A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 3: The Islamicate Period, 1978-1984

A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 3: The Islamicate Period, 1978-1984

by Hamid Naficy

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A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 3: The Islamicate Period, 1978-1984 by Hamid Naficy

Hamid Naficy is one of the world’s leading authorities on Iranian film, and A Social History of Iranian Cinema is his magnum opus. Covering the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first and addressing documentaries, popular genres, and art films, it explains Iran’s peculiar cinematic production modes, as well as the role of cinema and media in shaping modernity and a modern national identity in Iran. This comprehensive social history unfolds across four volumes, each of which can be appreciated on its own.

In Volume 3, Naficy assesses the profound effects of the Islamic Revolution on Iran's cinema and film industry. Throughout the book, he uses the term Islamicate, rather than Islamic, to indicate that the values of the postrevolutionary state, culture, and cinema were informed not only by Islam but also by Persian traditions. Naficy examines documentary films made to record events prior to, during, and in the immediate aftermath of the revolution. He describes how certain institutions and individuals, including prerevolutionary cinema and filmmakers, were associated with the Pahlavi regime, the West, and modernity and therefore perceived as corrupt and immoral. Many of the nation's moviehouses were burned down. Prerevolutionary films were subject to strict review and often banned, to be replaced with films commensurate with Islamicate values. Filmmakers and entertainers were thrown out of the industry, exiled, imprisoned, and even executed. Yet, out of this revolutionary turmoil, an extraordinary Islamicate cinema and film culture emerged. Naficy traces its development and explains how Iran's long war with Iraq, the gendered segregation of space, and the imposition of the veil on women encouraged certain ideological and aesthetic trends in film and related media. Finally, he discusses the structural, administrative, and regulatory measures that helped to institutionalize the new evolving cinema.

A Social History of Iranian Cinema
Volume 1: The Artisanal Era, 1897–1941
Volume 2: The Industrializing Years, 1941–1978
Volume 3: The Islamicate Period, 1978–1984
Volume 4: The Globalizing Era, 1984–2010

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822348771
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Publication date: 04/06/2012
Edition description: New Edition
Pages: 288
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.20(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Hamid Naficy is Professor of Radio-Television-Film and the Hamad Bin Khalifa Al-Thani Professor in Communication at Northwestern University. He is the author of An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking, The Making of Exile Cultures: Iranian Television in Los Angeles, and (in Persian) Film-e Mostanad, a two-volume history of nonfiction cinema around the world. Naficy helped to launch ongoing annual Iranian film festivals in Los Angeles and Houston.

Read an Excerpt


Volume 3 The Islamicate Period, 1978–1984
By Hamid Naficy

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2012 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-4877-1

Chapter One


The transition from the Pahlavi-era cinema to the Islamic Republic–era cinema was slow but tumultuous, fiery, and destructive, and it offered an indelible contemporary example of the classic violence waged in all religions between idolaters and iconoclasts. While the torching of the movie houses had occurred before, what happened in the Abadan's Rex Cinema on a hot summer night elevated it into a whole new revolutionary—criminal—tactic.

* * *

Rex Cinema Inferno

On 19 August 1978, Hosain Takabalizadeh and three friends, Farajollah Bazrkar, Yadollah, and Fallah, walked into Rex Cinema, a second-tier movie house in a poor part of the city of Abadan, the site of one of the world's largest oil refineries. Each carried a brown bag that looked like the bags of mixed nuts and roasted seeds (ajil) that moviegoers customarily took into the cinemas—except that theirs each contained a bottle of high-octane airplane fuel. The men joined the spectators who were engrossed in Masud Kimiai's controversial movie, The Deer, about a down-on-his-luck smuggler and a heroin addict, characters widely interpreted as symbolizing anti-Shah revolutionaries. Halfway through the film, Hosain and Farajollah left the screening hall on the pretext of going to the bathroom; instead they doused the theater's wooden doors, the corridor walls, and the concession stand with gasoline. Apparently, all the arsonists returned to their seats so as to avoid being associated with setting the fire, except Takabalizadeh, who stayed behind to ignite the fire, which frightened him because of its speedy progress through the building. Ironically and tragically, the cinema's only emergency exit door had been locked from the outside to prevent terrorist arson. The fire quickly spread, engulfing the entire building. The mainstream press reported that of the approximately 700 spectators, 377 burned to death (Abkashak 1985:14–15); others claimed 600 deaths (Nabavi 1999). The fire, which began at about 10 p.m., "burned throughout most of the night, and the victims' cries could be heard by hundreds helplessly watching from outside the theater.... The screams stopped after the first few hours." Grief, mourning, and anger gripped the entire city. Some families bore an undue share of the calamity, having lost multiple members, among them Jafar Sazesh, who lost five of his children, and Yusef Radmehr, who lost ten children (fig. 1).

Although the Pahlavi government placed the blame on the religious zealots involved in the widening protest movement, the overwhelming public consensus held the by then discredited government responsible for engineering the fire and for the inept responses to it. In fact, the Shah's own words, broadcast before the fire, were interpreted as his foreknowledge and complicity in the upcoming disaster. Apparently referring to the burning of cinemas, which had already taken place across the country, he had stated, "While we promise you the Great Civilization, others are promising you the Great Terror." The leading cleric, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, in exile in Najaf, Iraq, was quick to refer in a message to that broadcast as proof of the government's complicity in the terror, calling the event "One of the Shah's masterpieces" of public deception, intended to make the world think that "the Justice-seeking Iranian nation is not bound by any human and Islamic values." Likewise, a prominent secular opposition politician, Karim Sanjabi, of the National Front, called it a "Reichstag fire," designed to turn public sentiments against the anti-Shah forces (Green 1982:96).

However, the leaflets and samizdats that the opposition groups issued either clearly urged the destruction of cinemas, banks, liquor stores, discos, and Westernized restaurants as representatives of the "corrupt" and "decadent" (taquti) Pahlavi cultural and economic system, or they reported such actions in glowing and approving terms. Testimonies and documents compiled after the fall of the Shah also established a clear link between the arsonists and the anti-Shah clerical leaders (Nateq 1987:17–19; Sreberny-Mohammadi and Mohammadi 1994:145–46; Nabavi 1999). An Islamist functionary, Hosain Boroujerdi, who had been intimately involved in various revolutionary acts of terrorism that had helped bring the Islamic Republic to power, made a more serious charge. Disillusioned with the revolutionary outcome, he later turned against the regime and in a massive book-length confession claimed that the cleric who presided as judge over the Rex Cinema criminal trial, Hojjatoleslam Musavi Tabrizi, was himself one of the architects of the Rex Cinema fire and had personally directed the arsonists (Boroujerdi 2002:91–94).

Abadan and the nation were both transfixed and transformed by the Rex Cinema tragedy. The event immediately became a potent rallying cry for the anti-Shah forces and for Abadan, with its large force of skilled oil workers, which was galvanized into action and joined the protest movement. Revolutionary slogans reverberated throughout the city during the funerals and memorials, which were attended by hundreds of thousands: "The killer of our dear ones must be executed"; "No to misery, no to contempt, only freedom, freedom"; "Canons, rifles, and machine guns are powerless against us." Other movie houses had been destroyed in Tehran and Tabriz, but without casualties; it was the massive scale of the Rex Cinema crime along with the tragedy and surrounding ambiguity that transformed the destruction of cinemas into a key symbolic act against the Shah, during whose reign, as Ayatollah Khomeini claimed, Western sex and violence had turned the movies into an imperialist technology to "spray poison," corrupting people's minds and values (1981b:188).

Some postrevolution fiction films featured Rex Cinema in their narratives, notably Khosrow Sinai's city film, In the Alleys of Love (Dar Kuchehha-ye Eshq, 1990), in which a young man returns to his hometown of Abadan after the war, but is undecided about whether to resettle there (fig. 2). Several documentaries dealt with this pivotal event. Alireza Davudnezhad's A Report on Abadan's Rex Cinema (Gozareshi az Sinema Rex-e Abadan, 1978–79), is an eighty-minute film which contains interviews with survivors and footage of the charred cinema auditorium and projection booth. Masud Navai's film Abadan's Rex Cinema (Sinema Rex-e Abadan, 1979–80) contains an important interview with Takabalizadeh, an interview that was used as evidence in the trial against him, as were scenes of Davudnezhad's film. Both films were shown by television networks.

This volume deals with cinema and film industry during the transition from the Pahlavi state and cinema to an Islamicate state and cinema (chap. 1), the filmic documentation of the revolution and its immediate aftermath (chap. 2), and the consolidation of the Islamic Republic regime and the film industry structures, censorship regulations, and narrative regimes (chap. 3).

Islamicate values, whose hold on the population deepened with each revolutionary act, played a significant part both in the material destruction and symbolic violence against the movie houses and film industry of the Pahlavi era as well as in the constructive and contestatory attempts to create a new cinema and film industry from their ashes.

* * *

Islamicate Values and Cinema

Anti-cinema feelings ran deep, particularly among religious strata. The clerical elite subscribed to what might be called a "hypodermic theory" of ideology and cinematic effect, whereby, similar to Althusser's formulation (1971), the exposure to dominant ideology and cinema would cause interpellation, transforming autonomous and ethical "individuals" into dependent, corrupt "subjects" of that ideology and cinema. Four samples of such a formulation of cinematic othering, from the beginning, the middle, and end of the twentieth century and covering the span of this book, suffice. Shaikh Fazlollah Nuri is said to have condemned Tehrani's Cheraq Gaz Street Cinema in December 1904 because it showed images of unveiled foreign women in public and because he allegedly considered film to be the satanic work of "polluted foreigners." These reported objections to cinema were in line with Nuri's general critique of modernity as a "contagion" in his published pronouncements. Mojtaba Navvab Safavi, a leader of the fundamentalist Islamist group Fadaiyan-e Eslam in the 1950s, called cinema, along with other Western imports (such as romantic novels and music), a "smelting furnace," which melts away all the wholesome values and virtues of a Muslim society (1978:4). Ayatollah Khomeini linked cinema directly to the onset of corruption, licentiousness, prostitution, moral cowardice, and political dependence. According to him, cinema and other manifestations of Westernization (theater, dancing, and mixed-sex swimming) "rape the youth of our country and stifle in them the spirit of virtue and bravery" (n.d.a.:194). If Nuri's metaphor for cinema was medical (contagion) and Navvab Safavi's industrial (smelting furnace), Khomeini's, in his book Kashf-ol Asrar, was sexual (rape). Indeed, Khomeini was a proponent of the hypodermic theory, using the term "injection" (tazriq) to describe the dire and direct effects of Westernization. Updating his predecessor Khomeini, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei claimed in the 1990s that the West "injected" its corrupting culture into Iran, "not with a hypodermic needle, but with radio and television, fashion magazines, advertising, and ballyhoo" (1994:17). Injection theory would soon become part of the new regime's counteroffensive against Western cultural invasion and imperialism.

Despite this hypodermic formulation of the effects of motion pictures, these leaders did not consider cinema's ideological "work" alone; rather, they rightly viewed it in the context of the overdetermination of Westernization and modernity in Iran, and as a component of mediawork. This view considered, however crudely and instrumentally, the intertextuality and crossfertilization of society's signifying institutions. The chief drawbacks to these religious formulations were their hypodermic conceptions of Western media-work in general and of cinema in particular. Foreseeing as the only possible outcomes of contact with Western mediawork and cinema identification with the West and alienation from the self, they elided the possibility of resistance by modern, individualized Iranians—secular or religious—capable of independent subjectivity as well as of other mitigating local social conditions, frames of knowledge, and practices. In addition, they disregarded the competitions among cinema and the other media and the specificity of each medium's unique ideological and technological work. As a result, they posited a homogeneous and hegemonic mediawork and culture resulting from the introduction of Western media and modernity, which Khomeini called the "culture of idolatry" (farhang-e taqut), which was said to be imposed on, or injected, from above and from without—primarily from the West—onto the helpless and hapless autochthonous Iranians. However, as I have amply demonstrated in volumes 1 and 2, the cultures of spectacle of both Pahlavi periods were neither homogeneous nor monolithic. They were subject to the play of various contesting formations, to whose emergence the state contributed. As will be seen in volumes 3 and 4, the Islamic culture of spectacle that the ayatollahs tried to foster, likewise, turned out to be full of contingencies, contradictions, and countercurrents.

Throughout the history of the Islamic Republic, its leaders praised Iranians for being a "performative nation" that readily and publicly displayed its support for the regime and the culture it imposed and inculcated. However, a performative nation, even one that is ideologically committed, requires a masterful stage manager and cheerleader. The Islamist regime proved to be one such masterful manipulator, exhorting the nation to support its causes and facilitating its emergence onto the stage of history. It is in this context that the characterization of the Islamic Republic regime by the dissident exile, writer, and psychiatrist Gholamhosain Saedi as "the government of show" makes good sense (1984b). More astute and more adept than the Shah's regime at organizing public spectacles in which the populace had a stake through grievance and injustice and by which it had venues of expression and participation through Shiite religious doctrines, myths, narratives, iconography, rituals, and performance tradition, the Islamic Republic was able to turn Iranian life and history into powerful, self-serving theatrical spectacles: taziyeh passion plays, chest-beating, self-flagellation, head-cutting, religious chanting and music, Friday prayers and sermons, and massive street demonstrations and marches in which participants wore Islamic headbands and white shrouds of martyrdom. In the process, and assisted by the state coercive apparatuses, the regime masterminded and certain segments of population participated in a vast orchestration of emotions, irrationality, cult of leader worship, sadomasochism, collectivism, monumentalism, preference for perfection and idealism over realism, and transformation of sexual energy into spiritual and political force—what Susan Sontag in discussing Leni Riefenstahl's spectacular films for National Socialism, The Olympiad (Olympia, 1938), and Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens, 1935), called "Fascinating Fascism" (1980). However, as in the Pahlavi era, beneath the surface show of unity and spectacle, stage-managed by the Islamist regime and its ideological and coercive apparatuses, lurked dark waves of division and discontent, awaiting suitable conditions to surface.

It is also significant that both Navvab Safavi and Khomeini entertained the idea of adopting cinema provided it was done "properly" and "ethically." In rare passages they both spoke about this. Navvab Safavi said,

Movie houses, theatres, novels, and popular songs must be completely removed and their middlemen punished according to the holy Islamic law. And if the use of motion picture industry is deemed necessary for society, [then] the history of Islam and Iran and useful material such as medical, agricultural, and industrial lessons should be produced under the supervision of chaste professors and Islamic scholars observing the principles and criteria of the holy religion of Islam and then shown for education, reform, and socially wholesome entertainment. (1978: 11)

Khomeini spelled out a similar theme, years later, on his triumphant return to Iran after the fall of the Shah, in February 1979. In Tehran's giant Beheste Zahra Cemetery, in his first post-exile speech, he announced: "We are not opposed to cinema, to radio, or to television.... The cinema is a modern invention that ought to be used for the sake of educating the people, but as you know, it was used instead to corrupt our youth. It is the misuse of cinema that we are opposed to, a misuse caused by the treacherous policies of our rulers" (1981a:258). These passages do not speak of proscription or destruction of cinema—or of modernity, for that matter. Rather, they advocate the adoption of cinema to combat the Pahlavi culture and to usher in an Islamic culture, consisting of what they repeatedly called "Islamic values." In fact, soon after Khomeini's speech, in many cities, including Shiraz, exhibitors hung large banners outside their movie houses and below pictures of the ayatollah, carrying some of these words like a fatwa reauthorizing cinema and moviegoing.

However, the culture the state has promulgated is not strictly "Islamic," emanating directly from the core precepts of Islam. Instead, it is based on the specific traditions of Persia, associated not only with Islam, but also with other ethnoreligious peoples on the Iranian plateau. I speak of it as "Islamicate culture." This is not to belittle Islam's enormous historical contribution to Iranian culture, but to recognize the mutual contributions of Iranian culture and Islam to each other. As Marshall Hodgson formulated it, "Islamicate" refers not directly to Islam as religion, but to the "social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims" (1974:59). Thus, the difference between "Islamic cinema" and "Islamicate cinema" would be that between a cinema that is about the religion of Islam and its tenets, characters, and stories, and a cinema that is made in a predominantly Muslim country, such as Iran.


Excerpted from A SOCIAL HISTORY OF IRANIAN CINEMA by Hamid Naficy Copyright © 2012 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Illustrations xi

Acknowledgments xiii

Organization of the Volumes xxi

A Word about Illustrations xxvii

Abbreviations xxix

1 Transition from "Cinema of Idolatry" to an "Islamicate Cinema," 1

2 Documenting the Uprising, the Revolution, and the Emerging Opposition 47

3 Consolidating a New "Islamicate" Cinema and Film Culture 115

Appendix 189

Notes 195

Bibliography 217

Index 235

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