In a recent interview in Paris, a journalist asked renowned Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami to evaluate the status of the current cinema from Iran. With a mixture of pride and satisfaction, he answered: "I think of it as one of Iran's major exports: in addition to pistachio nuts, carpets, and oil, now there's the cinema."1 It has not always been so, even though Iranian cinema is one of the oldest and most active in the Middle East and the Third World. Until 1930, when the first Iranian feature fiction was released, only nonfiction films had been produced. Before World War I, most documentaries were sponsored and viewed by the Qajar royal family and the upper classes, thus creating a model of a private, sponsored cinema. The films themselves were "primitive" in that narratologically they were simple, consisting of footage of news events, actualities, and spectacles involving the royalty, usually filmed in long shot. Although occasionally documentary productions are mentioned, this chapter is centrally concerned with feature fictional films.
Despite a general dearth of reliable information, thanks to the travel diary of Muzzafared-Din Shah Qajar, we can pinpoint with rare accuracy the circumstances of the first Iranian nonfiction footage. The date is August 18, 1900; the location is the city of Ostend, Belgium; the occasion is Muzzafared- Din Shah's review of a "flower parade," during which some fifty floats laden with women pass by the shah, throwing bouquets of flowers at him, which he joyously returns; the cinematographer is Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkasbashi, the official court photographer;2 and the camera he used is a Gaumont, which he had purchased on order of the shah a few weeks earlier in Paris.3 In Iran, Akkasbashi filmed Moharram Shii religious ceremonies and other spectacles such as the lions in the royal zoo. These films along with French and Russian newsreels were shown at the houses of dignitaries and the royal palace during wedding, birth, and circumcision ceremonies.4