Back to the Big Screen

By Andrews, Beverly | The Middle East, November 1993 | Go to article overview

Back to the Big Screen


Andrews, Beverly, The Middle East


Iran's associations with movie making go back to the beginning of the century when the then Shah returned from a trip to Europe with a cine camera and instructed that all royal events should henceforth be recorded on film.

Popular Western images of Iran include veiled women, fanatical soldiers and malevolent religious leaders. With growing unease about the spread of militant Islam, Iran has become something of a scapegoat for this international prejudice.

Iranian society is frequently painted as being barbaric and medieval with no cultural background to speak of. Its historic roots, set in the magnificence of the great Persian empire, are often overlooked as are the country's considerable contribution over the centuries to poetry and the arts.

Western audiences might therefore be surprised to discover that Iran is rapidly becoming the cinema capital of the Islamic world, a country where courageous film makers operating under severe restrictions are producing challenging films and attracting discerning international audiences.

The subjects of the films are diverse and include themes such as the traumatic effects of the Iran/Iraq war on returning soldiers in Marriage of the Blessed, a complicated love triangle set in the Iranian underworld in Nargass, or Majid Niruman's extraordinary autobiographical film The Runner tells the story of an orphaned child's fight for survival on the streets of Iran.

The film, now widely proclaimed as a classic of its time has been interpreted as a cry for resistance in the face of oppression. These films represent only a small sample of the cinematic output of Iran which totals more than 70 a year, out producing Britain, for example, by over three films to one.

Film making in the country is not a recent development. These latest works are simply the latest in a cinematic history which dates back to the turn of the century, when the fifth Shah of the Qajar dynasty purchased a cine camera for his court photographer Akkas Bashi, during a tour of Europe. All subsequent royal engagements were recorded on film.

Another important player in Iran's cinematic history is Ebrahim Khan Khalif Bashi, an antique dealer and political progressive, he began screening domestic and foreign films in the back of his shop in the 1900s. Demand to see the films was so great that in 1905 he opened Iran's first cinema. Unfortunately, Bashi eventually encountered royal disapproval which forced him into exile where he subsequently died. Thus began a pattern of artistic achievement followed by official disapproval which has continued to plague Iranian artists ever since. By the 1930s the political climate in Iran had changed again. Cinemas were opening up throughout the country and in 1930 the first home grown Iranian film, the silent Abi and Rabi, was shot in Tehran to be screened the following year.

Shortly afterwards the first feature film with sound was produced, marking the beginning of what has proved to be an enduring love affair between the Iranian people and their cinema.

Iranian directors have since repeatedly come to the international cinema going public's notice with innovative movies that have consistently received critical accolades and international awards. …

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