Volume 1: The Artisanal Era, 1897–1941 and Volume 2: The Industrializing Years, 1941–1978

As I turn over the last page of volume two of Hamid Naficy’s A Social History of Iranian Cinema, I hunger for more and can barely wait for the release of the next two volumes in this ground breaking and seminal publication. The long wait and the long haul to work my way through the first two rich, infinitely detailed and voluptuous volumes have been well worth it. This is rigorous and compelling research at its very best.

With the release of these volumes, which bring together more than thirty years of committed research and scholarship, Hamid Naficy has certainly cemented his reputation as the foremost scholar of Iranian cinema. Although post-revolutionary Iranian cinema has generated many reams of scholarship, Naficy’s first two volumes in this series focus entirely on the historical periods from the birth of film and its introduction into Iran in the early years of the twentieth century up until the tumultuous and chaotic years of the late 1970s in the lead up to the revolution. His approach is multifocal, delivering much, much more than the “social history” promised by the title. Naficy’s detailed historical research brings together a wealth of interview material, production, distribution and audience data, critical reception, and government policy that provides a unique insight into the political economy of Iran’s cinema landscape. This material is filtered and analysed through astute theorisation, and supported by close textual analysis of individual films, genres, styles and movements. Added to this, his pages are enlivened by smatterings of auto-ethnography to provide a vivid multidimensional picture of the rises and falls in the development of filmmaking in Iran amidst the vicissitudes of the country’s socio-political developments throughout the twentieth century. Additionally, one of the strengths of Naficy’s work is to introduce an English-speaking readership to a rich body of Persian language film scholarship, which he cites extensively. As a scholar of Iranian cinema myself with only an elementary grasp of Farsi, I have often wondered what Iranians, writing from inside the country have said about their own cinema. Naficy has begun to fill this gap and I am sure his work will help to facilitate further dialogue between international researchers and Iran-based film scholars such as Mohammad Tahminejad, who has undertaken prolific film research on Iranian cinema both before and after the revolution, Jamal Omid whose own History of Iranian Cinema 1900-1996 (Tarikh-e Sinemay-e Iran, 1279-1375) was published in Iran in 1995 and Masud Mehrabi, who has written extensively on various aspects of Iranian cinema and its history including documentary and children’s films. Additionally, by drawing on contemporary Persian language reviews of specific films, Naficy provides us with a glimpse into contemporary local criticism and reception, an area that has largely remained out of the reach of non-Iranian scholars.

Volume one, which covers the period from the very beginnings of film in the late 1890s up until 1941, opens with a lucid and beautifully written preface. It is here that Naficy’s auto-ethnographic voice is at its most eloquent as he provides readers with what he describes as “a cultural autobiography about my contentious love affair — and that of other Iranians — with cinema, Iran and the West” (Vo.l 1 p. xxix). Here we learn how photography, literature, visual arts and most of all film have been a lifelong passion for Naficy and other members of his family. From roaming his home city of Isfahan with a box brownie camera, and collecting 35mm frames of American films, to the 35mm camera brought back by an uncle from Germany with which he documented family outings, Naficy traces the central place of cinema in his life both in Iran and in exile. Here too, he provides personal recollections of the often-disrupted experience of watching movies caused by inconsistent power supply, technical malfunction and film breakage. His cousin Alireza Naficy recalls: “sometimes we had to return to the movie house several times, a very frustrating experience” (Vol. 1 p. xxxvi). He also provides an anecdotal account of how, even in the 1950s, movies and cinemas were associated with corruption and immorality, leading to the development of a culture of home movie viewing, and the correspondent entrepreneurial practice of building home made film projectors, such as the one built by his cousin Alireza in the mid-1950s, (pictured on p. xxxvi). Later, in chapter two Naficy returns to provide a much more detailed account of film viewership and spectatorial practices, which he shows were affected by a range of social, cultural, religious, technological and political factors.

From this auto-ethnographic preface, we move into Naficy’s long introduction. This serves not merely as an introduction to volume one, but rather provides a crucial introduction to the series more broadly. Here Naficy astutely contemplates the question of national cinema in the context of Iranian national identity, Westernization and modernity. Drawing on theories and debates in the field of national cinema studies, Naficy constructs a conceptual and methodological framework that underpins the entire four volume series and emphasises the deep interrelationship between cinema and the particularly contentious version of modernity that played out in Iran during the twentieth century amidst a range of uprisings, regime changes and of course the revolution of 1978/79. Here Naficy, drawing on the work of Michel Foucault, argues that the particular textual characteristics of Iranian cinema evolved amidst and in response to a complex but relatively ad hoc “network of relations” between “power and knowledge” “intermingling at microphysical levels” (Vol. 1 p. 2). Throughout each chapter of volumes one and two, Naficy moves deftly to describe and analyse these networks as well as at times providing close readings of specific films.

Early in this introduction, Naficy sets out to problematize national cinema theory, and in doing so provides a useful re-cap of the various debates that have emerged over the last thirty years in the field of national cinema theory. Drawing on and adding to the work of Stephen Crofts, Naficy understands national cinemas to be distinguished by a complex configuration of seven “key characteristics or formations: sociopolitical, industrial, cultural, ideological, spectatorial, textual and authorial” (Vol. 1 p. 8). The complexities of researching and teasing out the relationships between these formations presents a major challenge to film scholars, so much so that it is rare to encounter work that stretches adequately across even a few of these seven dimensions. Despite the fact that his stated aim is to “present the socio-political formation of Iranian cinema in four chronological volumes” (Vol. 1 p. 9), Naficy has also managed to provide a rich account of the development of the cinema of Iran across the other six dimensions as well. In doing so, he finds himself in the company of a handful of other key film scholars who have taken a similarly multi-dimensional approach to their studies of a national cinema. I am thinking here, for example of Richard Maltby’s rich account of Hollywood Cinema and Thomas Elsaesser’s expansive volumes on Weimar and New German cinemas. (1) Naficy spends the remaining pages of his introduction providing an overview of each formation in the Iranian context, which are then unpacked at various moments throughout the two volumes.

Although the introduction promises a ‘chronological’ account of the socio-political history of Iranian cinema, each of the two volumes are not themselves organised into a rigid chronology. While each volume covers a specific timeframe (1879-1941 and 1941-1978 respectively), within each volume the chapters focus on key formations (industrial, spectatorial, political, cultural, ideological, social etc.), production modes (documentary, fiction) and genres.

Chapter one of the first volume sets out to describe and analyse the mode of production that characterised the earliest years of cinema in Iran, during what is known as the Qajar period. The late Qajar era coincides with the birth of cinema in Europe and the United States in 1895, with the first actuality filmed by an Iranian, court photographer Sani al-Saltaneh in 1900 on the occasion of the Shah’s visit to Europe. It continues through the formative years of cinema’s emergence until the Iranian Constitutional Revolution of 1905-11 and finally the establishment of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1925. Film production and exhibition throughout this period remained “artisanal”, a “cottage industry” (p. 30) and although a couple of commercial cinemas were established during this period, these were either not Iranian owned or were shut down shortly after opening due to pressure from Muslim clerics. Coinciding with a tumultuous period of Iranian history, Naficy shows how political developments, religious discourses and uneven exchange relations between Iran and the West played a crucial role in the early history of Iranian cinema, its production, exhibition and reception. As Naficy writes: “These brief tales of origin already evidence the microphysics of manoeuvres and relations between Iran and the West and among Iranians themselves that helped bring cinema and modernity to Iran” (Vol. 1 p. 27). This pairing of cinema and modernity becomes one of the most pervasive themes in Naficy’s account of Iranian film history.

Very briefly, this artisanal mode is characterised by workshop-based production, with film pioneers being characteristically multifunctional, undertaking almost all tasks themselves: from photography to editing, importing stock and equipment, distribution and exhibition (Vol. 1 p. 32). Film production tended to be a largely improvisational venture, a theme which returns in Naficy’s account of the production practices of filmfarsi in chapter four of volume two. Additionally, these pioneers tended to exist in what Naficy calls a position of “liminality”, performing a middleman function between Iran and the West and were often highly mobile, cosmopolitan, Western educated men of upper-middle class origins. The majority belonged to one of Iran’s many ethnoreligious minorities: they were mostly Christian Armenians, Baha’is, Jews and Russians. Indeed, as Naficy points out on numerous occasions, Muslim prejudices against cinema as morally corrupt significantly contributed to the relatively slow development of Iran’s entire film industry and film culture with cinema exhibition being perhaps the most consistently contentious aspect of the business. As Naficy elaborates in volume two, in the 1940s and 1950s these ethnoreligious minorities were once again crucial drivers of the re-establishment of the Iranian film industry, cinema exhibition and the country’s relatively late entry into feature filmmaking in the post-WWII era (see Vol. 2 pp. 168-177). The chapter ends with more detailed commentary on some of the most prominent of the early Iranian film pioneers, including Ebrahim Tehrani, who established the “first commercial cinema in Tehran in the backyard of his antique shop” (Vol. 1 p. 57).

A significant part of chapter one is devoted to discussing film exhibition in this early, artisanal phase. With little development in the area of commercial exhibition, film viewing tended to be mostly a private affair, enjoyed only by the elite members of Iranian society. Court patronage of filmmaking further enhanced the elitism of film viewing so much so that the first decade of the twentieth century saw only limited penetration of film into the public sphere. Drawing on contemporary eyewitness accounts, Naficy develops a vibrant picture of the Shah’s encounter with a selection of Lumière films screened at the Universal Exposition in Paris in 1900. This experience is said to have been instrumental in court sponsorship of actuality filmmaking in Iran. Some of these films have been preserved and Naficy pays close attention to a handful, which have been made available in Mehrdad Zahedian’s Lost Reels (2004) and Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Selected Images from the Qajar Era (1992) to provide a valuable account of film content and style.

In contrast to the home grown, elite film culture spawned by court sponsorship, another group were responsible for attempting to bring film to “the people.” French Christian missionaries established the first public cinema in Tabriz in 1900 and other Christian missionaries of various denominations took magic lantern shows and film screenings to Iranian towns and villages thus expanding, “the reach of visual culture and film beyond the closed, private domain of the royal court and the homes of the elite in the capital city” (Vol. 1 p. 55). According to Naficy, these films were largely educational and entertaining, although some proselytizing also occurred.

This rather fragmented commencement of film exhibition dominated on the one hand by the royal court and the upper classes and on the other hand by piecemeal and certainly colonial, foreign efforts at film exhibition in largely rural settings meant that the formation of a broad based mass audience would come relatively late to Iran, compared with much of the rest of the world. Naficy takes up the complex question of ideological and spectatorial formations in chapter two of volume one. Here, Naficy extends the discussion of exhibition commenced in the first chapter and introduces a crucial theoretical concept through which to tease out the multifaceted relationships between cinema, modernity, Iran and the West. After a brief introduction to the chapter, Naficy turns to the concept of “epistemic violence”, a term he adopts and adapts from the work of Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. As he explains, this is not a direct or literal violence, but rather a form of violence generated through the West’s Orientalist “production” of Iran as exotic, sexualized and backward through a range of political, cultural and commercial activities including diplomacy, missionary work, literature, tourism, art, photography and cinema. Further layers of epistemic violence are added when Iranians engage in “the Orientalist reproduction of Iran” combined with “their Occidentalist production of the West through their syncretic adoption of Western laws, values, customs, fashion, technology, and human sciences, all of which configured Iranians as the “self-consolidating Other” of the West” (Vol. 1 p. 73). This concept, along with the attendant concept of “syncretic Westernization” explained later in the chapter affords Naficy a high degree of mobility in his description, discussion and analysis of the historical, cultural, political and religious underpinnings of the emergence of a national cinema in Iran in this and later chapters, as well as throughout volume two. Indeed, it is this deep theorisation that sets Naficy’s work apart from previous histories of Iranian cinema, including Hamid Dabashi’s Close Up Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future and Hamid Reza Sadr’s Iranian Cinema: A Political History. (2) Here Naficy expertly weaves rigorous theorisation into his presentation of a rich range of source materials — “stories of early spectators, exhibitors, and cameramen” — through which he provides a vivid picture not only of film spectatorship, but national identity formation in Qajar era Iran (Vol. 1 p. 71). This discussion and theorisation feeds directly into the following chapter, ‘State Formation and Nonfiction Cinema’, which covers the first Pahlavi period as well as the opening chapter of volume two, ‘International Haggling over Iranian Public Screens’. Taken together, these chapters provide a dense theorisation and explanation of the place of film in Iran’s contentious program of modernisation as well as the complex and certainly uneven exchange relations — economic, political, cultural — between Iran and the West. If I were to forced to find any fault amidst the compelling pages of these books, I would have to point to some unfortunate repetition that occurs in volume one, but this is a minor quibble.

One of the most new and illuminating contributions of these books is the due regard Naficy pays to the role of non-fiction filmmaking in Iran. Most accounts of a national cinema tend to focus primarily on fictional feature filmmaking. Not only does such a tendency tend to overlook the important role non-fiction and more specifically documentary film can play in national identity formation, it also tends to overlook the impact of films made by foreigners in and about that nation. Across these first two volumes, Naficy insistently places emphasis on non-fiction filmmaking by Iranians and non-Iranians, devoting chapter three of volume one and chapter two of volume two to this topic. This is crucial, for while Iranians did manage to make a handful of fictional feature films in the silent era and a few in the early sound era, there would be a ten-year hiatus of fictional feature filmmaking from 1938 to 1948, and only one or two such films made several years either side of this period. In the years following the coup d’état in 1925, the newly established Pahlavi regime instituted major social, cultural and political reform including taking control of the still nascent film industry. In this chapter, Naficy shows how crucial documentary film was to the Reza Shah’s authoritarian nationalist agenda, which included widespread and rapid modernization projects along with enforcement of “syncretic Westernization” amongst the a largely illiterate population. For the state, documentary film could serve both a pedagogical and propaganda role, although production processes remained artisanal and largely in foreign hands. Naficy provides a detailed account of the how the dominance of foreign companies in industry and culture also led to their dominance of non-fiction filmmaking during this period. This is exemplified by the production of railway films documenting and celebrating the massive multinational construction of the Trans-Iranian Railway and oil films, with British oil companies making “records of their activities” (Vol. 1 p. 182). While most of these films were not intended for exhibition in Iran, they did inadvertently help to export and promote Reza Shah’s modernizing and Westernizing agenda to the rest of the world. Suspicious of foreign control of image-making and following the tragic murder of American diplomat Robert Imbrie in 1924 while photographing a gathering at a sacred Shiite fountain in Tehran, rigorous censorship regulations were called for. Formal censorship regulations were finally established in 1938 to ensure that filmmakers, either foreign or Iranian represented the country and the Shah in the best possible light.

Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (Cooper, Schoedesack, Harrison 1925)

Even ethnographic and anthropological films were subject to censorship. Naficy provides an extensive discussion and critique of one of the most famous and still contentious ethnographic films made in Iran: Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life (1925). The epic film was made by three Americans, Merian C. Cooper, Ernest B. Schoedesack, and Marguerite E. Harrison, all of whom had ties to the U.S. intelligence services and armed forces. Although the film has been praised for its epic, breath-taking cinematography, the filmmakers take a highly Orientalist approach as they follow the migratory paths of “traditional” Bakhtiari tribes. Naficy, drawing on the voices of a range of critics, however highlights how the film did not show the contemporary reality of the tribespeople and their often tense relationship with the Shah’s modernizing agenda: “It showed a “primitive” and pastoral way of life that matched neither the full reality of the tribe’s life nor the wishful projection of a modern Iran under Reza Shah” (Vol. 1 p. 164). According to Naficy, the film was banned by the Iranian government and not screened publically in the country for twenty years, but screened widely internationally in a variety of versions.

In chapter two of volume two, ‘The Statist Documentary Cinema and Its Alternatives,’ Naficy continues the story of non-fiction filmmaking, now under the second Pahlavi Shah, Reza Shah’s son, Mohammad Reza who ruled the country from 1941 until the revolution of 1978/79. Here, Naficy takes us through the efforts to consolidate the use of documentary to support, promote and propagandize the Shah’s modernizing and Westernizing programs. Naficy shows how a range of statist organisations were established, enabling documentary film production to be industrialized, although not centralised until the 1960s with the establishment of the Ministry of Culture and Art. One of the major contributions Naficy makes to the history of Iranian cinema here is to demonstrate how an “official style” was developed for newsreels and documentaries. This style was built not so much on adopting Western practices of non-fiction filmmaking, but incorporating a range of indigenizing stylistic elements. Naficy’s careful analysis of these elements has far-ranging implications for future study not only of Iranian documentary traditions, but may also be fertile ground on which to re-interpret some of the more recent developments in Iranian feature filmmaking. While Naficy does not make a direct link here, his focus on documentary does allow readers to make correspondences between the non-fiction, usually educational films made during this period, and the acknowledged “documentary” qualities of many post-revolutionary Iranian films, which are also frequently didactic in tone. Some of these characteristics of the official style include a slow-paced, linear narrative, avoidance of sudden or abrupt transitions between shot sizes (eg. from long shot to close-up) and the use of a central protagonist, often a family or child to promote identification (Vol. 2, p. 74). In this chapter, Naficy also shows how a parallel, alternative documentary movement emerged, which incorporated “poetic” elements into the documentary form and through which filmmakers “subverted the official style of the documentary and its direct, propagandistic force by various lyrical and symbolic uses of indirection, by contrapuntal strategies of sound and image editing” (v. 2, p. 76). Naficy terms this “poetic realism”, a term that has often been used to describe the post-revolutionary art cinema. Here he provides an extended discussion of Forough Farrokhzad’s poetic documentary The House is Black (1961), along with a detailed examination of the Golestan film workshop, established by Ebraim Golestan in the late 1950s after having worked on a range of institutional documentaries for government agencies. Naficy draws extensively on interviews with Golestan himself, who left Iran for Britain in the mid-1970s and is said to rarely speak about his films. This chapter fills a crucial gap in the scholarship on Iranian cinema, for Naficy’s detailed account how a range of film styles developed under strict authoritarian rule, industrial development and a highly nationalist ideological agenda allows us to gain to better understanding of more recent developments in Iranian film style, which must be understood to emerge at least in part out of these strong, statist, nationalistic as well as oppositional and poetic documentary traditions.

The House is Black (Farrokhzad, 1961)

While these chapters on non-fiction filmmaking are certainly groundbreaking in the expansive way they make this important history available to English language readers, I have to admit that I was most interested and excited by the chapters that focused on fictional feature filmmaking. Across the two volumes, Naficy devotes three chapters to specific film genres and one chapter to the emergence of new wave filmmaking in the 1970s. Chapter five of volume one, ‘Modernity’s Ambivalent Subjectivity: Dandies and the Dandy Movie Genre’ is stunningly illuminating in extending the theoretical concept of syncretic Westernization to show how the ambivalent, hybridised subjectivities that emerged with the country’s modernization and Westernization fed directly into fictional filmmaking in both the first and second Pahlavi eras. Naficy begins with a detailed ethnographic account of the history of “westernized dandy’s” both as a social type and as characters in improvisational comic theatre, before delving into an analysis of the roles they played in fictional narratives. Additionally, Naficy writes of how these social types also made up a crucial part of the spectatorship of Hollywood and other Western movies, thereby accounting for their role in a broadly understood definition of national cinema not limited to films produced only in, by and for the nation. Naficy writes: “Interpellated by Western movies and movie stars, Iranian dandies became the subjects, idealizing, imitating, and even fetishizing them and the modern world they stood for” (Vol. 1, p. 282). According to Naficy, dandies were fluid, socially mobile and cosmopolitan, but they also were liminal and marginalised. Their ambivalent performance of gender also upset Iranian norms of strictly defined gender roles and aroused a degree of moral panic “by setting up a conflict between modernity and authenticity” (Vol. 1 p. 297). As a result, in films, they were often the subject of comic derision, or were transformed by the narrative into “appropriate citizens” through love, marriage and by becoming “honest, authentic, manly, and strong tough guys” (Vol. 1 p. 301). Naficy closes the chapter with a detailed discussion of a handful of dandy films all produced in the 1970s, thus breaking with the chronology of the series, but setting the scene for volume two.

Qaisar (Kimiai, 1969)

The chapter on the dandy film may usefully be read alongside and in close correspondence with a chapter on the tough-guy film in volume two: ‘Males, Masculinity and Power: The Tough-Guy Movie and its Evolution.’ This too is an exceptionally rich chapter for the way it combines social history and a rigorous approach to a uniquely Iranian film genre that emerged out of the encounter between traditional social configurations, modernity and the establishment of a semi-industrialised commercial cinema in the 1950s. In chapter three of volume two, Naficy explains how, in the second Pahlavi era the industry managed only partially to transcend its artisanal origins of the earlier era and labels this a “hybrid production mode.” Investment in training and infrastructure was piecemeal and a range of other factors including the influence of traditional cultural practices and censorship rendered the emergent commercial cinema fragmented and highly improvisational. Despite the inherent limitations of such a partial industrialisation, once feature filmmaking recommenced in 1948, Iran would see a steady increase in feature film production from only three in 1948 to a peak of ninety-two in 1972. This commercial cinema came to be known as filmfarsi, literally ‘Persian film’. In the chapter on the tough-guy film as well as another entitled ‘Family Melodramas and Comedies: The Stewpot Movie Genre’, Naficy addresses the long-held derision of filmfarsi movies as morally questionable and technically poor. In part, the technical shortcomings are explained by the lingering artisanal approach and lack of training of key personnel, which contributed significantly, Naficy argues to a lack of formal proficiency. These were, as Naficy explains, only exacerbated on the one hand, by the random insertion of musical numbers (often set in nightclubs) leading to a loosening of continuity and narrative development, and censorship that could lend the films a further degree of incomprehensibility. The musical numbers, inserted to attract mass audiences inevitably lead to an excessive display of sexuality and scantily-clad female bodies, causing the moral status of film to be brought into question by conservative sectors of the community, which in turn would attract censorship. Alongside discussing the social and industrial aspects of these most long-lived of Iranian genre films, Naficy provides some detailed textual analysis of key films including Siamak Yasamai’s Qarun’s Treasure (Ganj-e Qarun, 1965), which he uses to exemplify the stewpot genre and Masud Kimiai’s Qaisar (1969), the “energizer of the tough-guy genre” (Vol. 2 p.261). These two genre chapters are thoroughly engaging and provide deep insight into the cultural roots and social context from and against which the genres developed. Readers familiar with post-revolutionary Iranian commercial genre cinema (as opposed to Iranian ‘art’ films) might see for themselves how elements of both genres are transformed to suit the ideological parameters of the Islamic Republic. I do hope that Naficy makes this connection in volumes three and four.

The final, chapter of volume two, ‘A Dissident Cinema: New-Wave Films and the End of an Era’ discusses, as the title suggests, the emergence of new-wave films in the 1970s. Naficy calls this not a “movement” but a “moment” not least because it was short-lived, but also because there was no central force, such as a manifesto or cultural institution, to bind what appears to be a rather disparate group of filmmakers together (Vol. 2 p. 352). It was, however certainly a “moment” for auteurs. Kimiai is an important figure who bridges the gap between the commercial filmfarsi sector and the new wave. Unlike Hollywood, filmfarsi was certainly not known for producing auteurs. Qaisar, which bears many hallmarks of an auteurist approach was hailed by critics for “breathing life into the doldrums of Iranian commercial cinema” but was also, according to Naficy bold in its “condemnation of modern times”, and he notes it could “also be elevated into a national allegory” (Vol. 2 p. 295).

Mudbrick and Mirror (Khesht va Ayeneh, Golestan, 1965)

It is this element of social and political critique, combined with stylistic innovation that binds many of the films produced by the new wave together. Indeed, in this regard, the new wave films may certainly be understood as the progenitors of the post-revolutionary art cinema and we see a number of filmmakers who rose to prominence in the 1970s still making films in Iran today, albeit stymied by a new set of censorship regulations. In this final chapter of volume two, we find extensive discussion of Dariush Mehrjui’s ground-breaking film The Cow (Gav, 1969) and The Cycle (Dayereh-ye Mina, 1974) alongside a range of films and directors who may not be so well known to non-Iranian readers. These include Bahram Baizai, Naser Taqvai, Farrokh Gaffary, Bahman Farmanara, Parviz Kimiavi, Sohrab Shahid Saless and Abbas Kiarostami, many of who were trained at films schools in the USA or Europe. This set them apart from most of the commercial filmmakers who had no formal film training. I was absolutely mesmerised reading Naficy’s analysis of films such as Tall Shadows in the Wind (Sayehaye bolande bad, Farmanara, 1979), Prince Ehtejab (Shazdeh Ehtejab, Farmanara, 1974), Mudbrick and Mirror (Khesht va Ayeneh, Golestan, 1965) and Downpour (Raghbar, Baizai, 1972) and can only hope that these and many other new wave films might be made available on DVD in the not too distant future. In his analysis of the textual formation of these new wave films, Naficy emphasises the attention to gritty realism, which was punctuated at times with surrealism, qualities that have certainly survived into the post-revolutionary art films of Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Mohammad Rasoulof. Naficy argues that surrealism along with a range of other cinematic techniques such as “narrative discontinuity, spatial and temporal discontinuity, and flashbacks” “enhances these films’ realism” (Vol. 2 p. 341). Interestingly, unlike in Europe, where new wave filmmakers tended to break or play with the conventions of continuity editing, in Iran, it was the new wave filmmakers, rather than their counterparts in the commercial sector, who were better accomplished with the “invisible style of continuity filming and editing, character isolation through close-ups, and the effective relay of gazes between characters to establish interiority, plot development, and relationships” (Vol. 2 p. 341). This is attributed to their greater levels of film education either in Iran or abroad.

The Cow (Mehrjui, 1969)

In this chapter, Naficy also explains how this dissident cinema emerged right under the nose of the state, and in many instances benefited from the formation of a culture industry in the 1960s, established mainly to produce “grandiose spectacles” to celebrate the Shah’s power and munificence (Vol. 2 p. 328). Cunning filmmakers, however utilised a range of strategies, including symbolism, allegory and indirection to undercut, undermine and implicitly critique the social and political situation. Naficy writes that the emergence of the new wave “in the context of the second Pahlavi period’s official culture” meant that filmmakers “were both enabled and enchained by it,” a situation that he compares to the situation in Eastern Europe at the time (Vol. 2 p. 352-353). Ultimately, with the onset of the revolution in 1978 the new wave “moment” would last only a decade. This chapter is to date, the most comprehensive account of this short-lived but crucial moment in Iranian film history.

Tall Shadows in the Wind (Sayehaye bolande bad, Farmanara, 1979)

When I was first made aware that Naficy was working on this epic four volume series on the history of Iranian cinema, I was both excited and apprehensive. Excited because I knew it would be wide ranging and compelling scholarship, apprehensive because I feared that there might not be much more to be said about this history by future film scholars. While the first two volumes that I have had the pleasure to review here are indeed comprehensive, covering great depth and breadth, I find Naficy to be a very open, collegial scholar whose work certainly does not close down the field. Rather, at times, Naficy openly signals that more research is still to be conducted into certain areas ensuring that the field of Iranian cinema studies may live on with vital and vibrant energy. Graduate students in particular should take heed of these openings in the text, for therein lie great possibilities for future, compelling and original scholarship in the field. With the appearance of these first two volumes in the series, and I’m sure in the two to follow, Naficy has given this community of scholars a wonderful gift. I long for a break in my schedule to turn over the first page of volume three. I can only conclude my review by emphasising what I said in my opening comment: this is rich, compelling, and complex scholarship at its very finest. Thanks Hamid!

Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 1: The Artisanal Era, 1897–1941 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011) and Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 2: The Industrializing Years, 1941–1978 (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2011).


  1. See Richard Maltby Hollywood Cinema, Second Edition, (Malden, Oxford, Melbourne, Berlin: Blackwell, 2003), Thomas Elsaesser Weimar Cinema and After Germany’s Historical Imaginary (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) and Thomas Elsaesser New German Cinema: A History (London: BFI, 1989).
  2. Hamid Dabashi Close Up Iranian Cinema: Past, Present and Future, (London and New York: Verso, 2001); Hamid Reza Sadr Iranian Cinema: A Political History (London: I. B. Tauris, 2006).

About The Author

Michelle Langford is a lecturer in Film Studies at the University of New South Wales. She has published on Iranian and German cinema and is the author of Allegorical Images: Tableau, Time and Gesture in the Cinema of Werner Schroeter (Intellect, 2006).

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