Import/Export – The impact of philosophy on Iranian film literature

On occasion of the publication of Deleuze`s Cinema-1 in Persian

Babak Geranfar

To write a history of something is to form a narration, to give it a voice that carries the reader through the story. Though that thing and its circumstances turn out to be boring and obtrusive, that few bookworms and old academicians are end up to be the only customers. The writer of this text is not old nor academician and moved to write a text as such. A text even ten times boring and obtrusive than what an elite reader would have expected from my opening lines. But my motives are very clear: Working on the subject of Film-Philosophy and the crisscross relations between them in an unusual country, took me to the stage that every attempt to study them under serious circumstance turns out to be enchanting. My enchantment was maximized when I realized Deleuze`s Cinema-1 is translated and published in Iran. No that he is a core figure in this line of studies, but the outcome (of the translation process) which has a well-structured (given the numerous new concepts) and lucid Farsi (due to the lofty language of the original text) looks promising. Another ray of hope is that the usual time gap between the translations of important (now classic) western philosophy texts to Persian has been shortened to two decades (That’s approximately the typical time our scholars in human sciences, following the tail of the trends and schools of their western counterparts – Heidegger`s Being and Time has been translated to Persian nearly two years ago). Alas, this narration hopes to shorten this time gap even more, whether my story ends up being very personal and my observations to be very sketchy. This is my best and foremost motive. Forgive me for such an obvious “I” and my neglectance in writing an all-inclusive history:

Before The Revolution: Heralds and Pioneers

First serious Iranian film writings goes back to a short period after constitutional revolution in “Iran-e No” [1](The New Iran). “Cinema as a vehicle for civilization” shows that the introduction of new imagery to that society was a tricky business from the beginning. The first wave of criticism based upon the contrasts of old and new started in late 1920s. In 1930, Etela`at Newspaper printed: “There are two kinds of pictures capturing Iran: One is taken by Iranians as part of spectacular sceneries such as parades and national festivals. The second kind is taken by foreign institutions, capturing bad behaviors and ugly architectures and dark sides of Iranian society.” In November 21th of 1933, Iran Newspaper published an expanded criticism of “Dokhtar-e Lor” (Lor Girl) emphasizing on that contrast again: Lor Girl, apart from the subtle cinematography in envisioning eastern spirit and spectacular landscapes, has some other aspects which made the audience cheer up for the recent developments and progressions of the country.” In February 1st of 1934, a columnist in Ete`laat newspaper wrote another one on “Haji Agha: The Cinema Actor” in which he emphasized on the technical problems and boring subject.

In May 15th of 1934, Iran Newspaper published a review – presumably by HoseinGholi Mosta`an[2] – on “Bol-havas” (Nympho) produced by PersFilm, which might be the first piece legitimizing the act of criticism. It describes the features of a good movie implying the features of a good film criticism. It also studies the moral and social theme in the movie, and its affect on the audiences. The review concludes on the natural beauty, technical principles of the cinema, the sequence of shots and photography of Nympho. This decade ends with the emergence of Toghrol Afshar, and Mim-Mobark (Farrokh Ghaffari) two heralds of Iranian Film Literature.

Ghaffari, is one of the first Iranians who theorized originally on film. He started the analogous application of western film theory with Persian poetry and literature. He found the similar tactics of soviet montage in the assonances and alliterative expressions of Shahnameh.

Afshar was heavily influenced by Belisnki`s thoughts; “The literature is a tool to fill in the gap between the intellectuals and masses, emphasizing on the social and moral issues.”

In October 28th of 1952 he signed a manifest against the audiences alongside with Farhad Farvahi, Hooshang Kavousi and Mohsen Movahhed. Kavousi came out to be the most prolific, controversial and influential among them. He was returned to Iran in 1954, after graduating from IDHEC and Sorbonne (by the time we had about 25-30 original Iranian movies) and wrote his first piece in the Roshanfekr (Intellectual) Magazine, titled “What Should Be Known Of Cinema” on the Iranian Cinema: “… and the national cinema: The scenarios are vulgar comedies accompanied by non-sense numbers and annoying music. There is no mise-en-scene or director whatsoever. The camera steps up for them…” He did his reviews every week on foreign movies released in Tehran. This reviews often included a brief story and obvious snap judgments such as “good montage and stunning cinematography”. But he is mostly known for coining the term “Film-Farsi” a decade later to address the vast amount of the philistine movies made between 1963- 1969. The term is not a defined concept; rather a neology stands as one of the few examples of the way Deleuze describes philosophizing as creating concepts. It draws a fine line between films and movies and played a decisive role in the contemporary Iranian film literature to suppress the anti-intellectual interests of Iranian film culture and its crowd-pleaser instances. Film-Farsis has been described as “low-quality movies for audiences who were becoming addicted to such fare, losing any taste or demand for anything different.” It is characterized by its mimicking of the popular cinemas of Hollywood and India, and its common use of song and dance routines. Back in 1954, the year is equally important, because “Setareh-e Cinema” (The Star of Cinema) one of the most eminent and important Iranian film journals was born in February 17th and lasted until 1979.

It brought up a generation of film critics who lasted in the mind of Iranian readers; Parviz Davaei, Bahram Reypour, Parviz Nouri. They were more interested in the translation of pieces on Hollywood stars, rarely engaged in heavy criticism. In one of the rare articles of the magazine, anonymous piece got published, named “Some Words about Art News and Reviews” which certainly is – or have to be admitted for sure as – the first Iranian meta-criticism of film: “… On the other hand readers can`t find a good and proper criticism of a movie or an artist. It`s all about sexuality of stars and so on…” In 1959, Parviz Nouri has been appointed as the editor of the magazine, and it was then the infamous interview of Cahiers` editorial and Hitchcock about Vertigo and North by Northwest, has been translated into Persian by Bahram Reypour. It has affected the majority of the critics for next decade, especially Parviz Davei.

In the April of 1957, Nazerian has founded “Film va Zendegi” (Film & Life). It is the first to publish the translation of foreign reviews permanently. From the December 1964, the editorial of Setareh-e Cinema got together and Parviz Davaei, Houshang Baharlou, Bahram Reypur and Jamshid Arjmand started again. In February, Parviz Davaei opens up a column called “Which Film to Watch” in Ferdowsi magazine.

Davaei is the most important and influential among them, who wrote more than tow decades and affected generations. He translated – his favorite filmmaker – Truffaut`s book “Hitchcock” into Persian. One can say he is the example of Truffaut`s quote “Anyone who doesn`t like the life goes to the movies”. He carries this bitter taste in his writings, especially in “Phenomena Called Film-Farsi”, one his lyrical rhapsodies formed as a response to Kavousi`s brutal attacks on mainstream popular Iranian cinema. In a letter to Jamshid Arjmand in 1967`s end year`s critics poll he wrote: “In choosing this line of work, one finds himself in a garbage can, understands its much ado for nothing”. He was not totally wrong about it. His Influence goes further into Iranian filmmaking industry (especially on Masoud Kimiaei), and formed a trend, which is now called “The New Wave”[3]. Although he wasn`t the lone ranger. Ebrahim Golesan, Fereydoun Rahnama and Farrokh Ghaffari were the other unique intellectuals, which became influential alongside him.

Fereydoun Rahnama – another Sorbonne-graduated Iranian – was the first one who created film-essays. His movie “Siavash dar Takht-e Jamshid” (Siavush in Perspolis), won Jean Epstein’s Award in Locarno Film Festival for the development of the language of Cinema in 1966. Henri Corbin in a lecture in Paris in February 6th of 1966 called it enchanting, and Henri Langlois called it one of the greatest movies in the history cinema. His treatise “Realism in Film” (written in French in 1957) published in 1972, and became influential in legitimizing the scholarship of movies. He also suggested some Persian synonyms to cinematic terms, which are still in use, but never was a simple journalist.

In a critic`s poll held in 1994 by Film Monthly[4], Parviz Davaei and Kioomars Vejdani held the second and third stages after Shamim Bahar, voted to be the first among the Best Iranian Film Critics of all the time.

Though Shamim Bahar wrote no more than 10-12 film criticism and only some reviews under the title of Film Guide, his delicate approach put him in the frontline of Iranian film criticism. He was very blunt and subtle in his writing, trying to works his way through analyzing form and content simultaneously. An original kind, who valiantly criticized even foreign critics and started the tradition of giving footnotes to accompany his arguments. He published the first series of Film Study books in 1973, called “Cinema52”, including translation of books on Welles, Antonioni and Goddard.

70s was the decline of the magazines, and newspapers were stepping up for that. Bijan Khorsand takes the responsibility in Rastakhiz (Resurrection) newspaper and trains Omid Rouhani, Davoud Moslemi and Behzad Rahimian, who then became the prominent critics of Iranian art world.

There is another Iranian figure, which is still, absent in my story: Fereydoun Hoveyda, which practiced in the international scene of film theory and later translated to Persian. Hoveyda was a frequent contributor to Cahiers du Cinema from 1955 to 1965. In 1953, he met two major film critics and Theorists of the 20th Century:  André Bazin and François Truffaut, his protégé. They offered him to write in “les Cahiers du Cinema”. At the same time the monthly “Fiction” gave him a column on cinema. In a passage in Cahiers, he wrote:

“Confronted by all the pitfalls that beset film criticism … we just ask ourselves about the usefulness and justification of this strange activity, which allows you to claim the right to state publicly what you think about a film. Let me have recourse once more to a quotation. One can apply to filmmakers what Merleau-Ponty says about writers: ‘We who speak do not necessarily know better what we are saying than those who listen to us.’ To the extent that criticism also ‘speaks’, this remark applies just as much to it. What this does is open out a space for the ‘criticism of criticism’ or – which comes to the same thing – for ‘self-criticism’. But it is time I stopped.”[5]

He became one of the crusaders of Auteur Theory, and elaborating they infamous mise en scence hands in hands with Rohmer and Rivette. In a famous piece on Nicholas Ray`s “Party Girl” he wrote:

“It is Ray’s mise en scene that recreates this invisible presence, through an astonishing use of color and decor, by an exaggeration of atmosphere (as in the opening sequence at the gangster Rico Angelo’s party), by the excesses of the set decoration (Rico’s apartment is crammed with showy furniture and oppressively draped with heavy fabrics), by the intrusion of garish costumes, etc. These overbearing interiors, overflowing with gold and crimson, refer us back to a past epoch. I don’t want to lapse into a facile chauvinism, but I owe it to myself to point out the heaps of Persian carpets, the miniatures which make up the design of the upholstery on the gangster’s armchair and, opposite it, the photographs of dance-girls in their richly gilded frames.”[6]


Post-Revolution: Let the show begins

The Iranian Revolution changed the whole scenery of Iranian art world. The young revolutionaries were against the cinema at the beginning. They called it vulgar, promiscuous and flamed their revolution by tearing down the theatres in Tehran and other cities, most notably Rex Cinema in Abadan. They stopped with Ayatollah Khomeini`s famous speech: “We are not against cinema, we are against prostitution”. He instanced Dariush Mehrjui`s Cow as his ultimate model of the cinema, thus started a trend of Provincial Iranian movies, which its successors achieved top honors in the following decades. His infamous quotes legitimized the art form, and represented it as Halal to his religious believers. Despite the fact that Ayatollah Khomeini`s fatwa was to be respected for his believers, self-righteous advocates of the old world used every thing to hold back the new. They resisted western human sciences by justifications they were providing with religious obscurantism. The film were perceived as Western Technology, and the conjoined literature wasn`t immune to the charges of pesudo-westernism. Thus the young revolutionaries founded an institution to think and produce the ideal cinema for the newborn revolution. Farabi Cinema Foundation took on this task from 1982 and chose a strategy, which later became popular as the triangle of “observation-direction-protection”.[7] The conflict of Old and New, has refigured itself in the dualities of East and West, Islam and Modernity. Fakhrodin Anwar and Seyed Mohammad Beheshti –the founding fathers of Farabi – instanced few directors which was lucky enough to considered legit from religious authorities and also support their anti-Hollywood agenda; Bergman, Deryer, Bresson and Tarkovsky became the superstars of new Iranian Cinema, and women majorly vanished from the silver screens. Abbas Kiarostami was the phenomena who owes much of his early success with “Where is the friend`s house?” to such a circumstances.

In the meantime, the “Film Monthly” was born 1982; starting with the title of “Cinema in Video”, the magazine changed its name to “Film” form its second issue, and became the most influential film magazine of the Iranian history. It gathered the dispersed writers of Iranian cinema after the revolution, and summoned some scholars such as Kavousi, Babak Ahmadi, Aydin Aghdashloo to work hand in hand. Ahmadi who later became one of the most popular scholars of western philosophy in Iran, wrote his now famous essays on Bresson and Tarkovski in “Film Monthly” between 1982-1989; Published as three books, they are among the few original books ever written on the relation of philosophy and film in contemporary Iran. [8] He later composed another one on the hermeneutics and semiology of images with an interest on cinema. In his books, Ahmadi – who was deeply obsessed with continental philosophy and aesthetics – played the role of a vanishing mediator. He introduced the key figures of modern, and postmodern philosophy and reflected upon the theological themes of European filmmakers mentioned above to give an alternative to naïve ideas of the theoreticians of new governmental cinema. He was the first one who emphasized on the importance of method and approach in working on the field, and opened the vast window of interpretation to them.

In January 1987, Farabi published a film journal to theorize its agenda, that later became the most important theoretical film journal in contemporary Iran. In the first issue of “Farabi Journal” there is an interview with Dr. Reza Davari Ardakani – a prominent ideologue and Islamic philosopher – in which he tries to elaborate this new identity: “whenever we talk about art and philosophy, we say art means to entertain. But if the art become a tool of entertainment, it is dead”. Davari, who is a traditional philosopher of Sophia Perennis trend, following the footsteps of his mentors – Seyed Hossein Nasr and Seyed Ahmad Fardid – goes further and suggests “to achieve an Islamic movie and Islamic art, first we need to establish an Islamic world… an Islamic artist is the one who practices to reach this world and manage such an achievement. Then he would be ready to serve the Islamic world.”

Seyed Morteza Aviny – who later martyred documenting the demining of Iran-Iraq war – was another figure who appears in this issue; in an essay titled “Some Considerations on Cinema” he wrote: “To found a world based on Islam, we have to regard Islam with a certainty based on faith, and regard western civilization and its products in the lights of this faith. Owning this knowledge, we would be ready to set ourselves free of the dominance of western civilization… though I do not believe that the term Islamic cinema is correct.” He later expanded his theories on movies, and established another thesis on the ontology of film, based on his interpretation of Islamic philosophy and Heidegger`s account of technology, called “The Mystique of Cinema”:

“From the beginning of the new era, that is in renaissance, the basis of the new thinking was relied on the Greek philosophical thinking. And what is present to us owes its existence to the historical development of that, thus we are in need of philosophy. Many of the present naïve conceptions are due to this lack of knowledge. One who reflects on west without its philosophical basis couldn`t investigate the essence of it and consequentially doesn`t realizes the importance of our fight with them… when we say West we also consider the eastern block; Marxism and Communism are the manifestations of that substantial thinking present in the west. These are all the fruits of the l’humanite tree.”[9]

Surprisingly enough, despite most Iranian theoreticians, he posed the most important question of philosophy of film: “what is cinema?” but the answer he gave to that question involved a mixed misunderstanding caused by essentialism and historical determinism:

“ One of the usual ways to know the essence of something is to know the historical becoming of that thing… if it were not to answer the question of “what is cinema?” or the history in general, what was the use of reading history of cinema? …Thus we read the history of cinema to achieve the essence of cinema. The potential talents and properties of a thing will be actualized and manifested in that historical becoming of the thing. The outcome of the innovation of photographic and cinematographic camera was not clear from the beginning. What happened in the history of the cinema to turn it into something we have today? Are the debates on the introduction of the sound irrelevant to the essence of cinema? … Humans found some features in the cinema to fulfill their needs, and to satisfy that needs made the phenomena what it is today. What we know today, as “cinema” is a result of such historical trajectory. Therefore that historical trajectory and essence of cinema are internally related… The first feature humans found in the cinema was entertainment and wonder, that is the first response humans made to the cinema was a sense of “wonder”… if we study the history of the evaluation of cinema we understand the properties humans found appropriated to its historical periods. That property become essential to cinema… It remains no choice for us to believe that “cinema” is a combined thing, and it has to be analyzed into its components and their form of being.”[10]

In an exclusive piece, written for Farabi on the occasion of its foundation (in the second issue of the journal) Peter Wollen put some words on theorizing in film: “Scientifically speaking, there is always an obvious danger to institutionalize film theory, which is to separate it from the practice of filmmaking. I do believe now that it is not easy to unify them, but I also believe that there would be bridges and interactions.”

From the next issue, the first translations appeared and the vast amount of unnoticed movements introduced to Iranians; especially the Grand Theories of 70s. But it was in 1997, and Khatami`s surprising election as the president, that the real boom begins. The journal reappropriated; with Dariush Norouzi as the new editor-in-chief, and quarterly publication. In his editorial to issue 27, he wrote: “Our cinema had its own ups and downs in different period, but Film Theory was never studied systematically, permanently and seriously…most of our articles are translations here, and this preface is an explanation to something we are forced to do it. It is a plea for our excuse.” And disappointedly adds: “I hope we won`t need translations in Film Theory unless we have no other choices.” Andre Bazin`s “What is Cinema?” and David Bordwell`s early books were translated and published in Farabi.

In 90s, a generation of young Iranian critics took over and established new criticism of film. Kambiz Kaheh, Majid Eslami, Saeed Aghighi, Hasan Hosseini was the heralds of this new era. The obvious influence of new Film Theory, especially David Bordwell`s then famous theory of Neo-Formalism, became evident in their works in Film Monthly, Naghd-e Cinema (Film Critique) and Donyaye Tasvir (Picture World). But in facing Neo-formalistic approach of film criticism, Iranian critics lacked the philosophical support to know and study cognitive sciences: a problem, which is still unresolved for them in working on the analytical branch of film-philosophy. In Majid Eslami`s groundbreaking book “The Concepts of Film Criticism” Neo-Formalism is understood as the newer version of Russian formalism in literary theory.

With the rise of zizek and his circle, the Iranian scholars rapidly translated their books into Persian; Lacan, Zizek, Badiou and Ranciere became the new superstars. The side effect was that everybody stick to Agamben instead of Foucault, Lacan instead of Freud, Copjec instead of Mulvey, and ignored Metz, Perkins and Arnheim theories without even understand it properly. In a controversial book Maziar Eslami published his conversations with Morad Farhadpour – Iranian translator and Philosopher – on Kiarostami based on this new wave of theories; “Paris-Tehran” argues that in the process of globalization, the West needs a kind of cinema to showcase East; a voice which can stand up against the hegemony of Hollywood. They believe his cinema is not different, but “Formally speaking, his cinema has the excesses of the dominant cinema in west, and recycle them under the context of provincial countries to feed it back to the market… The eastern filmmaker – instead of giving an independent and different image of his world – change himself to be compatible to the desire of The Other, who is the superior western counterpart; A western critic`s point of view”[11] To confirm this argument they charge his cinema to be politically neutral, and his movies to affirm the dominant ideology by using provincial locations, and excluding women. They believe he intentionally uses the elements of censorship in the form of movies. As an alternative they compare him with Sohrab Shahid Saless thematically and stylistically, and authenticate him over Kiarostami.

Hasan Hosseini applied film theories in his books and lectures, and created two brilliant books on Horror movies and Italian Giallo; “Taste of Fear” is first original Iranian book on the Theory of Genre. It opens with some essays on the concepts of that theory and applies it to the rest of the essays on horror movies and its subgenres. “Made in Italy” is the other book, which uses the same method to study Italian Giallo cinema. He later expands his love and affection to the mainstream movies in 4 DVD set lectures on Film-Farsi. His defense of that cinema uses Genre Theory and Structuralism, and goes beyond sentimental rhapsodies and intellectual hatred of the early contenders to formulate them as a legitimate genre in the history of Iranian cinema. A theory that is simultaneously expanded by Omid Rouhani with recognizing Iranian War movies of the 80s as the second originally Iranian genre.

Here Comes The Deleuze

Deleuze became fashionable with Kambiz Kahe`s brilliant translation of the first chapter of “Cinema-1” in 2006[12]. But the whole book translated to Persian this year by Maziar Eslami. His book is not a history of cinema per se but, to use his own words, a “taxonomy, an attempt at the classification of images and signs”. Deleuze chief guides, Charles Sanders Peirce and Henri Bergson are not popular among the typical Iranian readers of philosophy. Though the translation of “Cinema-1” may also provide them with the Deleuzian approach to these key figures. It will also introduce his criticism of Saussurean, language-oriented semiology of French film theory, above all Deleuze’s Bergsonian approach may convince Iranian scholars to translate Bergson`s works.

Deleuze divides images and signs into two broad categories, movement images and time images; “Cinema-1” is devoted to the movement-image and the classic cinema, “Cinema-2” to the time-image and the modern cinema. He believes philosophy and the arts are both modes of creation, but philosophers create with concepts, whereas artists create with sensations. And his theory of cinema turns out to be “not ‘about’ cinema, but about the concepts that cinema gives rise to”. So, in Deleuze’s cinema books, we face an exercise in opening philosophy’s conceptual practice to cinema’s “new practice of images and signs”. An exercise Iranian practiced in creating new concepts such as Film-Farsi and reactions to that mode as The New Wave; An exercise that formulated two different Iranian blocks of movement-image as two legitimate genres; An exercise that the writer of this closing lines – still young and non-academician – hopes to reinforce by composing this shattered pieces together.

[1] I`m heavily indebted to Mohammad Salim-Jou`s summarization of the history of   Iranian film criticism. See “History of Iranian Film Criticism” in Etemad Newspaper- August 22th of 2007.

[2] Mosta`an is the infamous translator of Les Miserabls into Persian.

[3] The first wave of Iranian new wave cinema came about as a reaction to the popular cinema at the time that did not reflect the norms of life for Iranians or the artistic taste of the society. It began in 1969 and then ended with the beginning of the Iranian revolution in 1979. The films produced were original, artistic and political. The first film considered to be part of this movement is Darius Mehrjui’s “The Cow” (1969). Other films considered to be part of this movement are Naser Taqvai’s “Peace in the Prescence of Others” (1969/1972), which was banned and then heavily censored upon its release, and Sohrab Shahid Saless’s “A Simple Event” (1973) and “Still Life” (1974). For more information see Parviz Jahed`s invaluable anthology “Directory of World Cinema:Iran”. Intellect ltd. 2012

[4] The most immanent Iranian film magazine started from 1980, working until now.

[5] “Autocritique”, in Cahiers du Cinema, July 1967

[6] “Le Reponse de Nicholas Ray”, in Cahiers du Cinema 107, May 1960

[7] I must appreciate my gratitude to Dariush Norouzi –former editor-in-chief of Farabi Journal – for our continuous dialogues, which formed the brief history of Iranian Theoretical attempts after the Islamic revolution. And Mohammad Baiat`s invaluable article in Kheradnameh: On Philosophy of Film (Hamshahri addendum), Ed: Babak Geranfar –No13.14 – 2006.

[8] “The wind blows wherever it pleases: Thoughts and Films of Robert Bresson”- 1983 – Faryab Pub. “Regained Hope: Andrei Tarkovski” – 1987&1989 – Film Magazine Pub.

[9] “The Mystic of Cinema” is the title of Aviny`s Lectures in Farabi Cinema Foundation in 1990.

[10] Ibid.

[11] “Paris-Tehran: Kiarostami`s Cinema – Dialogue between Morad Farhadpour and Maziar Eslami”, Farhang Saba Pub. 2008

[12] Organon Philosophical Journal (exclusive on Contemporary Film Theory). No 25. 2006.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s