On Thursday, October 13, the Chicago Film Seminar commenced its 2011-2012 season at Northwestern Law School by welcoming Hamid Naficy of Northwestern to deliver a talk on “Early Iranian Cinema’s Production Mode.” Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa of Columbia College provided the response.
This talk centered on Iranian cinema’s silent and early sound period, which Naficy describes as the pre-industrial “artisanal era.” In examining the historical circumstances that gave rise to early Iranian film, Naficy focuses on the unique production circumstances of this national cinema while also situating it alongside other contemporaneous Iranian arts and social structures. From the artisanal era’s outset in 1897, Iranian cinema was distinct from Western national cinemas in its close association with elites and royals rather than the masses, a connection that would grow via the Shah’s interest in and official sanctioning of the new medium. Beyond just this support of the privileged class, Naficy further provides an in-depth framework of the specific societal conditions that contributed to the artisanal, rather than formally industrial, aspects of Iranian cinema. Among the many roots of this production mode were a focus on foreign film imports and exhibition over local production, a cottage industry based on workshops and ateliers rather than studios, and a predominant system of patronage that was highly unstable and heavily present in other media of the period as well. This infrastructural arbitrariness, part of what Homa Katouzian calls a “rickety” society, was notable throughout Iran and was characterized by decentralized power, social volatility and the unaccountability of the state, all of which required a particular flexibility and ingenuity on the part of filmmakers and other artists in order to successfully navigate the unsteady social structures.
While this rickety society provided the artisanal mode of production’s socio-historical roots, Naficy further develops its specific manifestations within the early Iranian film industry into a detailed exploration of what he calls a “rickety cinema.” The twelve specific elements of this rickety cinema are not, however, solely linked to early Iranian film, as Naficy asserts that many of these traits are likely present within numerous non-Western national cinemas. Among the chief components of the silent and early sound period’s artisanal mode of production was the multifunctional craftsmanship of its filmmakers operating as part of horizontally and vertically integrated film workshops, as well as the presence of liminal middleman filmmakers who were often positioned between foreign, secular modernity and traditional, pre-modern Iran. Additional characteristics include the multiculturalism and deep diasporic connections of these often minority filmmakers, the hybrid self-fashioning of film workers to shape non-traditional cultural identities, and the interstitiality of operating outside of established dualisms of East/West or colonized/colonizer. Improvisation in the face of unreliable legal and technological structures, the instability of exhibition due to the paucity of established venues, and the indirectness of foreign film imports (then the majority of films shown) as negotiated by intermediaries without regard for local tastes were also key to Naficy’s examination of the rickety, artisanal structure that would so define the period.
To best exemplify these various components, Naficy highlights pioneering filmmaker Ovanes Gregory Ohanians, a multiethnic and transnational immigrant who founded Tehran’s first film studio and Iran’s first acting school, as well as directed the nation’s first feature length commercial silent film, a self-reflexive movie about a traditional man’s gradual acceptance of, and incorporation into, the film industry titled Mr. Haji, the Movie Actor (1933). As a figure, Ohanians embodied the multicultural, improvisational, entrepreneurial and structurally rickety nature that shaped early Iranian cinema’s artisanal era even into the present moment.