a separation

Filmmaking in Iran: Comparing National Histories

The film industry’s battle with censorship began following the 1979 Islāmic Revolution, when strict censorship laws were enacted that forbade films to depict couples touching or a woman to appear on-screen without wearing Islāmic garments that hid her hair and body shape.

The [Academy] award was a moment of triumph for a people much abused by their ruling regime at home or else by threats of war and by crippling sanctions imposed on them from outside—by the winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, no less, by a Barack Hussein Obama, of all people!
—Hamid Dabashi, Columbia University

Despite the commercial incentive, main-body films have not gone the way of new Hollywood. Not yet. This is not because Iranian cinema lacks the technical know-how, but because the state cannot tolerate even a shallow attempt at the portrayal of social conflicts. Only the classic Hollywood/main-body style can so effectively block the political will that constantly threatens to seep from reality into films.
—Houman Harouni, The Guardian

Nader and Simin: A Separation (2011)
Rating: PG-13
Running time: 123 min
Director: Asghar Farhadi
Distributor: Sony Pictures Classics (USA)
Country: Iran
Cast: Peyman Moaadi … Nader
Leila Hatami … Simin
Sareh Bayat … Razieh
Shahab Hosseini … Hojjat
Sarina Farhadi … Termeh
Genre: Dramas, Foreign Dramas, Persian Language
Release: Feb 15, 2011, Germany
(Berlin International Film Festival)Sep 4, 2011, USA
(Telluride Film Festival)
Awards: 2012 USA Academy Awards
Best Foreign Language Film
2012 USA Golden Globes
Best Foreign Language Film
2011 Berlin International Film Festival
Golden Bear Award
2012 France César Award
Best Foreign Film


A married couple are [sic] faced with a difficult decision—to improve the life of their child by moving to another country or to stay in Iran and look after a deteriorating parent who has Alzheimer’s disease.

An Iranian husband and wife split up over his decision to stay and care for his aging father instead of leaving the country with his family. But his fateful choice to hire a stranger to do most of the care taking breeds unexpected consequences.

We began our discussion last month by attempting to analyze and express what we have noticed on the topic of foreign filmmaking. This article is intended to encourage us all to step up our efforts to engage with films—and to explore their communication techniques and effects in different ways.

Reading Films

On our very first Movie Night in 2010, we talked about focusing our observation beginning at the opening scene. Then, we discussed the notion that a film is a cultural artifact representing the social and symbolic context of its people.

Last month we compared histories of filmmaking in the national settings in which our 2014 movies were made, thus their differing contexts. We noted that some historical differences relate to political conditions within the countries—among other complexities.

What were their political circumstances? And, were these circumstances similar across countries? If not, what was different? Related to political differences, do we expect that representations of truth or reality in films—concepts of verisimilitude—to be different across international settings?

Continuing our study of foreign films, let’s again compare histories—this time we focus on Iran and compare its history to that of South Africa, France, Argentina, Italy, and Great Britain. Note that Iran was known as “Persia” before 1935.

Comparing Brief Histories in Foreign Filmmaking

Censorship has created serious problems with film production in Iran. As an example, the film, Offside (2006), directed by Jafar Panahi, depicts a group of women who dress up as men to gain entrance to the soccer games. The film had to be shot in secret, which was no easy feat, as Mr. Panahi described to NPR (Erlich, 2005):

Everything is taking place in secret. Nobody knows about it. They were actually hiding in a car, sitting there and shooting, and the actress runs to the stadium to get in. She’s arrested, and she’s beaten up, and they arrest all of them and put them in a car. And I go and tell them that, ‘If you do this, I will tell everyone about it,’ so they finally let them go.

Panahi reported that the lead actor was traumatized by the experience (“Iranian Film Industry”, 2014).

The Beginnings
1900 Persia The beginning of Persian cinema is similar to the origin of cinema elsewhere. The official photographer of the Qajar monarch Mozaffar al‐Din Shah (reigned from 1896 to 1907) purchased one of the first Gaumont cameras in Paris in July 1900—with which he filmed the reigning monarch’s European visit.
1895 France The Lumière brothers showed the world’s first movie in Paris.
1895 South Africa The first Edison Kinetescopes opened to the public in Johannesburg in 1895.
1889 Great Britain The first moving pictures developed on celluloid film were made in Hyde Park by William Friese Greene, a British inventor, who patented the process in 1890.
1895 Great Britain Robert W. Paul and Birt Acres were the first to build and run a working 35 mm camera in Britain. They made the first British film Incident at Clovelly Cottage shortly before a falling out over the camera’s patent.
1896 Argentina Cinema arrived in Argentina soon after launch in Paris—first filmic exhibition showing a picture of the Lumiére’s.

The Silent Period – 1896‐1929

Persia: Introduction of a constitution that limits absolutist powers of rulers. During World War I, Persia declares neutrality when heavy fighting occurs. In 1925, Parliament votes to make Reza Khan ruler, deposing the monarch Ahmad Shah Qajar.

Reza Khan is crowned Reza Shah Pahlavi. Mohammad Reza, the Shah’s eldest son, is proclaimed Crown Prince. Persian‐Armenian filmmaker, Ovanes Ohanian, establishes the first film school in 1925. No Persian film had been made by the year 1929, so the few established movie theaters showed foreign movies, sometimes with Farsi subtitles.

South Africa: The Electric Theatre was established in Durban in July 1909—the first permanent theatre in South Africa. The first “Electric Theatre” for “Colored People Only” opened in 1910.

Great Britain: The Great War interrupted the film industry in 1914.

Argentina: Import of French cameras started and a Frenchman living in South Africa, Eugene Py, became the first filmmaker and cameraman with a short movie, La Bandera Argentina (The Argentine Flag).

In 1898, Dr. Alejandro Posadas initiated surgical cinema by shooting his own surgeries. In 1900, the first theaters especially intended for movie projections opened and the first filmed news reports appeared.

The Golden Age and the Early Classic Period  (from sound to WWII) – 1930‐1939

Iran: Ohanian made the first silent films in Persia in 1930 and 1932. The first talkie, Lor Girl, was made at the Imperial Film Company in Bombay during the rise of modernization policies of the Palavi dynasty and Reza Shah. Reza Shah was the Shah of Iran from 1925 until he was forced to abdicate by the British-Soviet invasion of Iran in September 1941.

The first feature film to use a female performer as a star, Lor Girl was released in Persia in 1933. At the time, it was taboo to broadcast women in film or even on the radio. Persia became known as Iran in 1935.

South Africa: The Capitol Theatre opened in Pretoria in 1931. Afrikaans nationalism was emerging as a force, and Joseph Albrecht’s Sarie Marais portrayed the English/British cultural and economic imperialism negatively (the wish to spread the British language, culture and influence even where they were unwelcome).

Parliament passed The National Censorship Act of 1931, followed by the Entertainment Act, which required all cinematic material be cleared before being shown.

Great Britain: Sound challenged the British film industry’s financial stability In the 30’s. In 1933, J. Arthur Rank founded British National. In 1935, he went into partnership with Woolf to take over Pinewood Studios. Then over‐production gave rise to poor quality films; this in turn opening doors to American industry.

American companies moved into the UK to make quality British films that would qualify them for home market quota. All major film producers started to take over studios. MGM‐British, Warner, Radio, 20th Century Fox virtually swallowed up the failing industry.

Argentina: José Luis Barth’s Tango (1933) was the first film to use sound in an industrial cinema rooted in very distinctive genres, a local star system, and a serialized studio production for an ever‐widening market.

The War Years – 1939‐1945

Iran: Though Iran was neutral, the Allies considered Reza Shah to be friendly to Germany. This leads to British‐Russian occupation of Iran in 1941 and deposition of the Shah in favor of Crown Prince, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi.

South Africa: World War II accelerated Afrikaner nationalism and motivated the movement to produce culturally specific films, and to find expression in a number of Afrikaans‐language films.

Argentina: Three key events in 1940s: 1) Formation of the Associated Argentine Artists Cooperative with a large part of the “intelligentsia” of the period; 2) A crisis in lack of virgin film—a consequence of Argentine neutrality in WWII; and 3) Since 1944, increasing state intervention.

France: Traditional films, heavily censored.

Post War Years – 1945‐1956

Iran: Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi pursued a policy of secularization and modernization, including advances in education for women.

Prime Minister Ali Razmara is assassinated in 1951, and nationalist Mohammad Mossadeq succeeds him. Responding to Mossadegh’s threats to nationalize assets of the British Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the company halts oil production creating a disastrous economic impact.

Shah Pahlavi and President Kennedy
Pres. Kennedy Meets with the Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, 1962

An MI‐6/CIA-sponsored coup in 1953 removed Mossadegh as Prime Minister, and convinces Mohammad Reza Shah to appoint a Prime Minister of their choosing.

Iranian cinema emerged as a key cultural venue to capture the trauma of a betrayed nation.

South Africa: Cecil Kellaway, in 1948, became the first South African actor to be nominated for an Academy Award—for his role in Henry Koster’s The Luck of the Irish. He lost as Best Supporting Actor to Walter Huston in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.  South Africa’s first color film was released in 1951, as was Zoltan Korda’s Cry the Beloved Country, based on the book by Alan Paton and starring Canada Lee and Sydney Poitier.

In 1955, Film Production Facilities Africa, later to be renamed Irene Film Laboratories, was established and the Schlesinger Organization celebrated its fiftieth birthday. 20th Century Fox came on board as a major stockholder.

Argentina: President Juan Perón’s tight control on the media, blacklisting of dissident artists, and a state policy that was too protectionist prompted the end of an era. Peron (1946‐55) used the film industry for propaganda.

France: “Le cinéma de papa” (bourgeois, traditional)


Iran: The Shah embarks on a campaign to westernize the country. He launches the ‘White Revolution’, a program of land reform, and social and economic modernization. The screening of Mehrjui’s The Cow (1969), gave Iranian cinema a wider global audience.

South Africa: The Publications Control Board (Censorship Board) was established in 1963. Truida Pohl’s Die Man in die donker was the first local film directed by a woman. Cy Endfield’s Zulu (1964) was a worldwide success, but the film was banned for black people in South Africa.

1967 began the ‘no smoking in cinemas’ era. South Africa’s first political thriller, Die Kandidaat, questioned the boundaries of Afrikaans identity. Releasing Katrina in 1969, Rautenbach took on the issues of race at a time when it was not easy to do so. In the 1970s, further fragmentation in the industry developed when the so‐called Bantu film industry was created.

Argentina: “Political Cinema” Fernando ‘Pino’ Solanas and Octavio Gettino explored the ideas behind revolutionary Peronism in La Hora de los Hornos (1968), a classic of militant documentary filmmaking.

Post Vietnam War – 1975‐1983

Iran: The Shah’s dictatorship is marked by repression and torture of Iranians. Muslim fundamentalists led by Ayatollah Khomeini ousted him from power in 1979.

Many historians consider the Aug 1978 burning of the Rex Cinema in the southern city of Abadan a trigger that set the Iranian revolution in motion. According to the Washington Post (Bynam, 2007), “four Shiite revolutionaries locked the doors of the Cinema Rex in the Iranian city of Abadan and set the theater on fire.”

South Africa: Jamie Uys’ The Gods Must Be Crazy was released in 1980. Set in the Kalahari, the film is about how life in a traditional community of Bushmen is changed when a Coke bottle thrown out of an airplane suddenly lands from the sky. Sarafina! (1992), starring Leleti Khumalo, Miriam Makeba, and Whoopi Goldberg, tells the story of the 1976 Soweto uprisings. Shot on site in Soweto, the film grossed $8 million (Rand 19.2 million) in the US.

Argentina: The last infamous military dictatorship, Argentina’s “Dirty War,” heavily censored (propaganda) filmmaking. By 1973 to 1974, the last term of Pres. Juan Peron, with a democratic government and a stable economy, Argentine cinema had achieved great reviews and box‐office successes.

However, after Peron’s death in 1974, his third wife Isabel led the country for “two tumultuous years before being deposed in a military coup.” With the junta in ’76, wide‐scale repression of the general population was carried out; it especially worked against all political opposition considered on the left: trade unionists (half of the victims), students, intellectuals including journalists and writers, rights activists, and their families. Many others went into exile to survive and many stay in exile today (despite the return of democracy in 1983).


Iran: 1980 secret US military mission to rescue hostages in Iran ends in disaster. Exiled Shah dies of cancer in Egypt, but hostage crisis continues. Amir Naderi’s Runner (1985), shot while Saddam Hussein was bombing Iran, and Bahram Beizai’s Bashu: The Little Stranger (1986), set in the war‐torn Iran, pushed Iranian cinema into global limelight—the same war that gave Iran the Oliver Stone of Iranian cinema, Ebrahim Hatamikia.

Jafar Panahi emerged as the filmmaker of post‐war instability. His activities put him in prison and banned him from filmmaking for 20 years. In 1995, President Clinton imposed oil and trade sanctions on Iran for alleged sponsorship of “terrorism,” seeking to acquire nuclear arms, and hostility to the Middle East peace process.

South Africa: Black feature films (made by white producers with black actors for black audiences) reached an all time high in 1985. The first gay‐themed film, Quest For Love, was released in 1987. By 1997, South Africa, and particularly Cape Town, had become an increasingly popular destination for foreign film commercials.

Argentina: The 1989 Argentine economic crisis with hyperinflation ended new dreams based on return of democracy. Argentine producer‐directors having become dependent on state subsidies or foreign co‐productions, filmmakers held new hopes based on a law passed in 1995, which requires video and television to make financial contributions to the Argentine movie productions.

Brush Up on Your Geography

Now, here’s your chance to brush up on geography and find Middle Eastern countries on the map. If you  see that you need to work on this a little more, Lucy suggests visiting the geography games on the Sheppard Software website.


Bordwell, D., & Thompson, K. (2003). Film art: An introduction (7th Ed.).  New York: McGraw-Hill.

Bynam, D. (2007, May 6). The Rise of Low-Tech Terrorism. The Washington Post. http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/05/04/AR2007050402550.html

Dabashi, H. (2012). Iranians and their cinema: A love affair. Aljazeera. Retrieved from https://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2012/03/20123584823523724.html

Erlich, R. (2005, Aug 3). Making movies under the eye of Iranian censors. NPR. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4783800

Farhadi, A. (Director/Writer) (2011). Nader and Simin: A Separation [MOTION PICTURE]. Iran. USA: Sony Pictures Classics.

Harouni, H. (2013, Feb 8). Why the Iranian film industry is like Hollywood before 1969. The Guardian. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/world/iran-blog/2013/feb/08/iranian-film-industry-like-hollywood

Innis, H. A. (1951). The Bias of communication. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: University of Toronto Press.

Iranian film industry thrives amid continuing censorship. (2011, Oct 1). Record. Retrieved from https://www.newsrecord.co/iranian-filmindustry-thrives-amid-continuing-censorship/

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2012). A Dictionary of film studies. London: Oxford University Press.

Kuhn, A., & Westwell, G. (2012). Dictionary of film studies companion website. Oxford Reference. Retrieved from https://www.oxfordreference.com/page/film

Middle East geography quizzes – fun map games. (2014). Sheppard Software. Retrieved from https://www.sheppardsoftware.com/Middle-east_Geography.htm

Panahi, J. (Director/Writer). (2006). Offside [MOTION PICTURE]. Iran: Jafar Panahi Film Productions.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.