the Persian Cossack Brigade (Russian-officered supporters of the shah) would come to see films, and another night the revolutionaries would take over the theater to see them.

During the constitutional revolution, the public ransacked his theater, destroying all his equipment and films. This nay have been prompted by his foreign birth or by religious opposition to cinema, but his royalist politics alone would have been sufficient cause for the public's reaction against him. In 1911 he followed his mentor, Mohammad Ali Shah, into a permanent exile in Paris.

A few years later, engineering student Khan Baba Mo'tazedi began working part-time in the Gaumont film factory in Paris. Upon Mo'tazedi's graduation, the factory director gave him some 35mm film and equipment and he returned to Tehran. Like other Iranian filmmakers, Mo'tazedi produced documentaries and newsreels along with some family "home movies." In 1925 Mo'tazedi filmed THE CONSTITUTIONAL ASSEMBLY and on 24 Azar 1304 (1926) he shot the twenty-minute film REZA SHAH'S CORONATION. It is said that the noise of Mo'tazedi's camera was the only sound breaking the silence and decorum of the occasion. [1] He made other newsreels of the monarch presiding over opening ceremonies for many industrial developments and portions of these became part of the first "film piece" produced to accompany the national anthem. This anthem piece was shown before each film screening in every theater — a practice abandoned only in the late 1960s. Mo'tazedi's newsreels were shown in the army compounds as well as in the theaters.

When sound arrived, Iranian theaters were still showing foreign-produced newsreels by Paramount, Metro, Movietone, UFA, and Pathe. One which played widely in 1932 was filmed in Turkey, showing Iranian Prime Minister Mohammad Ali Foroughi conferring with Kemal Ataturk and Foroughi delivering a brief speech in Persian. This was apparently the first Persian language film exhibited in Iran and it provoked astonishment. Most Iranian viewers had distrusted the foreign sound films, thinking that the tricky theater owners had hired people to utter unintelligible noises behind the movie screens. With Foroughi's speech, they were suddenly plunged into the sound era. The enthusiain created by this film encouraged the theater owner to screen the first Persian language feature, THE LOR GIRL (1934), produced in India by Iranian filmmaker Abdol Hosain Sepanta.

The production of indigenous documentaries and features in this period was meager and Tehran's eight theaters mainly showed foreign films. Despite the increasing number of theaters, social and political conditions militated against the growth of a real film industry. The majority of the population was illiterate and couldn't read the intertitles while religious taboos against the cinema thwarted audience growth and professional participation. These taboos especially excluded Moslem (and 11 other) women.

Worries increased about film's negative cultural and social effects. In 1930 a reviewer noted that censorship was being used in other countries and advocated a ban on films showing lovemaking, criminality, Western fashion and makeup, and political or religious propaganda. [2] Islamic publications blamed novels, films, records, and plays (all unwelcome westernizations) for the moral corruption of youth and women. One such publication described and condemned the effects of sentimental melodramatic film in the following manner:

"When that lust-seeking capricious man and that nubile young girl sit side-by-side in front of the movie screen and view the nude men and women embracing and taking long warm kisses from each others' mouths, will not the fire of lust inflame in them, preparing the grounds for all sorts of moral corruption which will burn up the harvest of their lives? Yes, it will burn, burn like fire burning dry thistle." [3]

From the beginning film production fell under the auspices of the central government and documentaries were limited to the recording of royal events and the like. Filmmakers thus became completely subservient to the whims of the ruling powers. Later on, cinema would be used as a weapon to undermine the customs, religion, and culture of Iran.

THE RISE AND FALL (1938-1974)

In the first decade of this important period, the local film industry suffered tremendously due to World War II. Locally, many significant political changes were occurring — notably the abdication of Reza Shah and his replacement by his son, Mohammad Reza. Under the new shah, the condition of the film and television industries  — these two major instruments of image manipulation — improved gradually. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, an active but short-lived internationally known Iranian cinema (The New Wave) emerged.

The newsreels of the early part of this period continued to concentrate on royal events, although some exceptions did emerge. There were films such as a ski film made in 1945 and films like SIGHS OF TEHRAN and ROYAL PALACES were also exhibited in 1948.

At this time the Iranian military turned to film for propaganda purposes. Army cinematographer Colonial Khaliqi filmed many military and official functions including the funeral ceremonies for Reza Shah.

Iranian and imported newsreels were shown before features in theaters throughout the 1930s, most notably the British Movietone and a German newsreel. The German newsreel, featuring Persian narration, was the most popular. Exhibition of this newsreel was stopped in 1941 when the Allies invaded Iran. After the war it was replaced by the American NEWS OF THE DAY, also with Persian narration. Because it was difficult to obtain local footage, these newsreels all mainly consisted of European events in which Iranians were in some way involved.

During the Cold War the US government perceived that "… our system of government and our way of life have come under direct and deadly challenge by an implacable, crafty, and, of late, openly contemptuous enemy of both." It responded with a "containment policy" which included "influencing the minds of men, in political, scientific, and moral fields." [5]

In Iran, film represented the most effective instrument for "influencing the minds" of a largely illiterate public. Accordingly, the United States Information Service (USIS) — with the aid of the Iranian government — distributed Persian language United States Information Agency (USIA) films to villages and towns via forty mobile film units. The USIS soon undertook to make films better suited to the Iranian audience, and they hired Syracuse University to recruit an U.S. team to produce films in Iran. This team produced eighty-eight films and thirty-eight filmstrips on such topics as Iranian geography, nutrition, sanitation, and agriculture. In 1954 the USIS also inaugurated the first newsreel produced in Iran on a regular basis. Four hundred and three issues of IRAN NEWS were released before 1964, when it ceased to operate.

The Syracuse team helped create an audio-visual production center at the Fine Arts Administration (later known as the Ministry of Culture and Art: MCA) which included 16mm and 35mm production facilities, editing studios, and laboratories. Eighty Iranians were trained in various aspects of production while thousands of others received in-service training as well. A number of the production personnel trained at the center are still actively producing commercial features.

Between the 1959 departure of the U.S. technicians and 1965, the center produced fifteen to twenty-five documentaries yearly. Most of these were propaganda pieces shown in Iran but also exported via Iranian embassies abroad.

In 1959 the center began the biweekly NEWS modeled after its U.S. counterpart IRAN NEWS. Like the earlier newsreels, its "news" consisted mainly of the shah's activities and other official (and US governmental) functions in Iran. Only much later did the center produce any noteworthy documentaries and these will be discussed shortly.

Thus the Cold War policy of "containing" communism benefited Iran by creating its first fully equipped film organization. Unfortunately, however, its films generally whitewashed U.S. society, government, and technology, and they strengthened the position of the shah. Furthermore, the production and distribution of documentaries remained in the hands of the government, which employed film as propaganda for the shah.

Television was also introduced in Iran at this time with the assistance of U.S. commercial interests. In 1958 Iraj Sabet, a Bahai businessman whose family represented Pepsi Cola and RCA in Iran, launched Television of Iran — based on the U.S. model of commercial TV. The U.S. media conglomerates had a clear influence on the development of this nascent industry in Iran, since the equipment and training were supplied by RCA, while the programming was largely NBC series and MGM films. In 1966 the government took over Television of Iran, creating National Iranian Radio and Television, a government broadcasting monopoly. Although NIRT produced many documentaries, its productions were again mainly propaganda pieces, and we will discuss only the exceptions.

During the 1960s and 1970s there was a blossoming of cinema activity throughout Iran. Filmmaking programs were started at Tehran University and the Cinema and Television College, and a nationwide network of amateur filmmakers called Einema-ye Azad (Free Cinema) was formed. Film clubs at universities, cultural centers, museums, and even foreign embassies began exhibiting Iranian features and documentaries.

Although the PICA and NIRT continued to be the main sponsors of documentaries, private and semi-governmental organizations gradually began to sponsor films promoting their own activities as well. These films, moreover, were less blatantly propagandistic and mediocre than the typical MCA or NIRT production. They can be categorized as institutional, fine arts, ethnographic, and social documentaries.


The National Iranian Oil Company (NIOC), formed upon nationalization of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, employed film systematically, producing many films on oil and petrochemical subjects. It also made films depicting Iran's progress and modernization, highlighting the role of the shah and NIOC in that direction. Under its auspices, Ebrahim Golestan directed A FIRE (1961), a highly visual treatment of a seventy-day oil well fire in the Khuzestan region of southwestern Iran. This film was edited by prominent Iranian poetess Forough Farrokhzad and won two awards at the Venice Film Festival in 1961. A year later they followed with WATER AND FIRE, a short, lyrical film about the fire station in the Abadan refinery. Farrokhzad's dynamic editing made these films more than simple reportage of ordinary events and processes.

In 1966 Golestan produced the heralded WAVE, CORAL AND ROCK with a $280,000 NIOC budget. The film begins by showing the calm, colorful beauty of underwater life near Khark Island in the Persian Gulf, where an oil terminal for ocean-going tankers was to be constructed. Soon the camera surfaces and reveals a desolate island where the ancient calm of a lone shepherd is suddenly broken by the arrival of a helicopter on a survey mission. From here on, the film methodically depicts the process of connecting the Khuzestan oil wells to the island by huge oil pipes. The film concentrates on the step-by-step process, infusing itself with a sense of the magic and inevitability of the technological transformation of Iran. The narration is often verbose and gratuitous, but, technically, the film is relatively well assembled.

Working with the Society for Assistance to Lepers, Forough Farrokhzad directed THE HOME IS DARK (1961), a poetic and humane film shot in twelve days at the leper colony near Tabriz. The film eloquently and lyrically portrays the people of the colony, expressing their joy and humanity in their daily lives.

"Ugliness has no physical basis. Lepers and leper colonies are not ugly. If you view lepers as people you will soon detect beauty in them. When a leper mother nurses her child or sings lullabies to her, how could you call that ugly?" [6]

It also depicts the misery and tedium of their existence; in one scene, she focuses on a man pacing in a barren autumnal yard, counting the days of the week with each step. The film uses irony well. Children read a popular prayer thanking God for the beauties and health bestowed on them while the camera cruelly pans across mutilated faces, hands, and feet. Asked to use the word "home" in a sentence, a student first writes "home" and after a moment of hesitation adds "is dark."

Farrokhzad draws an analogy between the leper colony and Iranian society, a point not lost on the Iranian public, which rose up briefly in the early sixties to fight the malaise and corruption of the shah's regime. For its part, the government felt that Farrokhzad had presented a false and unnecessarily cruel picture and suppressed the film. It has been shown at festivals abroad, including the 1974 Chicago Film Festival, but has never been released to the Iranian general public. In its place, the government released its own version, called THE HOME IS BRIGHT (1973).


The MCA sponsored many documentaries about Iran's history and its arts and crafts. Mostafa Farzaneh, using a French crew, directed three such films: PERSIAN MINIATURES (1958), a detailed look at this traditional art form; CYRUS THE GREAT (1961), concerning the surviving artifacts of the famous king; and WOMAN AND ANIMAL (1962), a filmic catalog of the "7000 Years of Art in Iran" exhibit held in Paris.

Fereydoun Rahnema, a gifted poet and writer, studied film in Paris before producing PERSEPOLIS (1961). This lyrical black-and-white film — a landmark for its sensitivity and honesty — was made with simple equipment and little funding. An Iranian reviewer in Paris jubilantly proclaimed,

"Finally, someone has discovered the principal veins of the original and untouched mine of Iranian cinema and has struck the first blow." [7]

The film uses shots of the remains of this ancient palace to illustrate the palace's successive eras of prosperity, conflict, and destruction. Short cuts of hooves, faces, hands, and spears — set against Persian music and sound effects — recreate the sense of war and conflict. In the end, the viewer sees the once proud monolithic monuments scattered in ruin, soaked in rain. Rahnema transcends objective reality to portray subjective perspectives. He laments the destruction of Persepolis, but he takes the viewer one step further, seeking life and regeneration in a closing sequence of cleaning rain and singing birds.

Iranian filmmakers made many other films depicting the historic arts, and many of these won awards at international film festivals. Most of these were glorifications of Iran's past, intended for foreign audiences and rarely shown to the general public at home. Examples include: Manuchehr Tayyab's CERAMICS (1964), Ebrahim Golestan's HILLS OF MARLIK (1964), and Houshang Shafti's CARPET (1974) and THE BROKEN COLUMN (1966), which is too similar to and less successful than Rahnema's PERSEPOLIS. Manuchehr Tayyab continued throughout the seventies with a series of films dealing with historical architecture while other filmmakers trained their lenses on such subjects as the myriad folk dances of the country.

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