Iranian Cinema before the Revolution, 1925–1979

October 13, 2023 – November 30, 2023
Museum of Modern Art

11 W 53rd St
New York, NY

Cherike-ye Tara (The Ballad of Tara). 1979. Iran. Written and directed by Bahram Beyzaie. Courtesy the filmmaker

Cherike-ye Tara (The Ballad of Tara). 1979. Iran. Written and directed by Bahram Beyzaie. Courtesy the filmmaker

The most comprehensive survey of Iranian pre-revolutionary cinema ever assembled in North America, Iranian Cinema before the Revolution features rediscoveries and rarely seen classics made between 1925 and 1979, an immensely creative and tumultuous period in Iran’s history. Spanning the 50-odd years between the rise of the Pahlavi Dynasty in 1925 and the 1979 Islamic Revolution, this survey traces a national cinema still largely unknown in the West.

This selection of close to 70 features and shorts offers a radical reappraisal of Iranian cinema, shedding light on the work of filmmakers like Ebrahim Golestan, Forough Farrokhzad, Dariush Mehrjui, Sohrab Shahid Saless, and Masoud Kimiai. Their work, and that of many others, is distinguished by its provocative blurrings of fact and fiction, observational documentary and fanciful storytelling, neorealist use of nonprofessional actors and performers, and ingenious wielding of allegory, elliptical narratives, musical counterpoint, and other poetic means.

Some artists made original, even experimental films with the financial support of government agencies like the Center for Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanoon), the Ministry of Culture, and Iranian National Television, while others worked outside such official institutions. Further still outside the mainstream were those intending a sharp critique of society. Many of these films have never before been seen in New York, and some are presented in new preservations that restore missing or censored scenes. While much of the censorship took place after the revolution in 1979—some of these films haven’t been screened in their original versions in years or even decades—a number of essential works were altered, banned, or confiscated before the revolution, including two masterpieces from 1974, Dariush Mehrjui’s The Cycle and Masoud Kimiai’s The Deer, the latter presented for the first time in New York with its original and alternate endings.

The series includes films made during the silent and early sound periods, shot by non-Iranians in the region, as well as post-WWII genre movies—including crime thrillers and melodramas—from the period of Iranian cinema known as filmfarsi. A rich selection of films by Golestan is presented, including his landmark Brick and Mirror (1964). Other highlights include Farrokhzad’s masterpiece The House Is Black (1962) and Bahram Beyzaie’s The Ballad of Tara (1979), a film that was indefinitely banned in Iran upon completion. The story of the years leading up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution is one of cross-pollination, and this series maps in rich detail the important lineages among the filmmakers above and influential figures like Abbas Kiarostami, Amir Naderi, Parviz Sayyad, Mohammad Reza Aslani, Bahman Farmanara, and Nosrat Karimi, among many others.

Regardless of their political beliefs and activities, many Iranian filmmakers shared the same fate after the 1979 revolution: they were banned from making new work or were driven into exile. Some continued to make remarkable work abroad, while others would return home in the 1980s and ’90s to replant the seeds of rebirth for Iranian cinema. This exhibition of pre-revolutionary cinema will fill an enormous gap in our understanding of what led us to the Iranian cinema of today and indeed will open our eyes to what has always made the Iranians such brilliant and exciting moving-image storytellers.