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A Persian Perspective: Documentary Films in Iran

By Kamal Bahar

From 'The Lovers The Victims' (2004), a documentary by Kamal Bahar and Mohammed Ehsani.

Iran is a country where the cultural, social and political landscape has experienced one of the most overwhelming challenges of the last millennium. The history of cinema and documentary in Iran was started in the court of squirarchy.

Aside from the opening of cinema to the public in Iran in Tabriz in 1900 and Tehran in 1904--the first available document about documentary film coincides with the first camera purchased by the Qajar king, five years after the invention of the cinematograph, in June 1900. This Gaumont brand cinematograph was ordered by the official photographer of the royal court, Ebrahim Khan Akkasbashi, in August 1900 to make the very first documentary films of Iran.

Naturally, with that start, the first documentaries of Iranian cinema were made by the government to make the royal court happy. Ebrahim Khan filmed the activities and attractions of the court: Islamic religious ceremonies, lions of the royal zoo, the king riding his horse or walking with clowns in animal masks and costumes, Cossacks exercising, donkey riders racing down a treed avenue, the flogging of the court dwarf, and the back and forth driving of a streetcar. These films were found in Golestan palace in 1982.

Subsequent to these filmed records, filmmakers such as Khan Baba Moutazedi documented other landmarks in Iranian history: Opening of Iran Constitutional Parliament, Reza Shah's Coronation, Opening of Iran Railroad and Opening of National Bank of Iran were all made in 1925. That same year, American filmmakers Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack traveled to Iran to make Grass: A Nation's Battle for Life, about the painful, annual passage of the Bakhtiyari tribe in search of food and water.

In 1940, Reza Shah, the first Pahlavi king, established the first official censorship organization, Organization for Culture of Public Opinion. But censorship has always impacted Iranian cinema, and it has pushed documentary filmmaking toward a kind of subtlety.

During and after World War II, filmmakers from the Soviet Union and many western countries made many documentaries in Iran. The presence of these filmmakers ushered in the new era for Iranian documentary films, beginning in the early 1950s, through the mid-1970s. Among the highlights of that era was Esmail Kooshan's Dr. Mosadeq in a Trip to America (1951), the first Iranian documentary made in color. Amazingly, documentary films of Iran were internationally appraised and awarded long before Iranian fiction films: Ebrahim Golestan's A Fire 1958, Marlik Hills 1963 and Wave, Coral and Granite screened at film festivals in Venice, San Francisco and Pesaro, Italy, in the 1960s; Forough Farrokhzad , the famous Iranian poetess and the first female documentarist (The House is Black, 1962 ), earned considerable acclaim; and Mohammad Faroughi premiered his The Dawn of Jedi, 1963 at the Cannes Film Festival. In 1973, A. Zabeti Jahromi was honored at the International Festival of Students of Cinema in New Delhi for Night Journey.

Documentary Education

In Iran, learning cinema by means of academic studies started almost at the turn of the 20th century. But in March 1951, US-based Syracuse University, as part of its "Point Four" plan, sent 10 academic filmmakers to Iran. They made some short films for teaching and training purposes. These films were about traditional handicrafts (carpets and rugs), environmental control (drinking water, drying swamps), preventive medicine (trachoma, fungal infections of the scalp) and agriculture (sugar beet and animal husbandry). In this period of time, the first training courses for cinema started in January 1954. The American filmmakers trained some students in seven different branches, some of whom are still working in cinema. Now, there are more than a dozen states and private centers for those who want to study cinema and filmmaking.

In 1963 the Academy of Dramatic Arts was established in Tehran. The academy offered courses in dramatic literature, playwriting and art direction in cinema and theater. Students interested in cinema were trained in fiction film, but the academy also offered a directing course in documentary.

In 1967 the first graduates of cinema continued in TV productions and feature films. (State TV was launched in 1969, two years after private TV station Sabet Pasal made its debut). One of the first graduates from this academy who started documentary filmmaking was M. Asgari Nasab ( Sadeh Celebration, 1971).

In 1970 the College of TV & Cinema, a national radio and TV-affiliated institution, began to train students for cinema, and in their last term, students were required to take a course in documentary filmmaking and submit a documentary film for graduation.

All colleges and universities were shut down after the 1979 revolution, including schools of cinema and theater. Some schools eventually re-opened, under different names: The Academy of Dramatic Arts was now Art University of Iran. At that school, documentary education had expanded to two separate special courses--History and Techniques of Documentary Film, and Practical Documentary Filmmaking.

Four years after the revolution, in 1983, College of TV & Cinema changed its name to IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting; College. IRIB offered majors in film editing, cinematography and film and TV direction, and 14 years later, added a graduate course in cinema. In February 2005, IRIB will introduce two courses in documentary filmmaking: Direction of Documentary Film, and Documentary Film Production.

There are some private schools or special training courses for cinema too, such as Tehran Film School. In 1994, The Arts School of Tarbiat Modarres University started an academic course in animation filmmaking. Vladimir Tarasov, a known Russian director of animated films with 35 years of experience in production and teaching animation, collaborated with this department.

Some professional organizations such as Iranian Young Cinema Society (IYCS; offer training courses in filmmaking, where students learn camera techniques, scriptwriting, editing and photography.

Organizations for Documentary Film

In general, it takes a long time for many different syndicates, guilds and societies to be established for people involved in filmmaking; some are more than 25 years old. But societies for documentary film activists are younger. In the past 10 years, two societies have been organized for documentary film exclusively: Society of Documentary Film Directors, in 1997, and the Association of Iranian Documentary Producers (AIDP; in 2000. The mission of the latter is to promote "the business and art of documentary film production in Iran."

IYCS was established in 1974 to "improve cinema culture" of young Iranians and organize an annual international short film festival for further production and distribution of films. Now, there are about 50 IYCS centers in different cities of Iran. Over the past three years alone, about 700 short films (including documentaries) have been produced, in DVcam, Betacam, 16mm and 35mm formats. Some of these films won international awards.

Farabi Cinema Foundation (FCF; established in 1983, and its activities cover most aspects of cinema and film industry. FCF produces films, gives low-rate loans, supplies raw materials, lends camera equipment, provides post-production facilities, publishes various cinematic literature and sponsors film festivals.

Documentary Film Producers and Distributors

There are two governmental offices that distribute documentary film outside Iran the International Unit of IRIB and the Farabi Foundation.

Approximately 104 companies are registered as film production companies in Iran, and 45 of these are distributors as well. But only two of the companies--Ima Film Tehran and Ravayat Fathare officially entitled to support documentary film production.

In addition, some industrial manufacturers are interested in presenting their line of productions in documentary films, but really as tools for advertisement. Historically, some ministries, such as the Ministry of Petroleum, the National Steel Industry and the Iranian Army, have their own unit of documentation. In the past, there was unit in the army called "audiovisual" that was involved in relevant documentations.

According to a study conducted by the Film Museum of Iran (25 Years of Iranian Cinema: A Selection of Documentary Films by P. Kalantari; February 2004 ), a total of 171 documentary films were produced in the 25-year period from 1989 to 2003an average of six films per year. But this study only monitored official films, not independent ones.

Publications and Broadcast Services

There are books in the Persian (Farsi) language about different aspects of documentary film, but not many. One of the first relevant books is a two-volume book published in 1978 called Documentary Film, edited by Hamid Nafisi. This book is still being used at Azad Free University. Since 1978, about 14 books directly related to documentary films have been published in Iran, either in original Persian, or in translation from other languages.

There are about a total of 32 daily, weekly, bi-weekly, monthly and quarterly publications about cinema and documentary film in Iran today, some of which have been in existence for 25 years, some for less than one year. But these publications may be ceased at any time, due to internal problems or governmental matters.

The only broadcasting service in Iran is IRIB, which is governmental and gives its services through six major national and local (Sima channels 1 to 6) and one international (Jam Jam) TV channel. Sima 4 is the most active in documentary programs.

Film Festivals

Today, there are more than 20 film festivals in Iran, and most of them have a section for documentary films. But International Kish Documentary Film Festival is the most famous one. This festival is held on Kish Island, located in the Persian Gulf. Its audience is practically limited to the number of festival participants (average of 47 audience members in each screening!). Some of the festivals are not held regularly. Themes of the festivals are sometimes limited to special subjects and some welcome all types of documentary film. Recently, the Iranian Society of Documentary Film Makers announced a new documentary film festival in Tehran.

In the last two years, some festivals have showcased documentaries from France (2003), Lebanon and Palestine (2003), Holland (2004) and Switzerland (2004), which were well received by interested audiences.

Acknowledgements: The author gratefully acknowledges the valuable expertise of Dr. Ahmad Zabeti Jahromi about Iranian documentary cinema, as well as comments from Robert Safarian, photos from Homayoon Emami and some relevant material from Mohammad Ehsani.

Detailed contact information for Iranian festivals, press, film production and distribution companies is available from the author at


Kamal Bahar is a documentary filmmaker in Iran, along with his main profession in medical laboratory sciences.