Iranian cinema is often understood through a framework of post-revolutionary art-house film. Critically acclaimed works from the likes of Abbas Kiarostami to Mohsen Makhmalbaf ran rings around the international film festival circuit upon their releases outside of Iran, and the legacy of these works is still felt. In his epic exploration of pre-revolutionary films in Iran, Ehsan Khoshbakht seeks to excavate a new cinematic narrative for his country, at once humorous, moving, and confronting. Utilizing a personal collection of now-banned VHS tapes, Khoshbakht painstakingly compiled Filmfarsi, a visual essay that dips and dives through the melodramatic and the trashy, the romantic and the absurd. This feat is a humbling reminder of the temporality of film and the paramountcy of preserving a national cinema. In one clip, we see a sign in a local cinema that reads, “Please refrain from bringing guns into the cinema.” Through Filmfarsi, Khoshbakht repositions these once lost films as not only a vital part of Iranian life, but as a crucial catalyst to the revolution in Iran.
Filmfarsi argues for a history of the Iranian revolution that pivots around the ecology of cinema. By the end of the 1960s, around sixty-five films were produced each year in the country, and the cities’ cinemas during this period were bustling hubs of entertainment. Primarily melodramas and thrillers, the cinema of pre-revolutionary Iran was vibrating with vigor and enthusiasm, with sex, violence, vengeance, and faith taking center stage. A pattern of character tropes quickly began to take hold: the mob boss jahel, the rugged and pious pahlevan, officers of the law, and holy men. An air of toxic masculinity filters through the clips, as Khoshbakht notes. A stifling homoeroticism also lingers over many of the films, through a lingering focus on masculinity and the male body. Traits like aggression and a fixation vengeance are presented as noble, and following a religious path is rewarded. This gaze arguably reflects a preoccupation with the status quo, representing the Iranian man as both hypermasculine and ultra-devout. This cinematic presence, Khoshbakht argues, reflects the patriarchal moral compass of the state, and reinforced this truth to the film’s audience.
This image of the religious hero also probes at a culture of patriarchal policing. A portrait of the first Shia imam peppers the walls in most of the films, his face stern and serious. Religious devotion is framed as the picture of masculinity. Women occupy a pedestaled position of both virgin wife/mother or scheming whore. Prop-like, they are raped for plot twists and beaten into submission if they stray from their husbands’ paths. Often, women are seldom else but the point of conflict between the men in these films, catalysts inspiring vengeance or devotion. Khoshbakht calls them, “veiled mini-skirt girls,” objects of sexual desire and instigators of anxiety to men.
Homage to, or perhaps a recycling of, European and American films is a frequent point Khoshbakht returns to. An Iranian West Side Story sees a group of jahel come to blows with a rival gang, fighting over the affections of a woman. As the years wear on into 1979, the year of the revolution, the hijab and chador become a focal point of tension for women in Filmfarsi, and for men, too. Khoshbakht unravels this narrative fixation on taming unruly women. Melodramatic zooms, close-ups, and slow-motion are well-used tools, providing a gaudy, almost comical aesthetic. That most of the acting and dubbing was improvised adds to the loose feel of these films, unconstrained by Hollywood aesthetics.
Khoshbakht provides deeply critical narration throughout the film, gently guiding the audience through the history of the revolution with its rotation of state leaders, and simultaneously mapping out cinematic points of reference. The voice, whether figurative or literal, is the spine of the visual essay film, and Khoshbakht is at once moving, funny and combative in his stance. By sculpting a lesser-known cinematic history of Iran, Khoshbakht leads his audience from the cinema of Filmfarsi to the street protests of 1970s Tehran.