Iranian cinema appears a rather curious success story. It is not just the size of Iran’s population or economy that raises questions; other middle-income countries have also produced high-quality films—Romania, say, or Argentina. Nor is it simply that the work emanating from Iran’s leading filmmakers—formally reflexive; sensitive to social questions; internationally acclaimed—has been diametrically opposed to dominant Western perceptions of the country as theocratic, violent, closed. To understand recent developments in Iranian filmmaking, we also need to examine the changing relationships between work made for the international film-festival circuit and that aimed at domestic audiences; between state-sponsored and commercial production; even between styles and genres—from gentle neorealism and essayistic documentaries to action thrillers and popular comedies. Under what conditions has this plural cinema emerged, and what new directions is it taking?

In regional terms, Iran was not an early leader in the seventh art. An Egyptian journalist reported in 1953 that ‘the best and most excellent movie houses in Tehran do not compare with even the Cgrade cinemas in Cairo in terms of the elegance of their exteriors and the internal order and cleanliness.’footnote1 Twenty years later, as the oil industry boomed under the Shah, the Ministry of Culture and Art put the number of ‘distinguished’ movie houses in Iran at only eight out of several hundred—with all eight of them located in Tehran. Yet, as patrons suffered on cheap and dilapidated chairs, the film industry experienced rapid developments in infrastructure, resources and artistic potential in the two decades prior to the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It was on the basis of this initial accumulation, with artists working under the Shah’s regime at its height, that film in contemporary Iran has been able to flourish. In order to understand how the Islamic Republic has provided such fertile ground for cinematic innovation and experimentation—with its chequer-board of diverse and competing institutions—we must therefore take a detour through its pre-revolutionary past.

As is the case for many national cinemas across the global South, foreign intervention and Cold War propaganda provided the initial organizational and infrastructural foundations for Iran’s movie industry. The us Information Agency (usia) trained many filmmakers and technical personnel in an effort to counter communist and oil-nationalization movements during the late 1940s and early 1950s, and distributed equipment such as cameras, reels and mobile film units. Iran remained in the thrall of us cultural production long after. Even in 1967, almost half of all exhibition permits were given to feature films made in Hollywood.footnote2 Yet, as the economy burgeoned and cinema audiences expanded, demand for local content grew. The state saw this as an opportunity for self-aggrandizement and cultural modernization. It provided financial incentives and logistical support to compliant entrepreneurs interested in developing the domestic commercial film industry. The result was Film Farsi—meaning ‘Persian-language film’—which rapidly became the most popular genre of commercial cinema. Reflecting the country’s model of us-sponsored import-substitution industrialization, Film Farsi relied heavily on Western-imported montage techniques—and, as Hamid Naficy puts it, ‘opportunistically adapted and adopted, mixed and matched native and foreign products and ideologies to create new cultural and cinematic products’.footnote3

In aesthetic terms, Iran’s commercial film industry in the 1960s and 70s can be seen as a counterpart—albeit largely an inferior one—to Bollywood or Nasser-era Egyptian film. Like those national cinemas, Film Farsi achieved popularity by fusing local cultural traditions with modern and Westernized content. Its obsession with melodrama and machismo—whether in detective stories, thrillers, action films or comedies—relied on thematic tropes that contrasted the West with Iran, or modernity with tradition, in a stereotypical and binaristic manner: arranged marriage versus Western dating conventions; the rich urban man seducing the poor rural girl; the simple country boy navigating the thriving modern city. There was strikingly robust consumer demand for Film Farsi, which undoubtedly had adverse effects on its artistic quality. Dominating the leisure time of both the upper and working classes, its popularity made cinema ‘one of the most lucrative businesses in Tehran’, as one magazine put it in 1962.footnote4

While the Pahlavi state sponsored and loosely regulated commercial filmmaking through censorship, financial incentives and logistical support, it retained a much tighter grip over production and distribution in the documentary-film industry, which it had inherited from the Americans. Yet, ironically, it was not the private-sector Film Farsi phenomenon but the state-controlled documentary movement that became a site of cultural subversion and artistic experimentation—a trend that would resurface in different forms after the Revolution. Even as the Iranian government became more authoritarian—and especially as oil rents multiplied in the 1960s and 70s—its sponsorship of cultural production became the main avenue through which critical filmmakers and left-wing intellectuals could produce innovative and experimental work. Following the establishment of an expanded Ministry of Culture and Arts in the 1960s, a multitude of state institutions and corporations, including the national oil company, began to commission short documentaries as a means of distributing advertisements and educational material.

Abbas Kiarostami’s early career is emblematic of such institutional support. Working multiple jobs while attending art college in Tehran, Kiarostami was employed in the 1960s at an advertising company run by Bijan Jazani—a man who, only a few years later, became one of the key intellectuals of the anti-Shah Marxist guerrilla movement. Kiarostami was also hired by the Kanun, the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults, set up by the Shah’s wife to promote pedagogical development. He shot his first short film for the Kanun, The Bread and Alley, in 1970, and quickly rose to the top of the organization’s film department. Although the Kanun was a state institution, a growing number of artists harnessed it as a funding source for experimental films. Kiarostami and his colleagues began to subvert the Kanun’s official purpose—children’s education—and used its focus on youth as a vehicle to circumvent state censorship. Kiarostami continued to rely on child actors long after the Kanun had stopped sponsoring films, emphasizing in 1990 that ‘I don’t consider myself in any way as a director who makes films for children. I’ve only shot one film for children; all the rest are about children.’footnote5

While ostensibly apolitical, these child-centric films often presented a humanist challenge to autocracy, violence and injustice in Iranian society. Whereas Hollywood cinema often features children with fantastical attributes—super-smart, super-cute, sassy or even devious—the Kanun’s films depicted them as mundane exemplars of purity, love and good-heartedness, encouraging adult viewers to follow their example.footnote6 Kiarostami’s early feature film, The Traveler (1974), invites the audience to reflect on the consequentialist mentality of a neglected schoolboy in his endeavour to attend a football match. In Homework (1989), one of the last films he made at the Kanun, Kiarostami interviews primary school boys about homework and their parents’ involvement with it. Powerful long takes of children struggling to answer questions and giving sometimes brutally honest responses expose the cruelty of corporal punishment within the family.