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Alternative Cinema: A Cinematic Revolution Before The 1979 Revolution

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Alternative Cinema: A Cinematic Revolution Before The 1979 Revolution

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Iranian pre-revolutionary cinema has been characterized by different cinematic trends. While distinct in their modes of production, cinematic grammar, means of circulation, and reception, these cinematic trends were connected and overlapping. Starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new cinematic trend grew in Iran that drew on some of the tropes of the extant post-WWII popular film industry, while distancing itself from it. Iran’s popular film industry, commonly known as “Film-Farsi” (Persian-language-films), was denigrated by film critics, cultural thinkers, actors, and directors as commercial cheap productions that lacked serious artistic value. In an era defined by left-leaning political ideologies, third world nationalisms, and new artistic movements, a group of young Iranian filmmakers embarked on a journey that bore a new cinematic movement aligned with new cinema trends and political ideologies around the world. This artistic and politically inclined filmic trend came to be regarded as an “alternative cinema” at the time—also deemed as Iran’s pre-revolutionary New Wave cinema, in retrospect. While grounded in Iranian traditions and practices, the films of alternative cinema can be regarded as vernacular-cosmopolitan offerings by virtue of their engagement with global ideological currents and artistic trends. The film directors of this alternative movement took their cameras to the streets (both physically and metaphorically) and recorded the Iranian quotidian in artistic and internationally informed forms that spoke to the local and global anxieties of the period. 

In 1967, the Iranian filmmaker, poet, and critic, Fereydoun Rahnema, criticized Iranian cinema by saying, “Today we are submerged in imitation.” “If imitation is our role,” he continued, then “that role cannot be.” “In the past, our noble deeds, which have sometimes appeared as miracles to outsiders… have been due to our combining seemingly incommensurable elements.” Such combining of forces, a blending of imitation and innovation, a fusion of global cinematic insight and local Iranian vision, Rahnema believed, could inspire the Iranian “spiritual force” in filmmaking. “In this combinatorial path, we will be inevitably informed of the efforts and rectitude of all countries,” Rahnema stated; it was, however, not necessary to also follow other societies’ “dead-ends, crises, and extremes” in cinema. By implementing a combinatorial spirit in filmmaking, Rahnema believed that Iranians could expose unexplored openings in culture that Westerners had also been waiting for.1 Fereydoun Rahnema, “Cinematic Insight,” Sīnamā-yi Āzād, Kitāb-i Duvvum [Free Cinema, Book Two] (Tehran: Cinema-ye-Azad Publishing Center, 1351 [1972]), 11-12. While this piece was published in Free Cinema publication in 1972, the text was part of a speech that Rahnema was supposed to deliver five years earlier at a cinema seminar, which was to be broadcast on the radio. Such cosmopolitan vision of filmmaking that drew on global cinematic experiences to foreground an Iranian cinematic imagination, came to characterize a national filmmaking movement prior to the 1979 revolution. 

Iranian pre-revolutionary cinema has been defined by different artistic trends. While distinct in their characteristics, modes of production, means of circulation, and reception, these cinematic movements were connected and overlapping. Starting in the late 1950s and early 1960s, a new cinematic trend grew in Iran that drew on some of the tropes of the extant popular film industry, while distantiating itself from it. Iran’s post-WWII popular film industry, usually regarded as “Film-Farsi” (Persian-language-films), was strongly criticized and denigrated by film critics, cultural thinkers, actors, and directors as commercial and cheap productions that lacked serious artistic value. In an era defined by a global counterculture movement, left-leaning political ideologies, Third World nationalisms, and new wave cinematic movements, a young group of filmmakers embarked on a socially committed and realist cinematic movement that aligned with new waves around the world. Seeing differences between this artistic and politically inclined trend and Iran’s popular films, some began to call this movement, “Alternative Cinema.” Iranian alternative films can be considered as vernacular-cosmopolitan productions. By virtue of their engagement with global ideological currents and artistic trends through their directors, producers, writers, actors, and global networks that circulated film culture, these productions had a cosmopolitan colour that appealed to the middle-class. On the other hand, alternative filmmakers looked to the Iranian past and traditions to shape a collective consciousness and imagine a new, sovereign Iran. It is not surprising, then, that this movement emerged while a collective political consciousness was taking shape in Iran before 1979. 

While cinema in Iran had become popular among the public by the 1930s, and while Persian language films were produced in Iran and India, the onset of World War II (WWII) and the invasion of Iran by allied forces gave rise to a hiatus in narrative feature filmmaking. This pause, however, did not mean the ceasing of cinematic activities as movie theaters would still showcase international films and magazines would publish articles about world cinema. After the end of WWII and the withdrawal of the Allies from the country, a sustained film industry emerged in Iran. After only a few years of operation, the nascent popular film industry began to be severely criticized and attacked by film critics, directors, actors, and cultural thinkers. Commercial films were reprimanded for their popular cultural tropes, lack of technical quality, and mimicry in borrowing storylines from international commercial cinemas like Hollywood and Egyptian cinema.  

Hushang Kavusi, a pre-revolutionary filmmaker and critic, who first coined the term “Film-Farsi” for Iranian post-WWII popular films did not regard Iran’s popular cinema as part of the canon of Iranian cinema. He considered these visual offerings as films that “spoke in the Persian language,” but from a technical perspective, were not worthy enough to be included within the annals of a national cinema.2Hushang Kavusi, “Sīnamā-yi Bī-Sāmān [Disorderly Cinema],” Nigīn (Jewel), no. 34 (Isfand 1346 [March 1968]), 9. Writing in Firdawsi magazine in 1955, Kavusi criticized seven years of sustained film production after WWII as bearing no “cinematic value.”3Hushang Kavusi, “Film-Farsi bah Kuja Miravad? [Where is Film-Farsi Going?],” Firdawsi, no. 144 (Tir 18, 1333 [June 29, 1954]), page number not clear. In the 1960s, he continued his battle with Film-Farsi when he wrote that “from twenty years ago hundred thousands of kilometers of film have been utilized, millions of Tomans have been spent, thousands of hours have been wasted, and the result, which is the current Farsi cinema, has not been able to find a place for itself in global cinema.”4Kavusi, “Sīnamā-yi Bī-Sāmān,” 8. Similar to Kavusi, Farhang Farahi also found it pitiful to call Film-Farsi “a filmmaking industry.”5Farhang Farahī, “Jumʻih Bāzār-i Sīnamā-yi Fīlm-Fārsī” [The Friday bazaar of Film-Farsi], Nigīn 44 (Day 30, 1347 [Jan. 20, 1969]): 25. Farahi was especially frustrated that Film-Farsis would remain on screens for more than two or three weeks and competed with expensive and commercial international productions, while grade A outstanding and meaningful international films were either never showcased in Iran or were screened for only one week.6Farahī, “Jumʻih Bāzār-i Sīnamā-yi Fīlm-Fārsī,” 26. If Film-Farsi was “worthless and vulgar,” it was not because it was part of a “young Persian Iranian industry” or because it did not receive the attention of the government, the critics held; it was because “a group of profit-seeking and greedy merchants” guided the industry.7Farahī, “Jumʻih Bāzār-i Sīnamā-yi Fīlm-Fārsī,” 26. Detecting a grave “danger” associated with the strong “disposition” of the Iranian public for “the bazaar of vulgarism,” Kāvūsī called for “an artistic revolution.”8Hushang Kāvūsī, “Gandāb-i Rūbirū [The Wasteland Ahead],” Nigīn 44 (Day 30, 1347 [Jan. 20, 1969]), 6.

Through criticism, Kavusi believed, “a path would automatically be shown”; however abstract, this path could be teased “out of the heart of words” of cultural thinkers.9This is taken from an interview with Hushan Kavusi and other filmmakers and film critics. See “Miz-i Gird-i Sīnamā-yi Irān 1 [Roundtable on Iranian Cinema I],” Farhang va Zindigī [Culture and Life] (Tābistān 1354 [Summer 1975]), 55. As criticisms aimed at Film-Farsi increased in the 1950s, the roots of a filmmaking industry grew stronger and deeper. The number of movie theatres in Tehran and provincial cities multiplied. Film magazines and cultural periodicals that wrote about Iranian and international films, actors and actresses, and the industry boomed in number. Journals such as Hollywood, The World of Art (Alam-i Hunar), Cinema Star (Sitārih-yi Sīnamā), Cinema Courier (Payk-i Sinama), Film and Art (Fīlm va Hunar), Nigīn (Jewel), Bāmshād, White and Black (Sipīd va Sīyāh), Intellectual (Rushanfikr), and Tehran Illustrated (Tehran Musavvar) published articles and posters that represented the latest films and screenings in international movie theatres, film reviews, essays about culture, and biographies of movie stars and directors, in addition to the latest fashion of Hollywood, French, Italian, Danish, and later German and Russian cinemas. New film studios began operating, while more and more artists entered the world of cinema. Meanwhile, with the heightened flow of capital after World War II and Iran’s increased integration into the world economy during the Cold War, an increasing number of commercial and artistic international films were featured in movie theatres which connected Iranians to the world even more.  

On the other hand, the 1953 CIA- and MI6-engineered coup against Mohammad Mosaddeq’s government deepened apprehensions about American imperialism, Iranian despotism, and political suppression in the Iranian consciousness. Mohammad Reza Shah’s revolution from above, or the White Revolution of 1963, added to this growing social angst. Consisting of a series of education and land reforms that aimed to fulfill “the expectations of an increasingly politically aware general public,” and prevent the danger of “a revolution from below,” this revolution posed the Iranian monarchy “as the lynchpin of Iranian state and society.”  With “modernism” at its central ideology, the revolution led to rapid modernization, urbanization, and a growing wealth gap that aroused anxiety among various sectors of society, but especially the poor and conservative.10Ansari, Ali M. “The Myth of the White Revolution: Mohammad Reza Shah, ‘Modernization’ and the Consolidation of Power.” Middle Eastern Studies 37, no. 3 (2001): 2.

It was within these conditions that a group of young Iranian filmmakers, who heeded the criticisms aimed at the popular film industry, and who were now increasingly linked to global visual, literary, and political circuits, embarked on the crafting of a new cinema movement. Many of these young filmmakers had received their education in film, art, or other fields outside Iran. To name a few, Suhrab Shahid Sales (1943–98) studied cinema in both Vienna and Paris; Kamran Shirdel (b. 1939) studied architecture and urbanism at the University of Rome, film at the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia in Italy, and worked under the mentorship of directors such as Nanni Loy (1925–95) and Michelangelo Antonioni, while he engaged with Italian neorealism; Dariush Mehrjui (b. 1939) studied at the Department of Cinema at UCLA under the instruction of directors such as Jean Renoir (1894–1979); Fereydoun Rahnema studied and wrote poetry in France; and Parviz Kimiavi (b. 1939) also studied film and photography in France. Many others were well-informed of cinematic activities in Iran and around the world, had watched Iranian and international films, and were already familiar with film magazines and publications in and beyond Iran. In the years and decades that followed World War II, numerous associations formed that organized international film screenings or film festivals. The National Film Association established in 1949 (later changed to National Film Archive of Iran,), the National Art Association and Cine Club established in 1954, and Pahlavi University Film Association, were some of the groups that organized cultural and film events. In addition, beginning in the 1960s, numerous film festivals were convened in Iran that served as artistic hubs and brought together actors, directors, artists, and films from around the world. Tehran International Festival of Films for Children and Young Adults (starting in 1966), Shiraz Persepolis Arts Festival (starting in 1967), Sipas (Gratitude) Film Festival (starting in 1969), Free (Azad) Cinema Film Festival (starting in 1970),) Tehran International Film Festival (starting in 1972), and Tus Festival (starting in 1975) showcased international films and linked the global cinematic imaginarium to an Iranian one. The films that were made by alternative filmmakers were informed by these cosmopolitan experiences, as well as dynamic national debates during which they were produced. The films of this movement can arguably be considered as cosmopolitan vernacular visual offerings in that they drew on global artistic and political trends, to speak about the contemporary Iranian experience.  

Thematically and textually, Italian neorealism made significant contributions to the new culture of filmmaking in Iran. Like Italian neorealist films, alternative films used realism and surrealism, an invisible style of continuity in filming and editing, camera movements and positions, minimal artificial lighting and natural light in exterior locations, non-professional actors in addition to professional ones, and “moral poetics” to evoke a collective ethical commitment to social issues that gripped the world.11Hamid Naficy, “Neorealism Iranian Style,” in Global Neorealism: The Transnational History of a Film Style, ed. Saverio Giovacchini and Robert Sklar (Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), no page numbers.  This shared moral commitment was expected to, as Naficy argues, “eliminate filmmakers’ individual, personal, and authorial differences and unite them on larger social issues.”12Naficy, “Neorealism Iranian Style,” no page numbers.  Rather than studio sets, the streets and alleyways of metropolitan cities such as Tehran took the centerstage in many of these films, not too dissimilar to the status of Rome in Italian neorealism. The pace of films was in such a way that gave way to more observation and contemplation. The characters were more nuanced and flawed, with many films paying particular attention to antiheroes, inviting the audiences to explore more philosophical and existential questions. French Nouvelle Vague, Third Cinema, and other emergent new wave cinemas also were of significance to the shaping of this film movement. 

Thematically, inspired by Italian neorealist films, filmmakers focused on aspects of everyday life that were sidelined or suppressed in Iran’s post-WWII visual culture. The quotidian lives of people from lower socio-economic classes like the working-class, those living in the outskirts of the city, the unemployed, the overlooked terminally ill, marginalized small time thieves, petty criminals, formerly imprisoned, restless youth in an unstable society, and the socially scorned women like cabaret dancers and prostitutes, became the subject of many social realist films of this era. While popular films also attended to many of the same topics, the subjects of alternative films were approached from a more humanist sensibility; their stories were told in more unorthodox narrative structures, while the films were aesthetically distinct and at times modernist. Exploitation was a common trope in many of these films. The collection of alternative films from this era worked to engender a new national culture. Noting the distinction in filmmaking, in a 1996 retrospective, Farrukh Ghaffārī, an influential critic and director of the pre-revolutionary era, proposed “Alternative Cinema” (sīnamā-yi mutifāvit), as an accurate term for this movement in filmmaking.13Farrukh Ghaffārī, “Sīnamā-yi Īrān az Dīrūz tā Imrūz [Iran’s cinema from yesterday to today],” Irān Nāmih 14, no. 3 (Tābistān 1375 [Summer 1996]): 350.  These films, while not cohesive in terms of their texts, themes, style, or the social background of their directors, were taken as alternatives to (even if overlapping with) the visual offerings of the popular film industry and those of the Pahlavi state. 

It should be noted that the economic conditions of Iran permitted for the emergence of a somewhat niche market for intellectual and art-house films. As Iran was increasingly integrated into the world economy, especially due to its oil production in the 1960s and 1970s, a social stratification of cinema and theatre viewers also emerged that allowed for art-house and less commercially successful films to find their target audience. Since this was not an audience that developed into a distinct entity overnight, a lot of times filmmakers drew on commercially popular tropes in their films to attract spectators and showcase their films in movie theatres for longer periods of time. Alternative films often came under a barrage of criticism from film critics and art-house film enthusiasts for indulging in the song and dance numbers and fight scenes that defined Film-Farsi. 

It should be noted that the economic conditions of Iran permitted for the emergence of a somewhat niche market for intellectual and art-house films. As Iran was increasingly integrated into the world economy, especially due to its oil production in the 1960s and 1970s, a social stratification of cinema and theatre viewers also emerged that allowed for art-house and less commercially successful films to find their target audience. Since this was not an audience that developed into a distinct entity overnight, a lot of times filmmakers drew on commercially popular tropes in their films to attract spectators and showcase their films in movie theatres for longer periods of time. Alternative films often came under a barrage of criticism from film critics and art-house film enthusiasts for indulging in the song and dance numbers and fight scenes that defined Film-Farsi. 

South of the City (1958) was one of the earliest films that blurred the distinction between Film-Farsi and alternative films. It drew on some of the tropes of popular film while distancing itself by taking a more neorealist approach to societal issues such as urban moral disintegration and unemployment. The director shot many of the film’s scenes in real spaces that conveyed the film’s urban atmosphere. The opening shots of the film depict different parts of Tehran, which set the stage for the narrative. The film was banned by the government after a few nights of screening and released again in 1964 under the title, Competition in the City.14Some attribute the banning of the film to its depiction of the south of Tehran and some to the rumours surrounding the film, including its funding by Soviet Russia.  The film tends to the life of Iffat, a widower who works at a cabaret to take care of her young, orphaned son. Iffat (played by Fakhri Khurvash) tells her story in a voiceover, which highlights her perspective, and expresses her frustration with the image associated with “a woman of the café.” Iffat’s account depicts issues faced by women of her strata, especially as an unemployed single mother. She eventually meets and falls in love with Farhad, a jahil of virtuous character, who has to contend with Asghar, a vile jahil, over Iffat’s affection. The juxtaposition of the two jahils work to foreground Iranian customs and traditional virtues such as justness and righteousness; scenes of traditional cafes, minstrel music, and Naqqali (Iranian dramatic storytelling) also loom large in the film. Iffat and Farhad finally triumph over the trials and tribulations created by Asghar. The film ends with the couple depicted in their new lives as a middle-class family; Farhad has become a white-collar worker and Iffat a housewife. The last scenes of the film depicting the social mobility of the couple and their residence in the more affluent parts of Tehran were reportedly added by the director in order for the state to lift the ban on the film. It is worthy to remember that South of the City was released after the White Revolution, which promised progress and modernization to the people. 

The 1960s was a formative decade for the crystallization of Alternative Cinema. Forough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black (1962) portrays a neorealist depiction of a leper community at the Baba-Baghi hospice in Tabriz. Commissioned by the Society for the Assistance of Lepers and produced by an alternative cinema filmmaker, Ibrahim Golestan, the documentary is a poetic film essay that aims to humanize a forgotten and marginalized community. Beginning with close shots of young lepers, the film presses the viewer to face the brutal reality of a people inflicted by this contagious disease—a disease commonly found among the poor in urban areas. By engraving the deformed faces of her subjects on celluloid and in the viewer’s mind, Farrokhzad urges her audience to remember the fragility of the human body and our responsibility to the society’s most vulnerable. Farrokhzad’s poetry, which she recites over scenes of the quotidian in the leper colony, foregrounds her perspective, gives expression to the lepers’ misery and highlights their dreams of rehabilitation and return. With her effective use of light and moving shots, Farrokhzad opens the viewer to a sense of beauty that the leper community is conventionally deprived of. “Leprosy is not an incurable disease,” the narrator calls the viewer to arms in a humanist spirit.  

Similar to Farrokhzad’s The House is Black, Shirdel’s three social documentaries made in the 1960s, attended to the lives of society’s marginalized. In his late teenage years, Kamran Shirdel moved to Italy to continue his education first in architecture at the University of Rome and then in cinema at Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia. He learned filmmaking under the instruction of notable directors such as Nanni Loy, while benefitting from a vivacious cinematic culture in post-WWII Italy that encompassed the contributions of Michelangelo Antonioni, Pier Paolo Pasolini, and Roberto Rossellini. When Shirdel returned to Iran in the mid-1960s, he was almost immediately employed by the Pahlavi Ministry of Culture and Art to make a series of documentaries about the humanitarian work of Women’s Organization (Saziman-i Zanan). Informed by the cinematic idiom of Italian neorealism, Shirdel’s documentaries provided a social realist portrayal of everyday life that directly questioned state policies, challenged the Organization’s efforts, and thus faced censorship. While Women’s Prison (1965) was commissioned to attend to educational and training activities of the Women’s Organization in prison, it shed light on the despairing lives of poverty-stricken women who were forced into criminal activities, drug-trafficking, and murder. Taking a bolder approach, Women’s Quarter (1966) concentrated on the desperation, deception, and dispossession of prostitutes in Tehran’s red-light district, with some attention to their supposed rehabilitation through education and training by Women’s Organization. Due to the film’s dark portrayal of life in Tehran, the film was banned by the government before shooting was complete and was only finished after the 1979 revolution, when Ibrahim Golestan’s photos of the red-light district—ten years after the film was originally shot—were used. The superimposition of the voices of women narrating their firsthand account of hardship and despair over photos of prostitutes in the district, provide a compelling image of a dystopic Tehran in the 1960s and 1970s. Tehran is the Capital of Iran (1966), likewise, addresses the impoverishment of Khazaneh neighbourhood in south of the city. Shots and images of the destitute residents of Khazaneh who did not have access to clean water, garbage collection, or facilities expected in a modern city, directly challenged the Shah’s reforms through his White Revolution. In the film, a teacher’s dictation to adult students enrolled in the Organization’s adult classes includes sections from a textbook about the success of Shah’s White Revolution and the government’s attempts at modernization. The teacher’s voice projected on the images of a deprived neighborhood served as a clear objection to the Shah’s modernizing campaign. 

The years 1967 to 1969, significant years in global social and political affairs, were at the crux of this filmmaking trend. Of note, Fereydoun Rahnema’s Siavash in Persepolis (1967), marked a significant turning point in Iranian filmmaking. The juxtaposition of real and fictional and concrete and imaginary, which characterized some of Shirdel’s work, also took centre stage in Rahnema’s films. Siavash in Persepolis is based on the epic story of Siyavash in Firdawsi’s epic poem, Shahnamah (Book of Kings) produced in the eleventh century. In Shahnamah’s story, Siyavash is a warrior prince who attempts to bring peace to the land of Iran ruled by his father. A victim of lies and schemes begun by his stepmother, Siyavash is put to the test of fire to prove his innocence. Walking out of the fire alive, a triumphant Siyavash is then entrusted with the task of engaging in battle with the land of Turan. After a falling out with his father over a peace treaty offered by the King of Turan, Siyavash flees to Turan and marries a Turani princess. While taking refuge in the land of Turan, he arouses the jealousy of some members of the royal family, which eventually leads to Siyavash’s execution. Rahnema’s film was shot in the ruins of Persepolis, now staged without much glamour and glory. Including documentary-style footages, modern-style dances, and tourists visiting the ruins, Rahnema brilliantly mixes fact and fiction to allude to the pseudo-historical origins of a nation. Collapsing boundaries of time, the film brings the past into the present to make Siyavash relevant to the modern-day Iranian. The message is even more forceful when considering that the film was released in the same year that Mohammad Reza Shah coronated himself in a lavish ceremony in Tehran. In a way, Mohammad Reza Shah revealed himself to be far from the admirable and justice-seeking Siyavash of Firdawsi’s epic poem. In a film essay on Fereydoun Rahnema’s Siavash in Persepolis, film critic and director, Nasib Nasibi, proclaimed Rahnema as the “only cinematographer in Iran who carries the weights of Iranian thought and spirituality,” one whose film is a “totality about human.”15Nasib Nasibi, “Siyavash dar Takhti-i Jamshid [Siavash in Persepolis],” Sīnamā-yi Āzād, Kitāb-i Avval [Free Cinema, Book One] (Tehran: Cinema-ye-Azad Publishing Center, 1350 [1971]), 63.  Rahnema’s films, in Nasibi’s opinion, would one day turn into a school of filmmaking. His film “is connected to a thousand years later”; Rahnema showed the relationship between the mythical Siyavash of Shahnamah and “today’s humans,” to say “that today, too, Siavash exists,”16Nasibi, “Siyavash dar Takhti-i Jamshid,” 63.  but perhaps not in the form of the incumbent king, Mohammad Reza Shah. The film’s story and setting, and Rahnema’s collapsing of time and space, was an innovative approach for his time. 

Qaysar (1969) was one of the formative films of Iran’s alternative cinema, one that also drew from Film-Farsi tropes to address the anxieties that gripped the Iranian underclass. Qaysar tells the story of a man trapped in a transitional society that treads between modern values and traditionalfamilial morals. Upon arriving in Tehran from a booming Abadan where he is employed, Qaysar discovers that his sister committed suicide after being raped, and that his brother was killed while defending his sister’s honor. Qaysar sees no choice but to take matters into his own hands. Learning the names of the perpetrators of the crime, in an almost epic manner, Qaysar avenges the lives of her sister and brother, and the memory of a forgotten underclass.  Qaysar was praised by film critics for its representation of “the blind rebellions and pervasive dead-ends” in the dark underbelly of Iran’s conservative lower classes. At the same time, it was critiqued by Hushang Kavusi for its connection to Film-Farsi in its depiction of traditional coffeehouses, bath houses, fight scenes, and folkloric elements.17Hūshang Kāvūsī, “Az ‘Dāj Sītī’ tā Bāzārchah ’i Nāyib Gurbah” [From “Dodge City” to the Bazaar of Nayib Gurbah], Nigīn, no. 56 (Day 1348 [December 1969]), 23-24.  Regardless of criticisms, Qaysar staged a neglected community that sought solace in traditional values to combat the annihilation brought about by modern times. 

Based on a short story by Ghulam-Hussayn Sa’edi, a leftist writer and psychiatrist, Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969) is perhaps the most well-known film of the alternative trend. At a time when pastoral life and the incorruptibility of peasants was romanticized by alternative and popular filmmakers in reaction to rapid urbanization and growing social divides, The Cow’s poetic pessimism about village life was a subversive act against Pahlavi claims to progress and modernization. Mashdi Hassan, a poor villager who lives in a remote and impoverished area, is over-reliant on a single cow as a means for his subsistence. The cow’s mysterious death sparks a psychotic episode where Mashdi Hassan loses contact with reality—the boundary between human and animal is disrupted and Mashdi Hassan metamorphosizes into a cow. Screened at Berlin, Cannes, and Moscow film festivals, the film was praised for its critique of capitalism and imperialism and their alienating effects. Mehrjui saw the demise of his protagonists in films such as The Cow, Mr. Halu (1971), and The Postman (1972), to be in reaction to their environment and informed by their “historical and social factors.”18Hasan Quli-Zadeh, “Gāv, Hālū, va Pustchī va Sīnamā-yi Mu’allif [the Cow, Halu, and the Postman, and Auteur Cinema],” Sīnamā-yi Āzād, Kitāb-i Duvvum [Free Cinema, Book Two] (Tehran: Cinema-ye-Azad Publishing Center, 1351 [1972]), 30.  The absence of the cow, according to Mehrjui, led to the collapse of the boundary between lover and beloved, or signaled a return to the “mother’s womb.” In that sense, Mashdi Hassan’s transmutation could be regarded as a journey towards “perfection” and “transcendence,” or a shift towards “self-reliance” for salvation—an essential Third World nationalist response to imperialism. 

The alternative films of the era were specifically commended for their close connection to Iranian society, culture, and history. The Night of the Hunchback (1965) by Farrukh Ghaffari was acclaimed by Sam in Free Cinema journal for its similarities to the works of Hitchcock, and also praised for the film’s “perfect proximity” to “Iranian life.”19Sam (no last name), “Shab-i Qūzī [The Night of the Hunchback],” Sīnamā-yi Āzād, Kitāb-i Avval [Free Cinema, Book One] (Tehran: Cinema-ye-Azad Publishing Center, 1350 [1971]), 90-91.  In Tranquility in the Presence of Others (1970), Naser Taqvayi had “accessed the culture of his society,” a culture that had “polluted” urban dwellers and convicted them to “a state of dreadfulness.”20Gītī Vahīdī, “Ārāmish dar Huzūr i Fāji’ah” [Tranquility in the Presence of a Catastrophe], Nigīn, no. 96 (Urdībihisht 1352 [April 1973]), 56.   Bahman Farmanara’s Prince Ijtijab (1974) relied on Iranian history to narrate “the decline of an aristocratic family in the context of an end of an era,” perhaps signifying the collapse of Iran’s monarchical era. 

Like the title suggests, Under the Skin of the Night (1974) by Fereydoon Goleh delved into the underbelly of Tehran, ripe with desires, crime, and life. In the film’s opening scenes, Goleh compares a beetle’s efforts to make a home in the wild to a man’s attempt at life in Tehran; an establishing wide shot of Tehran sets the stage for this tale. Under the Skin of the Night follows a day in the life of Qasim Siah (Qasim, the Dark), unemployed and homeless, to expose the hardship faced by a young man in a harsh modernizing city. His austere life is filled with a thirst for life which is continuously reflected through sexually invoking scenes, and out of place in a socially conservative society. Qasim is reproached by everyone; he is reprimanded by his mother for his unemployment, by mothers for playing soccer with their kids (and unintentionally injuring them), chased by men for harassing their wives or sisters, by big name criminals for hustling in the streets he grew up in, and beaten up by affluent men who deride him. While feeling invisible in the busy streets of Tehran, Qasim is seen by a foreign young woman, Susan, who also seems to be escaping from her past—a relationship perhaps. While facing a language barrier, the two strike a friendship and agree to spend Susan’s last night in Tehran together. Qasim looks for a place where they can be sexually intimate, to no avail. The two smoke marijuana and use the respite to imagine their sexual encounter, in the absence of an actual one. At night, Qasim encounters two young men, for whose affluent family his mother works as a servant. The young rich men pick up the couple and take them to a villa. One of the men swims in the villa’s swimming pool with Susan, arousing jealousy in Qasim. Feeling impotent in front of the upper-class, an enraged Qasim is evenually beaten up by the two men. Qasim and Susan leave the house and start wandering through the streets again. Scenes of Qasim’s sobs, accompanied by the background loud noise of the city, highlight Qasim’s atomization in this unjust society. Only in a few tender moments when the two lovers make out, does the uproar of the city quiet, at least until the two are arrested by the police. Qasim is kept in prison while Susan is put on her flight back to New York. In the early hours of the morning, when Susan is on the plane, Qasim relieves himself and puts an end to the social, cultural, and sexual agony of his day. Goleh’s subject matter, techniques of filmmaking, and dream-like sequences were seen as unprecedented and Avant Gard. 

As Iranian discontent with the regime of the Shah became more pronounced, films also became more conspicuously political, and at times religiously-attuned. As political activism and protests grew in the streets of Tehran, films became more revolutionary, and sometimes rife with religious undertones that paralleled the religious underpinnings of revolutionary protests. Tangsir (1974), Tall Shadows of the Wind (1978), and O.K. Mister (1979), were some of the films that grasped the collective angst and revolutionary spirit of their era. Based on a novel of the same title by Sadiq Chubak, Amir Nader’s Tangsir portrays the battle of one honest Tangsiri veteran, Za’ir Mohammad, against a corrupt wealthy elite in south of Iran. The affluent nobility, who symbolize an unjust capitalist social system, have stolen Za’ir Mohammad’s life savings. Outraged by the injustices he is subject to, he decides to take justice into his own hands. Before setting out on his vendetta, he pays a visit to the local mosque and shrine to receive the blessing of the village’s religious superior. Za’ir Muhammad drinks water from the mosque’s water reservoir and hesitates over a painting of Shi’ite saint, Imam Hussein, which conjures an analogy to the events of Karbala. He then digs out his gun and axe and takes revenge against those who have oppressed him and other members of his community. Za’ir Muhammad’s courageous acts inspire other villagers to also rise up and demand justice from the village nobility in the form of a cinematic rebellion.  

Bahman Farman-Ara’s Tall Shadows of the Wind (1978) also tell the story of a young man in a village who fights against injustice, this time imposed by a self-made cult. The people in Abdullah’s village have longed for a saviour to deliver them from their problems. To that end, the superstitious residents prop up a scarecrow at the village’s entrance for protection. While first valorized, the scarecrow gradually unleashes a reign of terror upon villagers who become consumed by fear. Arguably standing in for Mohammad Reza Shah, the scarecrow has supernatural powers that pound villagers, not unlike what SAVAK did to political activists. Strange and mysterious encounters with the scarecrow often lead to psychosis, death, and at one point, an unwanted pregnancy experienced by Abdullah’s sweetheart, Narguess. After speaking with a few other villagers, Abdullah takes his plow, representing peasant valor, to battle the scarecrow. After he is fatally injured by the scarecrow, Abdullah imagines, and perhaps leads, a revolution against the tyranny of the scarecrow in his imagination. In his hallucinatory dream, villagers, dressed in red, follow Abdullah and set fire to scarecrows of varying sizes. Abdullah smiles after this dream-like sequence to signal a victory before he passes away. The village’s headmaster, Mohammad, is deeply moved and inspired by Abdullah’s self-sacrifice. When in his classroom, he writes the last verse from Ahmad Shamloo’s poem, “A Song for a Luminous Man Who Went to the Shadows,” which reads, “The sea is jealous of the sip you took from the well,” hinting at Abdullah’s greatness. The film’s numerous symbolisms alluded to the multifaceted revolutionary zeitgeist in the streets of Tehran. The colour red worn by the film’s rebels denoted socialist undertones that were prominent among many of the cultural thinkers and activists of the time; the moustache sported by both Abdullah and Mohammad arguably allude to the socialist background of these two young men. On the other hand, the names of the two men have religious implications, as Abdullah was the name of the father of the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad.21 In a question and answer after the screening of Tall Shadows o the Wind at Museum of Modern Art (New York), on 11 November 2023, Farman-Ara specifically indicated his intentional use of these names for his film’s heroes.  In that sense, Abdullah’s sacrifice inspired Muhammad’s calling for a new order against tyranny. The film’s religious symbolism served as a nod to political Islam as a means to break free from a tyrannical monarchy and imperialism. 

By the late 1960s and early 1970s, the films of Iran’s alternative filmmakers were screened at prominent international film festivals such as Cannes, Berlinale, and Tehran International Film Festival. Applauded and recognized by film critics, some alternative films also won international awards. Mehrjui’s the Cow, Abbas Kiarostami’s the Experience (1973), Bahram Bayzayi’s the Stranger and the Fog (1974), Bahman Farman-Ara’s Prince Ihtijab (1974) and the Tall Shadows of the Wind, were among alternative films showcased at Cannes International Film Festival, while Sohrab Shahid Sales’s A Simple Event (1974) and Still Life (1974) and Parviz Kimiavi’s the Stone Garden (1976) were screened at Berlinale. The connection between Iranian and global art-house films did not go unnoticed by critics. The British film critic, John Gillett, compared the alternative films of Iran to those of Francois Truffaut and Akira Kurosawa.22John Gillett, “Dar Hāshīyah ’i Jashnvārah ’i Kan: Dar Intizār i Zuhūr i Āsārī Buzurg az Sīnamā yi Īrān” [On the Sidelines of the Cannes Film Festival: In Anticipation of Great Works from Iranian Cinema], Sīnamā 54 [Cinema 54], no. 18 (Murdād Shahrīvar 1354 [August September 1975]), 60.  To the international film critics, the works of Shahid Sales were reminiscent of Truffaut,23Bengt Forslund, “Matbūʻāt i Jahān va Sivvumīn Jashnvārah ’i Jahānī yi Fīlm-i Tihrān” [World Press and the Third Tehran International Film Festival], Sīnamā 54 [Cinema 54], no. 18 (Murdād Shahrīvar 1354 [August September 1975]), 68.  Mehrjui’s films were likened to those of Luis Buñuel,24Forslund, “Matbūʻāt i Jahān,” 68. while Parviz Kimiavi’s films such as The Mongols (1973) were thought to be informed of Godard’s cinema.25 Forslund, “Matbūʻāt i Jahān,” 69. Following the “combinatorial spirit” that Fereydoun Rahnema had encouraged in the late 1960s, filmmakers engaged with the works of prominent international filmmakers, and foregrounded the Iranian experience—a predicament that was informed by domestic conditions and international politics.  

The alternative filmmaking in Iran had different trajectories that at times turned into distinct filmmaking trends. While some focused their visual offerings on films that traversed between popular and realist cinema, others concentrated on making arthouse films that catered to a limited audience, while others engaged in experimental filmmaking that was supported by the art community. Iran’s contentious love affair with cinema and film experimentation, a boom in state, international, and private funding for filmmaking in the 1960s and 1970s, and familiarity with global cinemas that spoke to the current socio-political struggles and trends, paved the way for the crafting of alternative films in Iran. 

Informed of criticisms aimed at popular films, alternative cinema distanced itself from charges of imitation and mimicry. Stirred by Third World nationalist and leftist debates that called for struggle against imperialism and reliance on the self, the filmmakers of this era looked into their own history, culture, and society for inspiration. However, the struggle of these filmmakers was not that different from fellow filmmakers in other parts of the world, especially at a time when art, history, and politics were closely intertwined. Alternative films engaged with post-WWII trends in filmmaking that showcased the poor, marginalized, and fallen. Hence, alternative films became vernacular-cosmopolitan offerings that looked to the past, investigated and questioned it in order to imagine a new horizon of expectation, a new future for Iran. 

Cite this article

Cinema Iranica (May 27, 2024) Alternative Cinema: A Cinematic Revolution Before The 1979 Revolution. Retrieved from https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/alternative-cinema-a-cinematic-revolution-before-the-1979-revolution/.
"Alternative Cinema: A Cinematic Revolution Before The 1979 Revolution." Cinema Iranica - May 27, 2024, https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/alternative-cinema-a-cinematic-revolution-before-the-1979-revolution/
Cinema Iranica April 15, 2024 Alternative Cinema: A Cinematic Revolution Before The 1979 Revolution., viewed May 27, 2024,<https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/alternative-cinema-a-cinematic-revolution-before-the-1979-revolution/>
"Alternative Cinema: A Cinematic Revolution Before The 1979 Revolution." Cinema Iranica - Accessed May 27, 2024. https://cinema.iranicaonline.org/article/alternative-cinema-a-cinematic-revolution-before-the-1979-revolution/