The Persian World Cinema: Global Palimpsests of the Iranian New Wave

This paper, part of my larger project exploring the relationship between the intergeneric and the transnational in the global literary marketplace with the circulation of Persian literature as a case study, traces the integration of Iranian cinema into the sphere of “world cinema” from the 1960s through the present. Iranian New Wave directors such as Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and Jafar Panahi established themselves as major figures on the international film circuit starting in the 1980s and 90s, often defying the strictures of the Islamic Republic. However, earlier pioneers in Iranian cinema in the 1960s, when political dissent was sweeping across the world, had paved the way for their success with a unique blend of national and global cinematography. I examine two pivotal early New Wave films that hover on the edge of the definition of “film” itself because of their radical blending of genres: Dariush Mehrjui’s "Gaav" ["The Cow"] and Forugh Farrokhzad’s "Khaneh Siyah Ast" ["The House is Black"].

Not only is "Gaav" based on Gholam Hossein Saedi’s work in two different genres—the play and the novel—but it also interweaves elements of fable, psychological drama, and political allegory for a thoroughly intergenre work that found great success on the international stage, especially among the Italian neo-realists. Farrokhzad’s "Khaneh Siyah Ast," meanwhile, overlays sequences of documentary, montage, biography, and autobiography with a voiceover of Biblical quotations and poetry in order to transcend the centrality of master narratives through unconventional combinations of form.

My paper identifies how these early directors’ intergeneric approach to the New Wave paradoxically set up a national cinematic tradition with an inherently global foundation, and follows this palimpsestic aesthetic of film through to two very different present-day success stories in Iranian cinema: first, Shirin Neshat’s avant-garde short and feature films as well as video installations, which draw on transnational collaborators and whose artistic and political impact circle the globe; and second, Ashgar Farhadi’s "Jodai-e Nader az Simin" ["A Separation"], whose groundbreaking portrait of a changing Iran on micro- and macro-levels of society won him Iran’s first Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012.

Ultimately, I argue that this history of intergeneric work in Iranian cinema reveals its inherent globality by eschewing the potential for a hegemony of genres in the political economy of world literature.