Iranian Cinema in the World and At Home

This panel was compiled by the Conference Program Team from independently submitted paper proposals


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The concept of ‘national’ cinema has increasingly been questioned across contemporary scholarship in a globalised era and it seems that the focus has shifted towards the concept of ‘transnational’ instead. While the notion of transnational cinema has emerged in response to the perceived insufficiencies of existing categories such as ‘national’ cinema, in and by itself it is not sufficient either. There is no consensus over the definition and the discourse of ‘transnational cinema’, which raises questions like what makes a film transnational, and are all or only some films transnational?

Much film production is made for domestic markets and it focuses on specific local issues, relying on modes of narration that might not appeal to international audiences. Therefore international audiences are often unaware of large sectors of the world’s film production, because they are not transnational. In the case of Iran, despite the high number of films that have reached international film festivals since the 1990s and the emergence of prolific filmmakers and scholarly studies of ‘the new Iranian cinema’, much of the national cinematic culture does not reach foreign audiences. In fact, based on the international reputation of Iranian cinema one may be lead to think that Iranian cinema only consists of picturesque, minimalist films dealing with lyrical subjects, unaware of many successful romantic comedies, dramas, war cinema and many other genres of Iranian cinema. This can perhaps be explained through the limited international distribution of such films as they do not fit ‘art house’ festivals’ agenda.

There is a degree of ‘national’ in all films and there does not have to be a conflict between the two terms ‘national’ and ‘transnational’. As Debora Shaw argued in her paper on “Deconstrcuting and Reconstructing ‘Transnational Cinema’”, “there is a link between national identities and storytelling at the heart of cinema, even when we take on board all the nuances and questioning of the national that transnational critical approaches have brought.” Although films may not offer the truth about a nation, they do have something to say about the way national identities are constructed. It is through negotiation and crossing borders that transnational elements are built into national elements. This paper will look at Iranian cinema since the 1990s and discuss and compare the advantages and disadvantages of adapting either of the two terminologies ‘national’ and ‘transnational’ in relation to the discourse of Iranian cinema.

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Recently, films outside of Iran such as A Girl Walks Home at Night (2014) have been successfully marketed as “Iranian” because either their characters speak Persian or their soundtracks feature Iranian musicians. Sound, in this sense, represents a defining element of Iranian cinema. Yet, scholars of Iranian cinema tend to take dialogue and music for granted and privilege the image. From considerations of censorship and what filmmakers can and cannot show on screen, to changes that Iranian filmmakers have made in visual language, the field of Iranian film studies has overwhelmingly focused on issues related to the visual. Scholars who have considered early sound film, moreover, have done so encased within national borders, in comparison to American and European cinemas, and in answering questions framed by images. This paper brings needed attention to the role of sound in Iranian cinema by exploring the coming of sound technology and the first Persian-language talkie films in the 1930s. I examine the circumstances regarding the production of several Persian-language films, such as The Lor Girl (1933) and Leyli and Majnun (1937), that Iranian expatriate Abdolhossein Sepanta made in India in collaboration with prominent Parsi film producer Ardeshir Irani, and argue that new sound technologies contributed to the development within Iranian cinema of conventions both on and off-screen related to spectatorship, type of dialogue and language used, and musical numbers that would evolve into Film Farsi.

As Bill Nichols notes, new histories make possible the reconstruction of the wide array of possibilities offered by early cinema. Today, sound, dialogue, and music are accepted and expected parts of the cinema experience, but the introduction of sound technology presented a rupture in cinema history and placed dialogue, music, and sound effects at equal importance with images in larger questions about the purpose of film. In the context of Iran, the sound film helped contribute to the development of a particular national identity and local representation based on a blending of sound and images in contrast to that portrayed in documentary films created by foreign nationals living in Iran and imported Hollywood films. A study of The Lor Girl and Sepanta’s other work within a framework of the introduction of sound technology brings attention to language and aural components of cinema that have received less attention in scholarship despite the importance of sound in cultural traditions.

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The Iranian filmmaker Sohrab Shahid Saless moved to Germany in 1974 following the enormous success of his first two Iranian-made feature films at the Berlin Film Festival earlier that year. The next few years were a period of great uncertainty for him as he had to continually negotiate his residency status, which was also dependent upon having a firm contract to make another film. Archival documents, including correspondence with various German ministers (West and East), the Ausländerpolizei (Immigration Police), his lawyers and producers reveal much about the various ways in which he positioned himself variously as an exile or at times even a ‘guestworker’ or Gastarbeiter. As
such he began to closely identify with the protagonists of the first feature film that he made in Germany, FAR FROM HOME (IN DER FREMDE, 1975) and this moniker became for him a kind of public persona. Shahid Saless went on to make thirteen feature films for cinema and television in Germany.

Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, his films were in high demand at international film festivals and in 1992 he won the German Television prize for ROSES FOR AFRICA (ROSEN FÜR AFRIKA). Despite this prolific output and recognition during his lifetime, Shahid Saless barely rates a mention in any of the key texts on German cinema of the period. My paper seeks to begin to place Shahid Saless back into this history. It will examine not just the aesthetic and thematic qualities of his first German-made feature film with which he once said he intended to ‘place a finger on the wounds of society’, but will also assess the ways in which Shahid Saless was able to effectively negotiate the German film and television funding landscape.

This paper will focus on Shahid Saless' first year in Berlin, tracing the personal, professional and social context in which he produced his film IN DER FREMDE. It will focus particularly on Shahid Saless' self-inscription as a kind of Gastarbeiter and also on the sense of 'Elend' (misery or despair) that infuses the film.