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“The Grandest Orphan Cinema”: Ehsan Khoshbakht on MoMA’s “Iranian Cinema before the Revolution, 1925–1979” Series

A woman kneels before in a woman in a wheelchair in an opulent room.

Starting with a packed house on the night of October 13 and concluding right after Thanksgiving, MoMA showcased “Iranian Cinema before the Revolution, 1925–1979,” the largest retrospective of Iranian cinema ever held inside or outside of Iran. With close to 70 films covering the pre-revolutionary period, there were works from Iran’s most famous filmmaker, Abbas Kiarostami; the most famous film of this era, the late Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cow; and repertory favorites like Ebrahim Golestan’s Brick and Mirror, Bahram Beyzaie’s Downpour and Forough Farrokhzad’s The House is Black. But, significantly, there were also films by lesser-known but just as vital filmmakers such as the Iranian Hitchcock, Armenian-Iranian Samuel Khachikian (Anxiety) and Masoud Kimiai, whose banned and politically censored The Deer had a rare screening as it was intended to be seen. One of Iran’s most popular actors, Parviz Sayyad, had one of his directorial efforts shown, the harrowing Dead End. Sohrab Shahid Saless, the most influential filmmaker of this era, had three films, including the masterpiece Still Life. Filmmakers who were important figures beyond their directorial work, like Bahman Farmanara and Farrokh Ghaffari were also represented. 

Putting this together was quite a feat. To that end, I spoke to the individual most responsible, the co-director of Il Cinema Ritrovata, Ehsan Khoshbakht—who had his documentary about this era, Filmfarsi, also shown in the series—in a wide-ranging conversation to place everything in its proper context. 

Filmmaker: What’s your background and how did it relate to putting this retrospective together?

Khoshbakht: My background in architecture informs what I do. Like a piece of architecture, I always think of the retrospective’s foundation, the main structure, facade, the ornamentations of all the different films, as fading into different architectural prescriptions that I have in mind.

Filmmaker: So you see it as somewhat of a design project?

Khoshbakht: Very much, just like entering a building for the first time. How much is the height of the ceiling the moment you enter? If it’s 250 cm, there is a feeling; if it’s 300, it’s a completely different feeling. How are the audience going to be influenced under this perspective? How are they going to go out? What’s the circulation? What’s the movement? 

In this program, for the first time in the history of retrospectives of Iranian cinema, there are arthouse films or we say in Iran, “Cinema-ye Motafavet,” shown next to popular films, or “filmfarsi.” There are documentaries, fiction films, short films, animation films, commissioned films, industrial films, educational films, newsreels and also films made by non-Iranians about Iranian subjects and films made by Iranians abroad. 

I co-direct a film festival in Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovata, which is a festival of film history, film restoration. So, the idea of preserving the history of Iranian cinema is another major concern of mine on a daily basis. How can more films be made accessible? How can films be made accessible in decent-to-ideal copies? You have seen the entire range of that in this MoMA show, from absolutely fantastic, first-rate restorations of films to copies that are decent enough to be screened, because that’s the only way we can see Tranquility in the Presence of Others or Gheysar. It is important to include them. I’m not going to wait forever until we could get hold of a print to digitize or restore it. It is important to have the entire picture there, even though some of the bits are out of focus, some are blurry, some are not in ideal condition.

Filmmaker: How hard was it to find these films and then convince the people who I imagine own the rights to these films to allow you to screen them and show them? I imagine for many, many reasons— having a diaspora, and the nature of our people—it must have been a very challenging ordeal.

Khoshbakht: I have worked on many different projects, including directors whose films have drifted into oblivion. I’ve had to deal with Hollywood studios, different archives around the world on different retrospectives. This was, perhaps, the most challenging work for me, and I think my colleagues at MoMA would confirm that as well—if not the most challenging for them, then one of the most challenging because of all the issues involved, mostly political. This is a cinema, and a period in film history, to which access has been largely blocked. Those bits to which access has not been blocked is in the hands of the state in Iran, which is under severe sanctions. Tracking down the rights holders, the estates of the filmmakers (many of them have passed away) is a nightmare. There are many logistical issues. Information hasn’t been there; we gathered information for the first time. 

Even though I worked with my colleagues on this for more than a year, from my end, I’ve been working on this for at least eight years. In 2015 I started gathering information about prints, initiating restoration projects and, most importantly, gaining the confidence of Iranian filmmakers. The latter meant that I had to convince them my work would be beneficial to them, to better understanding and appreciation of their cinema. Did all of them trust me? Many did—not all of them of course, because it’s a country affected by many drastic changes over the past 50 years and people have lost many things, including the sense of trust and hope. It’s been a very challenging process, at points nightmarish. The simplest things can get so complicated for no reason but, this was the largest retrospective of Iranian pre-revolutionary cinema ever, inside or outside Iran, since the 1979 revolution.

Filmmaker: These films are very difficult if you don’t have an awareness of Iran. Even for me, it is challenging because there are so many subtleties, so many complicated parts of our country as far as ethnicities, class, traditions, that in many way are very subtle, and they are also in conflict, so it’s hard to really grasp the full meaning of them. One question I’m going to ask you is a question interviewers usually ask at the end but I’ve noticed usually get terrible answers to because [the interviewee is] tired. As a British Iranian, what does this retrospective mean to you?

Khoshbakht: I don’t know what it means for me as a British Iranian, but it means a great deal to me as someone who has, in a way, dedicated his life to cinema. Finally there is this great opportunity, in at least in one major Western city, for people to see one of the grandest, most dazzling, most fascinating, crazy chapters in film history, which remains largely unwritten. Where it is written, it is full of inaccuracies, presumptions, and [shaped by] the lack of access to the material. Now, this is it: look at this country, look at its people, and you will see beauty, ugliness, excitement, boredom, despair, hope—the entire range of humanity that exists in any other place. 

You referred to the fact that many of these films need contextualization. I agree with you. They have an advantage: that no matter how oblique the message is, the film is visually rich. The experience of watching the film, regardless of connecting with its different layers of meaning, context, subtext etc, is often very rewarding. I have learned from some of the greatest Iranian filmmakers—like Ebrahim Golestan, who passed away earlier this year at 101—that we have to do our job and do it right. I’m not concerned with our image.

Filmmaker: Because the films speak for themselves?

Khoshbakht: They do but, there’s something more important. I have confidence in Iranian culture. I don’t have to defend it, I don’t have to glorify it, I don’t have to put it on a pedestal. I believe they speak eloquently for themselves. They don’t need me. 

In Bologna, in June, we premiered The Stranger and the Fog. When I was working on the color grading in the lab, I was looking at the film saying, “This is going to blow them away.” I knew that. I was sadistically standing outside of the cinema waiting to look at the faces of people coming out after two hours and 25 minutes of that incredible piece of cinema.

As you said, the films speak for themselves, but they also speak of many different Irans that we are not aware of. We’ve never been there. We haven’t spoken the dialect. We don’t understand the cultural specifics of those regions. It is also rewarding and eye-opening for Iranians. Chess of the Wind, which was restored three years back—well, even Iranians were not aware that the first lesbian scene in Iranian cinema was there. It was eye-opening for everybody. So, again, I believe in these filmmakers, in that country, and that’s why there’s no anxiety in what I do. I know it’s going to work. Of course, you can have your choices, you can prefer, for instance, Shahid Saless to Beyzaie or Aslani to Naderi. You can like a Kanoon film more than a Ministry of Culture film. That’s a question of taste and personal experience. Overall, I think we’re speaking about a very solid film culture.

Filmmaker: My understanding is the Iranian National Film Archive takes reasonably good care of their films. Is that true?

Khoshbakht: They do. They were one of the first members of the International Federation of Film Archives after the end of the Second World War, mostly thanks to Farrokh Ghaffari, whose Shab-e Ghouzi (Night of the Hunchback) was part of the program. Iran has always been very active on that front but, unfortunately, I’ve been told that by the time of the revolution only 30% of the pre-revolutionary films were deposited at the National Film Archive. After the revolution, with the process of destroying the films and the madness of the new regime accelerating, it became more difficult to collect the films, but what they have gathered they have preserved well. They have not necessarily restored many, but they equipped themselves with the latest digital technology. 

The problem, of course, with the Iranian National Film archive, is the ideological side. Even if they preserve Iranian films, they still cannot show many of them. They can’t even lend them to international festivals or cinematheques. This is mostly because of lack of hijab, or when there is a sex scene or a dance number. So, it is true to some extent that the Iranian National Film Archive is well-organized and doing their job. But for this program, it was done totally without the cooperation of the National Film Archive because, again—the United States, Iran, governmental institutions. Out of the question.

Filmmaker: I think I saw a few films where in the introduction it says something about it coming from the Iranian Film Archive, but that’s from prior years I take it?

Khoshbakht: That’s perhaps from having already been deposited somewhere else or scanned in Bologna. For this we didn’t get any prints directly from the Iranian National Film Archive.

Filmmaker: I know in other parts of bureaucratic Iran decisions are often made without rhyme or reason, right? Often times they depend on the mood of whoever you’re talking to. Is that the case with cinema?

Khoshbakht: It is. That’s the way the country functions…or doesn’t function. It’s very irrational, like each individual has a different approach. Of course, it’s very hectic and unpredictable, but it’s mostly because of the lack of trust and fear of repercussions or consequences.

Filmmaker: Last time I was in Iran 10 years ago I went to the Iranian Film Museum. In their gift shop they had DVD collections of various film directors, many of who I wasn’t familiar with. One was Farrokh Ghaffari, which included a documentary where I was astonished by his intellect. Was he influential with films?

Khoshbakht: He was a very influential person in many ways. He was the director of the Shiraz Arts Festival. He invited all those great figures not only in cinema but also in other fields of art. He was the deputy manager of Iranian National Television, he allowed many filmmakers to produce films, he was the head of the Iranian National Film Archive. He started taking the history of Iranian cinema seriously. He wrote books on Iranian cinema, he made his own films, he interviewed older filmmakers. So, he was extremely influential, but he was not that influential as a filmmaker because, unfortunately, most of his films were extremely unsuccessful. The one that remains in its untouched, intact form is Shab-e Ghouzi, which is a wonderful film but we cannot call him a very influential filmmaker.

There was a small group of people in Iranian culture before the revolution who were powerful because they were directly linked to the Pahlavi family in different ways. He was one of them. I say a small group, because there were very few people who actually used it for a good cause: “Ok, I have the power, I can go to the Queen and have a chat with her. Why not do this? Why not do that?” For instance, Lily Amir-Amorjand, the head of Kanoon. These were technocrats who were actually creative, imaginative, who cared about Iranian culture, about people. That was rare in those days because people were, of course, mostly exploiting an opportunity for power.

Filmmaker: Sohrab Shahid Saless’s Still Life especially resonated with my film critic friends. This was interesting for me, because in some ways it’s a less Iranian film, and the ways that it is Iranian is a bit harder to understand, because it partly revolves the son who is working in the south, and the railroad, the change and loss of tradition.

Khoshbakht: But that’s a very Iranian film. Probably you have not experienced life in rural Iran. I’m coming from a small town. I have experience stillness of life in rural Iran. Nothing changes, nothing moves. There’s just a sad poetry in this sense of stillness. It’s a very accurate film in that way but it’s not meant to be accurate or inaccurate. It is about a slice of reality which has then been polished with multiple devices coming from a Bressonian tradition in cinema, and then making it different from Bresson, because if you look at Bresson films they have many cuts. They are fast-paced films. But Shahid Saless turns the film into a painting in time, because it is obsessed with dead space, dead time, dead moments. I’m not surprised your friends were moved by Shahid Saless, because his cinema might look similar to Bresson’s. Saless is the type of filmmaker whose impact on the viewer gets stronger and deeper after the film is over. What he does with you is store certain kinds of information in your head and then the memory of those images and sounds grow bigger. A Shahid Saless movie has an afterlife that’s even stronger than the experience of sitting in the cinema and watching the film for 90 minutes.

Filmmaker: How was he received at the time, both inside and outside of Iran?

Khoshbakht: Unfortunately, his films were not shown in Iran very often. They were only shown at the Tehran International Film Festival, all three of the ones he made after settling in Germany. They were received very well, he won prizes, he was celebrated, but he was also very unhappy. He was an unhappy man in general. The political situation in Iran at the time made him even unhappier. Most of the reviews I have read from that period are positive, but, for a filmmaker, not being shown outside of the festival circuit was perhaps very disappointing. This is one of the major contradictions of Iranian cinema. The necessary infrastructure was not there. Iranian Public Television was co-producing a film like Still Life but there were no cinemas to show it at. The ministry of culture produced A Simple Event but there were no arthouse cinemas to distribute it around the country. That’s very sad. They were doing something very valuable and then completely abandoning what could have been the next major effort to make sure that film was going to be seen.

Filmmaker: Yes, there’s so much of this, where it’s such a simple fix but it’s just not done. It’s incredibly frustrating. I don’t know where this comes from.

Khoshbakht: The lack of education. We don’t train people. If you have cinemas, you have to train your projectionists to treat the prints with respect. That hasn’t been the case in Iranian cinema. The government should have taken responsibility: “Each of you should come and have this certificate to prove you can handle film.” This could have saved many more films if projectionists were treating films better.

When I say this, I’m referring to one of the most expensive, best-funded festivals in the world. The Tehran International Film Festival, in the ’70s, invited William Wyler from America, showing a Wyler retrospective. Prints went from Hollywood to Iran. When these precious prints were returned they were damaged—there’s a new book about it by my friend Kaveh Askari from the University of California Press (Relaying Cinema in Midcentury Iran). In that book, Kaveh has unearthed documents showing that many of those prints were so badly damaged that Hollywood studios asked the Iranian government for compensation, because the festival was organized by the Ministry of Culture. So, the Minister of Culture himself wrote back to the Hollywood studios apologizing and then paying—I don’t remember the exact figures—something like $5,000, plenty of money in the ’70s, for each damaged print. It is stupidity. You spend thousands to have Wyler and Gregory Peck there, all those parties in the Hilton Hotel, and you don’t do the most basic thing: Your projectionist doesn’t know how to handle a print. That’s the Iranian problem in a way.

Filmmaker: I saw that you translated quite a few of these films, but Farsi is very difficult to translate because our language is full of things where, if you translate literally, they don’t mean anything in English. What was your approach with regard to the translations? What was the most important thing you wanted to have people understand?

Khoshbakht: Most of the time, the essence of the conversation or information conveyed. I deal with films from all over the world, so I’m always very conscious about subtitling, following certain standards in terms of the number of characters. Most of the time I don’t really go for translating cultural references. I go for the simplest version of that dialogue in English because we only have three seconds to read it. It would be counter-productive to try to add information to that. I often go for some tiny details which would hopefully reveal something for an audience member who is more attentive. For instance, in Chess of the Wind there is a police character, “Bazpors.” Of course, you can say “inspector,” but I didn’t translate it as inspector. I translated it as “commissar,” because I wanted to convey this piece of information: in the 1920s, the setting of the film, the military and police in Iran were using a Russian model. You can also see that in the uniform, a kind of ghazagh (cossack). However, some of the films are almost poetry or prose poetry. When it comes to Golestan, that is very challenging. In these cases I usually work with the filmmakers—I worked in collaboration with Golestan to get what he actually wanted, get it right, get his approval. Then you have the very rare case of musical numbers in films like Doroshkechi (The Carriage Driver), where they’re basically jiving but also rhyming and it’s beautiful.

Filmmaker: Raghse-ye Shahr (Dancer of the City) is half a musical.

Khoshbakht: Oh yeah, for me the rhyming thing was very important, to get the songs to rhyme in the translation. For that, Kaveh helped me a lot. He’s very good. I always joke with Kaveh—he’s the head of the film department at Michigan State University—“If you ever wanted to abandon academia, you would have a wonderful career in filmfarsi as a songwriter.” If you want to compare a modern translation with totally embarrassing contemporary translation just have a look at the copy of Downpour by Beyzaie, which is a translation from the ’70s. It’s been subtitled in Lebanon and it’s inaccurate, messy and selective. It translates one line and then decides not to translate the next one which is equally important. Unfortunately, in the ’60s and ’70s—not only in Iranian cinema, in many non-English speaking, non-western world film industries—subtitles were very inaccurate. Iran would usually send films to Lebanon. Those who were very lucky would send them to France and that was, perhaps, a bit more accurate, but even the old subtitling work of films by Ebrahim Golestan, done in France, of films like Brick and Mirror, are not accurate at all. So, for the first time you see that not only in its complete form, but with a proper translation.

Filmmaker: What’s the difference between a digital preservation and digital restoration?

Khoshbakht: A digital restoration is when you have whatever elements, ideally from camera, some negative or far-from-ideal positive, which was the case with Downpour, and scan them. You remove the dirt, scratches, defects. You create a version which is restored and fully reworked to resemble the original work the way it was intended. It’s a time-consuming, very expensive process. Preservation is just a basic scan of the film with no major clean-up project, no digital restoration. You just preserve it so you can show it. For instance, the print of Still Life is so fragile they would not let MoMA screen it because of the possibility of the film breaking after five minutes, so they had to preserve it.

Filmmaker: All of these films, none are scanned off of video tape right?

Khoshbakht: Oh, no, all from positive or negative. Most of them are from positive. 

Filmmaker: I was really taken with Bahman Farmanara, specifically Prince Ehtejab. Stylistically it took a lot of risks. It was way ahead of its time and its story, for us, is very real, very intense. It goes back to a lot of the stuff you were speaking about earlier. I saw a documentary with him where I saw he had a great intellect and also produced many films in the ’70s that are being screened here. What can you tell me about him?

Khoshbakht: Farmanara is very important for Iranian cinema both as a director and producer. His most famous work is as a director. The Tall Shadows of the Wind is a very fascinating film belonging to a series of films that anticipate, in a prophetic manner, the arrival of the Iranian Revolution. But, as a producer, his career is so underrated. Look at Chess of the Wind—it’s Farmanara. Gozaresh [The Report] by Kiarostami, it’s Farmanara. You look at F for Fake by Orson Welles, it’s him. The biggest box office hit in the history of Iranian cinema, Dar emtedad shab (Along the Night), directed by Parviz Sayyad and starring Googoosh [the most famous Iranian pop star, still around today and doing sold-out concert tours across the globe], that’s him. He has produced some of the most cutting-edge arthouse films, the most popular film in the history of Iranian cinema and co-productions, so many different talents. He has a wonderful business mind. That’s exactly what we have always lacked. I always tell my friends, if someone like Bahman Farmanara had been in charge of the film industry in Iran, all those infrastructural problems we just mentioned could have been solved. He studied in America. He had a vision, he was familiar with the process, everything from production to distribution. Thanks to Mehdi Bushehri [the Shah’s brother-in-law, married to his twin sister, who funded Orson Welles’s The Other Side of the Wind], he was entrusted with running this company but it was very short-lived. What he did in the span of four years is totally remarkable.

Filmmaker: Obviously Kanoon was a big part of this. How would you describe the relationships the filmmakers of that generation had with one another? Were they friends, collaborators in a similar way to the French New Wave?

Khoshbakht: I did a similar program in Berlin, much smaller, and had some Iranian filmmakers join me. The last question I asked every single filmmaker was “was it a wave?” Meaning, as a new wave, was it actually a wave? Almost every single one of them said no. They all rejected the idea of a wave. That tells me something about the Iranian psyche, especially the radical individualism of the Iranian artist that doesn’t want to be part of any group. But when you look closely, it’s insane—of course they were all collaborating with each other, at a level even more unifying than the French New Wave. Look at Amir Naderi: he did the photography for Masoud Kimiai, wrote scripts for Abbas Kiarostami, his films were edited by people like Sohrab Shahid Saless, Kamran Shirdel and Bahram Beyzaie. He made films with scripts written by Mohammad Reza Aslani. Look at Houshang Baharlou: the DP of how many of these films? Look how certain institutions, like the Ministry of Culture or Kanoon, brought a sense of coherent style to these films. There were festivals like Shiraz Arts Festival and Tehran International Film Festival. Go and browse the catalog of any of these festivals, all these films were presented there. It was clearly a “wave” then and it is even more so now. They all reject it, because there’s a sense of resentment about that period—their careers have been halted, they’ve been pushed into exile. There’s been many sad endings in the history of Iranian cinema—look at Shahid Saless, look at Mehrjui. It’s a very sad story.

Filmmaker: The actors in these films—Behrouz Vossoughi, Parvaneh Moussoumi, Mary Apick, Susan Taslimi, Naser Malek Motiei, Forouzan—where were they trained? Because they are all fantastic in these films. It was really a revelation for me, because I was expecting a little bit of idiosyncratic un-evenness.

Khoshbakht: No, wonderful stuff, very nuanced, very charismatic. They were all trained in the school of life, because there were no acting schools.

Filmmaker: Oh! So they’re all untrained? They didn’t have theater backgrounds or anything of that nature?

Khoshbakht: Most of them didn’t. In the case of Mary Apick, I think she did. Vossoughi was a dubber before he became an actor. Nasser Malek Motiei was a school teacher. He was found in the street because he was good-looking. They got better and better; these were self-made movie stars. When you see the two styles of more realist non-actor tradition and movie stars overlap, the result is often very good. One example is Dayereh-ye Mina (The Cycle) by Mehrjoui, because Forouzan acted in it and is brilliant in the film.

Filmmaker: I saw that you wrote about Samuel Khachikian. You described him in your documentary as the Hitchcock of Iran. He was a very interesting guy, very sophisticated, trying things, experimenting from what I gathered.

Khoshbakht: Yeah, he was a master of form. There is not a single shot in his golden period—to me, from 1956 to 1965— that has not been carefully calculated and arranged. He is the master of mise-en-scene. In a sense he is the “total director” of Iranian cinema, to the point of over-directing his films, because he was obsessed with the medium. He wanted to manipulate and control every bit of sound and image in his films with very little resources, so all the soundtracks are stolen from different films. He turned it into this beautiful, hybrid, fast-moving view into an imaginary Iran. It’s not a real Iran, it’s an Iran that an Armenian Iranian fantasizes about: Drive American cars, have subscription magazines, go out with fancy skirts, go to the theater at night and drink coffee. People didn’t drink coffee back in the ’50s, they drank tea, but that’s the Samuel Khachikian version of Iran, which is really remarkable.

Filmmaker: Where do you go from here? What’s next with Iranian cinema?

Khoshbakht: In terms of preserving the past, we need money. The future is going to be defined by money. There are still some films to be restored, preserved, and money is always the main problem. Look, I’m so grateful for people like Martin Scorsese and George Lucas, for all the great things they have done for Iranian cinema, all these totally selfless contributions. But so far I haven’t been able to convince my fellow Iranians that preserving these films is as important as preserving artifacts in the British Museum, such as a piece of stone from 2,500 years ago. These are as important but more fragile. If we don’t do it now, in ten, 15 years, there will be no trace of some of these films. So, for me, just creating awareness, making more films available and trying to enlarge and expand and extend what I did in New York. Hopefully, one day, we could show as many Iranian films as possible through different platform, festivals, cinematheques. That’s my dream vision of the future.

I’m dealing with something which is so vast. We have to take care of this film heritage before things become too difficult to salvage. I’m benefitting a lot from the kindness of many different institutions, but there’s a limit to it. Because Cineteca di Bologna is not there to restore Iranian films. They are there for Italian cinema. They’ve been so kind: “OK, we do it—it’s important because nobody else does it.” Cinémathèque Française does it, but it’s not their job. The money they receive from the government is for preserving their own national cinema. Iranian cinema is in a way the grandest orphan cinema that existed!

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