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The Forgotten: Iranian Cinema, 1962 to 1978

Two wildly contrasting movies from Iran before the revolution, "Stiff Life" (1974) and "The Mongols" (1973).

At the Edinburgh International Film Festival this year among the rarest offerings were Iranian films from the earliest days of that country's film industry. Drama The Cow (1969) and short documentary The House is Black (1962) have acquired some fame recently, partially in thanks to the efforts of Mark Cousins in A Story of Film, but other entries have scarcely been seen outside of their native land.

Still Life (1974) seemed to stretch the concept of “slow cinema” to snapping point at times, but some moments broke through the boredom barrier and achieved a meditative stillness or a surprising durational comedy through offscreen sound, deadpan performance (from what I take to be a non-professional cast) and sheer dogged persistence. Director Sohrab Shahid Saless, an important early figure in Iranian film, likes to linger and never moves the camera, and thus has won comparisons with Ozu and Bresson which don’t make much sense to me (just as comparisons between those two make little sense). With the benefit of hindsight, this study of human obsolescence at a rural railway crossing invites a more meaningful connection with Kiarostami and Mahkmalbaf, and with early Jim Jarmusch, oddly enough.

The Mongols, by contrast, fairly zips along, assembling a Godardian tangle of narrative threads which either blend into one another or stop in mid-air. A filmmaker casts a bunch of Turkmen civilians to play the Mongol invaders of history; a TV engineer is posted to distant parts to help bring television to rural villages; his wife attempts to finish her dissertation on the Mongols; and the filmmaker searches for cinema in the desert.

Eavesdropping on Jonathan Rosenbaum’s conversation after the screening, I heard him list an abundance of themes covered in the film, none of which I had detected, while those that I had gleaned went unmentioned (briefly: the impact of mass media on the sense of community in the countryside; the anxiety of influence; the threat of television to cinema; the relevance of the latter). So it’s a very, very rich movie, and more like the Monkees’ film Head than one would expect. The image of the filmmaker excavating a ribbon of celluloid from the desert sands and attempting to follow it to its mainspring; or of the “Mongols” halted by a big metal gate in the middle of an infinity of sand (as in a dream, simply going around it is not an option); or the forest of TV aerials sprouting from the desert: these moments and many others attest to an intelligence that’s not just lively, it’s positively wired. Alas, according to Rosenbaum, director Parviz Kimiavi’s post-Revolution work did not keep up the same quality. None of the filmmakers represented in this invaluable retrospective were able to build large bodies of consistent work: they are the false dawn before the rise of the great Iranian auteurs.

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The Forgotten is a fortnightly column by David Cairns, author of Shadowplay.

I wonder how Amir Shervan fits into pre-Revolutionary Iranian film. In the U.S., he mostly made knock-off action films, notable for being worse than most SOV action films, that had titles like SAMURAI COP and KILLING, AMERICAN STYLE.
Ehsan Khoshbakht points out that there’s more pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema than is generally acknowledged, including plenty of genre stuff, so Shervan may well fit in quite snugly. But the people who are interested in Iranian cinema don’t tend to care for that material, and genre fans haven’t sought out Iranian movies, so it’s really a whole undiscovered country.
There are so many great filmmakers working pre-revolution that you should know. Mohamadreza Aslani, Sohrab Shahid Sales and Freydoun Gole are just some examples.
Thanks — I’ll keep an eye out! The most acclaimed film shown at Edinburgh was Ibrahim Golestan’s 1965 The Brick and the Mirror.
In reply to Karol: the entire body of films that Shervan created in Iran unequivocally falls under commercial mainstream cinema of the day. It comprises both actions and comedies, of some of which bootleg copies are available.

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