Iranian documentary, page 2
by Hamid Naficy

from Jump Cut, no. 26, December 1981, pp. 41-46
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1981, 2005


Many films have been devoted to the ceremonies of the Moslem religion, especially those of the dominant Shiit sect. These range from depictions of the pilgrimage to Mecca to examinations of the coexistence of different religions in Iran.

Naser Taqva'i, who had previously directed shorts documenting life on the fringes of society in Tehran, was sponsored by NIRT to direct two important ethnographic films — THE JINNI'S WIND (1970) and ARBA'IN (1971) — both filmed in cities of the Persian Gulf coast.

In JINNI'S WIND, Taqv'a focuses his attention on a possession ceremony where individuals possessed by the "evil wind" are undergoing exorcism. The film opens on shots of waves, the seashore, and the ruins of the town, with the raspy voice of Iran's foremost poet, Ahmad Shamloo, describing the origins of the wind. He tells how the wind was brought to the shores of Iran by African slaves, decimating the population and leaving portions of the town in ruins. The actual possession sequence shows a group of men and women sitting on the floor, beating drums and chanting. The possessed wear white cloths over their heads and bodies and move entranced to the rhythm of the music until the spirit is exorcised, leaving them calm and cleansed. The ceremony takes place in strict privacy, and Taqua'i was admitted only because of his close ties to the region, its customs, and its people.

Arba'in is a ceremony marking the fortieth day of the martyrdom of Imam Hosain. Devout Moslems mourn the occasion by donning black cloth and forming mass processions whose male members engage in chanting, breast beating, and self-flagellation to the rhythm of drums. Attain shows the preparation for mourning, the procession, and the final ceremony in which the group moves kaleidoscopically to the rhythm of a chanting leader. The film skillfully conveys the frenzied tension of the occasion. Shots of farmers and fishermen are interspersed throughout the film, because Taqua'i sees the origin of some of the Arba'in ceremonies in the daily rhythms of life in the region:

"Often, the sound of breast beating reminds me of rowing." [8]

Another noted NIRT filmmaker, Parviz Kimiavi, directed O' DEAR SAVIOR (1971), about the pilgrimage to the grave of Imam Reza. The film accentuates the grandeur of the sanctuary, the intricate gleaming mosaics of mirror and colored tiles, and the huge crystal chandeliers. The pilgrims are heard pleading with the imam for help and generosity. Their poverty and humility are devastatingly juxtaposed against the wealth and grandeur of the structure housing the grave. The film goes on to present the pilgrims and their rites in more detail. Uncanny realism and intimacy is achieved by using a hidden camera, and Kimiavi provides an indelible impression of the pilgrimage.

NIRT cinematographer Manuchehr Tabari filmed a ceremony of a Sufi sect in the Kurdestan. The result is a shocking black-and-white short called A FEW MOMENTS WITH THE QADERI DERVISHES (1973). Men play special drums, sing mantras, and roll their heads. Soon some of them rise to dance with their whole bodies as the tempo increases. The camera roams among the dancers, zooming back and forth with the intense rhythm. One man turns toward the camera, pops a three-inch rock into his mouth, and swallows. Another chews a handful of razor blades, and a third chews off and eats the head of live snake. A fourth man drinks kerosene from a lamp, and a fifth bites a mouthful of glass from the lamp chimney itself. An old man impales himself with twelve-inch skewers, driving them through his earlobes, cheeks, lips, neck, and belly. Absolute frenzy rules. Finally, one of the participants comes forward as if to swallow the lens of the camera and the screen goes black. Unfortunately, Tabari fails to explain the profound political and socioreligious roots of these ceremonies.

Anthropologist Nader Afshar Nadert and NIRT filmmaker Gholam Hosain Taheridoust each made films called ACORN (1966 and 1973. respectively). Both were made in the Zagreb mountains, where more than half of the tribal population of 300,000 is migratory.

Naderi's film centers on the preparation of bread from acorns but also details the routines of the nomads' daily life. Although it is interesting and complete ethnographically, it fails as a filmic whole. The scenes follow one another like bits in a patchwork quilt.

Taheridoust, on the other hand, focused on a single family's preparation of the acorns. In contrast to Naderi's year-long production, this film was shot in two days of meticulous recreation by the family. Shooting was preceded by an extensive period of preproduction and research during which Taheridoust gained the trust and knowledge of his subjects. His film is more cohesively cinematic than Naderi's although as a documentation of a way of life, Naderi's is more comprehensive.

In DESERT CARAVANS (1974), Kambiz Derambakhsh follows a camel caravan across the sand deserts. Through the timeless silence of the desert, the camels carry such incongruent goods as a clock and a transistor radio. The travelers pray at midday, battle sandstorms, reach (or imagine) a waterfall, and finally arrive at their destination. The film contains some evocative images of the vanishing camel caravans but is devoid of social commentary on their significance and decline.


From the mid-1960s on, Iranians made a number of socially conscious documentaries. They may have responded to the brief uprising of 1963 and its economic and political roots — roots which were compounded as the regime became more excessive in its control of all facets of life. However, these films suffered from censorship and lack of public exhibition, and their makers had to make do with a marginal existence.

Kamran Shirdel directed several MCA-sponsored films which have rarely been shown to general audiences: WOMEN'S PRISON (1965); THE CASTLE (1966), about prostitution in Tehran; and THE NIGHT IT RAINED (1967).

THE NIGHT IT RAINED presents several people's reactions to a newspaper story about a teenage boy who kept a train from reaching a section of track washed out by rains. Shirdel skillfully juxtaposes contradictory interviews with numerous people involved in the event. The viewer is faced with a bewildering range of accounts of what was done by whom and when. A salient comment on reality and perception, this film was banned for years before winning the 1974 Tehran International Film Festival as best short film.

A number of critical films were made about institutions, but these, too, received very limited exposure. Khosrow Sina'i's BEYOND THE BARRIER OF SOUND (1968), about a school for the deaf and mute, and Reza Allameh Zadeh's THE ETERNAL NIGHT (1972) are two examples. Mohammad Hosain Mohini Hasanabadi also made WORK CAMP (1974) about a government work camp. The film was shot under supervision but includes clandestine footage. It explores the deplorable conditions of the camp's poor, old, and crippled inhabitants. A man who was severely burned due to unsafe conditions gives a defiant political analysis of the work situation as well as eloquent testimony to the resilience of the human spirit.

Along with this new — but effectively silenced  — documentary voice, Iranian audiences also witnessed the emergence of the "New Wave" features. The feverish creativity in the feature film industry faded rapidly, however, due to the 30% rate of inflation, systematic censorship, repression, and police terror. Alameh Zadeh, for example, was convicted of attempting to assassinate Queen Farah. New Wave features were further hurt by unfair competition with both foreign and Iranian government productions and the development of distribution monopolies within the domestic private sector.

Throughout this middle period of Iranian cinema, then, indigenous documentary production flourished. These films were almost all sponsored by government or semi-government agencies, however, and this sponsorship was by no means free of political interference. Documentarists were subject to a more incessant and direct form of censorship than their counterparts in the feature industry. This censorship at all stages of production limited the subject matter and its presentation. Thus most nonfiction films concerned themselves with the past glories of Iran, the traditional arts and crafts, the new institutions, and the modernization and westernization policies of the government. Few films dealt genuinely with significant social, cultural, or political issues. Most attempts to address such issues were limited to a simple expository report on the issues or events involved. Only rarely did they delve into the causes or offer suggestions for the amelioration of the situation.

In addition, distribution was handled by the sponsoring agencies, so they could withhold distribution of completed films they disliked. Since documentaries were not customarily shown in theaters, NIRT became the primary channel of exhibition. And although NIRT officially adopted a liberal stance toward artistic expression, it only broadcast films which substantiated the regime's political line.

FROM THE ASHES (1975-1980)

The year 1975 was the fiftieth anniversary of the Pahlavi dynasty. The government celebrated the grand occasion by coercing all kinds of agencies and businesses to produce films heralding the tremendous progress achieved under the Pahlavis. The NIRT networks reflected this situation in their broadcast schedules. Not a week passed in which one such film was not broadcast. Documentaries celebrated the royalty, the armed forces, women's rights, tribal resettlement, the oil and steel industries, and much more. Iran's limited filmmaking resources were strained by this unprecedented volume of work, creating inflationary rise in the cost of all film services and wares.

Early on in this period, films continued to offer the same clichéd approach to traditionally acceptable subjects such as the historic arts and architecture and native ceremonies. Also, a few films were made in the tradition of impressionistic realism, such as Abbas Baqerian and Reza Gharavi's THE BAZAAR WEEPS (1976). In it they lament the death of a bazaar — the traditional lifeline of Iranian commerce. And Kyumarse Deram Bakhsh, with NIRT support, directed THE WORLD IS MY HOME (1978), about Nima Jushij, a pioneer of Iran's New Poetry movement.

During the feverish revolutionary period which began in late 1978, however, all official film production ceased, and in its place an encouraging alternative emerged. Feature and documentary filmmakers alike began to use their craft to document the daily life and events in Iran. Freed from censorship and organized repression and fired by revolutionary ardor, film groups reminiscent of the "film committees" of the Russian revolution were formed. Hundreds of hours of film were shot with equipment and material "liberated" from the various agencies and processed inside and outside of the country. After the shah's departure and the establishment of the Islamic Republic in early 1979, much of this footage was compiled and broadcast via the television networks.

FREEDOM (1979) — shot in super8 and blown up to l6mm — was broadcast in Iran and has played at several universities in the U.S.. While this fifty-minute film provides no background or analysis of the revolution, it offers the raw sounds and images from the point of view of the Moslem factions involved. Slogans, chants, and songs are well integrated into the film. Unfortunately, the image is often rambling and out of focus while the soundtrack contains many unfinished sentences. Yet despite the sermon-like narration the film has a spontaneous "you-are-there" quality for those not present during the last weeks of the revolution.

Several other films employing revolutionary footage have been made and shown in this country. BLOODY FRIDAY (1979) was made by UCLA students Rafigh Pooya and Marsha Goodman as a thesis project. The title refers to the confrontation between demonstrators and troops in Jaleh Square on Friday, September 8, 1978, in which the film reports 3,500 people were killed. Unfortunately, it doesn't live up to its goal of analyzing "the historic, economic, and social antecedents of the revolution in Iran," though it does expose the political oppression under the shah. [9] It is largely devoted to the history of the Pahlavi regime since the 1953 CIA coup, the role of the U.S. government in sustaining the shah, and the bias of the U.S. news media during the revolution. The film gives superficial "newsreel" coverage of this history, avoiding a much-warranted analysis of the economic and social forces within the country.

IRAN IN THE THROES OF REVOLUTION (1979), produced through the Iranian Students Association, is much more successful.  This two-hour film analyzes the roots of the shah's power and the economic, social, and cultural foundations of the popular, anti-imperialist uprising. In one powerful sequence, the pomp of the shah's visit to Washington, D.C., is juxtaposed with the war-zone atmosphere of the melee that ensued when the anti-shah demonstrators clashed with the police. Tear gas fumes drift across the White House lawn where President Carter and Walter Mondale are conducting a welcoming reception for the tearful shah and empress.

The film ends with a fast-paced montage accompanied only by music. Street clashes between troops and unarmed civilians gradually build into an armed struggle by the masses. This is followed by the sad face of the departing shah, a brief picture of the overwhelmed interim prime minister, Shahpour Bakhtiar, and the triumphant arrival of Ayattolah Khomeini in Tehran. It is an emotional montage celebrating the popular insurrection against a previously unquestioned dictator. Unfortunately, it almost totally ignores the role of the clergy and Islam in mobilizing the masses and bringing the revolution to fruition.

Another organization, the Confederation of Iranian Students (CIS, a leftist pro-Khomeini group), produced the one-hour film FLAMES OF FREEDOM (1979), which takes a longer view of history. It dates the origin of Western imperialism in Iran back to the Portuguese occupation of the Persian Gulf island, Hormuz, in the early 1500s. With historic photographs and film clips, it also recounts the rise of modern nationalism in Iran from the tobacco boycott of the 1870s to the revolution of 1979, paying tribute to many revolutionary movements and leaders. In attempting a systematic study of Iranian anti-imperialism, the film fails to analyze the roots of the 1979 uprising. Nonetheless, this film includes many sequences analyzing the contribution of the leftist student forces abroad, their role in discrediting the shah overseas, and in fighting his regime within Iran. The film emphasizes the organizational goals and activities of the confederation, thereby providing an appropriate vehicle for training CIS's own cadre members as well as informing a general audience.

A very different film is Mahmoud Doroudian's M.A. thesis at UCLA, BLOOD WILL TRIUMPH OVER THE SWORD (1979). This film reveals the deep devotion of its maker to Islam and its contribution to the Iranian revolution of 1979. Its title quotes the Ayattolah Khomeini. Sensitively, poetically, and without narration, it involves the audience in the collective emotions, sights, and sounds that swept the country during the revolution. The juxtaposition of contrasting and contradictory elements add force and drama to the information presented. Its opening economically, humorously, and devastatingly illustrates the shah's subservience to the U.S. government, as we see the grandiose coronation of the shah, during which he, like Napoleon, crowns himself. Meanwhile the sound track bursts forth with a rousing version of the U.S. national anthem.

TILL REVOLUTION (1980) is another thesis film by a UCLA film student, Mohammad Tehrani. In this two-hour, English language documentary feature, Tehrani attempts to present an impartial view of Iranian history from the Pahlavi rule to the post-revolutionary period. Using film footage shot by himself, by NIRT cameramen, and by American and British sources, he builds an analysis of the economic, social, and political mismanagement and crimes of the Pahlavi regime. The revolutionary events of 1978-1979 are sometimes ponderously and at times graphically depicted while important historic film sequences add value to the film.

The film attempts to pay tribute to the various revolutionary groups who participated in the uprising, something that many of those in power in Iran are loath to do at this time. However, these sequences are brief and seem like afterthoughts, robbing the film of visual and historical continuity. In addition, although the filmmaker is not supportive of the Islamic regime and points out some of its errors in judgment and policy (for example, vis-à-vis the Kurds), his criticism remains minimal and superficial. As the film wears on, Tehrani points out the importance of the solidarity which enabled the coalition of the clergy, the bazzaris, the leftists, and the secular intellectuals to bring an end to the Pahiavi regime. The film ends with a plea for unity as the only means powerful enough to guarantee the salvation of the Iranian revolutionary process.

The relative impartiality of Tehrani is a breath of fresh air in the cacophony of frenzied partisanship that is rife in present-day Iran. However, this very strength has made his film a conservative, lengthy hodgepodge, lacking a well-defined point of view and the dramatic force that is necessary to sustain a two-hour film.

All the films discussed thus far have been shown in the U.S. at universities, at meetings and conferences of radical political groups, at film festivals, and even in a public theater in California. However, none have been shown on U.S. television except IRAN: INSIDE THE ISLAMIC REPUBLIC (1980), which was shown by PBS in June 1980. This English language feature documentary, supported by PBS, is the work of Bigan M. Saliani, a former film student at NYU. He and an American crew spent six months in Iran from December 1978 to May 1979 and filmed the final days of the uprising and the formation of the Islamic government.

The film is technically the most accomplished of all the films on the Iranian revolution discussed here. Sync sound, a fluid visual style, creative editing, and a well-thought-out film structure give this work continuity and the dramatic power that carries it successfully through its two-hour running time. Saliani's objective in this film is perhaps best voiced by the wife of one of the U.S. hostages being held in Iran, who, in the film's opening teaser, calls upon the U.S. to examine the history of Iranian-American relations from the time of the Pahlavis to the present, and by Saliani himself when he says. "The Anerican people should have the right to hear all sides of the arguirent." [10]

In the main he is successful. In his attempt at countervailing the common misunderstanding and anti-Iran feelings rampant in the U.S., he provides a historical and analytical overview of Iranian history in this century and presents many lesser known facets of the U.S.-Iran relationship. In depicting the post-revolutionary times, numerous interviews with religious and political leaders, revolutionary guardsmen, members of revolutionary committees, and average people and peasants provide valuable data and insights to prevailing attitudes. By focusing periodically on a small village (Abgir) situated in northwestern Iran, Saliani manages to personalize the workings of Islam and communicate what the revolution has meant to the peasants without resorting to the bombastic narration now customary in such films.

The major flaw in the film is that it tends to validate the present Islamic regime at the cost of distorting facts. Saliani, who is apparently associated with CIS, [11] seems to consider the Iranian revolution to be both Islamic and complete — neither of which, strictly speaking, is true. In harmony with this view, he consistently ascribes the major role for the revolutionary activity in modern Iranian history to the clergy, only briefly acknowledging the contribution of the students, leftist groups, workers, and secular intellectuals. True to its stated aim, this film does provide average American viewers an alternative to that which they receive through mainline media. However, Saliani's selective deletions and slanting of facts markedly limits the value of the film, a limitation which can only become more apparent with the passing of time.

An evaluation of the documentary film situation in post-revolutionary Iran is difficult and perhaps premature, but a few observations are possible.

In the first year of the Islamic Republic, NIRT was seen as a "public university" to be used to "reinforce our own cultural heritage as opposed to that of the West." [12] It broadcast hours of revolutionary footage as well as foreign documentaries and nature films. The British WORLD AT WAR series and Peter Davis's HEARTS AND MINDS were among many foreign programs shown. The networks came under heavy criticism as being too narrow in scope, too biased and subservient to a particular political and Islamic line, and too heavily censored. Documentarists objected to NIRT's frequent refusal to air their films and to the heavy censorship and editing of those shown. Even President Bani Sader in his first days in office criticized the network, stating that it should be a "mirror held before society to reflect all the events and all the news." [13]

This kind of censorship, combined with the disproportionate number of discussion shows, sermons, and speeches, resulted in a smaller television audience.

Movie theaters, on the other hand, became more crowded. In part, this was due to the fact that many theaters were destroyed during the revolution. It also reflects the fact that the government outlawed Western and non-Islamic entertainments such as night clubs and bars. But the politically enlightened and enthusiastic audiences saw many films which had been banned under the shah. These included Third World and political films such as Costa Gayras' Z and STATE OF SIEGE, Guzman's BATTLE OF CHILE, Pontecorvo's BATTLE OF ALGIERS, and others dealing with wars and revolutions. Islamic topics were also stressed with films such as Mostafa Akad's MOHAMMMD, THE MESSENGER.

Local feature film production was negligible but some documentaries were made about revolutionary topics. Many of these were "newsreelish," featuring unending shots of crowds and turmoil. Worth mentioning are THE NIGHT OF POWER (1979) by Mohammad Au Najafi, FALL OF 57 (1980) by Barbad Taheri, and A SHOWER OF BLOOD (1980) by Amir Qavidel. The latter is a reenactment about three soldiers who desert the shah's army and join the revolution. One of the soldiers died during the fighting but the other two survived to star in this film.

These films are shown in public theaters, film clubs, via television, and through a network of work brigades called the "reconstruction crusade." In addition to their rural reconstruction projects, the "crusade" makes films of their activities and show selected features and documentaries to the villagers. Ironically, the mobile film unit distribution system, first used by the USIA and the shah, is now being used to combat the encroachment of westernization. It is providing alternative information while validating the daily struggle for nationhood.

The film and television industries, like everything else in Iran, are undergoing drastic changes. The enthusiastic reception given quality films, and the vocal criticism of poor television programs, indicate the emergence of a mature and healthy attitude toward the arts. There had been some indications of government interest in supporting the exhibition and production of quality films. The government announced that it would take control of the importation and production of quality films and would grant distribution rights to Iranian producers of high quality films. To encourage local production, a ratio would be established between the number of films produced and the number allowed to be imported. These policies contrast with those of the Pahlavi regime, which mainly encouraged the importation and production of cheap films devoid of ethnical consideration.

But the new policies are potentially double-edged swords. They can easily be subverted, misconstrued, and abused to control and stifle veracity and variety. The appointment of pro-Islamic individuals to manage the major national daily newspapers, the de facto takeover of a number of theaters by an Islamic branch of the government called the "Foundation for the Dispossessed," the total control of the broadcasting networks by Islamic hardliners, the shutting down of opposition papers, and the ransacking of opposition bookstores all indicate that the desire to establish and maintain a free flow of information has waned. In spite of this situation, given the heightened awareness of Iranian audiences and filmmakers and given the fluid political atmosphere, one hopes that such misuses will not be tolerated for long. The time has come for Iranian filmmakers to take a stand and begin to explore the whole of Iranian life in all its nuances. The documentaries, needless to say, have a special responsibility and a pivotal role to fulfill in accomplishing this task.


1. Mohamad Tahami Nejad, "Sinemay-e Mostanade Iran," Tamasha, no. 243 (6 Day, 1354 [1975]): 71.

2. Amir Jahed, Salnameh-ye Rasmy-ye Mamlekai-e Pars (Tehran: 1390 [1930]), pp. 164-66.

3. Homayoon 1, no. 1 (Qom: Mehr 1313 [1935]):25.

4. G. William Domhoff, The Higher Circle: The Governing Class in America (New York: Vantage, 1979), p. 252.

5. Ibid.

6. Hamid Shoa'i, Farhang-e Sinemay-e Iran (Tehran: Herminco, 1354 [1975]), p. 577.

7. Naser Movafaghian, "Takht-e Jamshid, na yek Hamaseh, na yek Marssiyeh," Iran Abad (10 Day, 1339 [1960]):25-26.

8. M. Barari, "An Analysis of Naser Taqva'i's Works," a class term paper at Cinema and Television College, Tehran, 1975. p. 9.

9. Quoted from the program notes of the Third World Film Festival, where the film was first shown, UCLA. April 1979.

10. Howard Rosenberg, "The Tuesday Night Ritual," Los Angeles Times, 4 June 1980, part 6, p. 8.

11. Hassan Zavaraee, "Misrepresenting the Iranian Revolution," MERIP Reports, October 1980, p. 31.

12. "Hamleh-ye Shadid-e Ghotbzadeh beh Radio BBC," Kayhan, no. 10713 (1 Khordad, 1358 [1979]):2.

13. "Anva'e Sansur az Ruznameh-ha Bardashteh Mishavad," Ettela'at (8 Bahman, 1358 [28 January 1979]):12.


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Issari, Mohammad Ali. "A Historical and Analytical Study of the Advent and Development of Cinema and Motion Picture Production in Iran (1900-1965)." Ph.D. dissertation, University of Southern California, 1979.

Nacify, Hamid. "Cinema as a Political Instrument." In Modern Iran: The Dialectics of Continuity and Change. Edited by Michael Bonine and Nikki Keddie. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1981.

Naficy, Hamid. "Iranian Feature Film: A Brief Critical History." Quarterly Review of Film Studies 4, no. 4 (Fall 1979).


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