Iranians and their cinema: A love affair

The recent victory for Best Foreign Language Film of Asghar Farhadi’s latest is a triumph for Iranians everywhere.

84th Annual Academy Awards - Press Room
Asghar Farhadi's win for Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards marks the first time an Iranian film has won the prestigious award [GALLO/GETTY]

New York, NY – On the evening of February 26, Asghar Farhadi’s Joda’i-ye Nader az Simin (A Separation), won the Best Foreign Language Film at the 84th Academy Awards. Having conquered numerous other summits, this was a new pinnacle for Iranian cinema. 

Iranians around the globe, some waiting into the wee hours of the morning, others setting their clocks to get up early, all depending on their distance from the US West Coast, were euphoric. 

But the custodians of the beleaguered Islamic Republic were askance – the conspiratorially minded among them considered the award a plot. They consider everything a plot – as do the retrograde segments of “the opposition” they have generated and dispatched around the world to keep themselves in power. 

Those in power in the Islamic Republic thought this was an award to bring them down from power; those wishing the US and Israel will bring them back to Iran to power thought this was an award to keep them from overthrowing those in power. The pathology confounded itself – and thus the award became an instant measure of truth, separating those afflicted by politics and those liberated by art.

 The Fabulous Picture Show – Bullhead

Cinema illumine

Among those with the slightest affinity with cinema – the Iranian cinema in particular – the award was overdue, long in the offing and much, much, deserving, melting sugar, as we say in Persian, in their heart. 

Between Iranians and their cinema thrives a love affair: Every film that a gifted Iranian filmmaker makes is a love letter to their people, and they return it in kind, with the joy and ecstasy of sharing in their global celebrations. 

The world may love and celebrate these films for their plot and filming techniques, the virtuosity of acting or directorial ingenuity, their gifted camera work or mise-en-scène, or else for their clever editing and sound design, etc. 

But in each of these films, there is also a hidden (not so successfully) message between Iranian filmmakers and their people: We are here, we are watching you, we are with you, we will make it through this tyranny, the dawn is near – stay the course, life is good! 

The love affair of Iranians for the their cinema was in full global display on that Sunday evening – when men and women, left and right, pious and otherwise, gathered around the wishful hope that the world would get to know them for the best that is in them. 

The award was a moment of triumph for a people much abused by their ruling regime at home or else by threats of war and by crippling sanctions imposed on them from outside – by the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, no less, by a Barack Hussein Obama, of all people! 

A cinema that has given the world Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Jafar Panahi, Amir Naderi, Bahram Beizai’, Bahman Farmanara, Dariush Mehrjui – and before and after them scores of other luminary filmmakers loved and admired the world over – finally achieved the widest and the highest reach of a global spectatorship that was the crowning achievement of more than a century of visionary filmmaking. 

Asghar Farhadi was conquering the Mount Everest of world cinema and Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967), the poet-filmmaker who remains a defining moment of Iranian cinema, was shining luminously, like a happy star, that winter night on her offspring. 

Cinema and society in Iran 

The birth of Iranian cinema is commensurate with the origin of cinema itself – when Iran was ushered into its fateful encounter with European colonial modernity. Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi, the official photographer of the Qajar monarch Mozaffar al-Din Shah (reigned from 1896 to 1907), purchased one of the first Gaumont cameras in Paris in July 1900 – with which he filmed the reigning monarch’s European visit. 

Soon after that the first public movie theatres were opened in Iran. Ever since Iranian cinema has been body-and-soul with Iranian people – dodging the censorial policies of the ruling kings and clerics alike, keeping ordinary Iranians company in the direst and most enduring moments of their collective history. 

“Iranian cinema has been integral to the most fateful events in Iranian history, staying the course with Iranian people in their tumultuous passage into colonial modernity.”

From the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to 1911, Iranian cinema has been integral to the most fateful events in Iranian history, staying the course with Iranian people in their tumultuous passage into colonial modernity, framing the most traumatic turning points in their contemporary history.

Non-Muslim Iranians, particularly Armenians, have been instrumental in making the Iranian cinema possible. In 1925, Ovanes Ohanian (1896-1960), a leading Iranian-Armenian filmmaker, established the first film school in Iran and in 1930, he made the first Iranian silent Film Haji Agha: The Cinema Actor. Later in early 1932, Ohanian made Abi and Rabi. The presence of non-Muslims in Iranian cinema industry has been definitive to the formation of Iran as a nation-state. 

The first Iranian talkie, Dokhtar-e Lor (The Lor Girl), made by Ardeshir Irani and Abdolhossein Sepanta in the Imperial Film Company in Bombay, was subtitled “Iran of Yesterday and Iran of Today” – and soon assumed much political undertone during the rise of Pahlavi dynasty and Reza Shah’s (reigned from 1925 to 1941) “modernisation” policies. 

Soon after the traumatic CIA-sponsored coup of 1953, Iranian cinema emerged as a key cultural venue to capture and register the trauma of a betrayed nation. In the 1950s and 1960s, filmmakers like Farrokh Ghaffari, Ebrahim Golestan, Forough Farrokhzad and Dariush Mehrjui pushed the boundaries of Iranian cinema to uncharted territories – their collective cinema today the perfect mirror of their people’s hopes, fears, and aspirations. 

With the screening of Darius Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969), Iranian cinema began to receive a wider global audience. The launch of the Tehran World Festival in 1973 brought world filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Michelangelo Antonioni to Iran. But it was the trauma of the Iranian Revolution (1977 to 1979) and the subsequent Iran-Iraq war (1980 to 1988) that gave Iranian filmmakers a communal gathering that would soon set their film industry alight and bring it to world attention. 

Many historians consider the August 19, 1978 burning of the Rex Cinema in the southern city of Abadan, where hundreds perished, a trigger that set the Iranian 1979 revolution in motion. 

It was Amir Naderi’s Runner (1985), shot while Saddam Hussein was bombing Iran, and Bahram Beizai’s Bashu: The Little Stranger (1986), set in the war-torn Iran, that pushed Iranian cinema into global limelight – the same war that gave Iran its master war filmmaker: Ebrahim Hatamikia, the Oliver Stone of Iranian cinema. 

Jafar Panahi emerged as the filmmaker of post-war anomie, and soon celebrated as the champion filmmaker of the Green Movement, now under a prison term and banned from filmmaking for 20 years. He has defied that ban and just released a film he has called This is not a Film (2010). No government on planet earth can stop human ingenuity – that is the first and the final lesson of Iranian cinema. 

The little big man

As a filmmaker, Asghar Farhadi is the proud progeny of a long and illustrious parentage. Generation after generation of Iranian filmmakers – from Forough Farrokhzad to Jafar Panahi – stand behind him every time he stands behind his DP and says “action”, and then the same illustrious line assures him the veracity of the instance he must command: “cut”.    

Asghar Farhadi (born in 1972) studied dramatic arts and stage direction in Tehran, but was soon attracted to cinema, where he excelled from the get go. His Fireworks Wednesday (2006) won him the Gold Hugo at the Chicago International Film Festival, while his About Elly (2009) won the Silver Bear for Best Director at 59th International Berlin Film Festival, among many other awards.

His most recent film, Nader and Simin, A Separation (2011), which garnered him the Oscar, premiered at the 29th Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran to much critical acclaim. In February 2011 it became the first Iranian film to win the Golden Bear at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival.

On January 15, 2012, it won the Golden Globe for the Best Foreign Language Film, and from there it became the official Iranian submission for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 2012 Academy Awards where it was nominated in the two categories of the Best Foreign Film and the Best Original Screenplay. 

Receiving his award, Farhadi first spoke a few words in Persian, greeting the people of his homeland, and then became a harbinger of hope and peace for his own people and people around the globe:

At this time many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. They are happy not just because of an important award or a film or a filmmaker, but because at the time when talk of war, intimidation and aggression is exchanged between politicians the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilisations and despise hostility and resentment. Thank you so much.

Millions of Iranians listened to every word of Farhadi and soon the Persian translations of his speech circulated around the world, and soon after that myriads of congratulations showered over him and his team. At the moment of this triumph, they were thinking of master filmmakers like Sohrab Shahid Sales (1943-1998) who had died in exile, or like Amir Naderi and Bahram Beizai who are outside their homeland, or like Jafar Panahi who are banned from filmmaking. 

The ruling regime, having just banned the only independent union of Iranian filmmakers, the House of Cinema: The Iranian Alliance of Motion Picture Guilds, had no share in this honour. As always, Iranian filmmakers had to dodge censorial policies of the Islamic Republic to bring Iranians glory. 

The fear of the ruling regime of the global popularity of Iranian cinema is legitimate. In their cinema, Iranian people have already escaped the garrison state that the ruling regime wishes to impose on 75 million human beings. The transnational audience that Iranian cinema has generated and sustained for itself amounts to the final and formal destruction of the incarcerated subject of the Islamist tyranny, happily liberated onto the global stage.

Hamid Dabashi is Hagop Kevorkian Professor of Iranian Studies and Comparative Literature at Columbia University in New York. His books and articles on Iranian cinema include Masters and Masterpieces of Iranian Cinema (2007).