At the 1995 Telluride Film Festival, legendary German director Werner Herzog pronounced, “What I say tonight will be a banality in the future: The greatest films of the world today are being made in Iran.” Indeed, the Iranian New Wave is now widely regarded as one of the most distinctive and vital national cinemas. It is a cinema fraught with tensions and contradictions: fervent nationalism with equally fervent social criticism; competing Persian, Islamic and Western values; conflicted views of women; strong mores and government-imposed censorship alongside a fertile tradition of Persian linguistic and visual imagery, creating a rich, symbolic film language.
Although film was wildly popular at its introduction, the industry to support it did not begin to flourish until the end of World War II. Dariush Mehrjuyee’s The Cow (1969) hearalded the arrival of the New Wave. Marked by social consciousness, expert craftsmanship, and a strong sense of directorial authorship, its films contrasted sharply with “Filmfarsi,” popular escapist films relying on dance, melodrama and violence. By the early ’70s, Iranian film was commercially mature and qualitatively competitive.
Censorship by the citizenry and the government has been a consistent reality. As early as 1907, theaters were shut down by the Shah or destroyed by the public, largely due to religious opposition. Under Allied occupation, Iran heavily censored films. Strikes, pacifism, indecency and anti-Islamic views were all verboten; even depictions of poverty were sometimes stricken.
Increasingly sure of his regime’s stability, the Shah allowed for slightly more social criticism in the ’70s. Filmmakers worked with a new generation of activist writers who spoke out against social injustice and government oppression. They valued humanistic ideals and Persian tradition.
However, hard-line Islamists viewed film as corrupting both viewers and actors, especially women. And they saw the industry as supportive of the Shah. Consequently, during the Islamic revolution, many theaters were destroyed (one fire killed 400), and a number of filmmakers fled the country. The new government implemented harsh restrictions: many filmmakers were jailed on corruption charges and, of the over 2,000 Iranian films reviewed, only 252 received exhibition permits. Many films were cut, resulting in confusing narratives; this lead to censorship by magic marker—literally blackening offending parts of each frame.
Filmmakers adjusted by making war films and films revolving around children. They generally avoided any references to Islam to keep from unintentionally offending censors. Women were largely excluded, due in large part to uncertainty about what was allowed. In 1982, the government codified its film regulations, largely centered on rules of decency. Ironically, this opened the door for women in film. So long as those standards were met, they posed no apparent threat. In the decade that followed the revolution, more women directors emerged than in all of the previous eight decades.
Writers and directors incorporated various degrees of symbolism and ambiguity to tell their stories. The Institution for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults became home for many of the New Wave’s leading directors: Abbas Kiarostami, Bahram Baizai, Amir Naderi, Reza Alamzadeh and Sohrab Shahid-Sales. Children on film were afforded more realistic interactions, and subtle allegories and metaphors were easier to get past censors. The government restrictions also created an anti-realistic tone. Overly formal language was used; interactions were markedly desexualized. All of this taught Iranian audiences to look for deeper meanings, and helped solidify the reputation of Iranian filmmakers as adepts of the cinematic language.