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Public Taste in Films

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Public Taste in Films


During the 1950s, public taste emerged as one of the most highly debated topics in Iranian publications, exerting a profound and long-lasting impact on Iranian cinema. Iranian film production, national cinema, film censorship, and, most notably, state policies regarding the cinema, all can be analyzed in the context of the formation of public taste. Iranian film critics were the ones who initially, in a patronizing way, pointed out the lack of good taste in films among the public, while proposing ideas to improve the public taste. The critics’ belief that the public couldn’t accurately assess film quality relied solely on the box office success of movies. As a result, film critics, who watched movies alongside the general public, would later pen their observations about audience feedback and tastes in their magazines after leaving the theaters. Under the influence of the first group of Iranian professional film critics, Iranian politicians and intellectuals then became involved in these discussions for as long as two decades. Consequently, the process of forming and refining public taste in Iranian culture assumed a social and political aspect, surpassing the mere aesthetic assessment of good versus bad films.

There is an extensive array of writings about public taste in publications dating from the early 1950s to the late 1970s in Iran. These writings have four themes in common: First, an attempt to define cinema as “art” so that Iranian cinema can be recognized as one of the country’s national arts; second, defending cinema’s artistic features against those who see it as a lucrative industry; third, educating those who are unfamiliar with the history, aesthetics, and art of filmmaking so that they can distinguish between good and bad films; fourth, addressing the issue of poor taste in cinema through censorship and government restraining measures. It should be added that state policies regarding culture were typically implemented through top-down initiatives.

The discussion surrounding a definition of public taste gradually took a more nuanced turn because public taste—which was synonymous with bad taste—pushed intellectuals to put in a lot of effort to change it. As a result of their efforts, the government enacted cinematic policies at the request of film critics, and even employed some of those intellectuals to fulfill this purpose. An analysis of their writings will demonstrate how much the critics in the 1950s influenced changes in government policies regarding cinema and how those changes made the government a rival to non-government studios. The need to foster public taste became the main justification for government intervention in the film industry and its competition with mainstream cinema. In the 1950s, film critics such as Houshang Kavousi, Farrokh Ghaffari, and Hajir Dariush developed this concept and emerged as the principal architects of Iran’s cultural policies regarding cinema between the 1950s and 1970s. It is impossible to examine the relationship between the public taste and cinema, without taking into account both critics and those who establish the rules for the film industry.

Critics versus the audience

On October 21, 1953, an advertisement appeared in the Ittila‛āt newspaper promoting the 1951 Jean Renoir’s film Le Fleuve (The River), without naming the film’s French director. The movie ad assured viewers that they would get the chance to see one of the most well-known stars of Indian cinema for the first time. Because of this, it gave the impression to the audience that Le Fleuve was a Hindi movie, a Bollywood type of production. Le Fleuve was only on display for one night. The day after, Ittila‛āt reported that the night before, because some moviegoers objected, a fight broke out in the theater, and police were called in to calm the crowd down.1“Dīshab dar sīnimā Īrān…” Ittilā‛āt (21 October 1953): 10. Tughrul Afshar, a film critic for Sipīd va Sīyāh Weekly, was present in the theater that evening. In an article, he said that when the audience did not see any dancing or singing scenes, as they did in Hindi movies, they started to complain.2Tughrul Afshar. “’Rūdkhānah.” Sipīd va Sīyāh 12 (1 November 1953): 22-24. He tried to inform the protesting audience about the film’s artistic values, but it was useless. The audience, as he claimed, wanted to impose their poor taste on the movie theater manager, as if it were the taste of the majority of moviegoers. They finally succeeded in imposing their taste as the manager removed Le Fleuve from the screening schedule. The cinema manager’s action enraged critics and cinematographers. Houshang Kavousi, a film critic and law student who had recently moved from France to Iran, joined Tughrul Afshar to write “The Resolution of the Film Writers of the Capital”. Some film critics and journalists, along with a filmmaker (Samuel Khachikian) and a cameraman, signed the resolution. A copy was sent to the Interior Minister, and another was forwarded to the press. The resolution described the audience of Le Fleuve as individuals who “lacked appreciation for the art of cinema” and harbored “negative intentions”. By “expressing disdain” for the audience, the authors urged the Ministry of Interior to prevent them from “imposing their preferences” on other moviegoers.3“Qat‛nāmah-i nivīsandigān-i sīnimāyi-i pāytakht barāyi namāyish-i fīlm Rūdkhānah.” Rushanfikr 18 (29 October 1953): 21. However, this resolution didn’t prompt an immediate response from the movie theater manager or any action from the Minister of Interior.

The duality that we see in this debate can be examined in a variety of ways: dualities such as cinema as art versus cinema as entertainment, artistic cinema versus mainstream cinema, intellectual cinema versus commercial cinema. Film critics still use the terms “special audience” and “general audience,” which emerged from the core of these dualities. The special audience that appreciates aesthetics is distinct from the general audience that lacks it, and unlike movie critics, the general audience remains voiceless. One could even argue that the originator of this duality is the film critics themselves. As a result, the general audience’s presence often goes unnoticed until they disrupt general order of a movie theater.

Public taste has evolved over time, and scholars and film critics have not always agreed on what constitutes public taste. For instance, Tughrul Afshar, in 1953-54, occasionally refers to moviegoers as belonging to the lower class but in another article, he views the upper class as belonging to the same social group.4Afshar. Dar Kamān-i Rangīn-i Sīnimā. (Tehran: Mas‛ūd Sa‛d, 1954), 62. He goes so far as to include the filmmakers in the same group.5Afshar. “Filmbardari dar Iran.” Sipīd va Sīyāh 5 (6 September 1954): 22–23. Understanding the complexities of evolving special audience taste is more achievable than defining public taste, especially given critics’ self-declared role as arbiters of aesthetic symbols. Farrokh Ghaffari is another critic of the 1950s who got interested in the topic of cinema and its relationship with the audience. Following a hiatus in his career as a critic, he traveled to France for studies before returning to Iran following the 1953 coup. Like Kavousi, Ghaffari, and Afshar, Hajir Dariush was another Iranian critic of the 1950s whose focus lay in public taste, though he did not enjoy the same level of recognition.

Film + Persian language = Fīlmfārsī

Tughrul Afshar’s writings formed an integral part of the pedagogical discourse among the critics of the 1950s. His key words to describe public taste in cinema were “vulgar” and “vulgarity”. From his very first writings, he emphasized that as a “critic” and “commentator” of films, he examined film values from social, moral, and artistic perspectives. His goal was “to make personal sacrifices” in a “sacred artistic struggle” against “vulgar commercial films”.6Afshar. “Chand kalimah dar murid-i ravish-i mā.” Iran (21 February, 1951): 2. Afshar has made three significant contributions to the public’s understanding of cinema:7Sīyāmak Pūrzand in a conversation with Muhammad Rizā Karīmpūr, Tārīkh-i Shifāhī-yi Kitābkhānah-yi Millī-yi Īrān, 1998. 1- launching Payk-i Sīnimā (Cinema Courier) using his own funds and a meager inheritance he received from his family. 2- establishing a cine-club, bringing together writers, scholars, and film critics to promote dialogue and debate about films.8“Ta’sīs-i kānūn-i millī-yi hunar va sīnah klūb.” Payk-i Sīnimā 9 (November 1954): 2. 3- organizing art film festivals as a side project while also overseeing the cinema sections of newspapers and magazines.

A surge in Iranian film production in the 1950s sparked a heated debate about public taste. Moviegoers, once acquainted primarily with films from Egypt, India, the United States, and the Soviet Union, now had the option to watch Iranian movies. Afshar believed that film production studios mirrored their audience’s taste, both embracing a level of vulgarity, because the film studios had turned the art of cinema into a profit-making tool. According to Afshar, promoting art is an effort to stop “the decay in public taste,” since art, in each society, represents the tastes of its people.9Afshar. “Rahi ke ma donbal mikonim.” Payk-i Sīnimā (8 June 1954): 2. As a result, he made it absolutely clear that he was willing to respond to all of his readers’ inquiries about the art of cinema in order to raise the level of people’s cinematic knowledge. By publishing his answers to the audience’s questions, he established a close relationship with the readers of his content. In the eyes of the audience, he was a reliable critic because he connected his critique of vulgarity to his own experiences. For example, he had tried film acting once, but after the release of his film, he wrote a review criticizing his own acting and expressed that he had been misled by profit-seeking studios.10Afshar, “Bī-panāh: Haqāyiqī darbārah-yi fīlm-hā-yi fārsī va vaz‛īyyat-i istūdīyu-hā-yi fīlm’bardāri-yi Īrān.” Sipīd va Sīyāh 16 (29 November 1953): 22-23. Afshar blamed the audience of Iranian films for going to the cinema only because the language of these films is Persian.11Afshar. Dar Kamān-i Rangīn-i Sīnimā. 6.

The term “fīlm-i fārsī” or “sīnimā-yi fārsī” was normally used in publications in the 1950s, but Houshang Kavousi, who was Afshar’s colleague and like-minded, considering the Persian language of the films and the Iranian atmosphere of their stories, coined the term fīlmfārsī as a derogatory word for popular Iranian cinema.12Houshang Kavousi. “Duvvumīn laghzish-i nivīsandah va rizhīsur-i fīlmfārsī vilgard.” Rushanfikr 11 (10 September 1953), 10. Kavousi changed the spelling from “fīlm-i fārsī” to “fīlmfārsī” to differentiate it from the conventional term that had been used to refer to Iranian movies.13Kavousi. “Harf-hā-yi mā-qabl-i ākhar: fīlm-i īrānī va fīlmfārsī.” Nigīn 57 (February 1984): 10. Since the 1950s, this term has been widely used to refer to any “bad” Iranian movie.14For the features of the fīlmfārsī, see Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 2. (NY: Duke University Press, 2011), 147-196 (chapter 4). Tughrul Afshar drowned in the sea in 1956.15“Darguzasht-i Tughrul Afshar.” Sipīd va Sīyāh (25 June 1956). In the 1960s and 1970s, other critics and cultural policy-makers adopted his strategy to raise public interest in movies. In addition, his threefold measures to combat film vulgarity continued unabated with the cooperation of critics such as Houshang Kavousi.

Artistic Dictatorship

When Houshang Kavousi came to Iran from France after completing his film studies, he stated that his goal was to introduce cinema to the people of the country, both theoretically and practically.16“Qīyāfah-yi kasī ki gharār būd vakīl-i da‛āvī shavad valī kārshinās-i sīnimā-yi shud.” Rushanfikr 8 (13 August 1953): 5. From 1953 until his death, he relentlessly penned newspaper articles criticizing fīlmfārsī movies and stressing the value of art cinema and public taste cultivation. According to historians and scholars of Iranian cinema, his approach was likely influenced by his failure in filmmaking or by personal reasons. As a result, his writings have been largely overlooked and he is only known as the inventor of the term “fīlmfārsī”. However, a close examination of his writings reveals a kind of nationalist ideology that is opposed to fīlmfārsī. He believed that Persian language is a part of “national cinema” and “national culture,” which he defined as “an illustrated book of the spirit and culture of a nation”.17Kavousi. “Fīlmfārsī bi kujā mīravad?” Firdawsī 144 (29 June 1954): 20. As a result, he ranked Iranian and national films higher than fīlmfārsī movies and he believed that the government should use “censorship” as a tool to stop the production and distribution of flmfārsī.18Kavousi. “Shab-hā-yi ma‛bad.” Firdawsī 152 (24 August 1954): 20.

Kavousi pressed for this notion for roughly ten years while working as a press critic, to the point where at last, in 1964, Mehrdad Pahlbod, the Minister of Culture and Arts, assigned him to the head of the General Department of Supervision and Exhibition, and he remained in that position until 1967. It appears that he possessed all the characteristics the government deemed necessary for supervising movie screenings in 1960. “A person qualified for the film supervising committee” was required to possess the following qualifications: “Higher education and profound knowledge of social affairs”, but even more importantly, in addition to possessing “good taste and familiarity with two foreign languages”, he must also have “a track record of visiting and studying in advanced countries”. And finally, “proficiency in the Persian language and full knowledge of national traditions” were among other characteristics expected of such a qualified individual.19Ārshīv-i millī-yi īrān, 31215/240. Among these features, Kavousi undoubtedly had a flawless command of modern, captivating Persian journalistic prose. However, instead of writing, he could now have a golden opportunity to supervise and manage Iranian cinema. He believed that the power of the state and public education were the two most potent factors in shaping the artistic taste of the society.20Habībullāh Nasīrīfar. San‛at-i Sīnimā dar Īrān (Tehran: Furūzān, 1966): 14.

Kavousi revised the regulations for the supervision and censorship of motion pictures, adding the term “vulgarity,” which was a prevailing terminology in Iranian film criticism during the 1950s. After listing cases prohibiting films insulting the Pahlavi royal family, Islam, and other religions, Article 20 prohibits the screening of films that, in whole or in part, could incite vulgarity due to their lack of merit.21Majmū‛ah-yi qavānin va muqararāt-i vizārat-i farhang va hunar (Tehran: Vizārat-i Farhang va Hunar, 1978): 219. Houshang Kavousi always saw his brief tenure in the administration as a turning point in the history of the struggle against the vulgarity of fīlmfārsī.22“Mīzgird-i sīnimā-yi īrān.” Farhang va Zindigī 18 (summer 1975): 52-74. He regarded Article 20 as his enduring contribution to Iranian cinema.23Basir Nasibi. “[Musāhibah bā Houshang Kavousi]: Fīlm va sīnimā va fīlmfārsī.” Nigīn 39 (July 1968): 11. Additionally, he attributed a large portion of his success to the fact that his efforts and regulations influenced the next cultural officials to no longer recognize fīlmfārsī as Iran’s national cinema.24Kavousi. “Guftah-hā va naguftah-hā: man tājiram, tu tājirī, ū tājir ast!” Nigīn 55 (November 1969): 5.

However, this period of his career in which he collaborated with the government and was in charge of censorship, led to accusations against him. As a result, he characterized the censorship of a “vulgar” film as “legitimate and necessary censorship,” and explicitly stated that this type of censorship was intended to establish an “artistic dictatorship”.25Kavousi. “Bī-unvān.” Sitārah-yi Sīnimā 5 (November 1960): 19. Paradoxically, Kavousi’s civil service period coincided with the release of one of the biggest box office fīlmfārsī movies in the history of Iranian cinema, Ganj-i Qārūn (Siamak Yasemi, 1965). This movie had all the components of a fīlmfārsī and its unexpected box office success surprised both the director and the actors.26Hassan Hosseini, Rāhnamā-yi Fīlm-i Sīnimā-yi Īrān (Tehran: Ruzanahkār, 2020): 209-210. This film may be referred to as the pioneer of “New Wave fīlmfārsī cinema”. Kavousi, who saw himself as the champion of anti-fīlmfārsī movement, came under fire from the large audience that attended the movie.

His main challenge with fīlmfārsī was one of aesthetics, because he believed that even commercial films should follow aesthetic principles of cinema.27“Musāhibah bā fīlmsāz-i khānah-yi kinār-i Daryā.” Nigīn 46 (February 1969): 13-14. Unlike Tughrul Afshar, he did not consider making money through film production to be morally wrong or deserving of criticism. He incorporated elements from fīlmfārsī, such as dancing, singing and sex scenes, into his own films (Hifdah rūz bi i’dām in 1956 and Khānah-yi kinār-i daryā in 1969) to appeal to a broader audience. Film critics mocked both of his films as a result.28Hosseini. Rāhnamā-yi Fīlm-i Sīnimā-yi Īrān. 333, 46-48. In spite of everything, he never agreed to consider Ganj-i Qārūn a good fīlmfārsī. The latter changed Iranian cinema in every way and made film critics realize they should try to support popular movies and box-office hits, but unlike Ganj-i Qārūn, those movies should also adhere to the aesthetic principles of cinema.

This idea had an impact on fīlmfārsī studios and directors. For example, Siamak Yasemi wanted to produce better movies after Ganj-i Qārūn, but he was disappointed after making Tangah-yi Izhdihā (1968). In an interview he claimed that the Iranian filmmakers should only produce movies catering to public preferences. According to him, if they deviate from public tastes, they won’t perform well at the box office.29“Sīnimā-ye khavās va sīnimā-ye āmmah: Guftugū bā Sīyāmak Yāsamī.” Fīlm va Hunar (4 December 1968): 10. In this case, he was in agreement with his staunch opponent, Houshang Kavousi, who believed that “we didn’t have the right people for whom we could create cinematic masterpieces”.30“[Guftugū bā] Houshang Kavousi.” Sitārah-yi Sīnimā 450 (20 January 1965): 32. Iranian audiences’ indifference to some contemporary European art films was considered a poor taste, not only for Kavousi but also for the majority of Iranian film critics in the 1960s and 1970s. Their reaction to this poor taste was always a reminder of what occurred during Le Fleuve’s screening.

For example, in November 1962 when Michelangelo Antonioni’s Eclipse was released the audience made noise and mocked the performance to show their displeasure. Even, in front of the theater, some spectators gathered and counseled those who were interested in seeing the film not to.31Parviz Davai. “Dar hāshīyah.” Sipīd va Sīyāh 717 (23 June 1968). The audience’s actions, angering critics, echo the resolution penned by film writers years before, illustrating a parallel display of anger.32Jamal Omid. “Dar hāshīyah-ye namāyish-i fīlm: Kusūf.” Sitārah-yi Sīnimā (21 November 1962): 4. As a result, the movie theater manager decided to remove scenes that he thought were boring for the audience. Similarly, when Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) was released, Parviz Davai, a film critic and translator of movie books, was upset by the audience’s clamor and complaint and called them “rude” and “impolite” people. He went so far as to recommend that the movie be screened in front of multiple police officers in order to deter the “ill-educated” crowd.33Davai. “Dar hāshīyah.” Sipīd va Sīyāh 714 (2 June 1968).

Cultural authorities striving to promote Iran’s culture globally through international events were troubled by such frequent occurrences, the impact of outspoken critics, and a surge in fīlmfārsī production. The concern is evident through the public release of the “Cultural Policy of Iran”, which was written by the Supreme Council of Culture and Arts—an institution within the Ministry of Culture and Arts—and was signed and endorsed by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the Shah of Iran, prior to its publication. Iran’s cultural policy indeed included the cultivation of public taste as one of its clauses.34Dabīrkhanah-yi Shurā-yi ‛Ālī-i Farhang va Hunar, Sīyāsat-i Farhangī-yi Īrān. (Tehran: Vizārat-i Farhang va Hunar, 1968): 18. According to this, cultural officials should aim to cultivate public taste through public education and mass communication media—including television and cinema—and the establishment of institutions, centers, and associations. This policy was approved in 1967, coinciding with the inaugural Shiraz Arts Festival, which was held in collaboration with the Office of Queen Farah Pahlavi and National Iranian Radio and Television. One of the film critics of the 1970s, Farrokh Ghaffari, was responsible for handling it.

National Film Center (Kānūn-i Millī-i Fīlm)

Farrukh Ghaffari was a film critic for magazines since the beginning of the 1950s, including Payk-i Sīnimā (Cinema Courier). In his early writings, he claimed that Iranian people did not recognize the art of cinema and only perceived it as mere entertainment similar to bullfighting and circus.35M. Mubārak [Farrokh Ghaffari]. Sīnimā va Mardum. (Tehran: Danishgāh-i Tihrān, 1950), 49. As a result, he, like others, saw educating the audience as an important task, and for this reason, in the fall of 1948, he established the National Film Center (Kānūn-i Millī-i Fīlm) and held the first film screening sessions to promote outstanding works of world cinema. The Center was intended to be “one of the manifestations of the opposition, by the Iranian people and intellectuals, against vulgar commercial films”, and to promote “the true art of cinema”.36Omid. Tārikh-i Sīnimā-ye Īrān. vol. 1, (Tehran: Ruzanah, 1995), 948-949. After a break in the Center’s programs due to Ghaffari’s trip to France for completing his studies in cinema, he returned and started a new period of the Center’s activity in 1960. In this period, one of the Center’s objectives was “to make an effort and adapt in order to identify the public taste of Iranian society toward cinema” and to nurture “public taste and culture”.37Omid. Tārikh-i Sīnimā-ye Īrān. 952. The government did not give much support to the Center and even hardly agreed to provide it with a movie theater.38Ramin Jahanbegloo. Īrān va Mudirnītah: Guftugū bā Pazhūhishgarān-i Īrānī va Khārijī. (Tehran: Ghatreh, 2008), 225. As a result, in a critical article, Ghaffari highlighted the need to establish “an institution for cinematic knowledge” in order to support “talented and knowledgeable young people” and to create a national cinema.39Y. Faregh [Farrokh Ghaffari]. “Nigāhī bi Sīnimā-yi Īrān.” Sadaf 2 (November 1957): 125-126. After more than a decade of the Center’s activity, Ghaffari said in an interview in 1971: “I created the National Film Center and started shouting, O people! We should value cinema because it is a part of culture. However, I can assure you that… so far, only two directors of Persian cinema have come to see the film screenings”.40“Bā Farrokh Ghaffari darbārah-yi Sepanta va fīlmfārsī.” Tamāshā 5 (22 April 1971): 16.

At that time, the Shiraz Arts Festival had begun and Ghaffari was too busy with the events of the Festival to manage the Center’s programs. Therefore, like Kavousi, who was then (in 1970s) an independent critic, he became a prominent cultural official of the 1960s searching for his goal. However, Ghaffari’s efforts extended beyond the Shiraz Arts Festival. In his writings from the 1950s, he was particularly interested in Iranian art and its potential for producing national cinema as well as reshaping society’s artistic taste. He also started making films, including the comedy Zanburak, in 1975, starring Parviz Sayyad, a famous television and movie actor. He used Iranian folk tales and folk performances, like Taʻziyah and Takht-i hawzī, in the hopes of attracting a larger audience to see a better comedy than fīlmfārsī comedies. However, the film was poorly received, and was a commercial failure because it was boring.

A shop called cinema

In the movie Bītā (1972), directed by Hajir Dariush, Houshang Kavousi appears, in a short scene, in the role of a journalist who has held a meeting with some of his colleagues to decide on the publication of a revealing article about the relationship between the economy and cinema. They talk about the negative feedback they received from film producers. In another scene, Googoosh, a very popular pop star at the time, portrays a young, naive, headstrong girl who is in love. She is the girlfriend of a middle-aged journalist and economic analyst. Googoosh goes to a bookstore to buy books for her boyfriend. In a childish manner, she asks the bookseller for advice on what book to buy for her boyfriend. The bookseller suggests Hossein Yazdanian’s A shop called Cinema, which is available at the bookstore.41Yazdanian. Dukkānī bi nām-i sīnimā (Tehran: Sepehr, 1968). As the title of the book suggests, the main idea of the book is an old argument about making money in the film industry. Although Hajir Dariush chose the most famous Iranian pop star as the lead role of his film, in his articles, he consistently defended the educational, spiritual, and moral values of cinema as an alternative to profit-seeking commercial cinema.42Dariush. “Akhlāq va ma‛navīyyat dar kār-i arzyābī-yi film.” Sitārah-yi Sīnimā 4 (January 1967): 13-19; For a revised version of the article, see Dariush, “Mulāhizāt darbārah-yi mas’alah-yi arzyābī-yi ijtimā‛ī-yi āsār-i hunarī.” Farhang va Zindigī (December 1969): 80-88. Yazdanian thought Dariush’s claim was completely false, because from his point of view, cinema was a deception to all, not an artistic medium. This unknown writer, who considered cinema a “disease,” saw a window of opportunity. Communities enslaved by the opium of cinema, in his opinion, will soon catch on. In a prophetic manner, the author predicted a people’s uprising against cinema, as he asserted: “Undoubtedly, the day will come when people show their disgust by burning the films”.43Yazdanian. Dukkānī bi nām-i sīnimā. 200. His prediction appears to have come true, as one of the issues during the Islamic Revolution was the burning of movie theaters.

Hajir Dariush was a filmmaker and a graduate of L’Institut des hautes études cinématographiques (IDHEC). However, in the 1950s, he was not as famous as Houshang Kavousi, Farrokh Ghaffari or Tughrul Afshar, although he always wrote about cinema. He used common words such as vulgarity and fīlmfārsī to humiliate Iranian films and audiences. At times, he went so far as to characterize the audience as individuals who watched movies “to satiate their primal desires”.44Dariush. “Bahs darbārah-yi fīlmfārsī,” Umīd-i Īrān 51 (30 May 1955): 24. However, he desired to interact with his audience in order to resolve this issue. Therefore, like Tughrul Afshar, he declared that in an effort “to improve people’s knowledge of cinema”, he was ready to address their questions about the movies.45Dariush. “Qābil-i tavajjuh-i khānandigān-i safhah-yi sīnimāyī.” Umīd-i Īrān 15 (30 August 1954): 16. But compared to Tughrul Afshar, his writings did not find as many readers. Dariush lacked the necessary resources to host a film festival. Unlike Ghaffari and Afshar, he had no connection with embassies or foreign movie theaters to obtain copies of foreign films for screening and festival purposes. However, in the magazine’s movie section to which he contributed, he held a poll to select the best Iranian films, naming it “cinema referendum.” Dariush, as he claims, was the first to poll readers of a magazine to find out what they thought of Iranian movies. However, in the survey’s margin, he remarked to the audience that his intention wasn’t to affirm the aesthetic quality of the films; rather, the focus was solely on the popularity of the films. He believed that assessing the quality of films should fall upon “those familiar with the art of cinema”46Dariush. “Natījah-yi rifirāndum-i sīnimāyī-i Umīd-i Īrān.” Umīd-i Īrān 17 (3 October 1954): 20. Through introduction to and praise of the art of cinema, coupled with criticisms directed at fīlmfārsī movies, Dariush contributed to shaping a pedagogical discourse of film criticism in the 1950s, and he was pleased with his contribution, how small it might be.

He wrote in one of his articles in 1955: “The influx of low-quality and insignificant films temporarily diverted people’s preferences. Fortunately, over the past year, there has been a robust movement in film criticism in Iran, which has definitely shifted people’s taste toward the positive, and even the movie Le Fleuve has met with success in Isfahan”.47Dariush. “Bāz mīkhāhand fīlm-hā-yi bī-arzishī rā bā istifādah az nām-i sīnimā iskup dar Īrān namāyish dahand.” Umīd-i Īrān 16 (25 September 1955): 26. In the following decades, Dariush believed that the only means to rescue cinema from consumerism and vulgarity was through government’s forceful intervention. When asked by a reporter what could be done to prevent vulgarity, he promptly emphasized the necessity for the Ministry of Culture and Arts to employ “young, educated people” like Houshang Kavousi and others who “have the right minds”. He further elaborated by stating that “the government should establish a censorship board that adopts a new approach to cutting movies, aiming for the movies to be minimally vulgar or at least tolerable”.48“Simīnār-i kārgardānān-i Īrānī.” Fīlm va Hunar 38 (31 December 1969): 10. Dariush was not appointed to an administrative position like Houshang Kavousi, but his proposal to collaborate with the government shows his eagerness for it in the 1950s. In one of his notes at that time, he advised Iranian filmmakers to move away from “banality” and try to make films that convey national and Iranian traits, because only in this way, Iranian films will attract the people of other countries.49Dariush. “Sīnimā va adabīyāt.” Umīd-i Īrān 11 (21 August 1955): 11.

At that time, Iranian cinema was relatively unknown to the world, and the idea that Iranian films could attain international recognition seemed highly unlikely. However, presenting Iranian art to the world stood as one of the primary objectives of most Iranian festivals and was pursued through cultural policymaking, after the principles of Iran’s cultural policy were approved. The Shiraz Arts Festival and the Tehran International Film Festival stood out as the most renowned Iranian festivals. What Dariush envisioned in the 1950s was eventually realized only through the budget and resources of the government, coupled with Queen Farah’s full support. Since 1966, he launched and managed three international children’s film festivals as part of the activities of the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kānūn-i Parvarish-i Fikri-i Kūdakān va Nujavānān). After long negotiations with the International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF), he succeeded in launching the first Tehran International Film Festival in 1973. Hajir Dariush added the very “spiritual and moral values” he emphasized in his articles to the goals and policies of the festival. As the founder and general secretary of the festival, he could define the purpose of cinema according to his own vision and emphasize higher goals more strongly than when acting as a film critic in Umīd-i Īrān magazine. The purpose of the festival for him was spiritual, abstract and pseudo-philosophical, such as “transcending and improving human condition”.50Omid. “Guftugū bā dabīr-kull-i jashnvārah-i jahānī-i fīlm-i Tihrān.” Sīnimā 52 (23 July 1973): 4-5.

The Tehran International Film Festival provided an opportunity for Iranian cinema to flourish, improving the taste of the audience and leading to the creation of better movies in Iran. This issue may have two reasons: First, the young moviegoers had the opportunity to see the world’s best and most important contemporary films, from Western and Eastern Europe to Asia, Africa, and the Arab world. Second, Iranian filmmakers had to compete with other filmmakers worldwide as a result of Iranian films entering the global competition. Iranian movies should appeal to audiences outside of Iran as well as domestic ones. What Dariush had in mind in the 1950s had an impact up until the Iranian film industry went global following the 1979 Revolution.

Additionally, this festival provided an opportunity for Iran to present genuine Iranian and national films–as opposed to fīlmfārsī movies–the bulk of which were produced at the expense of governmental and quasi-governmental organizations. These movies offered a chance to bring government managers’ visions and goals for the film industry to life. Also, the festival became a venue for products sponsored by government agencies, the Ministry of Culture and Arts, the filmmaking studios of the Iranian National Television (Telefilm) and the Company for the Development of the Iranian Cinema Industry (Shirkat-i Gustarish-i Sanāyi‛-i Sīnimāyī), to raise the level of culture in the society. One work worth mentioning is Farrokh Ghaffari’s Zanbūrak, a film produced at Telefilm’s expense.

This festival also had its opponents who criticized its high costs.51Dariush. “Jashnvārah-i fīlm-i Tihrān va nazarāt-i muvāfigh va mukhālif darbārah-yi ān.” Khāndanīhā 59 (20 April 1976): 39-41. However, Farah Diba’s prominent role in the opening and closing ceremonies solidified the festival’s main aim–which was to connect with global cinema and present Iranian films–thereby leaving little room for opposition.52Guzārish az barguzārī-i jashnvārah-hā dar Īrān (Tehran: Vizārat-i Farhang va Hunar, 1977), 336-337. For this reason, criticism was frequently aimed solely at Hajir Dariush and the other festival directors instead of the festival itself. Over the course of only 15 days in 1975, 27,000 people saw the festival films every day.53“Guftugū bā dabīr-kull-i jashnvārah.” Sīnimā 53 (February 1976), 56-57. However, independent critics suspected that the organizers distributed tickets to government officials, their families and dependents, leaving the general public with limited access to the films. In the end, the festival’s goals appear to have had a significant impact on the state-run polls, implying an attempt to sway people’s opinions. For example, according to a 1977 survey by the Ministry of Culture and Arts, over 60% of the festival audience attended not solely for fun and entertainment, but perceived it as a form of “cultural industry”. This explains why 70% of the attendees consistently engaged with the festival’s programs from its inception until 1977.54Barrasī-i tamāshāgarān dar shishumīn jashnvārah-yi jahānī-i fīlm-i Tihrān: Vīzhigī-hā, Garāyish-hā va Khāst-hā. (Tehran: Vizārat-i Farhang va Hunar, 1357sh/1979), 14-17. It seems that those at the festival screenings were hesitant to consider themselves part of the general audience attending an international event purely for entertainment. However, in the same survey—which might not be reliable—they asserted with confidence that the general public constituted approximately 40% of the audience. Nevertheless, the festival had an undeniable impact on the tastes of the educated class of the time.

In 1977, a foresight symposium was held at the National Iranian Radio and Television, under Reza Ghotbi, in order to assess the actual status of Iranian culture and devise plans and policies for its future. Ali Asadi, a sociologist and a member of the Research Institute of Communication Sciences and Development of Iran and one of the invited speakers for this symposium, presented an analysis of Iranian moviegoers based on a “study on the tastes of audiences all over Iran.” In his survey, 54% of moviegoers preferred Iranian movies, while 37.7% preferred intellectual and foreign movies. The first group was urban illiterates, while the second group was mostly educated young people.55Ali Asadi. “Rābitah-yi tilivīsīyun va sīnimā dar Īrān.” In Pīrāmūn-ه Sākht va Naghsh-i Risānah-hā: Hamāyish-i Shīrāz, edited by Jamshid Akrami and Shahin Gerami (Tehran: Soroush, 1978), 146. It is evident from the Ministry of Culture and Arts’ survey conducted that same year that educated women constituted a significant share of this population.56Barrasī-i tamāshāgarān. 8-9

In the same year that the inaugural Tehran International Film Festival was held, and moviegoers had the opportunity to see a plethora of world cinema masterpieces, fīlmfārsī fans also had more options. In the year that Ganj-i Qārūn was released, the total production of Iranian cinema was 44 films. This number reached 92 films in 1972, most of which were fīlmfārsī movies. In Hamid Naficy’s words, the monster of 1970s Iranian cinema arose from a combination of multiple fīlmfārsī genres.57Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 2, 154. In July 1972, some members of the “Syndicate of Cinema Artists” resigned as a group and founded the “Progressive Filmmakers Association” seeking to do what they referred to as “creating a better cinema” that reflect “national and ethnic cultures”. Dariush Mehrjui, Ezzatollah Entezami, Esfandiar Monfaredzadeh, Hajir Dariush, Ali Nasirian, Khosrow Haritash, Jalal Moghadam, Ali Hatami, Masoud Kimiai, Parviz Sayyad, Nasser Taghvai were among those members. This was one of the most significant coalitions of Iranian filmmakers to oppose the fīlmfārsī studios in the 1970s.58“Hadaf-i mā ījād-i sīnimā-yi bihtar ast.” Ittilā‛āt (9 July 1973): 7.

For a better cinema

In the 1970s, statesmen and cultural policymakers, as well as regulatory bodies and those in charge of foreign film imports, joined forces in support of the “Progressive Filmmakers Association”, for the sake of a “better cinema” and to the detriment of the fīlmfārsī producers. In the 4th Development Plan, a budget was allocated for “raising the level of public culture”, part of which was “cultivating artistic taste and developing various artistic programs throughout the country”.59Mashrūh-i Muzākirāt-i Majlis-i Shurā-yi Millī, dawrah-yi 22 (Tehran: Majles, 1968), 2240. On the other hand, fīlmfārsī producers were looking for ways to compete with imported foreign movies. Some of their tactics included carelessly displaying sex scenes, finding new stars, and imitating European and American cinema. They simply could not compete with state-sponsored films however. The National Iranian Radio and Television, the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, and the Ministry of Culture and Arts, each had provided facilities and hired professional filmmaking groups.60Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 2, 177.

The government’s actions plunged the fīlmfārsī into an economic crisis, as a result of which Nouruddin Ashtiani, film producer and distributor who was involved in the Tehran International Film Festival; Behrouz Vossoughi, Iranian film star; and Mehdi Missaghieh, producer and studio owner, wrote a letter together to Abdol Majid Majidi, director of the Plan and Budget Organization. In the letter, they blamed the competition of National Television, the Ministry of Culture and Arts and other government institutions with the private sector, and described this action as “unlawful competition”, which even led to an increase in the salaries of directors, actors and technical crew.61م‍ع‍اون‍ت‌…، اسناد…، سند شمارۀ 3/256، 131-132 In response, Majidi pointed out that the job of government institutions was limited to “advisory functions”.62م‍ع‍اون‍ت‌…، اسناد…، سند شمارۀ 3/256، 1306-1307 The fīlmfārsī producers even begged for assistance in a letter to Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi. They explained that private studios had created jobs for 25 thousand people, including their families, thereby supporting around 75 thousand individuals who relied on these productions economically.63م‍ع‍اون‍ت‌…، اسناد…، سند شمارۀ 3/256، 1297) They believed that the decrease in film production, resulting from the economic crisis in cinema, would lead to the unemployment of a large number of workers and those involved in the film industry.64م‍ع‍اون‍ت‌…، اسناد…، سند شمارۀ 3/256، 1297 The Shah’s response to their letter was quite clear. He wrote in the margin of the letter: “The Prime Minister ought to personally attend to this matter. However, it is imperative for the responsible authorities to take measures to prevent the screening of vulgar films”.65م‍ع‍اون‍ت‌…، اسناد…، سند شمارۀ 3/256، 1296 Not only did the Shah use the terms “vulgar” and “vulgarity”, but many officials, including representatives of the National Assembly and Senators, also employed these terms. Each of them discussed the films and proposed ways to combat what they perceived as vulgarity.66م‍ع‍اون‍ت‌…، اسناد…، سند شمارۀ 247. نیز، مجلس شورای ملی، مشروح مذاکرات مجلس شورای ملی: دورۀ 24 (تهران: مجلس، 1356ش/1977م)، جلسات 143 و 149.

The year 1953 marked the occurrence of the August 19 coup. Most historians as well as art and literary historians, when describing this period, accurately write about the disillusionment of intellectuals and depression of artists, widespread political repression and suppression of the press. Most film and theater historians have always referred to the years following the coup as the years of vulgarity. Due to this widely held opinion, the early 1950s—a period of minimal artistic and cultural change—appears less significant to most people. However, the issue of public taste demonstrates that certain film critics during this decade paid attention to factors beyond just film aesthetics. There was no possibility of political activity in the years following the coup. However, disappointment and depression are not evident in the writings of the film critics of the era. On the contrary, we witness a certain faith in the struggle and optimism for a cultural influence. Ghaffari, Kavousi, Afshar, and Dariush, paid little attention to current events, such as Mossadegh’s trial, and did not mention such issues in their writings. Instead, they pursued film criticism as an artistic struggle to reform society. By staying out of politics, they were able to obtain government support and a safe haven for their artistic visions, setting off a trend that reverberated throughout the film industry in the decades that followed.

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