Persian Cinema and theater

Table of Contents

The film industry of Iran is widely recognized as one of the most vibrant and culturally significant industries globally. The history of this sphere has been shaped by social, political, and cultural transformations that have occurred in Iran over the last century. From the early stages of Iranian cinema during the 1930s to the present era, Iranian filmmakers have skillfully wielded their imaginative abilities to reflect the realities of their society while also questioning established hegemonic entities.

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 significantly influenced the themes, styles, and content of Persian cinema. Before the revolution, Persian cinema had predominantly featured melodramas, comedies, and musicals, with little emphasis on social or political critique. However, following the revolution, Persian cinema underwent a radical transformation as filmmakers embraced a more realistic and socially aware approach to their craft.

This article aims to provide a broad and detailed overview of Persian cinema, focusing mainly on its pre-revolution and post-revolution eras. The pre-revolutionary period, spanning from the 1930s to the late 1970s, witnessed the emergence of several influential directors and the cultivation of a distinctive style of filmmaking. Conversely, the post-revolution era, which began in 1979, witnessed a surge in censorship and state control but also gave birth to the Iranian New Wave and a new cohort of filmmakers who challenged existing norms.

This article will delve into the themes and styles of Persian cinema before and after the revolution, as well as the social and political issues confronted by Iranian filmmakers. Additionally, it will scrutinize the global reception of Persian cinema and its impact on the global film industry. Finally, this article will contemplate the future of Persian cinema, discussing the challenges facing Iranian filmmakers and the prospects for growth and development.

Pre-Revolution Persian Cinema

The inception of Iranian cinema can be traced back to the early 1900s, a period marked by the emergence of moving images in Iran. As a new art form, cinema generated significant excitement among the privileged classes in Tehran, where the first cinematic exhibitions were showcased. This era coincided with a period of modernization and westernization in Iran, during which novel technologies and art forms were being embraced.
The earliest films produced in Iran followed the style and technique of their French, German, and Italian counterparts, bearing the imprint of European cinema. Nevertheless, Persian cinema rapidly developed its unique identity, creating narratives that reflected the country’s vast cultural heritage and the pressing social and political challenges of the times.

Khan Bahadur Ardeshir Irani was among the pioneers of Iranian cinema. He made a groundbreaking contribution with the production of the first-ever Iranian sound film, “Dokhtar-e Lor” (Lor Girl), in 1933. Ardeshir Irani also played a crucial role in establishing Iran’s leading film school, the Institute of Film and Theater, in 1936, which was a pivotal moment in the growth of Iranian cinema, offering aspiring filmmakers an opportunity to train and acquire knowledge.

Persian Cinema
Figure 1. First-ever Iranian sound film, “Dokhtar-e Lor” (Lor Girl), in 1933

Despite the challenges faced in pre-revolutionary Iran, many influential filmmakers emerged whose efforts have influenced and will continue to influence subsequent generations of Iranian filmmakers. Iranian cinema has a rich history that laid the foundation for the development of a distinct art form that continues to thrive today, with filmmakers showcasing their skills despite numerous obstacles.

Key directors and their contributions to pre-revolution Persian cinema

The history of Iranian cinema is a complex and intricate tapestry woven together by a kaleidoscope of filmmakers, each contributing their unique artistic vision. Notable among these creators are Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Farrokh Ghaffari, Sohrab Shahid Saless, and Bahram Beyzai, all of whom have left an indelible mark on the medium. Their films serve as a mirror of the cultural, social, and political landscape of Iran during that period.

Abbas Kiarostami, in particular, is a towering figure in the annals of Iranian cinema, celebrated for his poetic realism, innovative style, and nuanced character development. His pre-1987 oeuvre, which includes such luminaries as “The Report” (1977), “The Traveler” (1974), and “Where Is the Friend’s Home?” (1987), delves deeply into themes such as childhood, memory, and social injustice, delivering a distinctly humanistic and empathetic approach to storytelling that sets it apart from its peers.

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Figure 2. Where Is the Friend’s Home? by Abbas Kiarostami

Dariush Mehrjui is an outstanding player in pre-revolutionary Iranian film. His socially concerned films address topics including poverty, corruption, and urbanization. Mehrjui has directed several significant films, such as “The Cow” (1969), “The Cycle” (1978), and “Hamoun” (1986). These films are renowned for their portrayal of everyday people’s difficulties and their use of metaphor and symbolism to communicate more significant social and political concerns.

Persian Cinema and theatre
Figure 3. Dariush Mehrjui’s “The Cow”

Farrokh Ghaffari was one of the creators of Iran’s New Wave film movement, which developed in the 1960s and challenged the established aesthetic and narrative traditions of Persian cinema. Ghaffari directed several notable films, such as “The Night of the Hunchback” (1965), “The Brick and the Mirror” (1965), and “The Strike” (1965). These films are well-known for their realism, social criticism, and use of metaphor and symbolism to examine complicated issues like power, corruption, and the human condition.

Another pre-revolutionary Iranian film pioneer was Sohrab Shahid Saless. His trademark minimalist approach centers on extended shots, organic lighting, and subtle sound effects. Director Saless has helmed numerous critically acclaimed features, such as “A Little Event” (1973), “Still Life” (1974), and “Diary of a Lover” (1975). These movies are known for their realistic depiction of mundane situations and their use of recurring visual and auditory patterns to generate a feeling of disorientation.

Bahram Beyzai was also an important player in Iranian film before the revolution. He successfully combines classical Iranian narrative with contemporary art forms. Among Beyzai’s most notable works as a director include “Downpour” (1972), “The Stranger and the Fog” (1976), and “The Crow” (1976). These movies are famous for their avant-garde approaches to mise-en-scène and cinematography, as well as their unique use of metaphor and allegory to discuss topics like love, death, and individuality.

It is safe to say that the works of Abbas Kiarostami, Dariush Mehrjui, Farrokh Ghaffari, Sohrab Shahid Saless, and Bahram Beyzai are among the most important and influential in pre-revolutionary Iranian film. Filmmakers throughout the globe continue to draw inspiration from and build upon the foundations laid by these directors, who represent a wide spectrum of approaches to narrative and visual aesthetics.

Themes and styles of pre-revolution Persian cinema

Pre-revolutionary Iranian films are well-known for their originality in both subject matter and aesthetics. Several of the movies of the time explored the conflict between modernity and established norms and values through the lens of social commentary and cultural realism. The struggle between the individual and the group was a major topic. The films examined the difficulties people faced while attempting to demonstrate their independence from societal norms and expectations.

Another major topic in Iranian society was the shifting position of women. Many films dealt with subjects of interest to women, and their depictions of women were typically subtle and complicated. Iranian filmmakers often focused on women’s struggles against patriarchal norms and how they overcame them.

In addition, Iranian film was distinguished by a unique style that combined reality with poetry. Long takes and immobile camera views were employed to create a feeling of quiet reflection. They often emphasized the beauty of ordinary life and paid particular attention to the smallest things. This style was inspired by European filmmakers, namely Italian neorealism, although Iranian filmmakers also established their own unique style.

Iranian cinema was renowned for its allegory and metaphor in the narrative. The films often had more than one meaning, and the narrative was not always conveyed in a straight line. They frequently developed slowly and subtly, leaving the viewer to piece together the film’s meaning as it progressed. This made it possible for films to delve more deeply into their subject matter, stimulating thought and discussion among viewers.

Iranian film before the revolution was distinguished by its own distinct style and an emphasis on social and cultural themes. Cinema from this era is still lauded for its lyrical beauty, subtle narrative, and potent themes decades after its release. Both artists and viewers all across the globe find inspiration in these films because of the window they provide into a period of rapid cultural and political transformation.

Post-Revolution Persian Cinema

Post-revolutionary Persian cinema emerged during a period of political and social upheaval, forcing filmmakers to adapt to unfamiliar constraints. Despite the Iranian government’s efforts to suppress cinema, artists persisted in expressing their opinions on gender roles, politics, and the clash between tradition and progress. Post-revolution Iranian films are renowned for their allegory and lyrical beauty, demanding much from their viewers. Iranian filmmakers have overcome these obstacles to achieve commercial and critical success around the world.

The impact of the Islamic Revolution on Iranian cinema

Along with the rest of Iranian society and culture, the film industry underwent profound transformations after the Islamic Revolution of 1979. The new government viewed movies as a potent medium for political and social propaganda and aimed to exploit them to spread Islamic principles. As a consequence, post-revolutionary Iran presented filmmakers with additional constraints and difficulties.

One of the most notable shifts was the severe censorship restrictions that mandated government committee approval of all films before distribution. These regulations were put in place to prevent movies from expressing views critical of the government or contrary to Islamic beliefs. Many directors had to balance being true to their own visions with accommodating the wishes of the authorities in power.persian theatre history

Notwithstanding these setbacks, Persian cinema flourished in the years after the revolution, with directors increasingly turning to allegorical narratives and sophisticated symbolism to communicate their thoughts. Persian cinema often tackled topics such as Persian nationality, societal difficulties, and the clash between tradition and progress. Additionally, a new group of filmmakers emerged, determined to expand the canon of Persian cinema and experiment with other styles of storytelling.

Iranian movies produced following the revolution have had a profound impact on the international cinema industry, winning awards at some of the most prestigious international film festivals. These movies have helped shape the way the world sees Iran by presenting a nuanced and complex picture of the country and its people on the big screen. Despite the ongoing challenges faced by Iranian filmmakers, cinema in the country has flourished in the wake of the revolution, with fresh voices and perspectives adding to the vibrancy and vitality of the genre.

The emergence of the Iranian New Wave and its key figures

The Iranian New Wave is a cinematic movement that emerged in the wake of the 1979 Iranian Revolution and was distinguished by its rejection of conventional storytelling techniques and its attention to topical social and political themes. New Iranian filmmakers emerged during the New Wave with the intention of expanding the canon of Persian cinema and trying out innovative techniques.

Several of Abbas Kiarostami’s films used poetic, minimalist narratives to investigate the complexity of Iranian society, making him a central player in the Iranian New Wave. Another major influence was Mohsen Makhmalbaf, whose films became famous for his use of allegory and symbolism to explore severe social and political issues.

Asghar Farhadi and Jafar Panahi are two of the most prominent figures associated with the Iranian New Wave. Farhadi’s films often examine the conflicts between tradition and modernity, while Panahi’s tend to investigate the lives of the poor and critique government policies.

Persian cinema
Figure 5. Jafar panahi in Intenatinal Film Festival of Berlin

In a significant way, the contemporary image of Iran abroad can be traced back to the revolutionary changes brought about by the Iranian New Wave. New generations of filmmakers have been influenced by the movement.

The role of censorship in post-revolution Iranian cinema

As a result of the Islamic Revolution in Iran, a rigorous censorship system was implemented, which had a significant impact on Persian film in the years that followed. Filmmakers in the Islamic Republic were compelled to obtain government censors’ approval for their screenplays and finished films before they could be screened in cinemas or disseminated to the general public, as doing so would violate the country’s stringent moral and political norms.

The censorship system restricted the subject matter and style of movies, prompting directors to begin using allegory and subtext to examine social and political concerns without directly criticizing the government. Nonetheless, Iranian filmmakers have persevered in the wake of the revolution, and their films have won acclaim throughout the world. The censorship system has been challenged by filmmakers like Jafar Panahi, who produce films that push the boundaries of what is acceptable.

Nevertheless, censorship remains a major issue in post-revolution Persian cinema, forcing directors to walk a fine line between creative freedom and government restrictions. Yet, Iranian filmmakers have persisted in creating groundbreaking works that have had a significant impact on the international film industry.

Key directors and their contributions to post-revolution Persian cinema

Iran’s film industry has produced many talented and acclaimed directors since the revolution. Here are the bios of six of the most significant Iranian filmmakers:

Mohsen Makhmalbaf is widely regarded as one of Iran’s best post-revolutionary filmmakers. Born in 1957, he began his career as a writer and filmmaker in the early 1980s. Several of his films address themes of social and political injustice, drawing on his personal experiences during the Iranian Revolution. Some of his well-known works include “The Cyclist” (1987), “Once Upon a Time, Cinema” (1992), and “Kandahar” (2000).

Persian cinema history Figure 6. Once Upon a Time, Cinema
Figure 6. Once Upon a Time, Cinema

Asghar Farhadi, another acclaimed Iranian director, gained prominence following the revolution in 1979. He became widely famous when his film “A Separation” (2011) won the Oscar Award for Best Foreign Language Film. Some of Farhadi’s films explore the moral and social issues of Iranian society. Other critically acclaimed works include “About Elly” (2009) and “The Salesman” (2013).

percian cinema abour ely
Figure 7. About Elly, by Asghar Farhadi

Samira Makhmalbaf is a female Iranian filmmaker who came to prominence following the revolution. She was born in 1980 and made her first feature film, “The Apple” (1998), at the age of 17, which earned her critical acclaim. The lives of Iranian mothers and children often serve as the narrative focal point of her films. Two of Makhmalbaf’s other well-known works are “Blackboards” (2000) and “At Five in the Afternoon” (2003).

Jafar Panahi (born in 1960) is a post-revolutionary filmmaker in Iran who has been arrested and imprisoned for the political nature of his works. Despite facing restrictions and threats, Panahi has continued to make films that challenge the regime. Some of his most well-known works include “The Circle” (2000), “Offside” (2006), and “3 Faces” (2018).

IRanian cinema and panahi
Figure 8. The Circle by Jafar Panahi

Bahman Ghobadi, an Iranian-Kurd born in the late ’60s, is a renowned filmmaker whose works often address the experiences of Iran’s many ethnic minorities. Some of his popular works include “A Time for Drunken Horses” (2000), “Turtles Can Fly” (2004), and “No One Knows About Persian Cats” (2009).

Persian cinema
Figure 9. Turtles Can Fly

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, born in 1954, has been one of the most influential women in Iranian film after the revolution. Her films often center on issues such as poverty, drug abuse, and class division. Excellent examples of her work are “The Blue-Veiled” (1995), “Beneath the Skin of the City” (2001), and “Mainline” (2006).

Figure 10. Beneath the Skin of the City
Persian cinema history

Themes and Trends in Persian Cinema

Iranian cinema has always had a strong emphasis on political and social issues. Iranian filmmakers often address the country’s political and social atmosphere in their films. Censorship and state control in post-revolutionary Iran’s cinema has compelled artists to tackle social and political themes via increasingly oblique and allegorical ways.

Iranian cinema often centers on the conflict between traditional values and progressive ideas. Many Iranian films examine the tensions that arise when ancient customs and beliefs clash with the forces of progress and globalization. Hence, these perspectives are often reflected in depictions of gender roles, family dynamics, and cultural identity.

Filmmakers in Iran often explore the psychological and emotional fallout of conflict. Numerous Iranian filmmakers have made attempts in their films to investigate the human cost of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-1988), which had a profound impact on Iranian society. The mental toll that war has on individuals, families, and communities is a recurring theme in Iranian cinema.

Iranian cinema often explores the relationship between creative expression and political engagement. Filmmakers in Iran often center their stories on marginalized people groups, including women, children, and the poor. In an attempt to encourage mass change, many Iranian films provide a harsh critique of the country’s social and economic systems.


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