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A Critical Overview of Bahram Beyzaie’s Dramatic and Cinematic Oeuvre: Contour in Time (1959-2023)

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A Critical Overview of Bahram Beyzaie’s Dramatic and Cinematic Oeuvre: Contour in Time (1959-2023)

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Marginality, Epistemic Privilege and Creative Impulse

Any overview of Beyzaie’s oeuvre must first examine the sources of his relentless creativity which from my perspective originates in his ability to sublimate his traumatic experiences of marginalization into epistemic authority through dedicated learning, while maintaining the outsider gaze that has enabled him to explore old and new subjects from fresh perspectives. Epistemic authority is the ability to perceive problems that others neglect and to articulate new standpoints which challenge the cultural and sociopolitical constructs that cause those problems. Epistemic authority is rooted in epistemic privilege, the idea that some forms of knowledge are perceivable only those who are directly affected by them but not others. In psychology, this means that only an individual has privileged access to their own thought processes, and in social sciences it entails that those deprived of their rights by sociopolitical or religious centres apprehend the problems of the system more acutely than the those ripping the benefits or remaining unharmed by the system.1For epistemic privilege, see Heil, “Privileged Access”, 238–251; Bar On, “Marginality and Epistemic” and Janack, “Standpoint Epistemology”. Though similar in its essence, my conception of the term departs from these in how I link it to creativity and how I foreground the psychosocial processes leading to epistemic privilege and emphasize the need to transcend minority and majority perspectives before such a process becomes possible. To clarify this, I usually use a door metaphor. If a door opens, the person leaving or entering a space never thinks of the door’s handle, frame, or hinges, but if it does not open, the person automatically scrutinises the door parts to find the issue. Rather than calling this state epistemic privilege, however, I call it the standpoint of the marginalized, and argue that epistemic privilege occurs only when such people gain psychological, sociopolitical, and historical self-awareness, exit the limits of their minority or marginalized outlook, and perceive the problems of those in other marginalized positions and that of the centre by understanding the way the system works. Indeed, the initial status cannot be a privilege if it only pushes the person into self-pity and anger or make them unable to see how other groups of people may suffer similar situations.

Epistemic authority can only occur if such individuals are not cowed by the centre and thus try to prove that they are more central to their culture than their suppressors by developing qualities that allow them to introduce new ways of seeing, doing, and understanding to confront the centre. The process also involves enhancing their ways of seeing with in-depth study or observation of other cultures which equips them with a status of in-betweenness or an outsider gaze that helps them transcend their own minority obsessions and introduce emancipatory ways of seeing and doing to their wider culture. The experience of marginality, as the initial trigger, does not need to be due to being a member of a marginalized group. It can result from any form of political, psychological, or social trauma that leads to early self-awareness: the death of a beloved person, a case of abuse, unjust imprisonment, a war or a revolution that deprives the person of a sense of belonging, or experience of in-betweenness due to being exposed to different cultures at a young age so that the person becomes unable

to fit in or accept any of them in its totality. Nevertheless, what guarantees epistemic authority is that while identifying with the marginalized, the person rebels against marginalization, and develops intellectual or physical qualities (creativity, knowledge, power, etc.) that make them appealing to the non-totalitarian members of the so-called centre.2For a theoretical analysis of Beyzaie’s creativity, see Talajooy, “Introduction” in Iranian Culture.

Beyzaie’s creativity indicates such a from in its origin and its focus on marginalization and marginalized artistic forms, social practices, narratives, and people. Beyzaie was born in Tehran on 25 December 1938. His father was a poet who organized a poetry group, and his mother and maternal grandmother were strong, intelligent, witty women with a passion for poetry and a treasure of folktales that triggered his early interest in folklore and myths. His forefathers were also among the leading directors of taʿziyeh passion plays in Aran of Kashan. This already rich cultural origin was further enriched by his exposure to religious debates and Bahai ideas as his father had converted to Bahaism. Though Beyzaie never practised Bahaism as an adult and became an agnostic in his teenage years, he suffered the consequences of his family’s religion from an early age. During his teenage years, he was also exposed to various vestiges of how dominant discourses marginalize the people, practices and beliefs that contradict their reductive narratives of national identity. With the Allies’ occupation (1941-46) already shaking the country’s culture, politics and economy, Beyzaie observed on a daily basis the consequences of religious, party and state terrorism of the early 1950s, the conflicts over the nationalization of Iran’s oil industry (1950-53), the suppression and executions of leftist and pro-Mosaddegh intellectuals, military officers and political activists before and after the 1953 coup and the clampdown on Bahais following the broadcast of Mohamad Taqi Faslafi’s anti-Bahai speech from the national Radio in 1955.3Fischer, Iran: “From Religious”, 187; and Davani, Khāterāt, 200.

Beyzaie developed an interest in cinema in the 1950s, first as a space to escape the violence of his teachers and classmates,4Beyzaie in Nikazar, Reesheh-hā, Minutes 2′-15′. and then as a field of research and creativity to deconstruct the cultural narratives that justified such forms of violence against anyone who was deemed different. In 1958, he also joined Farrokh Ghaffary’s Cine Club where he was exposed to art films. He also began to see and read plays and became interested in the indigenous-style plays staged by Goruh-e Honarhā-ye Melli (National Art Troupe). These two passions pushed the young Beyzaie towards dedicated research on Iranian and non-Iranian art forms, but since it was not possible for him to make films in these early years, his creativity began to be reflected in writing plays and publishing articles on Iranian performance traditions.5See Talajooy, “Beyzaie’s Formation”; “Introduction: Bahram”; and “Chapter 1 in Iranian Culture. See also Abdi, Gharibeh, 13-32.

Beyzaie the Playwright (1959-1970)

Between 1959 and 1961, Beyzaie studied Iranian myths, literature, and performance and visual art forms. His intention was to find ways to depict the lives of contemporary Iranians while remaining rooted in Iran’s artistic and material culture. He discovered taʿziyeh passion plays, puppet plays, and taqlid comedies and published articles on cinema and then drama in literary journals. For a year he also studied Persian literature at Tehran University, but when he noticed the lack of interest in his favourite subjects, he left the university to write his book on indigenous performing traditions. Beyzaie refers to this choice as an unwanted yet inevitable and pleasant development. In 1977, when he had already established himself as the most prolific playwright of modern indigenous style plays and had directed four films, Hagir Daryoush, a journalist and filmmaker, asked him about the sources of his creativity and why he engaged with indigenous forms. His response revealed an outlook that has remained true:

I did not choose theatre; theatre chose me. When it could not find anyone, it placed itself on my path with the bewildering plays of Shakespeare or Greek or Far East playwrights. I was not tricked until one day theatre revealed its beauty to me in a taʿziyeh play that charmed my soul. This was when cinema had turned its back on me. […] I felt I had to rise to its challenge, find the causes of its enchanting beauty and the reasons for my fascination. It made me aware of my paucity, aware of what I was. Suddenly, I became conscious of the abyss behind me, of the baseless grounds under my feet. I realized that my historical wounds cannot be healed or beautified with cosmetic borrowings from others and that my ancestral treasure had been hidden from me. I studied history and found myself heir to an immense world of atrocity and fear. Yet I gradually began to hear the voice of people, the voice of those who have not been mentioned in history. For four years I wrote exegeses on Iranian theatre tradition. Until that strange day when I realized that I myself had to create […]. I sat down and wrote. It is now twenty years that I have been looking for my lost dreams.6Beyzaie, “Tark-e”, 36.
Beyzaie’s words suggest some of his main concerns: reformulating Iranian indigenous forms for modern theatre and cinema and rereading Iran’s history and myths not to glorify kings and heroes but to echo the voices that have been marginalized and find what went wrong to produce the present issues. Beyzaie had also noticed that artistic and theatre establishments and even universities tended to deny that Iran had a performing tradition. Thus, he dedicated the first decade of his work to writing on and reviving indigenous Iranian forms and introducing Asian Theatre to Iranian practitioners. The result was the publication of several journal articles which he later published as books, Theatre in Iran (1965), Theatre in Japan (1966) and Theatre in China (1969) or as pamphlets for university teaching, Theatre in India (1971). These monographs established Beyzaie as a leading contributor to the cosmopolitan discourses of Iran’s return-to-the-roots movements, which aspired to modernize indigenous forms and expand the horizons of Iran’s culture by engaging not only with Euro-American art forms but also with Asian and Middle Eastern ones.7Other people who contributed to this, included poets like Sohrab Sephri and Ahmad Shamlou, intellectuals like Dariush Shaygan and Dariush Ashuri and some theatre practitioners like Ezzatollah Entezami and Ali Nasirian.

During the early 1960s, Beyzaie also rewrote his play Ārash, which he had written earlier in Reponse to Siyavush Kasraei’s poem Ārash-e Kamāngir and wrote his own first rendition of the myth of Zahhāk in Azhdāhāk and a recitation piece about the myth of Jām-e Jam (The World Displaying Challis) that he later published as Account of Bondar, the Premier (1996). These pieces which function as recitations plays for one, two or more actors use naqqāli’s subject matters and narration techniques to question the centre-obsessed voice of mythology and call for rereading the past and its narratives of belonging. Thus, Azhdāhāk, a dramatic monologue, echoes the unheard voice of a demonized king to show how marginalization alienates people and leads to the continuation of the vicious circles of violence. These works already display Beyzaie’s deconstructive vision and his understanding of modernity as a process of facing the worst in ourselves and discarding our illusions of grandeur to construct better futures. They also subvert the assumptions about the mythical characters involved. In Ārash, Ārash is a shepherd drafted into the army as a horse groom, who achieves his feat because he is cornered by the Turānian king and his own people. Turānians aim to ridicule Iranians by having a shepherd shoot the arrow that determines the borders, and Iranians assume Ārash has volunteered to do so because he has been a spy. If he says no to shooting the arrow, Turānians will massacre Iranian soldiers, and if he says yes, Iranians conclude that he is a spy. Though this intense ostracization pushes him to achieve his feat, his heroic act is likely to lead to nothing but the perpetuation of the same obsession with heroes that makes people apathetic to their responsibilities. In Azhdāhāk, Zahak’s madness and the snakes on his shoulders, which symbolize his self-hatred, are his natural reactions to Jamshid’s suppression of his non-Iranian subjects. In Bondar, Jamshid is not the benevolent initiator of Iranian culture, but a paranoid king who claims the scientific achievements of his premier and supresses the people around him so much that Bondar destroys his invention, the “world displaying challis” to stop Jamshid from using the device to find and massacre dissidents.8See Talajooy, “Reformulation” and “Genealogy of Ārash”.

Following the publication of his first articles on Iranian Theatre, Beyzaie who had been employed as a clerk in notary public was transferred to the Office of Dramatic Arts. His experience in the notary office, as a space in which people are reduced to numbers and records, is later reflected in some of his Kafkaesque scenes as in Occupation (1980) or Killing Mad Dogs (2000), but the transfer enabled him to cooperate with several theatre troupes as text editor, designer and assistant director. The first products of this cooperation were three puppet plays The Marionettes, Sunset in a Strange Land and Tale of the Hidden Moon (1962-3). These plays had an emancipatory aesthetics in which the metatheatrical dialogue between the narrator/puppeteer and his puppets in Iranian puppet form (kheimeh-shab-bāzi) had been used to reflect the relationship between dominant discourses and individuals in a context in which actors who moved and talked like puppets began to act as humans, rebel against the roles imposed on them for thousands of years and initiate new forms of dialogue with each other. The hero realizes that he has been the victim of a culture in which people expect heroes to deal with their problems and finds that the so-called demon is only an oppressed individual. When the hero and the demon refuse to fight and the puppeteer destroys them, the girl and the black learn to think for themselves and face the positive and negative impacts of their decisions. Their self-awareness and revolt, however, is shown to be only a step which does not end the vicious circle of demonization and heroism.9See Talajooy, Iranian Culture, 37-70.

Another important play Beyzaie wrote in this period was So Dies Pahlevān Akbar (1963). The play used the linguistic registers, ambiance, and mentalities of the frequenters of the zurkhāneh (traditional sport club), the folktales on javānmardi (chivalry) cults and their famous role model Puriā-ye Vali (Pahlevān Mohamad Khwarizmi, 1255-1323) to reconstruct the ideals of heroism. It played a significant role in initiating a new interest in javānmardi and its ideal heroes pahlevān and ayyār in contrast with the streetwise tough guys who had become central to Iranian cinema since 1958. It also introduced the possibility of writing and successfully staging a play with a dying hero, a figure who became central to alternative Iranian films a couple of years after the play was staged by Abbas Javanmard in 1965. While exploring the possibility of adhering to javānmardi ideals in a society fraught with political and religious opportunism and exclusionism, Beyzaie constructs a psychosocial study that depicts selfless heroes as victims of marginalization and exploitation. It reflects on how a marginalized person’s desire for belonging and love may initiate a quest for recognition and setting things right in a pathway that turns him into an outwardly indomitable hero while he remains inwardly lonely. It also examines how this quest for recognition distorts the person’s happiness due to people’s expectations once he or she achieves unique qualities. Beyzaie’s gaze also reflects on the individual’s conflict with his or her psychological shadow because the Kafkaesque figure that uses Pahlevān’s own machete to kill him can be argued to be a manifestation of his shadow. Indeed, even if one interprets the figure as an assassin or a bandit who is after revenge, it is Pahlevān’s own death wish which makes him surrender.10Talajooy, “A Pahlevān’s Failed”.

Beyzaie’s involvement with the National Art Troupe, his trip to France for the performance of his second and third puppet plays, The Sunset in a Strange Land and Tale of the Hidden Moon as part of Theatre of Nations Festival in Paris, and his own directorial debut with his first puppet play, The Marionette, for the Iranian television in 1966 established him as a leading voice in Iranian theatre. This position was further established by the plays that he wrote between 1964 and 1967, including The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, The Journalistic World of Mr Asrari, The Snake King, The Feast, The Inheritance and Four Boxes. Each of these plays introduced new ways of dramatization and new perspectives on politics, arts, society and culture which diverged from dominant discourses to comment on how individuals fell victim to the machination of opportunistic elites or inherited narratives that distort their identity. As in So Dies Pahlevān Akbar, a major theme in these plays is human identity and how a person’s understanding of their life may be different from what others assume about that person, and how it is impossible to transform these inflated or distorted assumptions. In The Eight Journey of Sinbad, Beyzaie adds an emphasis on the unreliability of history and on how official accounts twist reality for the ruling elites’ political or personal gains. Returning after a thousand years, Sinbad performs the real story of his life and journeys in a series of public plays to change the people’s wrong assumptions about himself. While these plays demonstrate how human beings sacrifice happiness in their quest for happiness, his final failure to change their minds indicates how the impossibility of changing people’s illusions and assumptions once they are tricked by the dominant discourses and the so-called common sense that these dominant discourses have inject into their minds.

Beyzaie’s The Journalistic World of Mr Asrari was also special in its fast-paced thriller-like plot that depicted the victimization of talented people in a society obsessed with class, money, and title. Beyzaie continued working with such plots in his noire-like city films, but this theme evolved in his later works to display how those who can contribute to the scientific and cultural growth of their society are exploited by those who crave power. It was also one of the earliest of Iranian plays and films that focused on the metamorphosis of the little man in a distorted culture. The machination of exploitation, which works by social gaze, economic pressure, or direct compulsion pins the individual into a given role to exploit their skills or derail their progress if they do not bend to exploitation. The nephew of the chief editor of a failing journal publishes the stories of a young typesetter under his own name. The journal’s readership skyrockets due to the popularity and literary genius of the stories, and the editor uses economic and peer pressure to disrupt the typesetter’s attempt to prove his authorship.

Another key play, The Snake King reformulated the techniques of taqlid improvisatory comedies to recreate several folk narratives, particularly “Mehrin Negār and the Snake King” as a folk play commenting on colonialism, leadership, citizenship, and democratic change.11Taqlid is a general term used for a range of comic forms which used dance, music, witty dialogue, happy-ending plots and routines, and imitations of accents and typical movements of different types of people to draw laughter. Up to the early twentieth century, they were used to perform folktales or topical satirical scenarios. See Beyzaie, Namāyesh, 157-204. Floor, History, 13-61. While depicting human identity as a process of changing masks, the play uses creative theatricality and role playing as sites of emancipatory revelation. The intelligent daughter of a premier and her beloved, a young prince, who has been disguising himself as a snake, revolt against the unscrupulous upholders of the hierarchies of power to help the downtrodden people, the demons, to regain a sense humanity. However, like the other good rulers in Beyzaie’s oeuvre, they relinquish power once they bring justice to the land.

Beyzaie’s focus on how arrogant, greedy leaders, tribal and ethnic rivalries and wrong cultural obsessions may expose a country to colonial exploitation continued in his one-act plays, The Feast and The Inheritance. The first depicts a village community in which the leaders are the real wolves who betray and destroy the cattle for their personal gain. The second demonstrates how the inane squabbles of three brothers leave their inheritance at the mercy of thieves. Four Boxes, written during Mohammad Reza Shah’s coronation in 1967 mixes the taqlid dance play of four boxes with puppet forms to comment on the political situation of Iran since the early 1940s. As Beyzaie’s most political play of the 1960s, it depicts how four characters representing four social types fall victim to a scarecrow that they create to fend off foreign invaders. In a famous scene the play features an armed scarecrow ceremonially sitting on a throne after he subdues Yellow (the intellectual), Green (the clergy), Red (the businessman), and Black (the worker) and imprisons them in their boxes. Beyzaie directed the first two plays with the National Theatre troupe, but the political suggestiveness of Four Boxes led to its being banned from formal performances until recently.12Respectively see, Beyzaie, “Ziyafat”, “Mirās” and “Chāhār Sandugh” in Divān-e Namāysh 2, 1-150. For an analysis of Four Boxes, see Ghanoonparvar, “Collective Identity”.

The years between 1967 and 1970 mark the final years Beyzaie’s focus on theatre as he began writing filmscripts (1967), teaching at the University of Tehran (1969) and making films (1970). It was also during the same years in 1969 that his performance of The Snake King in Mashhad was disrupted by radical leftists. The event left an indelible mark on Beyzaie’s mind to the extent that it further urged him to avoid the intense atmosphere of the theatre and focus on his university job and filmmaking.13Beyzaie and Daryoush, “Tark-e”. During the event which, according to some sources had been organized by Saeed Soltanpour (1940-81), protesters chanted slogans, threatened to kill Beyzaie and accused him of selling himself to the state although he had long been involved in the campaign for freedom of speech and was one of the founding members of the Kānun-e Nevisandegān (Writers’ Association, 1968-).14See Dolatabadi, “Abbas Āqa,” 235 and Beyzaie, “Āzādi Mikhāstand”, 133. According to Beyzaie, Soltanpour was not in Mashhad on the day, but he had visited the city three days earlier. Beyzaie and Talajooy, “Interview”.

Among the plays written in this period Court of Bactria extended Beyzaie’s experiments for turning taqlid into a drama of emancipation and cultural resistance against the suppressive and exclusionist attitudes of the state, the clergy, and the radical left in Iran. The play mixes folk narratives of ayyār warriors and historical and folk accounts about the corruption of Bactria’s (Balkh) officials and judges with Iranian comic forms to create an extended taqlid piece about the resistance of people against unscrupulous rulers and their agents who use their immunity to rob people of their properties, reputations, and lives. If Four Boxes contracts taqlid into a focused political allegory, Court of Bactria expands it to turn its stereotypes into life-affirming individuals facing the ruling elites’ tyranny and hypocrisy through role playing and creative theatricality. It thus turns indigenous dramatic forms into modern sites of resistance against economic, political, and religious opportunism. Echoing the special place given to female ayyārs in Iranian romances and female agency and quest in his own earlier plays, particularly The Snake King, Beyzaie gives Marjān a special place in the play to make her one of her early heroines who engage in direct action against injustice. The play also comments on social cruelty, including a scene in which a trader requests a handful of flesh from the body of a young man as payment for his debt,15Beyzaie, Divān-e, 224-29. The account is present in the original tales such as Qāzi-ye Hems which predates Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice. See Minovi, “Pānzdah”, 181-205. or one in which the real sinners engage in stoning an innocent woman to death. As Hamid Amjad also states, at a metaphorical level, the play also reflects on the conflicts that led to the 1953 coup. Thus, in a scene reflective of Mosaddeq’s talk in Bahārestān Square, just before being ousted by the state opportunists and their thugs, the good judge delivers a talk in “Nowbahār Square” to declare his intention to bring justice to the city.16Amjad, “Khānesh”, 38-39. As in So Dies Pahlevān Akbar, Beyzaie’s success in giving modern dramatic vibrancy to speech registers of medieval ayyāri tales by combining them with contemporary terms caught the attention of other writers. In a general assessment of Beyzaie’s writing, for instance, Mahmoud Dolatabadi argues that Beyzaie is a modern thinker with clear formal and thematic historical awareness but goes on to compare him with Saʿdi in his versatility and notes how during a group reading of Court of Bactria, he was impressed with his ability “to revive the language of our ancestors for the stage”.17Dolatabadi, Mim va Ān, 110-11. For Houshang Golshiri’s comments on Pahlevān Akbar, see also Beyzaie, “Roshanfekr”, 114.

During the same year, Beyzaie wrote The Lost, a play that follows some of the ideas he had promoted in Court of Bactria. Having returned from a religious pilgrim, a local ruler has nightmares about his death and decides to be fair but fails to do so in reality. People decide to leave or do things but get entangled in vicious circles of hypocrisy and fear. Talhak, one of Beyzaie’s wise fools appears for the first time in this play, but Beyzaie suggests that he is as lost as others, and his idea of justice is distorted by his limitations and personal obsessions. Beyzaie’s experience with the ban on Court of Bactria pushed him towards metaphorical suggestions rather than direct statements, which in this case make the play too vague. His final play of this important period was The Stormy Path of Farman the Son of Farman through the Darkness (1970). Farmān, the last heir of a feudal family, is in love with a village girl who looks like an ancient queen. The play, thus, reflects on contemporary Iranian politics by showing how the obsession with an overblown past can distract attention from what is at stake in the present and leave people at the mercy of colonizers and exploiters. The play’s ending is also interesting in that in a symbolic twist, it displays the setting to be a mental asylum, which echoes Hedayat’s “Three Drops of Blood” to compare obsessive utopianism with irremediable psychopathic self-centredness and madness.

With the atmosphere of Iranian theatre becoming increasingly polarised under the pressures of the state censorship, the militant anti-state religious and Marxist movements of the late 1960s, and the leftists’ attacks on the performances that were deemed pro-state or not critical enough, Beyzaie stopped his theatrical activities. Before making his first film, however, he also wrote a children’s story of initiation and quest. Truth and the Wiseman recounts the quest of a child for truth. The story contains the philosophical backbone of most of Beyzaie’s works: Truth is temporary, multisided, contradictory and ultimately impossible to define. The boy’s quest for truth ends in his return as a middle-aged man to his town where his parents no longer recognize him. He, thus, become a recluse that find truth not in the sky or great ideas but in the simple relationships and acts of love, work and production that we take for granted. It is in everything and in nothing, in wandering around, planting, harvesting, and building, being kind, curious, soft or hard when the circumstances demand it. It is the reed that grows from the earth and can be turned into lance, a pen or a flute, but the ultimate wise person is the one who knows how to turn the lance into a flute or a pen or plant it again. The book, which was illustrated by Morteza Momaiyez (1935-2005) and published by the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, became a turning point in Beyzaie’s career as he was offered the opportunity to make a film with the Institute. The result was Uncle Moustache, whose success meant that from 1970 until 1979, Beyzaie’s main preoccupation was to make films and write filmscripts.

Beyzaie, the Filmmaker and the Scriptwriter

Produced by the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults; Beyzaie’s first film, Uncle Moustache comments on the relationship of an old man with the local boys who turn the abandoned filed in front of his house into a makeshift football pitch. The man’s refusal to accept the boys leads to a conflict which finally ends with the boy’s disappearance after one of them is hurt. Having realised that he misses the children, the man, then, reconciles with them and changes some of his habits. The film offers a perspective on the inevitability of change when the world has changed. The man’s frowning moustachioed face and his knife in some scenes, his judge-like religious cloak and cap in others, and his formal stateman-like suit in some others represent the three types of violent and authoritarian masculinity which are ultimately replaced with hands full of food and a big supporting smile. Similarly, his obsession with the past, closed doors and windows, and old photos and books is replaced with the markers of a modern, polyphonic society, a world of smiling, flowers, food, games and open doors where children freely move and engage in constructive activities. Beyzaie turns the boy’s refusal to take the man seriously and their demonstrations and actions against him into a carnivalesque site of cultural resistance against suppressive authority. He also uses taqlid and taʿziyeh elements in his characterization of the old man whose rolling eyes, theatrical shenanigans, moustache and knife depict him as a comic version of shemr-khān (the murderer) of ta‘ziyeh plays or the babrāz-khān (vainglorious braggart) of taqlid plays.18Babrāz-khān is also a villain in the romance of Hossein Kurd Shabestari. These qualities create a lively ambiance for a profound ritual of quest, purgation and alteration that associates children’s rights and ability to demand their needs to the ideals of a modern democratic society in which even those in power learn to derive their happiness from cooperating with others to engineer collective happiness rather than use surveillance and violence to dominate others. The ending of the film, therefore, envisions a society in which “violence no longer determines what is right, and the free movement and the voices of the younger generation no longer annoys the old man.”19For more see Talajooy, “Uncle Moustache” and Iranian Culture, 71-90.

Like Abbas Kiarostami’s early films, Uncle Moustache functioned as a predecessor for many post-revolutionary films in which children acted as protagonists. Like Beyzaie’s later films, Journey, Downpour and Bashu, the Little Stranger, it also used children’s untamed, resistant gaze against undue impositions to reflect on how violence, normalizing gaze, surveillance, advice and threats are used to control people’s constructive curiosity and desire for change.

In 1970, Beyzaie also wrote Lonely Warrior (Ayyār-e Tanhā), his first filmscript on the Mongol invasion. As in his other historical scripts, his emphasis is not on the evilness of the invaders, but on the political and cultural failures, such as apathy, ignorance, hypocrisy, sycophancy, disunity, opportunism, and obsession with power, which leave people at the mercy of external invaders or turn local rulers into megalomaniac oppressors. As in his mythical plays, Beyzaie’s historical scripts also aspire to create a history of the unseen people by analogy. Lonely Warrior uses ritual elements to break several clichés about heroism by recounting a story of fear, transformation, and ultimate determination. The protagonists, the daughter of a man of knowledge and a warrior ayyār, are dynamic characters. In the beginning, traumatized by the violence he has observed, the ayyār is not beyond raping women and killing people when angry. He kills the man of knowledge who claims Iran will survive the Mongols’ onslaught and rapes his daughter thinking that she will be raped by the Mongols anyway. But the girl, now pregnant, has a strong sense of doing what needs to be done. She, thus, chases him and uses her resourcefulness to revive the caring man in the beast and turn the man and herself into the types of men and women who may fulfil her father’s prophecy although they may die in their encounters with the sandstorm of the Mongol army.

In 1971, Beyzaie who failed to find a producer for Lonely Warrior, commenced another full-length project that evolved to become his first filmic masterpiece. With its length and its seeming disunity, the film suggests the directorial position of a young filmmaker who wants to say it all. Despite this problem, however, the film was a brilliant debut which confronted the mainstream Iranian cinema by subverting its main clichés. A well-educated young teacher enters a poor neighbourhood, falls in love, is irritated by his pupils’ unruly behaviour and his colleagues’ nosiness, realizes that his pupils need proper entertainment and cultural facilities, and refurbishes the school hall as a site for his pupil’s cultural activities. Ultimately, however, he is transferred due to the request of the jealous headmaster who failed to make him marry his spoiled daughter. The film depicts the way the personally and communally defined historical elements unite with incidents in an individual’s life to form his/her identity and introduces a teacher, the prototype of intellectuality, as a protagonist competing with a thuggish butcher for the love of a girl in downtown Tehran. Beyzaie punctuates the lively comedy of resilience and hope with Kafkaesque motifs and encounters which gradually take over to create a tragedy of victimization and lost opportunities and reflect the impossibility of positive action in a surveillance society where the success of an individual may threaten those who want to keep everything under control. Thus, the black-wearing man who is dressed like Shi’i mourners but wears dark goggles embodies the traditional and modern mercenaries who, like the Black-wearing phantom in So Dies Pahlevān Akbar, act as instruments of tyranny and violence. Simultaneously, Beyzaie reformulates the tragic vision of ta‘ziyeh to depict Mr Hekmati, an intellectual, as a sacrificial hero. Vicious cultural, political or surreal forces distort the life of a creative intellectual who is urged by his love for his students and a hardworking woman to attempt to improve the lives of people.20See also Talajooy, Iranian Culture, 91-132.

Like Uncle Moustache, in Downpour, the protagonist’s journey of individual growth, quest for belonging, and compassionate reconciliation with people occurs due to his comically depicted encounters with naughty yet hardworking children who need guidance and facilities rather than punishment. Hekmati’s journey, however, is also intensified by his love for a woman with high potential for growth. The teacher, therefore, comes to realize the value of dedicated work and love for constructing a constructive sense of identity and belonging. Downpour is also important at a self-reflexive level as Hekmati’s rivalry with the Butcher, Rahim, over Ātefeh’s love proposes to replace the tough guy of mainstream cinema with new types of protagonists and the female protagonist is not just a simple love challenge for the male hero’s quest of initiation. Indeed, Ātefeh’s no-nonsense attitude and sense of duty as the sole provider for her family and her ability to choose rather than be won as a trophy play important roles in turning Hekmati, a bookish man with little social experience, into a constructive intellectual who aspires to make himself a better person by serving his pupils. The film’s form combines the qualities of Italian neo-realism with taʿziyeh, taqlid and Iranian carnivalesque forms such as mir-e nowruzi (Lord of Misrule).21For Mir-e Nowruzi, see Talajooy, “Intellectuals”, 382-83. Though reflected in the film’s general ambiance, this latter quality is central to the school hall scene in which Hekmati’s students celebrate him as their champion in defiance of the headmaster who is planning to take credit for rebuilding the hall and organizing the performance. Another interesting quality of the film occurs in how meta-filmic images are produced by turning figures of speech into comic theatrical scenes and combining them with dialogues that reflect the similarity of life and cinema. Important among such scenes are the boys’ shooting at a target with Marisa Mell’s image with a hired airgun, Ātefeh and Hekmati’s date under the pupils’ cinema-like voyeuristic gaze, Hekmati and Rahim’s brawls and reconciliation, the dressmaker’s relationship with her imaginary customer, or Hekmati’s funeral-like final departure which echoes that of “Jesus carrying his cross uphill to an inevitable fate”.22See Talajooy, “Bahram Beyzaie”, 37-8. See Ragbār (Downpour), 21’–22′; 58’–61′; 99’–110′; 114’–118′. The conscious theatricality of these scenes create performative Brechtian alienation moments that captivate the spectators and comment on both cinema itself and life as a form of performance.

Upon the success of Downpour in Tehran Film Festival in 1972, the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults approached Beyzaie for another film for children. The result was Journey, a mythically charged film depicting the quest of two dispossessed orphans, one visionary and one worldly and practical, for belonging and identity or simply a secure home, a mother and a family. Here Beyzaie’s metaphoric semiotics further evolves to generate a meticulous arrangement of the background images that turn a single journey into a cultural revelation. Like Huck in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Fin, it uses Tāle’s visionary aspirations and Razi’s down-to-earth practicality to offer an overview of a society devoid of critical thinking, obsessed with imitating the status quo, beleaguered by cruelty and mass mentalities, apathetic to the fate of the marginalized, and organized by unwritten laws that prohibit the weak from doing things but do not protect them from the tyranny of abusive elites. The background is filled with images of broken arches, sleeping old-fashioned labourers in demolished buildings, marching modern-looking robotic labourers, mirrors, eyeglasses, film posters, billboards, scrap yards and bewildered characters, suggesting the drifting of a culture in rapid transition in which imitative modernity is replacing medieval forms of life and art without any critical thinking.23See also Talajooy, Iranian Culture, 133-54. In an era when cinema was preoccupied with lionizing tough guys as champions of heterosexual love and savours of damsels in distress in films teeming with sexually evocative scenes, Tāle and Razi are chased by a paedophile thug in a meta-cinematic scene in which as they run through an area full of film posters, the tough guy dives through a poster of a nude actress to catch them.

Beyzaie juxtaposes the realities of child labour and the violation of children’s rights and potential for growth with images of joyful children and women on billboards advertising western commodities and the cold high-rise buildings that fail to function as a home for the boys. Though at an archetypal level, this journey depicts a single failed quest in a vicious circle of failing quests, the hardship motifs and the labour-like stages of the quest are orchestrated to critique the contemporary approach to modernization as being more obsessed with appearances than creating the actual necessities of grassroot development. Thus, the boys’ differences, and the vicious circle of desire, hope, action, and failure generate a metaphorical layer that associates their fate with the pitfalls of Iranian modernity. Razi, the craftsman, is swayed by the visionary Tāle to embark on quests for finding Tāle’s parents with the hope that they may give them the chance of having a normal life. This dream, however, is doomed to fail as the utopia that they imagine cannot be achieved by top-down development or even if achieved, the marginalized will not be the ones who rip its benefits. Nevertheless, their futile quest seems to be the only meaningful act in the ritualistically mechanical existence of the people around them. Burdened by ideas that block constructive curiosity, the people around them allow perversion and violence against the weak. They are also obsessed with the mundane and imitative repetition of outdated or superficially modern conventions with no clear understanding of their roots. Beyzaie, thus, highlights the need for transcending the mundane to be able to examine our lives like a work of art with aesthetic contemplation and see our past as a constructs that must be critically examined. Nevertheless, the boy’s allegorical quest for a lost sense of belonging and a supportive family also suggests that even such visions may turn into fixations on reclaiming a great past or finding saviours.

In its archetypal form, ritualistic motifs and regional music, Journey predicts Beyzaie’s village films, Stranger and the Fog, Ballad of Tārā and Bashu the Little Stranger, which are focused on human experience at archetypal and existential levels but comment on human relationships with nature, history, race, and nationhood. Its surrealistic urban setting and ambiance, however, reflect Beyzaie’s later use of noir elements in his city films The Crow, Maybe Some Other Time, Killing Mad Dogs and When We are All Sleeping. The focus on orphaned children as the ultimate markers of social negligence and marginalization echoes the same theme in So Dies Pahlevān Akbar, in which Pahlevān Akbar’s fate is sealed when he is lost as a boy and suffers a lifetime of traumatic ostracization. However, it also predicts similar situations in Stranger and the Fog, The Crow, Bashu the Little Stranger and Maybe Some Other Time. In other words, though short, Journey is a key film in Beyzaie’s oeuvre and a locus of thematic and formal experimentation for his later works.

In 1973, Beyzaie who had been teaching at the University of Tehran since 1969 was formally transferred to the University where he led the Department of Dramatic Litertaure for several years. Beyzaie himself taught Iranian and Asian dramatic forms, and his presence was inspirational in enhancing his students’ creative potential, but he also invited writers such as Houshang Golshiri and scholars like Shamim Bahar to join him as contributors to the undergraduate and postgraduate modules on drama, literature and play and film analysis. As a result, he played an important role in establishing the creative momentum that has made the department a bastion of creativity for Iranian performing arts.

The following year Beyzaie completed Stranger and the Fog (1974), his first village film which was like an agricultural spring festival in focusing on the uncanny arrival, passions, and final departure of an agent of fertility while reformulating several Iranian mourning, marriage, initiation, and fertility rituals to create a new template for Iranian cinema. Unlike other village films of the era, Stranger is not concerned with cliches of villagers as innocent victims of a cruel feudal lords or brave rebels who confront their lords. Instead, Beyzaie creates a narrative that works at three levels of suggestiveness: realistic, existential, and archetypal. A boat appears on the coast of a coastal village from beyond the fog; the villager find an injured man, Āyat, in the boat; Āyat tries to find a place in the village by working hard and marrying Raʿnā, a single mother and the widow of the fishing hero of the village; when hunting a wolf in the forest; Āyat is attacked by and kills a man whom he later finds to be Raʿnā’s former husband who was assumed dead but has been hiding in the forest; when Āyat finally feels that he has been accepted, the village is attacked by towering black-wearing men who have already warned Āyat that he has been summoned; Āyat slays all of them in a surrealistic battle scene in which with each slaying he himself seems to be also injured. Ultimately, however, thinking that the village may be attacked again, he gets on a boat injured and semi-conscious, but determined to know what is beyond the fog.

At its realistic level, the villagers are shown to be trapped in superstitious beliefs and an obsession with the afterlife and the unknown. Like Hekmati, Āyat is a stranger who wishes to be recognized for his positive qualities and to achieve a sense of belonging by serving the community. He aspires to be constructive and productive, an agent of fertility, and a reliable husband and father, who can fish, plough, plant, harvest, make boats, help the weak, and cut trees to build houses. This realistic aspect reflects the political hierarchies of belonging and power in a microcosm in which tacit rules, surveillance, ostracization and punishment are used to create docile subjects that must function exactly as the community expect them to. If individuals refuse the community’s rigid categories or try to change the rules, they must either define a major role for themselves by risking their lives and becoming heroes or they are rejected as villains, idiots or outcasts. In the film, there are a few people who fall into the latter categories. Āyat is an unwanted outsider as his amnesia and injuries suggest that he may be chased by his enemies who will pose a threat to the village, but his intelligence and skills propose him as an asset. Equally notable is Raʿnā, the widow of the lost hero of the village who has disappeared and been assumed dead a year before Āyat’s arrival. Raʿnā is revered as the widow of a hero and for her own beauty, generosity, and ability to work hard but is feared due to the villagers’ belief that she brings bad omen to the life of anyone who marries her. Thus, she is trapped on a pedestal of praise and dread and when she begins to make her own choices, she is treated as a pariah. The most neglected individual, however, is the lame orphaned boy who stands outside the village’s circles of inclusion in a status that, Beyzaie suggests, has enabled him to become a seer. The relationship between these three creates the triangle of ostracized individuals with unique qualities and reflects the way society treats those who do not fulfil its expectations. Āyat’s desire to marry Raʿnā and build a house for the lame boy, therefore, reflects his awareness of what is wrong with society. Yet Beyzaie’s concern also extends to Raʿnā’s father who combines the motifs of the village idiot and witch doctor. Though different, he has resigned to distorted social norms rather than confront them. On the opposite end is Raʿnā’s former husband, Āshub, the fake sacrificial hero who is later revealed to be alive. Tired of risking his life to fulfil people’s expectations by going further into the sea to fish and provide for them, he has escaped into a destructive anti-social life in the forest where he lives as a murderous thief.

This revelation, and the fact that people never realize that he had escaped and become a mugger reflect the same template that Beyzaie used to question the validity of myths, official histories or people’s beliefs about who is and who is not a hero in Ārash, The Eighth Voyage of Sinbad, or Journey. Āshub, whose name means chaos, is comparable to Humān in Ārash or the thug in Journey. Āyat’s encounter with the unknown man, Āshub, which leads to the latter’s death when he tries to kill Āyat, contributes to the archetypal suggestiveness of the film. At this level, Raʿnā embodies Esfandārmaz, the goddess of nature and fertility, Āshub represents a fake agent of fertility who has failed to stand by Raʿnā, and Āyat is an oblivious dying and resurrecting fertility god whose arrival, actions and departure are just to end the anomaly that Āshub’s actions have caused. This archetypal aspect is reflected first in Āyat’s unexpected arrival and the first glimpse that the spectators see of him in the boat, which looks as if he is a clay effigy like the effigies that were used in fertility rituals to embody Adonis or Tammuz.24Frazer, Golden, 331. See also the whole discussion in “Book II: Killing the God”, 223-556. It is, then, reinforced in the fertility, purgation, initiation, marriage, passion and mourning rituals in which Āyat plays a central role, and the sequence in which Āyat destroys the effigies that represent the villagers’ obsession with afterlife, breaks the bull-headed scarecrow like a Mithraic hero, beats the ground until his body and face are covered in mud and then washes himself in the river to make himself recognizable to Raʿnā just before he finds that Raʿnā also loves him. Its final confirmation, however, occurs in the battle scene in which every time he slays an invader, he himself seems to be injured too, and in each case, the villagers ritualistically push down the corpse of the invader into the mud in their farms as if to guarantee the fertility of their land.

Despite this archetypal echoes which evolve with the ritualization of action, the film’s realistic narrative problematizes Āyat’s final departure to suggest how an obsession with the unknown, religion and afterlife finally takes over him and how such obsessions deprive people, including Āyat himself, of the chance to lead a positively worldly life of togetherness and productivity. Simultaneously, these two levels generate a psychological level in which the shadowy beings, who initially only appear to Āyat but later invade the village and finally force Āyat to leave despite their death, may well represent his Jungian shadows, the sum of the stifled emotions desires, and traumatic experiences behind his mask of control and positivity. This is relevant because, according to Jung, “the less” the shadow “is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is”. If issues are examined at a conscious level, they may be adjusted by being “constantly in contact with other interests”. However, if they are “repressed and isolated from consciousness, they “burst forth suddenly in a moment of unawareness.” Thus, the shadow evolves into a pervasive “unconscious snag, thwarting our most well-meant intentions”.25Jung, Psychology, 131. Āyat’s amnesia has stifled the shadows of his unknown past, but they finally arise as demonic projections that negatively impact his life and the lives of his loved ones. As in So Dies Pahlevān Akbar, therefore, Āyat’s Mr Hyde, his uncanny black-wearing doubles suggest that “Āyat’s dreams of belonging are threatened by nightmarish forms of condensation, displacement and secondary revision”.26See Talajooy, Iranian Culture, 133-154. See also Freud, Interpretation, 147-158, 159-186, and 295-362.

Stranger can also be interpreted at an existential level as Āyat, like all of us, comes out of an unknown, is exposed to social norms and pressures, and aspires to belong and be recognized for his qualities rather than his past. Ultimately, however, he must leave for another unknown as his society and the embodied beliefs surrounding him in the form of uncanny black-wearing invaders do not allow him to fulfil his potential by remaining with the woman with whom he can make a better life for himself and others.

Beyzaie works already combined realistic and unrealistic elements from noir crime thrillers and ritually charged Western, Iranian and Asian theatre and dramatic rituals, but from Stranger onwards these elements increased in his works. He does not deny this hybrid approach. Instead, he states that filmmaking is a universal phenomenon which has evolved in each culture with an awareness of global and indigenous artistic, dramatic, and literary traditions and innovations. He, then, adds that since the latter forms were his primary concerns for a long time before making films, it is more likely that he learned the non-Iranian side of his craft from the same sources that have influenced people like Kurosawa, Fritz Lang, Bergman, Hitchcock, and Wells among others. However, Beyzaie also agrees that when it comes to editing, camerawork, mise en scene, background, and other filmic elements, whereas in his city films he has learned more from Euro-American filmmakers, in his village films he has learned more from Iranian and Asian traditions.27Beyzaie in Qukasiyan, Goftogu, 100-02, 174-180, 266-73, 292-95.

In general, however, Beyzaie’s approach reframes the indigenous or non-indigenous motifs and techniques he uses by placing them in situations that transform their forms and functions or by juxtaposing them with forms and rituals that change the meanings of everything that has been used. These hybrid elements, therefore, serve his unique vision and in doing so they evolve to create new techniques, themes and motifs. This is even the case in the final battle scene of Stranger and the Fog, which pays homage to Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurais (1954) but does so in a ritual context that reflects the similarity of Āyat’s essence with the invaders’ water-and-fog essence. Āyat is the water that has mingled with earth, Raʿnā, and wants to stay and contribute to the fertility of the land and its people, but the invading entities are determined to take him away. Thus, water and fog come to represent the unknown and afterlife, and earth and mud, what Āyat grasps in his hand and smells with love and longing in the penultimate scene, represent love, fertility and productive worldliness. Yet even this elemental aspect is sublimated further by another layer of ritualization which creates an uncanny folktale reminiscent of mystic Sufi tales, such as the folktale of Bāyazid-e Bastāmi’s invincibility when in his ecstasy of prayer, he becomes one with the divine.28As reported by Attar’s Biographies (Tazkerat, 143-144), in his praying ecstasy, Bāyazid once said, “Glory be to me, how sublime is my dignity?”. When his disciples reported this to him, he asked them to slay him if he repeats the sentence again, but when in his ecstasy of prayer, he repeated the sentence, and the disciples attacked to kill him, his being filled the room, and “his disciples’ knives” were as “affective as landing on water.” Bāyazid, then, shrank to his normal size, the size of a “sparrow,” and told his confused disciples, “Bāyazid is what you see now, that was not Bāyazid. […] The Almighty Himself sprinkled the tongue of his Servant.” Beyzaie, therefore, is original, not in creating something from nothing, which is an overblown understanding of creativity, but in his eclectic reframing of ancient rituals and modern forms in works that raise significant existential questions about life, love, heroism, and death.29For more see also Qukasiyan, Majmuʿeh, 273-312 and Goftogu, 93-127.

Following the release of Stranger and the Fog, some critics, who were confused by Beyzaie’s unorthodox approach to filmmaking and his refusal to keep using a template that had proved successful in Downpour, criticized him for making intellectual films which people could not understand or linked the esoteric aspects of the film to Bahaism.30See for instance, Eshqi, “Darbāreh”, 288-96; Naficy, “Stranger”, 2954-55, and Naficy, Social 2, 367. In other words, although the film’s dazzling cinematography, simple story of failure in love due to inherited beliefs, and effective use of archetypal, realistic and psychological motifs and colour symbolism were recognized by some critics, the intellectuals, who preferred simple political allegories, refused to play the intermediary role required for sublimating the public taste. Beyzaie, however, continued experimenting with new themes along with his favourite themes in innovative templates. In his press conference about The Crow in 1977, he even directly stated that his duty as a filmmaker is not to bend to what the dominant discourse calls popular taste, but to sublimate his spectators’ taste by enabling them to see, hear, experience, and speak about what they are not used to seeing, hearing, and speaking about.31Beyzaie in Omid, Tārikh, 749. He also insisted that bending to what is assumed to be the popular taste is an insult to people as all people have the potential to approach artistic works from new perspectives.32Beyzaie in Qukasiyan, Goftogu, 54–55.

This determination was further reflected in Truths about Leila the Daughter of Edris (1975), the first of Beyzaie’s many works which focus on the challenges that women face in patriarchal societies. Beyzaie’s filmscript depicts the life of a young working-class woman like Ātefeh of Downpour, who, having completed her high school diploma despite all the odds, tries to find a job outside her suppressive neighbourhood and live independently. The script combines noir elements with an anti-patriarchal discourse to depict the loneliness of a girl whose venturing to the world outside her home means that she needs to carve an identity for herself in a public space characterized by toxic masculinity and obsessed with marking women as prostitutes when they transcend its dictates. Beyzaie literally puts her in a situation in which she is unable to prove her identity, and the only room she can rent has been formerly occupied by a prostitute. The script, which, along Downpour, has had a major influence on Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman (2016),33The premise of Farhadi’s film echoes that of Beyzaie’s Truths, and the film places a man of Hekmati’s type in a Qeysar-like situation to mark the metamorphosis of a compassionate man in a culture of toxic masculinity. is also one of the earliest occasions in which a character communicates with the dead to make sense of her identity in a world where twisted notary archives and ghostly presences of her room’s past occupiers impose distorted cliché identities on individuals. The appearance of Leila’s grandfather marks the cultural practices that have historically contributed to women’s and men’s happiness by supporting women’s dreams, but his ultimate inability to help Leila and Leila’s determination to use her sword to defend herself against rape suggests the enormity of the issue.

In 1976 Beyzaie’s attempts to produce Truths failed because the CEO of the Sherkat-e Gostaresh-e Sanāye-e Sinemāei-ye Irān (Corporation for Expanding Iranian Cinema Industry), Bahman Farmanara insisted on replacing Parvaneh Masoumi, Beyzaie’s choice for the lead actress. His next film, The Crow, however, received a limited budget from the same company and was completed in 1977. The Crow is the first film in which Beyzaie’s epistemic privilege displays itself in a female intellectual protagonist, whose centrality suggests Beyzaie aspiration to redefine the roles of women in society. It is also the first of four films which use mystery and noir film elements and surrealistic journeys in time or to different parts of a violent city to contemplate the rise and the pitfalls of Iranian modernity.

The photo of a missing person advertisement featuring a girl of about 18 attracts the attention of a news anchor, Esālat, who embarks on a quest to find her with the help of a journalist and a tv presenter with detective techniques reminiscent of inept police assistants of ingenious detectives in noir films. His wife, Āsiyeh, due to her job as a teacher of deaf children, is involved on a daily basis in forms of communication that require intellectual precision, sympathy, empathy, and sensitivity to sounds, images and movements. Despite these qualities she remains disinterested in Esālat’s quest as she takes it to be another of his temporary interests and conversation subjects for the phoney collegial parties and relationships that characterize Esālat’s life. An accident in which she escapes from a kidnapper, however, provokes her curiosity about the girl and sets her on a mission which highlights the condition of women in a society characterized by extremes of medieval and pseudo-modern mentalities and practices. While Esālat is obsessed with superficial clues, Āsiyeh, who is also writing the memories of Esālat’s mother, Ālam, engages in discovering the past and the present of the city and its people. Beyzaie, thus, places Āsiyeh’s constructive curiosity on the nexus of personal and national histories to discover the sources of alienated and authentic identities in her culture. Thus, his heroine, a creative intellectual woman from a lower-class family, comes to discover that the photo of the missing person features Esālat’s mother. Ālam, the young woman in the photo, lost his beloved finance during the occupation era of the 1940s, had a short loveless marriage afterward, worked as a nurse, adopted Esālat when he was a three-years-old boy, and has now come to fill neglected and lost at an old age.

At a symbolic level, therefore, Beyzaie, orchestrates his motifs to link the destiny of women in the twentieth century to that of Iran as a country. However, unlike other writers who depict women as symbols of an ideal or a nation in plots in which they are saved or not saved by capable young men, Beyzaie gives agency to the woman herself as she tries to redefine her life by learning about the past and finding the path of the present. In this process, he also highlights the pitfalls of the transition from the Europe-inspired pseudo-modernity of the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s to the American style borrowed modernity of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s which led to the chaotic present of the film in which the dandified, irresponsible masculinity of Esālat and his friends is juxtaposed with the toxic masculinity of the thug who tries to kidnap Āsiyeh. In this process, Āsiyeh also comes to stand for the new woman, and a particular type of modern citizenship and leadership that must replace the pseudo modernity of people of Esālat’s type who have unthinkingly embraced and become obsessed with the superficial, borrowed modernity of the 1970s. At this symbolic level, the crow of the film’s title and the story that Āsiyeh recounts for her deaf pupils is Ālam who has lost her dreams and her potential for fertility and creativity in the conflicts arising from the misguided trajectory of Iranian modernity. Āsiyeh, however, is the woodpecker of the story, the one who pecks for the truth by rereading the past and present to get to the marrow of what Iranians are and can be and what they have been dreaming of becoming.

The Crow is filled with “inauthentic” people, who, though likeable due to their engaging and fun-loving personalities and their efforts to do something useful, as Esālat is, have no clue about the ethical imports of their actions or the bigger pictures in which their lives are framed. As reflected in the scene in which the host of a party searches the pockets of his guests when a gem is lost, they also have no self-respect and easily bend to the dominant discourse and the policing of their private lives. Beyzaie’s use of direct or ironic vice and virtue names highlights this aspect. Thus, Esālat whose name indicates authenticity is anything but authentic, or his friend Deimkār, (dryland farmer) whose name suggests planting without caring is a happy-go-lucky dandified person who is only concerned with superficial relations and being easy going.

Besides focusing on a female intellectual, a new feature of the film was the level of its self-reflexivity which transcended Beyzaie’s former engagements with cinema as a subject. Āsiyeh’s husband is a television presenter and documentary filmmaker who initiates Āsiyeh’s quest for finding the lost girl. Several filmmaking and photo-related scenes also comment on the relationship between photos and films with truth, past, present and the philosophical meaning of time and space and the position of cinema or the other media in a culture obsessed with appearances and doing things just to entertain, earn a living or pretend to care. Ālam’s lost finance was fascinated by new technology, had a camera, and took good photos.

Esālat is fascinated by technology, cameras and modern modes of communication but fails to communicate with Ālam, who has raised him, and Āsiyeh, who is going to give birth to his child. He is involved in making documentaries that are to convey the truth of social issues, but he does not really care about resolving them. Their documentaries are assembled with fake dialogues and scene arrangements and are not concerned with how and why these issues have evolved in time. Ālam’s old house and district only survive in her mind and fading photos. However, like history which only preserves “the bigger pictures”, her album only has large photos as almost all the small photos are missing.

Beyzaie also uses the performance of the deaf pupils in the school celebration scene to self-reflexively comment on the impossibility of communication in a culture in which various forms of state, religious and cultural censorships force the artists to communicate with the language of signs and suggestions rather than direct visual and linguistic engagement. Self-reflexive elements are also present in Āsiyeh’s aspiration as a writer of memories. She is a writer who wants to understand and reconstruct the past. Thus, the difficulties that she faces in establishing links between the memories, photos, places, and people of the past who are still alive are those of a person who believes that a proper understanding of the past are necessary for building a better future. At this level, the film also subverts the tradition-modernity binary. Rather than setting the two against each other, as Esālat’s copying of western modernity entails, it signifies that the most constructive form of modernity is one that actively learns from and communicate with other cultures, but simultaneously reformulates for the present those aspects of the indigenous tradition that can generate a homegrown form of modernity. Beyzaie’s heroine, therefore, is the most modern person in the film, but she is not alienated from her tradition. She has “a room of her own”, but unlike Ālam’s room, which is full of useless objects, which once represented borrowed modernity, Āsiyeh’s room, a greenhouse, is the only fertile and naturally beautiful space in the film. This is because her epistemic authority, which is rooted in her gender, lower-class origins, intellectual curiosity, education and job have enabled her to get access not only to her own room and that of her parents who are flower gardeners, but also to Ālam’s room and parties, and the lost memories and spaces that must be examined for understanding the present. This idea is reinforced in the expressionistic reflections of evocative sounds and images in the sequence in which Āsiyeh escapes from her kidnapper. In the scene, she passes fully covered women, made up hairpiece mannequins, ruined houses, and high-rise buildings before ending up in a shop full of clocks that show different times. Similarly, the scene in which she and Ālam walk in an imagined old Tehran reinforces the idea of the need for rereading the past. Beyzaie, thus, problematizes the concept of time, the gap between the extremes of cultural practices, and the ignorance of the past. In this context, Āsiyeh’s hesitant gaze at the end of the film suggests that she feels the impossibility of filling this gap and the possibility that another historical breach may make her fate like Ālam’s. The film, thus, also highlights the cultural chaos of the 1977’s present, which exploded with the revolution and widened even further after the revolution.

Due to its successful use of noir and expressionistic motifs and techniques, The Crow had the potential to become Beyzaie’s bestselling film, but the conflicts of the revolution and the fear of another incident like the fire of Cinema Rex in Abadan led to the closure of cinemas just a couple of weeks after the film was released in cinemas in October 1978. The film, therefore, became a key film in the Iranian new wave but remained underappreciated by the public.34See Talajooy, Iranian Culture, 193-235; and Sheibani, “Outcry” and “Film as Alternative”.

After The Crow, Beyzaie wrote the historically and ritually charged Āhu, Salandar, Talhak and Others, a script with three narratives set in medieval Iran. Āhu shows how love was mutilated by the feudal rulers’ practice of prima nocta, the right to spend the first night with any new bride. In a series of understated and succinct scenes, the script depicts a high-spirited girl slaying the feudal lord in revenge for killing her beloved husband who rebelled against this rule. The second, which has been turned into a short film by Varuzh Karim-Masihi in 1980 and another by Rafi Pit in 1994, showcases Iranian mysticism as a method of cultural and political resistance. The third is directly self-reflexive as it refashions the comic ritual of Mir-e Noruzi (Lord of Misrule) while reflect on how those who fail to achieve self-awareness and self-criticism project their self-resentments on others and criticize them while remaining unwilling to see the same problems in themselves. The language of these three pieces shows a clear progress in Beyzaie’s adaptation of the medieval modalities of Persian for cinema. They also offer templates that celebrate difference by focusing on the victimization and survival of three intellectually divergent characters: a girl, a mystic thinker and a witty comic performer.

These features are also central to The Mourning Wail (Nodbeh, 1977) which juxtaposes the worlds of early twentieth century women, rebels, and oppressors in a template that reframes taʿziyeh and taqlid themes to depict the status of Iran during the constitutional revolution by focusing on the lives of unknown women and their historically renowned or unknown visitors in a brothel. The play is, thus, partly in dialogue with Jean Genet’s The Balcony in that the relations of power in the brothel and its inhabitant and visitors function as a microcosm of the world outside and comments on how emancipation does not happen when the revolutionaries and the oppressors are in most cases similar, and the ones who are different are easily victimized. The protagonist, a girl sold to prostitution by his fiancé, is the most ethically responsible and compassionate person in a world filled with the so-called committed people who hide behind ideas to justify raping, breaking, burning, and killing due to their sadism or for political or economic gains. While linking the future of a nation to the way it treats its women, children and marginalized people, the play uses name symbolism to associate Zeinab, the protagonist, with ta’ziyeh sacrificial heroes. Rather than reflecting a religious outlook, however, this association signifies how people mourn atrocities inflicted on religious figures hundreds of years ago while they themselves inflict similar atrocities on those around them, especially on the marginalized, children and women. It, thus, reflects and mythologizes the destiny of those who suffer as much as sacrificial heroes, but the accounts of their sufferings remain untold. By focusing on the imagined lives of marginalized people at one of the historic junctures of Iranian history, Beyzaie fulfils his ideal of writing a history of people, but he also marks people as victims of revolutions and shows how revolutions replace one form of tyranny with another as they do not change the suppressive relations of power.35Beyzaie, “Tark-e”, 36; and Beyzaie in Dabashi, Close-up, 84. By focusing on a female only space in which female performances are included and into which different types of men enter to reveal their qualities, the play also creates a new template for using indigenous female-exclusive forms in modern drama.

During 1978, as the revolution was spreading all over Iran, Beyzaie directed his second village film, Ballad of Tārā, whose script he had written in 1977. Though most of the filming had been completed by December 1978, the escalation of the revolutionary conflicts delayed the films’ final production until 1980, when it was ultimately banned from screening by the new censorship committees. As reflected in Table 1, such bans were far reaching and not just for Beyzaie’s films. The first year after the revolution was particularly damaging to cinema as the new regulations meant that most films produced in 1977 and 1978 or earlier ones which still had sale potential were deemed inappropriate. With ever hardening rules in place, the pressures became so devastating that by 1983, the industry came to a halt.36For a discussion of the problems Iranian filmmakers faced in the 1980s, see Sadr, Iranian Cinema, 166-210.

Year Films Reviewed Permits Granted  Permits Refused
1979 2000 200 1800
1980 99 27 72
1981 83 18 65
1982 26 7 19
Total 2208 252 1956

Table 1: Iranian feature films granted or refused screening permits (1979–82)37Quoted in Naficy, Social 3, 29. From Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance 1985, appendix 1, 38–39.
Despite this blow, however, Ballad of Tārā gradually found its place as a key New Wave film due to its powerful filmic qualities. Tārā, a widow whose husband has been slayed by his brother, represents a nation and an individual at a critical time of decision making when she is loved by four people who represent different aspects of Iranian identity. These include her obsessive and murderous brother-in-law Āshub, the simple-minded infatuated Esmāeil, the honest and capable Qelich who loves and respects her, and an uncanny stranger from an unknown history who appears to reclaim his sword but falls in love with Tārā. Tārā’s preference dangles between Qelich and the Historical Man. Ultimately, she tries to join the Historical Man in death to compensate for his victimization in the past, but the natural world rejects this unnecessary sacrifice, and she returns to marry Qelich.

The film begins with a sequence in which Tārā, a young widow with two children, returns from her summer residence, realizes that her grandfather has died, and sees, on her way to the beach, a medieval warrior crossing the road. Tārā, then, returns to the village, distributes her grandfathers’ belongings among her neighbors and gives his mirror to the hard-working Qelich whom she likes. No one, however, wants his sword. Unable to use it as a scythe, an axe or a knife, or exchange it for anything useful, she throws it into a river. The armored Historical Man appears again to state that his people were all slayed in an unfair battle, and the sword, which he has come to reclaim, is the only surviving vestige of his people. Tārā later finds the sword and, after killing a mad dog, gives it to the Historical Man, but now he states that he is in love with her, and that blood has begun to gush from his old wounds.

Four men who represent the four direction that Tārā’s life can take are fascinated by her beauty, high spirits, sensual honesty, native intelligence, and intellectual versatility. At its personal, realistic level, her brother-in-law, Āshub (chaos) whom she suspects of having killed his brother to possess her, is a southerner who, unlike Tārā’s dead husband Rahmān who embodied compassionate masculinity, embodies the destruction, dogmatism and greed of toxic masculinity. Āshub also embodies an attraction that is likely to pull Tārā down to turn her into a docile wife with no agency. Esmāeil, a boy of about 16, embodies infatuation and retrogression into an earlier life that Tārā has long passed. Esmāeil love, therefore, is just an impulse which is likely to pull her back in time and character. The Historical Man, on the other hand, is from an unknown history and the land of the imaginal, where the ideal heroes and their narratives are awaiting intellectual revival. His love, therefore, embodies a desire to know the past of her people and homeland, build firmer grounds for her identity, compensate for the wrongs of the past and be united with the sky and the heroes of the imaginal and their ideal of a nation aware of its past. Uniting with him, however, runs the risk of an obsession with abstract ideals and a past which may impede productivity and fertility in the present.

Her choice, therefore, also reflects an allegory of national liberation. If Tārā chooses Āshub, the violent, controlling patriarch whose sisters’ costumes suggest that he also represents the consecration of patriarchy in religion, she has to say no to her freedom and her desire for delight. If she chooses the Historical Man, the subconscious embodiment of dead honors, she must join him in death or lose her children to death to revive him. In other words, obsession with historical glories or wrongs places people in a whirlpool of revenge and distorts the possibility of building a future because, as the account of the Historical Man demonstrates, history is a chaotic world of violence with layers after layers of discord, opportunism, greed and brother-killing. The brother-killing aspect in the Historical Man’s account also echoes, at a national level, the personal story of Rahmān’s death, which, in turn, indicates that Tārā’s visions of the Historical Man may be the projection of her attempts to understand the roots and the impacts of brother-killing on her culture. The Historical Man and his people were also massacred by those who claimed to be their brothers in religion but had betrayed them for worldly gains. Tārā, who is attracted to the Historical Man’s benevolent strength and sense of honors is so overwhelmed with pity and desire that she wants to join him in death to compensate for the wrongs of history. Yet, although her love for the Historical Man grants her a new understanding of who she is and gives meaning to the sword, the castle, the forest, and the sea as places in which people died to protect their beloved, Beyzaie orders the plot to signify that the past is not the land of glory it seems to be and that even its heroes are ready to exchange its distorting, cruel honors with a simple life.38See also Beyzaie in Qukasiyan, Goftogu, 154-56. Tārā’s ideal love, therefore, proves to be Qelich, whose kindness, energy and work ethics indicate that he can serve Tārā, her children and their homeland as much as she does. If Āshub’s path is downward, Esmāeil’s backwards, and the Historical Man’s upward, Qelich’s path is forward, as he is the only man who has the potential to be as forward looking as Tārā.

This is a liberating response to the tumultuous history of a nation which, confused by the claims of rivaling capitalist, leftist, royalist and Islamist utopian ideologies and the degrading games of neo-colonialism, was going headlong towards a revolution. The film, thus, rereads the past and mythologizes the transitional state of a people trapped between the claims of modern totalitarianism and outdated religious and cultural godheads. Tārā, as the soul of the nation, must decide what to do with her bitter past conflicts. To pick up sword and settle old accounts uncritically, to follow honor by saying no to the comforts of life, or to free herself from the plights of past dogmas and heroes and reconcile with love to build a productive life.

At its archetypal level, the film builds on the agricultural myths of earth, water, and fertility goddesses such as Ishtar, Esfandārmaz and Ānāhitā. Like Ishtar, Tārā, whose name echoes a later recording of Ishtar’s name in folktales, is sensual, warlike and aspires to descend to the underworld to reclaim a beloved man, her potential hero of fertility, who has been taken to the underworld in her place. Like Ānāhitā, who represents water, protection of fertility and family and victory in war, she is associated with the river and the sea, inherits a sword, and marries Qelich whose name also means “sword”. Like, Esfandārmaz, mother earth, she is associated with motherhood, earth, choosing one’s husband and preserving and resurrecting the dead.39For girl’s ability to choose their husband during the Feast of Esfandārmaz, see Biruni, Al-Āthār, 216, (Persian Text, 355). The association of the goddess with a girls’ freedom to choose her husband is also reflected in the myth of Ārash in which though Esfandārmaz is (forcefully) betrothed to Afrāsiyāb (the earth, being occupied by an invader who has caused draught), she guides Manuchehr and Ārash to craft the bow and the arrow that Ārash uses to extend Iran’s borders to central Asia. See also Talajooy, “Genealogy of Ārash”. This archetypal level is reinforced by the simultaneity of the film’s main narrative with the villagers’ taʿziyeh performance. As a ritual originating in the fertility rites of dying gods and sacrificial heroes and still associated with bringing prosperity and fertility to the lives of those performing it, the taʿziyeh performance becomes a parallel for the main plot to suggest that Beyzaie’s film which highlights the passions of the real defenders of the land is far superior to the one buried under layers of religious symbolism.

This archetypal level also contains the film’s reflections on the idea of the imaginal or Nā-Kojā-Ābād (nowhere land), where the heroes of the past are awaiting to be revived and embodied to provide guidance and cultural authenticity for the living. Communion with “the imaginal” has a structural significance that turns the film into a modern, secularized taʿziyeh while asserting the pre-Islamic animistic roots of the form. Apart from the Shahnameh and its reformulation of Iranian utopian myths in which Kaykhsorow vanishes into the unseen and Jamshid’s Vara, Varjamkard (Jamshid-made fort) and Siyāvush’s Gang Dezh (Gang Castle) are said to be ever existing in an unseen realm inhabited by the pure ones who will join the Zoroastrian savior,40See Zoroastrian Text, Vendidad, Fargard 2, 10-20; Zoroastrian Text, Bundaheshn, Part 18, 139-42; and Corbin, Spiritual, 23-24, 278. While celebrating Siyāvush and Kaykhsorow’s spirituality, Ferdowsi’s inclusion of Zāl’s comment on Kaykhsorow’s vanishing, “the wise would laugh at the business of someone going to god alive”, signifies the worldliness of a different type of intellectuality that the Shahnameh equally celebrates: خردمند از این کار خندان شود * که زنده کسی پیش یزدان شود. one of the first post-Islamic mystic elaborations of the idea of Nā-Koja-Ābād occurs in Sheikh Shahabuddin Sohravardi’s (1154-91) writings. The idea which has influenced the Shiʿi beliefs in the occulting twelfth Imam and the ever-presence of Karbala martyrs and other religious figures in an unseen world occurs in Aql-e Sorkh (Crimsoned Archangel/Red Reason, 1180s) and Sedā-ye Āvāz-e Par-e Jebreil (Rustling of Gabriel’s Wings), where a stranger from the unknown, “the imaginal” appears to take the individual to a journey of self-discovery.41Nā-Koja-Ābād is the unseen world of the ever-living heroes and saints between the earthly world (گیتی) and the heavens or the unseen space of the divine (مینو). Embedded in this pre- and post-Islamic cosmology is also the Shi‘i idea of shahidān-e shāhed “the living, observant martyrs,” who reside in a paradisaic limbo and are the eternal testifiers to the truth of their belief and also cognizant and observant of all human activities. In this context, the Historical Man, appears like the angelic being in Sohrevardi’s Red Reason to provide guidance and express the truth, which in his case involves conveying the claims of a marginalized, neglected past to the people of the present. In Beyzaie’s film, however, this messenger of the imaginal learns as much from Beyzaie’s lively heroine as she learns from him.42For the imaginal in Iranian cultural products, see my chapter on Ballad of Tārā in Beyzaie’s Dramatic and Cinematic Worlds. The term “Imaginal” was first introduced by Henry Corbin as a portmanteau word to refer to the two sides of the concept which introduces a “real” realm that is both original and imaginary and stands between the mundane and the spiritual. See Corbin, “Mundus Imaginalis”, part 1; and Spiritual Body, ix. Beyzaie celebrates human constructive worldliness and subverts the mystic obsessions with letting go of life by showing how he craves to be able to have the normal family life of fertility, productivity, and love that he could have had with a woman of Tārā’s qualities. Ultimately, he also overcomes the tug of war between love and honor in his soul by realizing that the highest form of honor is not the one associated with honoring his swords to maintain his good name in history, but in the kind of sacrificial love and service that Qelich can offer to Tārā. When realizing that Qelich will readily accept the responsibility of Tārā’s children even if he cannot have her, and Tārā is ready to join him in death to compensate for the wrongs of the past, he encounters a level of compassionate humanity which transcends the binaries of honor and love.

This archetypal level also highlights one of the main roots of Beyzaie’s focus on female protagonists in the folktale of “Mehrin Negār and the Snake King”,43See “Mehrin Negār va Soltān Mār” in Darvishian, Farhang 14, 539-47. which had fascinated him since his childhood when he first heard it from his maternal grandmother. In its essence, the tale is like those folktales that are categorized as ATU425A, ATU425B, ATU433C, and ATU314, or the legends of Savitri saving her husband from death (Yama) in Mahabharata, Ishtar’s second journey to the underworld to reclaim Dumuzid, or Esfandārmaz’s protection of the dead in her heart. Thus, Beyzaie’s film has echoes of all those legends in which a questing hero goes to the underworld or its epic equivalent to save others. In the Shahnameh, the best examples of such quests include Rostam’s descent into the den of demons in Māzandarān or the land of trickster enemies in Hāmāvarān to save Keykāvus and the Iranian army or to Turān to extract Bijhan. Giev’s extraction of Keykhsorow from Turān is also similar. The motif of being ready to die instead of someone else also corresponds to the Turkic/Azeri legend of “Wild Dumrul, Son of Dukha Koja,” the fifth episode of Dede Korkut. In the tale, Dumrul is defeated by death when protesting the death of a young man, but he is forgiven by God with the condition that he finds someone to replace him. Rejected by his parents, he goes to bid farewell to his wife who volunteers to die for him. In the end, the willingness of each to die rather than let their beloved die urges God to take the lives of Dumrul’s parents and give the couple a prosperous long life. Similar motifs are also present in the myth of Alcestis, who volunteers to die instead of Admetus, her husband, but is saved by Hercules who defeats Thanatos, the embodiment of death. Such myths have also been adapted for films with various forms of reframing as in Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (The Tired Death, 1921) or Masaki Kobayashi’s horror anthology Kwaidan (Ghost Stories 1965).

Being inspired by her mother and grandmother’s intelligence and wisdom and by having two daughters in a world in which patriarchal values were still dominant, Beyzaie used the essential motifs of this folktale to celebrate and promote female personal and social agency in his films. This essential plot structure is particularly evident in those film in Beyzaie’s oeuvre in which a female protagonist embarks on a quest to reclaim herself or a male or female beloved form the underworld as in Ballad of Tārā or from the realistic or symbolic equivalent of the underworld such as a neglected past or identity (The Crow), threat of execution (Death of Yazdgerd), a dark forest and the storm of rejection (Bashu, the Little Stranger, 1985), death and death-centered beliefs (Travelers, 1991), imprisonment and victimization (Killing Mad Dogs). It is even apparent in the framed film which is being made in When We Are All Sleeping (2010) in which the woman desires to join her beloved in death or the framing film itself in which the beloved is cinema itself which the female scriptwriter and the male director try to save from being buried under the burdens of opportunism, philistinism and corruption. In each case, however, Beyzaie introduces an emancipatory angle that reframes this epic of heroic extraction. Thus, in Tārā, Beyzaie suggests that the ideals of the Historical Man, who has come from the imaginal and is to be saved from the dead, are too dated for the present, that he must learn as much from Tārā as she from him, and that in the long run, she is the person who inherits the sword and becomes the agent of fertility and protection. Or in Killing Mad Dogs, though Golrokh fulfills her quest for saving her husband from prison and victimization, she ultimately realizes he has been using her to swindle people. However, rather than being angry, she leaves her to be punished by the people of his own type and sublimates her anger by writing a novel which is suggested to be the film itself.

In other words, rather than rejecting Iran’s cultural tradition and attempting to replace it with a borrowed conception of existence, Beyzaie’s emancipatory reframing which works at archetypal, cultural and socio-political levels plunges deep into its resources to recreate them for a new age. In Dabashi’s terms, he conducts “a successful negotiation with the enduring parameters of the Persian mythologizing imagination” to create a “countermyth”,44Dabashi, Close Up, 97. in which the film itself functions like a secular ta‘ziyeh cycle in a setting in which ta‘ziyeh plays are performed as fertility rituals in marginal scenes and folk beliefs are reflected in scenes that reflect Tārā’s emotional status. Thus, Beyzaie pushes the audience through the gamut of contradictory emotions, brings past and present, comedy and tragedy, romance and history, marriage and mourning, south and north, known and unknown, old and young, living and dead together to offer a powerful template for epic cinema.45For more see Talajooy, “Chapter 1” in Bahram Beyzaie’s Cinematic. See also Talajooy “Ballad”, 392-94.

In 1979, Beyzaie also wrote and staged Death of Yazdgerd, the best historical play ever written in Persian. The play revolves around a sentence in Iranian history books to reflect on how an empire collapses when its rulers are only concerned with preserving and fighting over their privileges without trying to understand their people. It also mirrors the fluidity of human identity and the essential fallacy of what is assumed to be history. A commander (nobility), a priest (religion), and a corporal (military) enter a mill to stand judge against a miller, his wife and his daughter who presumably assassinated the last Sasanian king when he sheltered in their mill. The play, then, evolves into a series of performances for survival in which the most voiceless people in the hierarchy of power recount the events of their encounter with the king to change the verdicts of the three representatives of power. With the plays within the play and the role-playing setting the idea of the fluidity of human identity, each member of the family plays the king and themselves in turns, to allow Beyzaie to reveal the humiliation of human soul under the master-slave momentum that defines the structure of power in society.

Yazdegerd, who is paralyzed by the fear of what is to come, behaves wildly and orders the family around. They first assume he is a bandit. In the first instance, the Girl plays the King, the Woman and the Miller play themselves. They switch between narration and acting and then change roles until the Miller plays the King, the Woman plays herself and the Miller, and the Girl plays herself while helping her mother with hints that enable her to change the course of their account like a master director. The scenarios that follow suggest that rather than lying all the members of the family, except the Girl, try to hide some of the things that passed between them and the King as they feel ashamed of tolerating the humiliations that the King imposed on them. The first scenario indicates that the King was devastated, and the Miller was furious that he and his people had exploited him and drafted his 15-year-old son to a war which led to his death. Yet realizing that the judges are still determined to hang them, they go further to announce that despite his anger, the Miller did not kill the King as he knew that his entourage would follow him. The second scenario specifies that the King wanted to commit suicide, but he did not have the heart to do it himself. Thus, he first offered money and then ordered the Miller to stab him when he was distracted. Here, the Miller plays the King and himself, the Woman plays herself and the Miller, and the Girl plays the Woman. Once more, however, the judges remain determined to kill them. The Girl, therefore, initiates the third scenario which her parents are reluctant to play.

In this third scenario, the King tries to provoke the Miller by humiliating him, raping the Girl, and then denying he is the King. The Woman plays the King, and the Miller and the Girls play themselves. The scene borders on being shocking as the Miller watches as her daughter is taken away into a room and raped by the King. Initially, they pretend that the Miller accepted the rape and then when hearing the King’s claim that he got better of them by pretending to be the King, the Miller killed him. At this stage, while the Corporal, the closest to the people in his class origins, changes his verdict, the priest and the commander remain adamant to hang them. Though seemingly random, the role-playing enables Beyzaie to reveal how the master-slave momentum in the worst forms of patriarchy transforms people, male and female, into raping agents against the people immediately below them and how the hierarchy of power is reproduced in the family. Thus, for instance the person who rapes the Girl is her mother playing the King, signifying how a woman may play the role of injecting master-slave values into the minds of her daughter and how a father the same in his relationship with his wife and children by imposing the values of the hierarchy of power on his household or by not doing anything to confront the impositions of power.

Realizing that the judges are not to spare them, the Girl, then, begins the fourth scenario in which she indicates that the Miller is the King, and the corpse is the Miller. Thus, aware of the reports about Kings covering their faces with masks to strike awe in their followers, Beyzaie introduces an interesting twist. The catch is that the Miller must either be the King or the murderer of the King, but it works, at first, as none of the judges or the soldiers have ever seen the King. In a crucial scene, the three judges, who also function as participating audiences for the embedded plays that the Miller’s family perform, order the Woman to dress the Miller as the King to check his manners and postures. Beyzaie uses this order to turn the action into a ritual of crowning with the Woman occupying the legendary place of the crown giving hero (Pahlevān-e Tājbakhsh). The judges, then, go on to check his knowledge of the court life with difficult questions, which the Woman accurately responds to instead of the Miller. This makes the Miller suspect his wife, as he himself has not heard the King explain those details. Thus, as in other cases in the play, his actual character breaks the illusion of the role. He snaps out of the role and blames the Woman of sleeping with the King.

Yet, just when the illusion of the fourth scenario breaks, the Girl delightfully initiates another in which the Woman is seduced by the King and promises to help him kill the Miller. While revealing the Girl’s Electra complex and her desire to revenge against her parents for doing nothing when she was raped, the scene reveals the ultimate depravity of a system in which even the most intimate relations are distorted by the relations of power and the toxic forms of masculinity and femineity that it produces. The woman’s lost dreams of happiness and fulfilment in being wealthy and her anger at her husband’s inability to do anything against the intruder are marked as her Achilles’ heel. The seduction scene performed with the Girl as the King and the Woman as herself is striking as it occurs before the eyes of the judges which in this case also include the Miller. This is where the Girl’s carnivalesque rebelliousness and the dark comedy of her grotesque references to bodily fluids, which has so far been taken as signs of her madness, begin to make sense and be marked as the most powerful emancipatory force in the play.46For the emancipatory functions of the grotesque and the carnivalesque, see Bakhtin, Rabelais, 49 & 287-88. This fifth scenario reveals that after sending the Miller out in a storm to find a sheep to slaughter for his meal, the King seduced the Woman with the dazzling accounts of his riches and the promise of love and fulfilment in his palace. Yet, when the King tried to kill the Miller upon his return, the Miller overpowered and killed him. It is ultimately not revealed whether the King actually wanted to kill the Miller or to be killed by him, but what transpires is that any of the scenarios that Beyzaie has offered in the play may have happened and the main issue is the humiliation that individuals have to suffer in the master-slave momentum that defines the pyramid of power and money. In other words, at one level, Beyzaie shows that a nation cannot be born if its members bend to all forms of humiliation by the state and remain incapable of acting like responsible citizens.

With Death of Yazdegerd Beyzaie fulfilled his project for sublimating the language and the thematic structure of Iranian historical drama to turn it from a vassal of official histories or their simplistic alternatives into an artistic form for commenting on human experience and life at familial, sociopolitical, and religious levels. He had used drama to retrieve the history of people’s subjugation and give voice to the voiceless by transcending history. Happening on the day zero of the year zero, the end of an era when the old gods are dead, and the new ones are not yet born, the play is a locus of negotiation and encounter between the present and the past, the slaves and their lords. The lords are standing judge over the poor, but the play carves a space of respite in history, where the poor save their lives by recounting, acting, and revising the accounts of their encounter with the king of kings and demonstrate that they are the ones who must judge their lords. Using the idea of a trial, Beyzaie turns his role-plying characters into witnesses to the wrongs of the history and actors in a plot that echoes the framing story of One Thousand and One Night. Thus, like Shahrzād and Dināzād, the family, particularly the Girl and the Woman, use their creative agencies to guarantee their survival by stories and performances that reform those who are determined to destroy them.

Apart from this directly historical and literary overture, the play also draws a clear analogy between the death of the last Sassanid King, Yazdegerd III (624-651) and the collapse of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1979 to enumerate the type of corruptions and obsessions that alienate people from their rulers. The question is who killed the king, and the answer is the king and the system that he had inherited. Yet Beyzaie had no illusions about the euphoria of new beginnings which had entranced many people in 1979. Thus, the indeterminate ending suggests that the Arabs and, by extension, the officials of the Islamic Republic are to become the new judges, the ones ruling over the people, but the signs are not as promising as some people may assume. As the Woman says towards the end, “Yours were white flags, and such was your ruling, let’s see what the ruling of those whose flags are black will be”.47For more see Talajooy, “Chapter 2” in Bahram Beyzaie’s Cinematic. See also Talajooy “History and Iranian Drama”, 183-210.

Between 1979 and 1983, Beyzaie who kept trying to make films completed a series of scripts, but as the regulations became tighter, none of them received official permits. He was even urged to turn Death of Yazdgerd into a film, which he did, but the film, which proved to be the best chamber film of Iranian cinema, was never released. Below I examine some of these scripts to trace the development of certain themes and forms in Beyzaie’s oeuvre.

The first of these scripts, The Tale of the Shroud Wearing Commander and used folk narratives about the Mongol invasion to create a series of short epic accounts about societies in which people are awaiting heroes but fail to assist them when they arrive. It uses naqqāli and ta‘ziyeh elements by casting a troubadour who recounts the deeds of Mir Mohanā, a blacksmith who rises against the Mongols. The episodic structure moves from one place to another, using the pish vāqe‘eh (pre-incident) template or the goriz (flashbacks and flash forward) technique of ta‘ziyeh to splice the episodes and bring Mir Mohanā to the scene of a local conflict against Mongols. Women’s agency and heroism play crucial roles in the framing narrative and its subplots. The death of Mir Mohanā’s daughter Tarlān, who kills a Mongol commander and his sons just when they are to rape her, initiates Mir Mohanā’s resistance, and Horreh and Arkān join Mir Mohanā’s army in different episodes when the men in their villages fail to unite to defend the village or get obsessed with defeatist exercises that prepare them for resisting torture rather than fighting. The women, therefore, take arms when their men fail, and although they die while fighting the Mongols along Mir Mohanā, they die like sacrificial heroes whose blood generates new people like them.

Another script that Beyzaie finalized was a nine-hour version and then a six-hour version of a television series, The Unbelievable Story, which due to its double-edged critical perspective against exclusionism and warmongering remained unwanted. Set in a village school near the Caspian Sea, it begins with a curious child’s questions about history and his teacher’s determination to find the answers, which traps them in a journey in time to the violent sites of historic events. The present is characterized by sycophancy, misguided rivalries, dogmatism, and confusion because the history of the people has remained distorted and misrepresented. Due to its surrealistic inter-historical gaze, its unifying vision, and its precision in identifying the ideals and pitfalls of Iranian history and culture, at one stage, the script received the support of a high-ranking military commander, Colonel Mousa Namjoo (1938-81) who had seen the script in one of the offices of the Iranian television. With Namjoo’s death in a suspicious aircraft crash, the script never received a permit and remained unmade.48In one of our interviews in 2021, Beyzaie confirmed that he was preparing the script for publication.

Equally important in these years were the three scripts that Beyzaie wrote in 1981. Sable’s Night is a thriller in which a woman called Lāleh realizes during her wedding that her husband, Amani is a SAVAK agent with a mission to control the activities of her brother. The script brings film noir elements into a scene of marital encounter to offer a variation of the subject of betrayal of love and trust which became central to some of Beyzaie’s later works as Iran became an extremely suppressive surveillance society during the 1980s. The plot is like Parviz Sayyad’s The Dead-end (1977), but it is more coherent and convincing in its details and more insightful in its conception. The protagonist, Lāleh is not a romantic girl whose dreams are shattered, but a perceptive girl capable of thinking on her feet and acting with heroic determination. The dialogue also offers an overview of the depravations that have pushed Amani towards his job. It, thus, transcends political othering by showing the cultural roots of the emotional complexes that make people engage in such activities to gain power over other people’s lives. Though Beyzaie could not film the script, he let Masoud Kimiaei restructure it for his Red Line (1982), which was nonetheless banned from screening.

Another script, Occupation compressed the zeitgeist of a different cataclysmic era of Iranian history, the era of Iran’s occupation by the allies (1941-47) into the events of four days. The script contains clues that suggest Beyzaie’s is using historical distancing to comment on the 1980s in a plot that offers photographic accounts of the atrocities of the early 1940s, reflects the vicissitudes of people’s lives in an occupied country and links the disappearance of people in suspicious circumstances to the loss of a people’s courage, agency, honour, and identity. The script’s Kafkaesque elements such as vast archives that reduce human identities into thousands of photos and files and unexplained disappearances that everyone takes for granted are particularly intense. In her unsuccessful quest to reclaim her intellectual husband Fekrat from the underworld of the lost individuals, Āliyeh, the protagonist, herself an actress, visits different types of spaces and individuals in a journey that offers a panoramic view of the conditions of the occupied Iran, the various distortions that the culture has suffered and the apathy of people who claim honour and honesty but are not above using their daughter’s charm to gain economic favouritism. As expected, the script also has a self-reflexive aspect which examines the status of theatre where censorship crushes the possibility of creativity.49For a detailed analysis, see Talajooy, “Bahram Beyzaie va Jang”.

Set in the late 1970s, Facing Mirrors is an aesthetically innovative tale of transformation and salvation. The script turns the literary technique of parallel perspectives into a cinematic form in which a story of suffering and degeneration is recounted from the diverse perspectives of those who have survived it. Though, like Death of Yazdgerd, the plots use of parallel narratives is in dialogue with such films as Akira Kurosawa’s Rashomon (1950), it also echoes the pish vāqe‘eh plays (pre-incident plays) of ta‘ziyeh which depict everyday characters and events that are then indirectly related to one of the tragic events of the Shi’i calendar to offer various outlooks on the origins and outcomes of that tragic event. With the revolution, a woman called Nozhat is released from the bonds that had trapped her in prostitution and encounters a man, Qanā‘at who knows her from the past. Being Beyzaie’s most direct reflection on the consequences of political upheavals, the script focuses on how the lively and intelligent Nozhat, who has a promising life ahead of her, is forced to break her engagement and sleep with a general to save her brother Captain Haqnazar from execution. After she realizes that her brother has already been executed and faces the rejection of her family, she engages in self-destructive actions and ends up as a prostitute. The events also ruin the life of her jilted lover, Qanā‘at, who remains rejected due to her sense of guilt and becomes an unmotivated clerk rather than the promising scholar he could have become. The film, thus, recounts the events that ruined their lives, but promises a new beginning which is nevertheless charged with bitter memories. Beyzaie’s Facing Mirror is, indeed, like a warning about the fates of innocent people when a country falls headlong into the abyss of totalitarian exclusionism of the type that characterized the 1980s.

The ban on the film version of Death of Yazdgerd (1981), which Beyzaie had made for the Channel One of Iranian Television, was a strong setback on Beyzaie’s prospects of working under the new regime, but the final blow came with the decision of the Committee of the Cultural Revolution to deprive him of his university position in 1981. It was in this situation that he wrote Memories of the Actor of a Supporting Role. Beyzaie, who was initially planning to create the play by performing its scenario in a workshop, faced problems for the rehearsals and had to write the whole play himself. Placing the final scene at the beginning of the play, the plot becomes like a ta‘ziyeh, in which the audience know the events and thus the performance finds the circular quality of a ritual enactment, particularly because the end marks an irretrievable loss. Yet, he also includes detective elements to turn the plot into a whodunit in which the emphasis is also on how it was done. Beyzaie had experimented with this approach in Death of Yazdgerd, but it became central to his 1980s and 1990s’ works. Mouhebat, who is bewailing the death of his friend Zolfaqar while sitting near his corpse centre stage, recounts the events that culminated in his death. As seasonal workers, they had come to earn money in the capital, but ended up becoming fake demonstrators, receiving money to promote the aims of the secret police, beating up people or being beaten up and pretending to be workers, teachers or senior citizens supporting the state. Zolfaqar is, however, absorbed in one of his roles as a protesting teacher, becoming an actual dissident and getting martyred in the street. The play is unique in absorbing the audience in a situation endemic in countries with totalitarian systems, but it also marks human identity as a process of performing roles, which Beyzaie had already used in Death of Yazdgerd.

The Day of Incident, the best ever ta‘ziyeh-like script about the Ashura events, is structured as a pish vāqe‘eh of religious conversion,50Such plays were usually pish vāqe‘eh pieces in which a Christian, Jewish, Zoroastrian or Hindu person converted to Shia Islam after a magical or dream-like encounter during a ta‘ziyeh performance, after a Shia saint saved them or when their own prophets confirmed the truth of Shia Islam. Some of these pieces, like Abbas-e Hendu also contained self-reflexive aspects that commented on the ritual significance of performing ta‘ziyeh. See Beyzaie’s study of three versions of the play in “Darbāreh-ye Abbas-e Hendu”. in which a Christian is inspired by a vision to leave his wedding to find the Jesus of his time, Hussein who is to be martyred in Karbala. Beyzaie’s account reclaims Hussein and his followers from the exclusionist Shiite obsessions by depicting them like his own dispossessed strangers who are entrapped in societies characterized by ignorance, blind zeal, hypocrisy, and obsession with money and distorted forms of honour. Despite the script’s magical power, Beyzaie was not allowed to make the film. In 1994, however, Shahram Asadi received Beyzaie’s permission to turn the script into a film which despite the director’s attempts failed to fulfil the magic qualities of the text.

Another interesting script was The Earth, a village film which, like Stranger and the Fog records vanishing village relations, rituals and ceremonies while depicting people’s desire for having a home of their own. The basic plotline reminds the reader of the land runs of the late nineteenth century in Oklahoma, including the famous Cherokee Land Run of 1893 which has inspired such films as Tumbleweed (1925), Cimarron (1931) and Far and Away (1994), but rather than focusing on the human craving for the ownership of land, Beyzaie explores on the psychology of grief, belief and greed. Dorna and Yavar lose their child as they try to turn an arid piece of land into a farm. Thus, believing that it has brought them bad omen, they leave the fertile farm for another piece of land that they improve and then surrender to its owner after ten years. In search for an illusory happiness on a land of their own, they then participate in a land run that ends with Yavar’s death. The script contains vague allegorical suggestions about village to city migration and about the recurrent attempts of Iranians to possess their homeland and the factors that prevent them from doing so.

With the increase in the state’s suppressive attitudes, Beyzaie continued his focus on writing, with a renewed focus on plays. The first masterpiece of this period was Conquest of Kallāt, aka Kalat Claimed (1983). The play’s setting and themes contribute to Beyzaie’s projects for capturing the zeitgeist of the Mongol era while linking it to the country’s contemporary conditions, but it is also a major achievement in recording and refashioning Iranian rituals and offering heroic models of womanhood for Iranian performing traditions. The play’s language is poetic and imbued with medieval elements, but it is also highly performable and vivid. The plot is multilayered with numerous characters, but Beyzaie gives it organic unity by focusing on Āy-Banoo, whose calm Shahrzād-like wisdom, beauty, performing skills and cunning make her the desired other of the Mongolian ‘sound and fury’. Āy-Banoo is a realistically depicted, intelligent woman, but she also embodies the soul of a people as it finds a way to survive the atrocities of local and foreign oppressors. In the play, she has been offered as a gift to Toy Khān to stop him from massacring Kalat’s people, but she uses the rivalry between Toy and Toghāy to recapture the fertile territories of Kalat and deliver a speech of love, peace, justice, education, prosperity and fertility. The play, thus, transcends the limitations of time and space to comment on the universal aspects of human experience and on 1980s Iran which was the scene of sadistic rivalries between different forms of utopian illusions. Toy and Toghāy are not just Mongol commanders. They are exemplary products and the perpetuators of human destructive rivalry and greed for power and possessions that Beyzaie has been criticizing in his plays and scripts on ancient and modern Iranian history. Yet Beyzaie also suggests that, like the different sides of the Iranian totalitarian patriarchy, Toy and Toghāy are the two sides of the same coin and are doomed to wear each other down. Thus, when one degrades the other by dressing him as a woman, he is undermining his own position. It is in fact suggested that it is this insult to womanhood that infuriates Ay-Banoo and leads to her determination to recapture her lost city.

For the mocking parade, Beyzaie uses an ancient form of carnival mockery. Though the first extant recording of such shaming carnivals occurs in Herodotus’ account of Moghkoshi (Magophonia),51Herodotus, Histories, 238. and the last samples are associated with the rituals of Kuseh bar Nashin (Ride of the Beardless One) and Omarkoshān (Killing Omar),52See Talajooy, Iranian Culture, 78-81, 120 and 173. See also Beyzaie, Namāyesh, 37-42, 52-55. the model Beyzaie uses echoes Plutarch’s account of Surena’s (84-53BCE) parade for mocking Crassus (114-53BC).

XXXII. Surena now took the head and hand of Crassus and sent them to [the Parthian King] Hyrodes in Armenia, but he himself sent words […] to Seleucia that he was bringing Crassus there alive and prepared a laughable sort of procession which he insultingly called a triumph. That one of his captives who bore the greatest likeness to Crassus, Caius Paccianus, put on a woman’s royal robe, and under instructions to answer to the name of Crassus and the title of Imperator when so addressed, was conducted along on horseback. Before him rode trumpeters and a few lictors borne on camels; from the fasces of the lictors purses were suspended, and to their axes were fastened Roman heads newly cut off; behind these followed courtezans of Seleucia, musicians, who sang many scurrilous and ridiculous songs about the effeminacy and cowardice of Crassus; and these things were for all to see.53Plutarch, Lives, 417-419.
The account indicates that in the procession someone was dressed up as an effeminized replica of the mocked person and was put on horseback or backwards on a donkey while being accompanied by singing and dancing people. Beyzaie reformulated this carnival form in the scene before the football match in Uncle Moustache to celebrate its antiestablishment potential. He also did so in Stranger and the Fog when Āyat is being tortured by the villagers to criticize the marginalization of strangers in hostile communities. Here, since he is using the ritual in a war setting, he echoes Plutarch’s passage but subverts its glorification of toxic masculinity, violence and war by reframing it in a context in which he shows how its denigration of women leads to the wrath and empowerment of an intelligent woman.

In 1984, while continuing to apply for permits with different scripts, Beyzaie edited Amir Naderi’s The Runner which won several international awards. Apart from Mobarak’s Shoes which has not yet been published, most of the scripts Beyzaie wrote in this period, like his previous ones, gained wide readership in the following decades. The Old Case of Piāabād, however, was turned into films twice. This script is a comic piece which uses the rivalry between two villages to juxtapose the destructive and constructive aspects of Iranian culture. Mehrbanoo, the female protagonist, the script’s heroic voice of forgiveness, transcends the inherited obsession with violence and revenge to initiate a series of activities that lead to love and peace between the two villages. Yadollah Samadi used Dariush Farhang’s restructured version of this script to make The Bus (1985) which misses some of Beyzaie’s cultural evaluations but is better than Rafi Pitts’ adaptation of the script in The Fifth Season (1997).

Another script, The Warrior’s Account (Ayyār-Nāmeh) builds on Beyzaie’s knowledge of folktales and manuscript illustrations and his experience in dramatizing the accounts of people’s resistance against Turkic and Mongolian invasions to construct a story of male and female heroism. As in his other epic works, the script imagines those aspects of Iranian life and identity that have remained neglected in official histories. These epic scripts are the loci where Beyzaie glorifies the pens and swords of those individuals whose miraculous presence in various periods have resulted in the preservation of the idea of Iran as a cultural entity. Thus if Ferdowsi brings together the myth and legends of ancient Iran to revive and eternalize what may have been otherwise lost or declined due to suppressed oral transmission, Beyzaie does the same with medieval history and folk narratives to turn them into a locus of negotiation between the past and present where he criticizes the death-centred, oppressive and patriarchal aspects of Iranian culture and glorifies the aspects that encourage peace, friendship, love, gender equality, fertility, innovation, wisdom and justice. His mixture of the surrealistic, symbolic and metaphorical with what seems real and pragmatic creates a style that is particularly Iranian in its dialogue with the Iranian imaginal. The idea of performance as a shaper of our identities is once more put into effective use. Sohā, a female dancer, has been employed to entrap the reclusive warrior Qadar by pretending to be a teenage boy who wants to learn wrestling and swordsmanship; but she is won over by Qadar’s honesty and courage to become the female version of what she has been pretending to be.

As observed in the above two scripts, Beyzaie’s female heroines promote women’s heroism in physical and intellectual forms that predict the turn of events in Iran from the 1990s onward as women began to occupy a space of anti-establishment modernity that had for long been denied to them due to the west-obsessed or religion-obsessed hegemonic femininities of the dominant discourses of the pre- and post-revolution eras and the patriarchal social, cultural and economic relations that kept them under control.

Written also in 1984, Secret History of the King in Abaskun depicts the last days of Muhammad II of Khwarazm (1169-1220) in an island in the Caspian Sea. The king who is overwhelmed by his fears and hallucinations about the havoc he has brought on his people and is haunted by the ghosts of those who unjustly died during his reign deprives himself of his last chance to gather an army by killing the last messenger of hope in a moment of paranoiac madness. As another script dealing with the history of the Mongol invasion, the emphasis is on how failures such as courtiers’ sycophancy, people’s cowardice, opportunism and apathy and kings’ violent arrogance lead to the collapse of an empire under foreign invasion. In other words, as in the cycle of Jamshid and Zahhāk in the Shahnameh, Beyzaie’s scripts emphasize that the kings’ tyranny and arrogance create the recipe for disaster as they make people sycophantic and indifferent about who will rule over them, which, in turn, makes the conquering of the country easier for foreign colonizers.54In one of our interviews in 2021, when I asked Mr Beyzaie about the reason he focused more on the Mongol invasion, he explained that he realized very early that focusing on other invasions such as the Arab and the Turkic invasions, antagonized some Iranians and made it harder to communicate with them about the cultural and political issues that have led to Iran’s failure in different historical eras.

Stylistically the script continues the use of nightmarish elements in Beyzaie’s oeuvre which later grew with Bashu, the Little Stranger and Maybe Some Other Time and fulfilled its best results in Reed Panel (1992). Here, however, the nightmares are not those of marginalized individuals, but those of an arrogant king trapped in a nightmare that he himself created. The script is, thus, like Death of Yazdgerd in having a court-like scene in which the failures of absolute monarchy as an institution and the process leading to the death of a defeated king are examined. The structure of the script, however, is closer to the dream-vision tradition of communion with the imaginal or the land of the ever-living dead as in some ta‘ziyeh plays, E’temādossaltaneh’s Khalseh/Khābnāmeh (Dream Story, 1894) or Mirzadeh Eshghi’s Resurrection of Iranian Kings (1919). In Beyzaie’s script, however, rather than kings appearing to pass judgment on contemporary people, those destroyed by the king’s cruelty or ignorance appear to condemn the king. As in Ballad of Tārā, therefore, Beyzaie’s use of the uncanny combines psychological and surrealistic elements to comment on the different forms of brother-killing, injustice and opportunism that has distorted Iranian history. The script is also interesting in its depiction of the dead people in their disfigured shapes at the time of their death, which adds some horror and zombie elements to the script.

In 1985, Beyzaie, who was also dealing with his daughter’s, Niloofar’s emigration, wrote and directed Bashu, the Little Stranger, one of the best films ever made in Iran. The film is unique for several reason. It is the first film in which ethnicity, language, and womanhood became central concerns in a way that promotes an inclusive idea of nationhood; the protagonists speak languages other than Persian without subtitles in several scenes; and the first anti-war film of the 1980s which bewails the occasional inevitability of the war but avoids glorifying it and lingers on its traumatic impacts on human life. Beyzaie’s approach to the depiction of trauma by means of hallucinations and the fantom-like figure of Bashu’s dead mother appearing to him to calm, chastise or guide him was also innovative and one of the first instances of depicting the mental aftermath of war. As the third film in Beyzaie’s village trilogy, the film is also stylistically significant in mythologizing the two protagonists, Bashu as the Siyāvush- and Zāl-like outcast or migrant and Nāei as the Anāhitā- and Simurgh-like archetype of water, cleanliness, family, protection, wisdom, and fertility.55I have analyzed the film in detail in “Chapter 3” of Bahram Beyzaie’s Cinematic. See also Dabashi, Masters and Masterpieces; and Rahimieh, ‘Marking Gender’.

With Bashu, the Little Stranger banned from public screening for 3 years and 2 months until February 1989, Beyzaie began another period of intense writing which produced several plays and scripts. The play, The Covered Interior (Pardeh Khāneh) presents Beyzaie’s best template for reformulating indigenous women-only performances. Building on the accounts of the atrocities committed to bring women into the harems of Iranian kings and the musical performances in the courts of Shah Abbas (1571-1629) and Nāsereddin Shah (1831-96), Beyzaie creates a poetic festival that merges comedy and tragedy to subvert the conventional functions of these musical forms by framing them as tools of covering, conspiracy, and resistance. As in his other works with Iranian festival forms, the play deconstructs the elements that reinforce hegemonic masculinity and hierarchies of power to turn the forms into emancipatory templates for resisting the culture of cruelty and control. In other words, considering ritual performance as the most significant means of communication with people, Beyzaie uses them in an anti-patriarchal project in which, rather than focusing on the victimization of women, he celebrates in a carnivalesque manner their awakening, rebellion, and survival. To prove her loyalty, the recently kidnapped Goltan (Bidokht) is to kill her father and fiancé who dared to attack the king’s convoy to take her back. Determined to fulfil what she sees as her fate, she willingly does that, but she also unites the women who represent the different ethnicities of the Iranian lands (the Kurds, Armenians, Georgians, Gilakis…) to perform a dance play for the king, during which they assassinate him in revenge for what he has done to the peoples of Iran. Golab Adineh who had in the past appeared in some of Beyzaie’s plays and had also directed Death of Yazdgerd and The Snake King, successfully directed Pardeh Khāneh between November 2022 and March 2023. What is interesting is that the discourse of the play which celebrates the rise of women against a state that embodies toxic masculinity, corresponded with the uprising of “Women, Life, Freedom”.

This period gave rise to two masterpieces. The first was Parchment of Master Sharzin, which due to its poetically charged language, its array of witty sayings, its metonymies, metaphors, and allusions, is like a divan of sonnets or a miniature painting that is also topical in its focus on the victimization of dissenting intellectuals by religious totalitarianism. Beyzaie uses ta‘ziyeh and mir-e nowruzi elements to recreate his earlier template for depicting the creative intellectual as a sacrificial hero. Earlier he had tried this in Downpour and had shown in his other works how people’s ignorance and apathy turn them into silent observers or instruments or tyranny for victimizing creative people and lonely strangers. The template challenged the Islamic Republic’s depiction of Iranian intellectuals as westoxicated others who must be eliminated, and instead depicted sacrificial heroes in contexts that made them like contemporary constructive intellectuals. It also used elements from the biographies of victimized Iranian thinkers and scientists such as Mansur Hallaj (858-922), Zakariya Razi (865-925) and Ain-al Quzat Hamedani (1098-1131) to create Sharzin, a philosopher, who suffers torture, ostracization, exile and death because he prioritizes rationality, research and knowledge over religious zeal and inherited dogma and considers men and women equal in creation. Offering an array of neglected philosophical discussions that suggest the potential modernity of some medieval Iranian thinkers, Beyzaie shows how a culture that fails to overcome bigotry and tyranny is doomed to collapse as it remains incapable of supporting and transferring its hard-earned knowledge from one generation to another.56For a detailed analysis, see Talajooy, “Intellectuals.”

The second masterpiece, New Preface to the Shahnameh follows the same thematic and aesthetic structures to depict the passions of the greatest hero of Iran’s creative intellectuality. As in Sharzin, the circular, ta‘ziyeh-like structure depicts people gathering and talking about the protagonist, here Ferdowsi, after his death, but rather than remembering him by reciting his parchment, they recount their memories of him while standing around his grave. These flashbacks build on historical and folk accounts about Ferdowsi’s life events, his son’s death, his encounters with religious bigots and their thugs, his daughter’s loss of speech due to the family’s traumatic experiences, his meeting with Sultan Mahmud (971-1030) and his refusal to accept Mahmud’s coins when Mahmud fails to keep his promise.57See Anjavi Shirazi, People. Beyzaie demonstrates the fallacy of the claims about Ferdowsi’s racism and projects Ferdowsi’s, and by extension his own, works as sites of negotiation for promoting a love for the diversity of Iran as a land in which a shared cultural heritage and the Persian language connect a multiplicity of superficially different but inherently similar cultures. The final part echoes the reported account of Abdolhussein Sepanta’s )1907-1969) lost film, Ferdowsi (1934) in which the metaphor of bridge at the beginning of the film suggests Ferdowsi’s dream for bridging the pre-Islamic and Islamic Iran. Beyzaie, however, turns the metaphor into a geographical and intellectual one to suggest the need for reconciling the disintegrated sections of the imagined cultural community of Iran. At the end of the script, facing Mahmud’s belated offer, Ferdowsi’s daughter suddenly speaks after years of silence to reject the money and reiterate the theme of the script that is also central to Bashu, the Little Stranger.

He did not sell the gem of his name to coins; why should I sell him to that? … You should, if you have any good intentions, build the bridge that disconnects the two sides of Tus. … Maybe then the divided Tus becomes one again, and one of his one thousand dreams for this shattered country of one thousand pieces is fulfilled.58New Preface to the Shahnameh, (Tehran: Roshangaran, 2001): 118.
The fact that Ferdowsi’s daughter delivers the last monologue reiterates the history of silenced women and youth, and Beyzaie’s belief in the centrality of women for Iran’s future. The emphasis on bridging the two sides of Tus also implies the necessity that the religious establishment which now had the political power must open itself to the wisdom of secular Iranians. Beyzaie was not allowed to turn this script into a film, but the Ferdowsi sections of Mohammad Nurizad’s television series The Forty Soldiers (2003-07) is like a butchered echo of Beyzaie’s New Preface to the Shahnameh, particularly in the attempt to connect the expressive power of Shahnameh major narratives to specific crises in Ferdowsi’s life.

Beyzaie’s focus on family relations in Ferdowsi’s life seems to also reflect aspects of his own life as 1987 marked the emigration of the rest of Beyzaie’s family, his wife Monir-A’zam Raminfar and his daughter Negar. Despite these issues, however, Beyzaie completed Some Other Time Maybe, which was released in 1988 as Maybe Some Other Time. As the second film in Beyzaie’s city trilogy, the film is like The Crow in its meta-cinematic referencing, its noir elements, and its focus on a martial crisis in which the identity of educated middle-class women is under scrutiny. While functioning as the first important film on the lives of middle-class families after the 1979 revolution, it also foregrounded the conditions of women in post-revolutionary cinema where they were not to be shown in close-ups, in their intimate relationships or as outspoken protagonists. Kian’s identity crisis is thus that of Iranian cinema and middle-class women who have been forced to face a new society in which the state imposes its own ideological visions about women’s appearance, relations and functions. The film uses film noir techniques and surrealistic depictions for a family film which reflects the nightmares of a disturbed mind entangled in an identity crisis.59The film has had an indirect influence on Dariush Mehrjui’s venture to use similar techniques for the depiction of the identity crisis of his failed intellectual in Hamoon (1990) which has, nevertheless, more in common with Saul Bellow’s novel, Herzog (1964) and Federico Fellini’s film, 8½ (1963). As a psychological thriller focusing on a woman suffering from inexplicable fears and childhood trauma, it has affinities with Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964). It is, however, different in its narrative, thematic structure, and filmic techniques. As in Beyzaie’s early plays, or his Bashu, the Little Stranger, the free movement in time and space and the nightmarish and surrealistic scenes echo the use of goriz-type flashbacks and dark fairytale elements in ta‘ziyeh. The juxtaposition of personal memory and national history in the antic shop scene also reflects on how a nation’s ignorance of its history makes it like an amnesic person with no sense of her identity. The reflections on how creative work releases the individual from psychological pressures and how historical breaches, like the 1979 revolution, function as sources of trauma in peoples’ collective and individual identities are among Beyzaie’s favourite themes. So are the enigmatic use of mirrors, photos, portraits, mannequins, armours, swords, sunglasses, gigantic eyeglass frames, cameras, voice recorders and archives that emphasize the recording, preserving, controlling or suppressing human presence in time.60For more see Talajooy, “Maybe” and “Khāneh”. See also Mottahedeh, Displaced Allegories, 49-69.

In 1988, in an attempt to reunite with his family, Beyzaie left Iran and lived abroad for a year, an experience that functioned as another turning point in his life. While abroad, Beyzaie wrote two scripts and a play. One of the scripts, A Lost Page of the Birth Certificate of a Future Country Fellow has remained unpublished. The other, Mr Lear is Beyzaie’s intercultural and inter-historical adaptation of Shakespeare’s King Lear. A widower, Mister Delear (Mr Brave), who is jokingly called Mister Lear by a train conductor, has gone abroad to distribute the money from the sale of his house among his daughters and to live with them. The script aptly depicts a man’s loneliness and hallucinations in a strange land far from the place in which one has become what he thinks he is.

The play, The Slaves’ Battle: Taqlid in One Session, whose earlier version Beyzaie had tried to perform in 1983, reformulates some of taqlid’s typical scenarios to challenge the adoration of brutal power and the suppression of the youth and lower classes under the name of security and tradition. Beyzaie maintains taqlid’s broad humour and satire but modernizes the form by undermining its depiction of toxic masculinity and power relations as unchangeable. As in taqlid, disguise is central to the romantic comedy that is born from the play’s dark satire. Yāqoot and Mobārak, the servants of the clashing thugs Babrāz and Azhdar are actually Babrāz’s disguised sister, Targol, and her secret fiancé, Maroof. Through their conversations with Almās, Azhdar’s black servant, it is revealed how the so-called heroes made the three obey them and suspect each other. Beyzaie undermines the concept of heroic violence by showing it to be an anachronistic disease. Thus, unlike Beyzaie’s early puppet folk plays, the black man does not want to be a hero, but a black man who does not have to serve heroes.

Upon his return to Iran in 1989, Beyzaie wrote Film in Film, a comic meta-cinematic script with a new template which engages with the lives of ordinary, lower-class city dwellers, but uses stylized, surrealistic, or grotesque scenes to defamiliarize the accepted absurdities of our lives. The script reframes everyday life in unexpected contexts to create entertaining narratives that challenge the cultural and sociopolitical assumptions that undermine the rise of responsible citizenship by accepting people’s marginalization of others or their apathy and loitering. The script is also a prime example of Beyzaie’s belief that it is not verisimilitude that captivates the essence of reality, but a combination of different forms of framing and seeing that make visible what is usually neglected in everyday life.61See Beyzaie in Qukasiyan Behrooz Ehmalpour’s failure in his exams leads to his refusal to return home which, in turn, opens the plot to the depiction of the comic life of a family. Soon, however, another person, Pirooz Hezarjani is shown leaving the cinema, indicating that the events were all happening in a film. The same happens when Behrooz Ehmalpour is shown leaving a cinema after spectators have watched what was assumed to be Pirooz Hezarjani’s life. Beyzaie’s use of names is usually suggestive of the characters’ qualities. In his comedies, however, the names become as precise as vice and virtue names. Thus, though Behrooz’s (happy) and Pirooz’s (victorious) first names suggest that they have it good for now, the Ehmalpours as their names suggest are negligent and the Hezarjanis represent the persistent habits that cannot be changed.

Beyzaie’s next project, the film Travellers, which was released in 1991, celebrates life and fertility while commenting on the flexibility of cultural traditions and the interpretability of the past and present in accordance with our understanding of human presence in time, love, belonging, marriage, fertility, birth, death, and rebirth. It combines taqlid and ta‘ziyeh with classical cinema techniques to reflect on the proximity of mirth and mourning in life, and adapts the ritual of the sacred marriage which guarantees the return of happiness and fertility to a culture that has been trapped in glorifying death. Beyzaie creates a stylized cinematic world that defies realism to sum up some of the realities of life. In this cinematic complex, actors announce their impending death on the outset of the film, trees dry up when their human counterparts die, and the dead arise to forgive the living and hold up the mirror of the sacred marriage of love and continuity. Made in response to Ali Hatami’s Mother (1989) which seemed to glorify death, Travellers is Beyzaie’s city sequel to his village trilogy where myth, history, ritual, the known and the unknown encounter to function as touchstones that separate reality from dogmatic and illusory beliefs and liberate individuals from the rigid or alienated identities born from ignorance, fear, imitation, despair, and infertility.

After several years of remaining betrothed, Mahrokh is preparing for her wedding, and her sister, as the last member of the family who married, is to bring to her wedding their family’s wedding mirror which is presumed to initiate happiness. On her way to Tehran, however, the sister and her family die, in an accident with a truck, alongside their driver and a woman who is desperate to go to a pregnancy clinic in Tehran. The wedding is, thus, doomed to be transformed into a funeral, but the grandmother insists that since the mirror must come, it will come. The film challenges the understanding of life by registering the people’s reactions to the news and the concepts of death, the conversations arising from the grandmother’s insistence on the survival of the family, and the unexpected appearance of the dead carrying the mirror. As in ta‘ziyeh , the film suggests that birth, life, love, and death are parts of the circular continuum of the grand cycle of being. It also brings the totality of Iranian culture under the visual umbrella of a film that suggests the possibility of cultural rejuvenation through determination. One can, therefore, see the film as a cultural allegory with a message of hope and survival that deconstructs the suicidal years of war and fury in the 1980s which transformed the awaited euphoria of the new beginnings into the funeral of lost hopes. The ritual ending, thus, brings together the protagonists’ siblings and relatives, neighbours, policemen, villagers and the truck drivers to reveal their failures, illusions, dreams, desires and fears in the mirror of Beyzaie’s cinema, which argues that the dead must either be left to the world of the dead or be allowed to celebrate the continuity of their loved one’s life.

Despite the film’s success in the 1992 Fajr Festival, Beyzaie faced problems for screening Travellers and as a result returned the festival’s award to the officials. Later in the year Beyzaie, who had separated from his wife in 1990, married Mozhdeh Shamsaie. He also wrote Killing Mad Dogs which he turned into a film in 1999 and finished Who killed the Boss? based on Three Witnesses, a scenario he had written for Mohammad Motevasselani’s comedy trio in 1970. Later in the year, Beyzaie also completed The Reed Panel, which marks Beyzaie’s greatest use of complementary parallel narratives. The script is like an eclectic bricolage that borrows elements from the folktales recorded in such medieval texts as Nakhshabi’s Toty-Nāmeh (C.1330), taqlid folk plays and historical narratives of women’s lives in the Middle Ages and pre-modern era to negotiate a new conception of justice. As in Killing Mad Dogs the setting is Tehran and Ray, but this time he focuses on the Tehran and Ray of the twelfth century to demonstrate that despite the claims of modernity, the attitudes of dogmatic and opportunistic people towards life, peace, education, women, power, justice and money have not changed that much. The plot focuses on an educated woman, Varta whose sufferings are narrated from several perspectives to create a spectrum of Iranian culture at its best and worst. Failing to seduce Varta, her brother-in-law accuses her of adultery and initiates a plot in which she goes through several near-death situations in which she encounters men who claim to be honourable but, in fact, represent hypocritical patriarchy, opportunistic religiosity, empty heroism, and toxic masculinity. Having survived the intrigues of the cruel power relations of her society, Varta uses her knowledge of Zakara Razi’s medical theory about the psychosomatic origins of diseases to set up a medical practice in which she cures her patients, including the people who victimized her, from behind a reed panel. The Reed Panel is one of the few occasions in which a just ruler, Amir of Makan appears to offer a degree of hope. Yet even this ruler realizes that to be able to help himself and his people, he must abandon his throne and live his life as a cultural activist. Due to its powerful language, its captivating use of parallel narratives, its emphasis on female agency, its circular structure and its innovative reformulation of folktales, The Reed Panel, like Death of Yazdgerd, New Preface to the Shahnameh, Parchment of Master Sharzin and his later pieces Reciting Siyāvush and The One Thousand and First Night (2003) has continued to be popular with readers for its literary significance.

In 1993 Beyzaie wrote Dialogue with the Dust which he later published alongside his other pieces on the four elements. He also wrote Reciting Siyāvush, a script he intended to use for a film and an open-air performance piece for the millennium of Ferdowsi’s completion of the Shahnameh. Using the evidence on the relationship between ta‘ziyeh and pre-Islamic fertility rituals commemorating the passions of Siyāvush,62For these links, see Yarshater, “Ta‘ziyeh” Beyzaie presents the legend as a central dramatic ritual in a spring fertility festival. The script, thus, celebrates Siyāvush as the hero of oath, peace and fertility and a sacrificial hero in par with Jesus and Hussein. It also emphasizes the communal function of the festival as a site of negotiation and cooperation where the people of nearby villages set aside their differences to conduct their annual fertility rites in honour of Siyāvush. The script emphasizes aspects of the ta‘ziyeh that Beyzaie has always wished to foreground as a scholar. It also reflects on the impacts of life and ritual performance on each other by showing how obstacles create new meanings and forms in a performance and how theatre can sublimate our ordinary identities into archetypal ones. As in Beyzaie’s other historical and mythical works, the language and the dramatic qualities are unique, and the text is a must read for anyone interested in Persian or Iranian culture.

Realizing that he was again facing issues for making films, once more Beyzaie focused on writing. The first product of this period was Mama Ārsu’s Songs (1994), a detective piece on the smuggling of historical treasures in a family setting with archetypal suggestions in the suggested music and the arrangement of the background to sublimate the plot beyond a clever account of finding smugglers. In 1996, Ali Zhekan used Beyzaie’s script for Like a Shadow, which was okay in adapting the script’s detective qualities but failed to reproduce its archetypal and cultural overtones. Beyzaie also wrote Tarabnāmeh (Merrymaking), an eight-hour-long taqlid play, which like Court of Bactria expands the limits of taqlid to create a dark comedy on life. It portrays the lives of a host of characters in a town where the burden of ignorance, sycophancy and inherited cruelties distort progress.

After completing Tarabnāmeh, which Beyzaie revised and directed two decades later (2016) in Stanford, he published a monograph entitled Hitchcock in a Frame (1995) based on series of seminars he had held for students of cinema in 1991. Unable to make films, he also edited Ebrahim Hatamikia’s Minoo Watch Tower and Karim Hatefinia’s The Hidden Games and wrote three scenarios for a 100 second film celebrating the centenary of Iranian cinema. He later published these scenarios alongside three others in a special issue of Film Monthly.

In 1996 Beyzaie, who felt that he would not be allowed to make any films responded positively to an invitation from the International Parliament of Writers to spend a year in Strasburg. During this period, he revised the short script Landscape and wrote two scripts. The first, The Protest builds on an actual event involving the actress Azar Shiva (1940-) who in 1970 decided to leave cinema and in a symbolic act protested the conditions of cinema by running a chewing gum stall in front of the former Daneshgāh Melli (National University) for a few days. The script is self-reflexive and criticizes the conditions of cinema before and after the revolution. Destination, however, is a road piece dealing with the lives of lower-class people in a stylized mode with fantastic and tragicomic elements. It depicts the sufferings and the rebellion of Onsi, whose brother-in-law, Mir Azim has decreed that she must reside as a recluse near the grave of her husband. The film, thus, addresses serious problems in the lives of many lower-class women who at times have no rights in their parents’ and their husband’s houses. Yet what makes the script special is the intense moments of illumination it creates when Onsi and her dead husband engage in a heated dialogue in the back of the van that is taking them to the graveyard or when she rebels against her upbringing that has required her to be a submissive woman. Her decision to choose life and love over timid compromise is the triumph of the flesh, blood and basic human needs over stilted conventions. She, thus, confronts her culture’s obsession with death, afterlife, and patriarchal control by choosing life. In 1999, Varuzh Karim Masihi, who had worked with Beyzaie as his assistant director in several projects, applied for a permit to film the script, but he faced impossible obstacles.

While abroad Beyzaie returned to the resources of the puppet theatre after thirty-five years to write Congregation for Ousting (Majles-e Basāt Barchidan). As in his other reformulations of Iranian forms, Beyzaie used the term Majles, the traditional term for ‘congregation’ as well as ‘act’ or ‘play’ in the title. The term may mean ‘sitting’, ‘gathering to see a play’, ‘a religious congregation’ or an ‘act’, but its mere presence in the title infuses the play with the idea of the public space as well as tragic connotations associated with ta‘ziyeh and comic ones related to taqlid. It, thus, makes a modern experience feel authentically rooted in the culture and refashions an old form to handle new subjects. Beyzaie returned to Iran in the autumn of 1997 and began cooperating with Mozhdeh Shamsaie and a group of young actors to stage Yukio Mishima’s The Lady Aoi (1954) after eighteen years of being away from the stage. With the relative relaxation of censor during Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), in 1997 Beyzaie was also able to begin the rehearsals for performing Account of Bondar, the Premier, a recitation play he had written in 1961 and revised in 1995. The play reflects on how obsession with power leads to paranoid subjugation of people and control of knowledge in ways that derail the cultural and scientific activities that are essential for progress. To do so, Beyzaie juxtaposes Jam’s and Bondar’s narrative monologues to reveal how Bondar’s all-seeing cup was used by Jam to control people and how Jam’s paranoia makes him see Bondar as a potential danger to his totalitarian vision and the surveillance society he has created by using the cup. Beyzaie’s earlier concerns with the trauma of living in a surveillance society is heightened here to show its determinantal impact on transfer of knowledge and social growth. The play was also timely in that Jam’s double function as a king-priest echoes the nature of the clerical monarchy of the Islamic Republic, and Bondar’s fate reflects the chain murders of dissenting intellectuals by the rouge members of Iran’s security organizations. Both The Lady Aoi and Account of Bondar, the Premier were staged in the early months of 1998 and continued running for a time. Later he also took Bondar to the annual Silk Road Theatre Festival in Ruhr Theatre of Mulheim in Germany.

In 1999, Beyzaie was invited to join several other filmmakers to make a short film on the Island of Kish in a project intended to promote the island as a cultural and economic centre. The result was Dialogue with Wind which, nevertheless, proved too culturally charged for the taste of the producers and was put aside when the collection was shown in the Cannes Festival. When Beyzaie realized the situation, he bought the film back and wrote Dialogue with the Water and Dialogue with the Fire and put them together with a former project to publish Dialogues with the Water, Dust, Wind and Fire. His attempts to obtain a permit to film the scripts, however, proved futile. The tetralogy is a culmination of Beyzaie’s use of the real and the uncanny in his inclusion of the elements as active forces in his village trilogy which highlight the earthliness of human belonging, love and spirituality in contexts that glorify creativity and fertility. The scripts use echoes of historical, mythical, and literary texts as well as geographical and archaeological sites and a symbolic attention to the semiotics of space and human behaviour to contemplate the recurrent loss of personal, relational, and cultural opportunities in human life as processes of maturing and rites of passage.

In 1999, Beyzaie also revised Jānā and Balādoor, a shadow play that he had worked on since 1977 as a creative project linked to his research on shadow plays. Judging based on a recent prepublication version that is very close to the version Beyzaie staged in Stanford with no worries about censorship, the play is clearly in line with the four scripts he had written in 1999. However, in 2012, it had become even more open in its sexual imagery of the elemental essence of fertility in nature. The play is imagined as a medieval performance of a shadow play in which the audience observes the whole process as if watching a performance within the play. It even has a well-developed “Apology for Poesy” and “Discussion of the Origins of the Shadow Play” in the form of a dialogue between a dogmatic clergy, an apprentice, and the folk philosopher Souratbāz (director). As in ta‘ziyeh and early taqlid plays, the performers’ language is pre-modern in register and also rhythmic and poetic. The language of the shadow play itself, however, is closer to that of The Shahnameh. It is poetic and rhythmic but has few Arabic words which reflects the idea that the play itself is pre-Islamic in origin. This is also reflected in the openly sexual language of the play which echoes an agricultural fertility myth and recounts an archetypal tale of the battle of four elements— the two sisters/lovers Jānā (Earth/Esfandārmaz) and Balādoor (Water/Ānāhitā) and their brothers/lovers Tashangān (Fire/Mithra), and Darvāi (Wind/Good Vāyu) — against the demons of winter and drought. In the narrative, the emphasis on three years of extreme cold, the entrapment of the brothers, the near death of the sisters, the sufferings of the siblings/lovers, and the presence of Simurgh and the advisory role of the Speaking Tree make it clear that the play is about the rebirth of love and nature. The story of the demonized resident of a well— who saves and falls in love with Balādoor, is transformed back into a human being by her love and ends up becoming a sacrificial hero— also echoes the descent of water from icy mountains into underground sources and its resurfacing which guarantees the continuity of life and the fertility myth of overcoming winter and bringing back the prosperity of the spring and summer. With the archdemon, Haft Khat (Evil Trickster) having captured the heroic brothers Tashangān and Darvāi, the two sisters must find a way to release them by defeating Haft Khat who has stated that they will be released only if the sisters surrender themselves and the eternal garden to him. The play is, thus, also focused on female heroism: Jānā’s patient heroism in protecting the garden that guarantees the rebirth of nature and Balādoor’s warrior-like quest to save her brothers to bring back the warmth and fertile breeze of the spring. It is also about the heroism of the marginalized gypsy girl, who helps these divine figures and is given the duty of recounting their story.

Written in 1999, Killing Sohrab reworks the legend of Rostam and Sohrab to depict Sohrab as the hero of an untimely meritocracy that leads to nothing. Thus, a miraculous young man with an intense desire for achieving a sense of belonging with his absent father and gaining recognition before meeting him wanders in a cruel wonderland of distorted power relations, where he is victimized by all the wielders of power including his own father. The linguistic qualities of the text mark it as another substantial practice in dramatic epic narration in Persian. What makes the play very timely, however, is its implicit commentary on the failure of Mohammad Khatami’s reform plans which emphasized political development, democracy, and meritocracy, but proved impossible when the dormitories of Tehran Universities were stormed by the police and state-related paramilitary groups in July 1999, and many students with similar dreams were injured, arrested or killed.

Ardaviraf’s Report which dramatizes the pre-Islamic account of the journey of Saint (Arda) Viraf to the world of spirits is also special in its use of language, but its main subject is the diehard nature of inherited dogma. The original text, which Beyzaie’s play reformulates, is in fact the key text used for the standardization of Zoroastrianism as a part of Ardeshir Babakan’s campaign for the centralization of power in the early third century Iran. It is thus as political as it is religious in its polemical force and roots. Beyzaie’s play, however, offers seven entries in each of which he handles the stories of several leading male and female Shahnameh figures to show how they are eternally defined by the conflicts that determined their lives and deaths and offer revisionist perspectives about heroism, power, kingship, fathers and sons, women, love, religion, dogma and the inevitability of the link between identity and fate. As in Jānā and Balādoor, the language of the final version, which Beyzaie used for his dramatic play reading with actors in Stanford (January 2015), is rich in its pure Persian, but it is also open in references to love, sex, desire, and absurdities of religions.

In 2000, Beyzaie finally found the opportunity to direct Killing Mad Dogs after nine years of futile endeavour to obtain permits to make one of his scripts. As the third film in his city trilogy, the film uses archetypal and film noir elements in a family context that suggests how the political and economic obsessions of a corrupt public space infiltrate the private lives of people and entangle them in unwanted conflicts. The film’s episodic plot places a female writer, Golrokh, in a mythically charged quest for reclaiming her marriage. As an intellectual Alice in the wonderland of Iran’s toxically masculine market life, Golrokh overcomes obstacles like Rostam’s 7 labours or Ishtar’s gate by gate descent to the underworld. This quest-like descent, in turn, reveals the underbelly of Iran’s ravenous capitalism which facilitates all forms of twisted business while suppressing genuine cultural activities. Despite the restrictions imposed on its representational style due to post-revolutionary regulations, the film marks Beyzaie’s success to bring the four corners of his experience together while depicting a country in which no one is where they should be, and the ones who are supposed to protect the people do the opposite. In its archetypal force which highlights female heroism, the film also echoes the tales of a female heroine facing challenges to reclaim a beloved husband. Yet, the ending twists the myth to suggest the depth of corruption in Iran. Thus, the husband, Naser Moaser, who plays the victim to exploit Golrokh’s dedication to his advantage, is just like a corrupt state that builds on the claims of suffering under imperialism to exploit and suppress its own people. In that sense, the final scene, in which Golrokh’s husband is surrounded by his enemies, echoes the events after Ishtar’s return from her first journey to the underworld in which when she sees her husband having fun with his slave girls instead of mourning for her, she allows galla demons to take him to the underworld.63For more, see Talajooy, “Chapter 7” Bahram Beyzaie’s Cinematic.

Between 2000 and 2002, Beyzaie edited two films: Ali Mohammad Ghasemi’s Red Wind and Hamid Reza Salahmand’s The Time. His writing activities were mostly focused on rewriting a history of loss of talent and culture and the possibility of survival and rebirth. Among these, Seljuk Station, a script in Persian and English, mixes actual events with the dreams and flashbacks of a lost female tourist in Turkey. The script’s archetypal focus is the pre-Turkic Anatolian myth of fertility and its contemporary aspect centres on the absurd ethnic wars that chronically distort life in the Middle East, leaving thousands of children orphaned and in destitution. The spectrum of its thematic suggestions includes the sense of ennui in the life of a well-fed European couple visiting the site of an ancient temple of fertility, a woman’s desire for feeling human through affectionate activism and caring, and the westoxicated ignorance of the drivers and the local youth wandering around the site hoping to exploit the tourists visiting the place sexually or financially. Striking Ali, one the other hand, is a self-reflexive play commenting through meta-theatre on the difficulty of making a play about religious figures in Iran.64Like Hamid Amjad’s Mithra and Mirrors (2001) or Mohammad Rahmanian’s Tragic Recitation of Qadmashād, the Merrymaker (2001), Bridge (2003), and Ashaqeh (Ivy, 2007), Beyzaie’s play seems to have been written to offer new perspectives on religious figures who have played important roles in Iranian culture. A theatre troupe is rehearsing a play about Ali, the first Imam of the Shiite, in a plot that highlights retrogressive attitudes that prohibit authors from depicting Ali while centuries earlier he was depicted in ta‘ziyeh plays. The play also reflects Beyzaie’s vision in depicting Ali as an intellectual like the dissenting intellectuals who were killed by the intelligence organizations after the revolution. The play was, thus, in line with Beyzaie’s vision of depicting sacrificial heroes, like Siyāvush, Hussein and Ali as creative intellectuals, and constructive intellectuals as sacrificial heroes and victims of dogmatic societies. In this context, it was like many of his earlier plays in which an intellectual is murdered by officials or ignorant people who act like instruments of tyranny and also with Congregation for Killing Sennemār (1999) in which he used a circular plot and ta‘ziyeh motifs and techniques to depict how Ne‘mān, the Arab vassal king of the Sassanid Lakhmid, killed Sennemār, the architect who built him a unique palace to stop him from building a better one for someone else. Meanwhile, Beyzaie’s attempts to stop the screening of a censored version of Killing Mad Dogs in foreign festivals failed, but he waged a two-year battle against the system that had cut fifty minutes of the film and finally managed to screen the uncut version.

In 2002, Beyzaie also published a play that he had started as parallel pieces reflective of individual mentalities in the early 1980s, had reworked as a filmscript in the early 1990s and had finally turned into a single play in 1997. The play which was called Afra or the Day Is Passing is one of Beyzaie’s masterpieces due to its successful combinations of three innovative approaches. It uses parallel monologues which are delivered by people of different types who inadvertently reveal their own qualities while reconstructing the events in which a young female teacher, an embodiment of constructive intellectuality, is victimized by the people whom she has always helped. It uses, as its setting, an old neighbourhood threatened by demolition to bring together a number of potentially constructive individuals and their nemesis, people form the lowest and highest economic echelons, who represent various forms of outdated and pseudo-modern obsession with power, money, status or birth background. While commenting on pitfalls of Iranian modernity, this aspect also comments on the absence of awareness and how embodiments of greed, arrogance and victimization are short-sighted in understanding the disasters that it causes. Finally, it uses the self-reflexive presence of an author who is trying to write a play based on the monologues that her hears, but ultimately, he is forced to step down from the ivory tower of his intellectual detachment. The process introduces a complicated discourse on saving and salvation in which Afra’s dedication to work and constructive values sets a cycle of saving in motion which saves everyone from the torpor of apathy and monologues, which in turn save her from victimization.65For a Detailed analysis and the play’s translation, see Talajooy, “Afra or the Day”.

In 2002, Beyzaie also wrote An Accident Does Not Happen by Itself, a script that extends Beyzaie’s tragic vision to intellectual women. Up to the time he wrote this script, Beyzaie’s female protagonists were survivors who resisted the machinations of the dogmatic world in which they were trapped. Thus, Beyzaie’s dialogue with the rise of female consciousness and women’s movements in Iran suggested his hope in their success to transform Iran. Here, however, for the first time, his heroine is trapped by the hero of her past. This does not suggest the failure of the movement but how intellectual women are as important to the future of the country as their male counterpart and how they are equally in danger of victimization, if not more. The script is a psychological thriller that portrays a tale of betrayal in a film noir style and highlights the history of Iranian political conflicts, the chain murders of dissenting intellectuals and the impacts of ideology, violence and torture on human mind and relations.

2002 also marks a major turning point in Beyzaie’s career as it led to the intensification of Beyzaie’s research on theories that he had developed off and on since his teenage years on One Thousand and One Night. This happened when he wrote a twenty-minute piece for the festival 1001 Nights Now which included ten theatrical pieces from the Middle and Near East. The composite play was directed by Alan Lyddiard in Copenhagen. Later in 2003, after he failed to acquire the permit to film An Accident Does Not Happen by Itself, Beyzaie turned to the piece he had written for 1001 Night Now and expanded it into a trilogy, The One Thousand and First Night which he then rehearsed and staged in the Chāhārsou Hall at the City Theatre Complex. The trilogy is based on his research and speculations on the origins and transformations of the collection of ancient and medieval Iranian, Indian and Arab tales known as One Thousand and One Night. Working with the cycle of Zahhāk and Jamshid’s Daughters, the reports about the Middle Persian book of Hezār Afsān (A Thousand Tales) and the religious pressures against the translation of the later Arabic version into Persian during the 1800s, Beyzaie constructs a fictional history for the book in which the focus is the role of women in the continuity of Iranian culture. The three plays bring together some of Beyzaie’s best techniques. The first is a mythical tragicomedy that uses naqqāli to suggest that Shahrzād and Dināzād are the folktale recreations of Shahnameh’s Shahrnāz and Arnavāz and that they were the ones who mesmerized Zahhāk with their stories to save one man for every night that they spent with Zahhāk. It celebrates role playing and dramatic narration as a means to resist, outwit and entrap evil. The second is a tragedy that adapts Ruzbeh Dādoyeh’s (725-760) life story to the expressive tools of ta‘ziyeh to reconstruct the story of how the book of A Thousand Tales was translated into Arabic, the original book was destroyed and the translator was executed with the charge of heresy. The travails of the fictional Rozbeh, Pour-e Farrokhān, are thus performed as a passion play by an Iranian guard and Pour-e Farrokhān’s sister and wife, Māhak and Khoorzād in a prison in Baghdad. Besides being used as a source of performance techniques, ta‘ziyeh is also sublimated here to function as a rite of passage, opening the gates of the unknown for the ritual self-sacrifice that helps the two women escape rape and disgrace. The third is a comedy that echoes the life stories of some women’s rights activists of the Constitutional Era with the dramatic elements of taqlid and women-only musical comedies. Promoting comic role-playing as a means of resistance against and emancipation from patriarchal obsessions with honour and its excessively sombre and dogmatic worldviews, it reflects on women’s lives in the early 1900s. The dogmatic husband of an educated woman, Roshanak, has warned her that if she reads One Thousand and One Night which has now been translated into Persian, she will die on the one thousand and first night. Roshanak, however, has devised a plot to cure her husband’s blind ignorance and cruel dogmatism. Beyzaie, thus, constructs an emancipatory myth in which women (as in One Thousand and One Nights) use the power of emancipatory narration and performance to reform and civilize violent rulers and make them serve the land or distract them while preparing the path for a revolution (as in the cycle of Jamshid, Zahhāk and Fereydun).66For an English Translation and analysis see Talajooy “Continuity and Resistance”.

During the next 10 years, Beyzaie published two full length monographs, Finding the Roots of the Old Tree (2004) and Where Is Hezar Afsān? (2013) in which he examined pre-Islamic and post-Islamic evidence to prove the Iranian origins of One Thousand and One Nights and highlight the link between the idea of emancipatory speech as an archetypal discourse with the idea of fertile speaking tree and women as civilizing agents of emancipation in myths, literature, history, arts and folktales. Beyzaie highlights the role of artistic creativity and storytelling for cultural continuity. Both books are ultimately in line with Beyzaie’s vision of creative writing and performance as means of civilizing and transforming or resisting and challenging violent exclusionist and totalitarian discourses that distort human potential for life, creativity, and fertility. Later in 2006, Beyzaie also made a seven-minute film, The Eloquent Carpet, which celebrates the mythical and artistic origins of the designs of Iranian rugs. Building his thematic structure on the legend of the eloquent speaking male/female tree in the Shahnameh, it presents the carpet with the design of the speaking tree as a cultural icon for how Iranian carpet has played the same function as texts and artworks in guaranteeing the continuity of Iranian culture. The carpet, the fruit of women’s labour, whispers to us the secrets of the timeless beauty and fertility of art. The film also celebrates the way the carpet glorifies life and captures it in abstract and natural designs.

In 2004, Beyzaie also conducted interviews with the people involved in Travellers, Killing Mad Dogs, The Lady Aoi and Account of Bondar, the Premier and uses the interviews and his behind-the-scenes rushes for two documentaries: Travellers on the Road and The Brief File of Killing Mad Dogs. The films are valuable as research material for those interested in Beyzaie’s works and the Iranian filmmaking culture and its issues in the 1990s and 2000s, but they are also important for helping young directors learn about the process of making films.

In the same year, Beyzaie went on to write two scripts: The Evidence and The Fish. The former has remained unpublished, but the latter, which was published in 2020, focuses on the state’s criminalization of attractive women with a past to use them for gathering evidence against political activists or to control its own members. Yet he also managed to write and stage a play Congregation for Commemoration of the Travails of Professor Navid Makan and His Wife, Engineer Rokhshid Farzin whose title and ta‘ziyeh-like structure openly commemorated victimized intellectuals as sacrificial heroes. Using Kafkaesque elements, the play depicts a surveillance society in which thinking and being different are sins, the disturbing gazes of intruders overwhelm people’s private spaces and protesting injustice leads to the persecution of the protester. The play reveals Beyzaie’s bitter reflections on the chain murders of the 1990s during which agents of Iran’s Intelligence Organizations assassinated many dissenting intellectuals and human right activists with impunity. As such, the play tested the tolerance of the political establishment and showed that although they condemned the murders as extremist activities of agents who had been enticed by Israel, they could not tolerate the representations of what their agents did on the stage as deep down they knew that what these agents did reflected what the regime had been doing all along. The play included a prologue in which Beyzaie himself appeared on the stage to offer the play to the memory of Mohammad Pouyandeh (1954-98), Mohammad Mokhtari (1942-98) and the other victims of the Islamic Republic’s elite killing. Despite having a formal permit, the play was stopped after twenty-four nights on the main stage of City Theatre Complex. Though it was construed as the most political work of an artist who usually transcends politics, the play’s primary concern is cultural as, like other works by Beyzaie, it shows how many people remain silent or actively participate in the victimization of those who carry the emblem of knowledge among them. In this case, however, it was more open because it was decrying a situation that seemed beyond cure. He had chosen to be more direct to see if it penetrates the crassness of the people who commit these crimes. As such it revealed a new trend in Beyzaie’s works in which he openly depicts the self-destructive extremism of Iranian political establishment.

In 2007, Beyzaie tried to film The Edge of Precipice which he had recently written, but he got stuck in the quick mire of Iranian cinema, in which the state’s totalitarian censorship, the distorted grammar of Iranian cinema in relationship to women and intimate relations, and the absurd expectations of producers and upstart actors often transform the scripts into something very different from the original. Unable to continue the project, therefore, Beyzaie moved to another film entitled When We Are All Sleeping (2009) which echoes the experience of his previous project with a self-reflexive study of the relationship between reality and cinema. The film, which has so far been Beyzaie’s last film, builds on his concern with the distorting or liberating power of cinema on our understanding of reality, time, place, history, and life. Though this concern dates to his puppet plays, its cinematic aspect was first revealed in The Crow. Here, however, it is directly focused on the subject as the film is about making a film. It begins with a film noir in which a man, Nejat, who has been acquitted after five years from the charge of murdering his wife is approached by a woman, Chekameh, who wants him to kill her addict sister, Labkhand, whom she blames for the accident that led to the deaths of Chekameh’s husband and child. Chekameh is being harassed by the lawyer of the driver whose fault led to the loss of her family, and Nejat is being chased by his brothers-in-law who intend to kill him for his assumed murder of their sister. The spectator learns that before being imprisoned with the charge of killing his wife, Nejat was imprisoned for the debts that his wife’s brothers, Chavoushi brothers, had caused, and that the only way his wife found to save him was to betray her marriage bond to get the debtors withdraw their compliant. Chekameh inform the brothers that Najat’s wife actually killed herself due to the shame of being unfaithful to her husband. The brothers, however, are still adamant to kill Nejat as he is the only one who may be aware that they victimized him and their sister for their own corrupt deals. Nejat, however, refuses to kill Labkhand, but when he informs her of Chekameh’s plot, she insists that Chekameh was the cause of all the conflicts because she married a man that Labkhand loved, which, in turn, led to her addiction. She, then, gives a knife to Nejat and asks him to kill Chekameh. Just as the plot moves towards it climax, however, the film stops to introduce a framing film that exposes the spectator to how various interferences by those who have no understanding of cinema gradually distort a grand artistic vision into something banal or sensational. The producers’ interference and threats of suing the director first lead to changing the lead actors and then the director himself in a process of grotesque mutation. Thus, after the spectators are exposed to the now absurdly performed repetitions of some of the scenes they have already seen, the film closes with the director and the scriptwriter imagining the way they wanted to complete the film. Disappointed in Nejat’s ability to kill anyone and ashamed of her budding love for him, Chekameh, who has all along been pretending to be herself and her sister to find someone to help her kill herself, informs Nejat’s brothers-in-law about a meeting place where they can kill Nejat. She, then, disguises herself as Nejat and goes to the meeting place, where she is stabbed by the brothers and dies in Nejat’s hands who has realized what has happened but has arrived too late.

With Nejat’s name suggesting the idea of a saviour and saving, and the budding love that Chekameh kills in herself due to her guilt complex, both the embedded and the framing films have archetypal layers that echo Beyzaie’s visions about how love, fertility, creativity, and better futures are destroyed due to the opportunism of those who victimize everyone for their temporary gains. This theme, however, is more forcefully, reflected in the way the embedded film is transformed into a monstrosity that demonstrates the banality of evil.67For more, See Kaveh, Vaqti Hameh.

Though less than a decade later, many people came to the same conclusions that Beyzaie had arrived in the film, the controversial reviews of the film at the time suggests that many people had not yet fully understood what was happening to Iranian cinema. In time, however, the film found its place among the masterpieces of self-reflexive filmmaking in Iran.

In 2010, Beyzaie relocated to California to start a guest professor position at Stanford University. In Stanford, in addition to teaching courses and on cinema, drama and mythology, he has had numerous public lectures on various aspects of Iranian performing traditions and Iranian mythology. He has also, so far, completed some of his research projects and performed or published some of his earlier works among which his performance of Tarabnāmeh in 2016 and The Crossroad in 2018 have been the most successful. In 2017, he also attended a ceremony and a workshop at the University of Sr Andrews in Scotland where he received an honorary doctorate for his contributions to cinema, theatre and mythological studies. During the workshop, Beyzaie responded to questions about the production of Downpour and talked about the myth of Zahhāk and Jamshid after Mozhdeh Shamsaie delivered a dazzling solo performance of all the roles in the first play of The One Thousand and First Night. Beyzaie has also collaborated with the Film Foundation’s World Cinema Project which has so far renovated Downpour in 2011 and Stranger and the Fog in 2023.

Cite this article

Cinema Iranica (May 27, 2024) A Critical Overview of Bahram Beyzaie’s Dramatic and Cinematic Oeuvre: Contour in Time (1959-2023). Retrieved from https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/a-critical-overview-of-bahram-beyzaies-dramatic-and-cinematic-oeuvre-contour-in-time-1959-2023/.
"A Critical Overview of Bahram Beyzaie’s Dramatic and Cinematic Oeuvre: Contour in Time (1959-2023)." Cinema Iranica - May 27, 2024, https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/a-critical-overview-of-bahram-beyzaies-dramatic-and-cinematic-oeuvre-contour-in-time-1959-2023/
Cinema Iranica April 15, 2024 A Critical Overview of Bahram Beyzaie’s Dramatic and Cinematic Oeuvre: Contour in Time (1959-2023)., viewed May 27, 2024,<https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/a-critical-overview-of-bahram-beyzaies-dramatic-and-cinematic-oeuvre-contour-in-time-1959-2023/>
"A Critical Overview of Bahram Beyzaie’s Dramatic and Cinematic Oeuvre: Contour in Time (1959-2023)." Cinema Iranica - Accessed May 27, 2024. https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/a-critical-overview-of-bahram-beyzaies-dramatic-and-cinematic-oeuvre-contour-in-time-1959-2023/