Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution Review

AKA: L’Iran: Un Revolution Cinematique
Genre: Historical Documentary
Year Released: 2006
Distributor: Icarus Films
Origin: France/Iran/Switzerland/Italy/Finland
Running Time: 98 minutes
Rating/Recommended Audience: 13+
Related Films/Series: N/A
For Fans Of: This Is Not a Film, Feet in the Carpet, Brick and Mirror, Bruise
-The original Red Envelope Entertainment/Netflix DVD was used for this review.
Fun Facts:
-This documentary is the first full-length work from Iranian-French director Nader T. Homayoun. He was born in Paris, but he lived in Iran during his tenure as a film critic and journalist in his adult life before returning to France. Some of his other works consist of Tehran, It’s Coming Soon, and Golden Wedding.

-Music Fan Bonus: In one of the archived footage scenes involving an audition of actors singing, one of the English-singing prospects is singing the first verse of “Tom’s Diner” by Suzanne Vega of all things. Yes, it’s the 90s song with the “do do do do-dodododo” chorus. That song has been covered by Britney Spears, but it was famously sampled in the song “Centuries” by Fall Out Boy a little over 20 years after it was released.

-One of the directors interviewed as well as featuring archived footage of his movies was Dariush Mehrjui. He’s one of the filmmakers who helped kickstart the Iranian New Wave cinema movement with his most notable work being The Cow which is featured in multiple sections of this documentary. Some of his awards consist of the Silver Hugo from the Chicago International Film Festival, Golden Seashell from the San Sebastian International Film Festival, and the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award at the Diorama International Film Festival and Market.

I’ve certainly been on a roll with documentaries this month. I’ve been versed in reviewing a plethora of topics such as parasports, music, human rights, cooking, African history, and art to name a few. Oddly enough, I’ve never covered a documentary involving film history involving a whole country’s cinematic scene. For someone with a film and media background myself, I feel a bit ashamed. There’s certainly This Is Not a Film as an autobiographical docudrama about Jafar Panahi, but that was of the moment when it was filmed. Luckily enough, he gets briefly featured in this review because I watched something involving Iranian film history. That country has been through so many chaotic things for over a century with being colonized, having a revolution to overthrow the Shah, having new sociopolitical as well as religious rules, and human rights issues. However, they certainly have talented movie makers such as the aforementioned Panahi, the late Abbas Kiarostami, or the France-based animator/director/graphic novel artist Marjane Satrapi whom I’ve covered their works on Iridium Eye before. Now that I think about it, I didn’t learn anything about Iranian cinema let alone the works of the Middle East at large during my university days. At least I can still be free to learn about world cinema history even though I already have a degree.

Will this cinematic history lesson be worthy enough to learn?

Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution deals with the history of Iran’s film throughout several decades and how it tied into the events going on in that country. In the early 20th Century, Iran was under British rule and Western influences affected everyday life there. However, the leaders were bought and paid for by Western powers and oppressed the millions of people who lived in the Western Asian nation. Even some of the movies that did come from Iran usually came from immigrants and not so much the locals. The films imitated Western shows and movies by having images of opulence and lavish lifestyles despite the vast inequality going on. It really didn’t help that the dictator known as the Shah paraded around with luxurious caravans almost like he walked straight out of a fairy tale movie. His oppressive regime faced a massive uprising from the Iranian public which forced him to leave the country during this bloody revolution. He was replaced by Ayatollah Khomeini who recently came back from exile and lead the Islamic Republic. During this time, Iranian filmmakers made various films as a reaction to the Western-influenced works with movies involving realism including extreme poverty. During the post-Shah rule, there were laws implemented to make sure the films were compliant with the culture as well as their perception of Islamic values. Numerous directors kicked off the New Wave period with realistic cinema, poetic storytelling as well as a poetic sense of cinematography, emphasis on the underclass, and even minimal or omission of (GASP!) the male gaze in the filming. The themes reflected the times regardless who was in power, trying to live in a post-colonial realm, facing censorship, trying to film during the Iran-Iraq War, and eventually getting some recognition with international film circuits. This documentary consists of archived footage from several movies and interviews from numerous directors or journalists.

Before I saw this documentary, the only Iranian directors I’ve heard of were Panahi, Kiarostami, Satrapi and Mohsen Makhmalbaf. The only reason why I’ve heard of that last one was because of Kiarostami’s Close-Up movie where he was name dropped as part of a plot point in that film, but I have never seen any of his works. I was exposed to so many names who were interviewed, mentioned, or even seeing the clips from these older films. There was so much to glean and I certainly questioned my own expertise on world cinema even if it was confined to just one country here. There were some things I noticed about Iranian movies (mainly Panahi and Kiarostami) with the realist filmmaking, poetic filmmaking, and also an immensely lacking amount of violence in these films. I know I’m repeating a talking point from my Hikaru no Go review, but this also applies to this situation. I’ve seen Disney movies way more violent than a ton of stuff I’ve seen from Panahi and Kiarostami which is a shocking amount of stark contrast when you look at both sides and that’s not even counting American mainstream movies. It was fascinating hearing about the ideology with how Persian culture was more poetry-oriented with various oral traditions (Hey, Iran has a claim to Rumi) as opposed to an image-based style of stories growing up. Makhmalbaf gives his two cents on the matter by saying the lack of violence in Iranian cinema had a dualistic effect. On one hand, it shattered the stereotypes from the West assuming everyone was a terrorist or some radial Muslim by just showing people living life in several of these films. On the other hand, these types of movies are considered “safe” since they could be shown in so many festivals and they wouldn’t inspire any revolutionary activity like how the Western-backed Shah was overthrown by the masses in the 70s. It was good getting both praise and healthy criticism for these themes. Also, I laughed really hard when Makhmalbaf said the only good thing about the iron grip of the government in the film industry is that it banned Hollywood movies since it dominated the movie scene at large worldwide and gave false hopes to the audience. Not excusing the governmental overreach, but he’s not wrong about Hollywood. I was inspired by the interview where once their movies started getting traction in the film festival scene, the Iranian public felt confident and saw themselves in a good light. That is why positive representation is important as it can help with self-confidence when people of certain ethnic groups see themselves as well-written protagonists as well as the creators being from the same group making these movies for the right reasons. The film production did rely on a lot of archived footage, but I wasn’t bothered by it. The original footage also did the job and there was actually a creative usage of both movie scenes and newsreels. One stunning example was alternating scenes of the Beehive movie where a man is trashing a gaudy bar and real life footage of the Iranian revolution where it shows police brutality against unarmed citizens, the masses fighting back, and buildings being destroyed while the film’s soundtrack plays in the background seamlessly. It really puts the themes of the time into full perspective. The history and cinema ideologies were quite riveting and certainly stepped my international film knowledge game up.

Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution could go back to the editing room at times. There were some weird subtitle inconsistencies going on. Some of the archived footage already had English hardsubs that were partially blurred out so the DVD subtitles could be superimposed there. From some of the subtitles I could decipher, I can tell the dialogue was a bit inconsistent with the wording even if they had the same messages. There were some typos that I noticed occasionally and they weirdly spelled Tehran the French way (Teheran) when they describe the city. A vast majority of the original footage were just interviews. The content of the interviews were just fine, but I would’ve liked to have seen some extra B-roll or images of then-2006 Iran mixed in. Going back to the interviews, there was a massive gender imbalance with those scenes. There was a grand total of ONE female interviewee and that was Rakshan Beni-Etemad. She did get a decent amount of time talking about her experience as a female director as well as dealing with rampant censorship for her movie Nargess since one of the lead characters was an aging prostitute, but there should’ve been more women talking about the movie scene there. Iran certainly has gender issues which I certainly won’t deny (see my reviews of Offside and to a lesser extent The Iran Job which cover those issues), but they could’ve gotten some more female representation whether it’s filmmakers, critics, and especially actresses since I know there’s a big amount of them there. Have you seen Shirin? That had over a hundred actresses in that one and only one of them wasn’t Iranian. Those were things that I personally would’ve changed for this particular documentary.

This was a very informative and solid watch as far as film history documentaries are concerned. Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution blends the sociopolitical history quite well with the film history of Persian cinema. There was a healthy amount of interviews and exposure to so many classic films coming from that country. Seeing the ideology and the reactions to society at the times was very educational. However, the subtitle errors and a severe lack of female interviewees did hamper this a bit. I would certainly recommend this to fans of cinema outside of Hollywood especially that of Western Asia.

Adjustable Point System:
-Add 1 point if you like Iranian cinema.
-Add 1 point if you’re a fan of film history.
-Subtract 1-2 points if you aren’t a fan of world cinema.

-Good usage of archived footage
-Highly insightful, yet educational material
-Accessible to people not familiar with Iranian geopolitics or world cinema

-Subtitle errors
-Very little original footage besides the interviews
-Extreme lack of female representation for the interview scenes

Final Score: 8/10 points

Content Advisory: Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution should be okay for teens and up if they’re interested in the subject matter. There is newsreel footage of violent uprisings and the footage does get bloody as well as showing dead bodies at times. There is some violence in some of the archived footage as well as mild language. As far as sexuality is concerned, there is discussion of prostitution with the Nargess movie, Iranian movie theaters being burned down during Khomeini’s reign with some of the reasons involving porno flicks being shown in those establishments at the time, and there is a scene with full frontal nudity from the movie Under the Skin of the City. One scene in that movie that’s talked about, but not shown is how the main character pleasures himself on an airplane. Some serious topics such as violent uprisings, colonialism, war, poverty, censorship, mental health, and religious fanaticism are all mentioned or shown.

-Curtis Monroe

All photos property of their respective owners and used under US “Fair Use” laws. Iran: A Cinematographic Revolution is property of Icarus films. The DVD cover is from Amazon and is property of Icarus Films.

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