I’m sure it took a herculean amount of effort to put this new series together, and MoMA curators La Frances Hui and Josh Siegel and guest curator Ehsan Khoshbakht are to be thanked for their work in unveiling an era of cinema that has been too long hidden.
A Bit of Back Story: Beginnings
I was initially puzzled when I saw the dates in the series title: 1925-1979. The second date made sense, of course: 1979 was when revolution effectively destroyed Iranian cinema (a third of the country’s theaters were burned down, and many hardcore Islamists wanted the medium banished forever—fortunately, the Ayatollah Khomeini overruled them). But 1925?
From my perspective, two dates have claim on being the beginning of Iranian cinema. One is 1900. That was when Muzzafar al-Din Shah, one of the last shahs of the Qajar dynasty, saw a movie camera demonstrated in Paris and ordered his court photographer to buy one and bring it to Tehran to shoot films “and show them to our servants.” These royal diversions would have been the first films made by Iranians in Iran.
By 1904, movie theaters had begun opening in Iran, but they showed only imported films for decades. Thus, the other date that marks a beginning is 1930, when Ovanes Ohanian, an Iranian who had studied movie production in Moscow, made the first Iranian entertainment film, an imitation of a popular Danish comedy. Though the 1930s only saw the production of nine films by Ohanian and two other directors, it is essentially the foundational decade of Iranian cinema. (At least two of those features are of enduring importance. Regrettably, the current sanctions prevented the MoMA team from acquiring prints of any 1930s Iranian films. It is hoped there will be other occasions to acquire and present some of these in the future.)
As for the 1920s, there were films shot in Iran then—by foreigners. The most important of these will be on display at MoMA, and it’s one to see. “Grass: A Nation’s Battle for Life” (1925), considered the second ethnographic documentary ever made, following Flaherty’s “Nanook of the North,” depicts the yearly migrations of the nomadic, 50,000-strong Bakhtiari tribe and its views of their harrowing river crossings and other trials are riveting. It was mounted by Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, who went on to make “King Kong.” The two were aided by Marguerite Harrison, an adventuress and former spy; the film’s making, ably recounted in Bahman Maghsoudlou’s book Grass: Untold Stories, deserves a movie of its own.