Did pre-1979 Iranian cinema produce Third Cinema films?

by Asefeh Sadeghi-Esfahlani

In 2019, an Iranian documentary film Tree of Life (Babanorouzi) probed the fate of unprofessional child actors in the internationally celebrated Iranian film, Where is the Friend’s House? (1986, dir Kiarostami). In the documentary we see the child actors of Kiarostami’s film as grown-up adults whose lives have heavily been eclipsed by the experience of acting in a famous film. At the time of acting they did not own a TV at home and had never gone to a cinema in the city. After the completion of the film, although it was screened in their village’s school, they could not realize its significance. Furthermore, while Kiarostami went on to achieve international fame, the children could never participate in any other film project.

Kiarostami sought to blur the boundaries between documentary and fiction. The children acted as he directed. Kiyoumars Poorahmad, director’s assistant, wrote a memoir about the making of Friend’s House. He explained how Kiarostami often planned out situations through which real reactions and emotions such as fear could be evoked and filmed. In this begging scene’s production, the child really cried. Many problems arose in the making of Friend’s House. Poorahmad in his memoir said that the film was based on a short story by Behrouz Tajvar, a primary school teacher. The amount of money Kiarostami offered Tajvar to buy the copy was so insignificant that Tajvar refused the deal altogether. There was no contract and Kiarostami did not credit Tajvar as the writer of the original story. (https://www.isna.ir/news/99091007556/)
Another failure to credit. People who worked with Kiarostami say that Kambouzia Partovi, a famous Iranian screenwriter and director, helped Kiarostami to find the village location for Friend’s House—in Partovi’s grandmother’s village. Partovi knew the people and helped Kiarostami to adapt and complete the script, yet there is no mention of Partovi in the film’s title sequence. The house of Partovi’s grandmother in the village was used as Ahmad’s house. She also acted in the film.

In Tree of Life we see one of Kiarostami’s actors, a simple worker in a shopping center in Tehran, after he quit substance addiction. Another heartbreaking scene shows a mother of two speaking about how the experience of acting in such a famous film impacted her sons’ lives. The film’s focus is on the issue of children’s rights and the ethics of employing such young children in a professional film project.

In Tree of Life the camera searches for the Ahmadzadeh brothers, as non-professional actors appeared in Friend’s House. One of them works in a nursing home as his second job.
The documentary investigates the effects of professional filmmaking on the non-professional participants. The Ahamdzadeh brothers wonder why they have not benefitted from the film’s international success

However, I use this example to follow another path of enquiry: Was it not possible to make the film collectively? More importantly, was it not possible for the director and the production team to go beyond the traditional divisions of labor and hierarchies of command in order to produce a film that would empower the children’s own artistic expressivity? In this regard, I am pointing experience of Third Cinema film-making. It was posited as a form of cultural labor in which a production team collectively generates a new social vision among all its participants. I ask this because a country like Iran which underwent a process of radicalization leading to the 1979 revolution and the overthrow of an imperialist-backed royal system, and I want to know if we could find traces of Third Cinema practices and productions? Did film movements such as Argentina’s Cine Liberacíon emerge? If not, what were the industrial, formal and political obstacles? 

To see if Iranian directors had a choice to follow a kind of Third Cinema working model, I investigated the history of First, Second and Third cinema in Iran, and offer my conclusions here. I briefly examine the condition of Iranian filmmaking before the 1979 revolution to illuminate what set of political, cultural and economic circumstances did shape film production in that period. And I also briefly introduce the theory of First, Second and Third Cinema as it was developed in Latin American during the evolution of anti-imperialist and Third-World movements. In fact, Third Cinema is not an idea or phenomenon limited to a certain moment in time (post-World War II liberation movements in the former colonized countries) or certain locations (Latin America, Africa, etc). It became an idea that has shaped on-going efforts in filmmaking that attempt to dissolve the hierarchies of command and to create radical consciousness. Following that, I will explore pre-1979 Iranian cinema to see how this categorization might or might not apply to condition of filmmaking in Iran. This production history indicates that despite the radical atmosphere of 1970s Iran, traces of Third Cinema practices are not easily detected. For that reason, I will indicate possible political, cultural and economic factors which impeded the development of Third Cinema practice in pre-1979 Iranian cinema. Interestingly, in the absence of radical cinema, other media such audiocassette and photography took up a progressive role and provided up-to-date representations of the brutal realities of an early capitalist society; they created revolutionary consciousness.

What do we mean by
First, Second and Third Cinema?

After the Second World War when the colonial world order was in the process of transformation around the globe, new liberation movements appeared in Asia, Africa and Latin America. The enthusiasm emerging from the anti-colonial struggles in Cuba, Vietnam and Algeria found its expression especially in the 1955 Bandung Conference of non-aligned African and Asian nations.[1] [open endnotes in new window] Also known as the Third World countries, against the First (Capitalist) and Second (Soviet Union and Eastern blocs) worlds, they attempted to achieve independence from imperialist domination and its cultural hegemony. Their political demands were crystalized in a wave of militant manifestos that announced new criteria for arts and cinema. The wide range of anti-imperialist critical writings on cinema during the 1950s gradually inspired a film theory that prioritized nationalist concerns, seeking “an alternative, independent, anti-imperialist cinema more concerned with militancy than with auteurist self-expression or consumer satisfaction.”’[2] 

The works inspired by this perspective were shown in numerous film festival in Havana, Cuba (considering New Latin American cinema), in Carthage, Tunisia (regarding Arab and African cinema) and in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso (dedicated to African and Afro-diasporic cinemas) and they inspired the development of further styles and forms within the broad movement.[3]

The need to raise revolutionary consciousness culminated in the production of films made simultaneously with anti-colonial struggles:

The Cuban revolution and Peronist and Peron’s notion of a “third way” in Argentina played a crucial role in the emergence of Third Cinema theory and practice which drew on diverse currents such as Soviet montage, Surrealism, Italian neo-realism, Brechtian epic theatre, cinema verite and French New Wave as well as filmmakers innovative ideas and styles.[5]

The categories of First, Second and Third Cinema were primarily outlined by Latin American filmmakers such as Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino, then further elaborated, extended and theorized by contemporary filmmakers and theorists. The approach towards politics in this categorization “address[es] unequal access to and distribution of material and cultural resources, and the hierarchy of legitimacy and status accorded to those differentials.”[6] Therefore, this approach to cinema has developed an appropriate theoretical tool to probe historical conditions of production of films, particularly, in a context of Imperialism and early capitalism.

Solanas and Getino defined First Cinema as a “consumer good” that at its best merely testifies to the decadence of bourgeois lifestyle and remains a witness to the prevalent social injustices, probing capitalism’s effects not causes. They named it “surplus value cinema” since it is a cinema of mystification. Such films “were destined to satisfy only the ideological and economic interests of the owners of the film industry, the lords of the world film market, the great majority of whom were from the United States.”[7] First Cinema refers to mainstream cinema, commercial film production which primarily includes Hollywood and its national imitators around the world.[8]

Second Cinema includes art house cinema and authorial cinema. It is the cinema of

“institutionalized national culture, the cinema of authorial expressivity, the cinema of the middle class, the cinema of psychological crisis, … the cinema of poverty as a great moral question (rather than a question of socio-economic relations), and sometimes the cinema of poverty as aesthetic beauty.”[9]

Often Second Cinema converges with First Cinema attempting to create mythical and archetypal narration that transcends history. The way both First and Second Cinema evade articulating the historical specificity of social problems highlights that these modes of filmmaking also avoid dissecting the roots of inequalities and injustices produced by capitalism. [10] In addition, while Second Cinema is interested in the stories that tend to be ignored by First Cinema, it transforms particular stories into the example of general human condition, hence making new myths:

“While First Cinema is generally quite positive and affirmative of the capacity of individuals to change their circumstances, Second Cinema tends to be more pessimistic, hence the importance of cyclical structures and motifs, repetition or the prevalence of psychological break down.”[11]

Third Cinema, however, avoids universalizing mythical patterns and notions since it is deeply rooted in history. As it is not reduced to narrativizing anti-historical structures and cycles, it can develop scripts for social and cultural emancipation. At the same time, Third Cinema does not seek to invent completely new cinematic forms and language. It does not appear as the opposition to or rejection of the dominant or the art house cinema. Rather it has a dialectical relation with them through transforming their already established conventions.[12] This kind of radical film theory and practice was pioneered by Latin American intellectuals in the 1960s and 1970s who prioritized cinema as a communication tool in their relations with the masses during the liberation movements. In that context Third Cinema seemed like a tool for the “decolonization of culture.”[13] It was an aid to construct a new type of liberated subject—both though the filmmaking process and in a film text on the big screen. Among many such films are, for example

Such films have had a great impact. Contemporary film theorists recognize four key markers in these Third Cinema productions that continue to inspire new generations of politically motivated practitioners. First of all, Third Cinema is committed to historicity and recognizes history as a process of transformation, contradiction and conflict. This type of cinema seeks to provide a response for questions such as where we are, how we reached here, and who we are. Second, this kind of filmmaking has a commitment to politicizing viewers. With this goal, Third Cinema is a cinema of awakening, an image-creating medium to represent why and how people become conscious about their exploitation and oppression. Third, this type of filmmaking tries to increase its viewers’ critical abilities as it nourishs and expands spectators’ intellectual and cognitive power. Instead of merely stirring up emotion, it encourages a rational examination of the particular conditions that it sketches. And the last characteristic of Third Cinema is its focus on cultural specificity, with a result that this cinema demonstrates an admirable level of familiarity with both cultural practices such as dance, rituals, literature, etc. and also with culture as a way of life.[14]

Although the aims of Third Cinema appear highly sophisticated and maybe elitist, it is noteworthy that Third Cinema insists on finding ways to reach the greater masses of people. Some of the filmmakers use narrative fiction in order to reach a wider public. One of these, Fernando Birri, mentioned that Third Cinema had four key elements; it was supposed to be a nationalist, realist and critical cinema as well as a popular cinema. He himself turned to fiction since “the narrative construction had a much greater power of communication, and can embrace a much wider horizon than the documentary.”[15]

Third Cinema’s move towards the masses did not stop at the level of spectator but went beyond that and reached into the process of production. Octavio Getino called this “a cinema made collectively”[16] which meant involving ordinary people in filmmaking. Third Cinema pioneered democratic modes of production which aimed to change the labor hierarchies that the film industry institutionalizes as a microcosm of the social totality.[17] At the level of working practices, Third Cinema creators have been concerned democratizing filmmaking, including

“Here there is a whole deeply complex set of issues regarding the relationship between the middle class professionals and their relationship with groups who have not had the cultural and educational benefits of their upbringing.”[18]