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Ebrahim Golestan
Treasure of Pre-Revolutionary Iranian Cinema

Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa

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One of the most exciting moments of my life as an Iranian exile in Chicago was meeting Ebrahim Golestan, the remarkable filmmaker and writer of pre-Revolutionary Iranian cinema. He came to Chicago for a retrospective of his films for a week in May 2007. Golestan – who had been out of the public eye for nearly thirty-five years – agreed to fly to the US and appear in front of an audience. The program was titled Golestan, the Lion of Iranian cinema.

Except for a couple of bootlegged videos of his films and a transfer of his short A Fire (Yek Atash, 1958-1961) included on a DVD released by the French film journal Cinéma, Golestan’s films are not accessible to the public. Apart from archives in Iran, the Cinémathèque française has most of his films (though unfortunately some of these were damaged or destroyed in a fire a few years ago). The only other place that has 35mm prints of his film is the University of Chicago, which has two of his features, Brick and Mirror (Khesht va Ainah, 1964) and The Secret of the Treasure of the Jinn Valley (Asrar-e Ganj-e Darre ye Jenni, 1974), and four of his shorts: Wave, Coral and Rock (Mowj, Marjan, va Khara, 1961), The Hills of Marlik (Tappehha-ye Marlik, 1963), The Crown Jewels (Javaherat-e Saltanati, 1965) and A Fire – all donated by Golestan in the early ‘80s.

 

 

 

 

1. Heshmat Moayyad (ed.), Stories from Iran: A Chicago Anthology 1921-1991 (Washington: Mage, 2002).

  The lack of access to Golestan’s films (like many other pre-Revolutionary films that are locked away in Iran’s film archives), and the shortage of written sources about him in English, have made it very difficult to learn about him and his work. Readers with knowledge of Persian at least have the advantage of being able to read his books, available from Rowzan Publishers. Only one of his short stories, ‘Esmat’s Journey’ (‘Safar-e Esmat’, 1966), has been translated into English. (1) As well, Golestan has translated important works of world literature into Persian, introducing Iranian readers to Ernest Hemingway, Huckleberry Finn and works by Eugene O’Neill, Stephen Crane and William Faulkner.  

 

 

The day that Golestan came to Chicago, I went to the airport to meet him. Based on what I had heard, I expected to greet a serious-looking, arrogant aristocrat who walked like a king. But the 85-year-old whom I met in the airport was very different – warm and friendly, with a sweet smile, down to earth and charming. He looked much younger than his age. He talked passionately about politics. He carried a small Samsonite suitcase, and when I tried to give it to the driver to carry, he objected and said he could carry it himself. He was robust and had a strong posture, full straight white hair, and was humorous and sharp – somehow unlike any Iranian director I have ever met. He showed interest in my films, which I found significant coming from a filmmaker of his stature. I also discovered that I was distantly related to him – he is the uncle of my cousin’s cousin.

The non-Iranian audience in the US who have been exposed to a good dosage of post-Revolutionary Iranian cinema are probably unaware of the rich pre-Revolutionary film culture of Iran. One has to know the sacred place of literature – in particular poetry – and the important role of cinema in Iranian culture to appreciate the significance of Golestan as a writer and filmmaker. In the late ‘60s, many Iranian youths wanted to be poets; in the early ‘70s, with all the publicity about films and film festivals, every young person I knew dreamt of becoming a film director.

Cinema was seen as a new political tool or weapon, and a fast track to glory and fame, making it the hot topic of most conversations. There were certain cafés in the north of Tehran where established as well as wannabe intellectuals gathered and discussed movies, the latest books, poetry and politics. The political filmmakers were looked up to by people and watched as well as feared by the government. After the Revolution, many filmmakers left Iran, but some returned home. For example, Parviz Kimiavi, Dariush Mehrjui and Bahman Farmanara left for France and the US but then returned to Iran during the first decade after the Revolution. Golestan belongs to the generation of directors who left Iran during the Shah’s time. Sohrab Shahid Saless, another major director, left Iran for Germany in 1975 when he was 31, frustrated with the regime and its censorship, and continued making films there – in fact, more than eighteen features, In 1978, Golestan left Iran for the second time (the first time was in 1967, when he was 45) and, ever since, has been focused on writing novels in Persian.

Partly because the audience that he has in mind is still Iranian, and partly because he does not want to be at the mercy of foreign producers who might dictate to him what to do, he has given up making films. When he was in Iran, he was completely independent. He had his own studio and equipment, and the same small crew that he had trained. He was well-off financially. This is one of the reasons some have called him an ‘American Marxist’ who came from an upper-class family and became a radical leftist. This term is widely used in Iran for wealthy intellectuals who become Marxist out of fashion – therefore not to be trusted, out of touch with the reality of life – and would flee to the bosom of the West or America as soon as they smelled a revolution.

But everyone knew that Golestan never compromised, although he was close to the Royal Family; he never made films to please them. In fact, he did the opposite. For example, in his beautiful and poetic The Crown Jewels, which was made at the request of Sami’I (the director of the Central Bank) for the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the Shah in power, he put in a narration that directly criticised kings and their jewels as the empty objects of their pride. Later the Minister of Art and Culture, a relative of the Shah and an ardent enemy of Golestan, censored the film. (The copy of the film owned by the University of Chicago has the original uncensored Persian narration.)

I come from a generation born in the ‘50s, with a collective memory of a political betrayal – the famous 1953 CIA-assisted coup against Dr Mohammad Mosaddeq, the nationalist and popular Prime Minister of Iran. The generation that saw the modernisation of Iran in the ‘60s and ‘70s embraced western culture and Hollywood movies, saw the possibilities of Women’s Lib, and were excited about film festivals, The Beatles, Antonioni, Bergman, Welles, Camus, Kafka, Mao, Che Guevara and Dostoyevsky. The Shah was the US’ friend in the region, and the oil money bought technologies, arms and plastic. The corruption and hypocrisy of the system, uneven distribution of wealth and political repression motivated much unrest. There was a sense of being robbed by the West of our oil money and cultural identity. The underground leftist movements became very active.

There was fascination for Western technology and culture (in particular, cinema) and, at the same time, a strong sense of resentment for feeling belittled by its dominating culture and technologies. The ideology of the left was very popular amongst the youth in this period. China and the Soviet Union were looked up to as the ideal systems. Every now and then, there was a student revolt at the University of Tehran and many students would be arrested or killed (the fear of the Savak, the Shah’s secret police, was prevalent). There was also a strong radical religious movement against the regime and against television and cinema as symbols of Western culture. This showed itself fully during the years of the Revolution, when hundreds of movie theatres were burned in Tehran, including the tragic fire at the Rex Cinema in Abadan, which killed nearly three hundred people who were watching a movie.

I recall first hearing the name of Ayatollah Khomeini in summer 1963, when there was a riot in Tehran. The clergy then was against the modernisation of Iran and Western culture, including Women’s Lib, cinema and television, and agrarian reform – all parts of the Shah’s ‘white Revolution’ plans to develop Iran. In this climate, many important poets, writers and filmmakers emerged; their work was charged with political rebellion and existential despair, as well as a skeptical view of progress and development. The anxiety culture resulting from the conflict between traditional and modern, poor and rich, the loss of the nation’s treasure and values, and fear of the system, was the subject of many movies.

Sher-e No (New Poetry) and Mowj-e No (New Cinema) refer to a group of films and works of poetry and prose that were created in the 60’s and 70’s. Examples would include works of Forugh Farrokhzad, Mehdi Akhavan Saless and Ahmad Shamlou in poetry; and in cinema the films of Fereydun Rahnama, Farrokh Ghaffari, Modhammd Aslani and Draiush Mehrjui. Key films include: Mehrjui’s The Cow (Gav, 1968), Brick and Mirror, Saless’ A Simple Event (Yek Ettefaghe Sadeh, 1973) and Still Life (Tabiat-e Bijan, 1974), Parviz Kimiavi‘s Mongols (Mogula, 1973), Masud Kimavi’s Gheysar, Kiarostami’s Report (Gozaresh, 1977), Ovanesian’s Parviz Sayyad kamran Shirdel Nasser Taghvai (The Spring Cheshmeh, 1972) and Bahram Bayzaee’s Downpour (Ragbar, 1971). Although similar movements and growth happened in the other arts (including theatre, music and performance), none was comparable in terms of power and attraction to poetry and cinema. As the cinematographer Aziz Saati put it: in the period before the Revolution we discovered Hollywood; and after the Revolution the West discovered us (through our cinema).

Most films of the Mowj-e No New Wave were set in the rural areas of Iran and were replete with metaphors. For example, The Mongols compared the destructive and alienating role of television and cinema in villages and remote parts of Iran to the invasion of the Mongols in Iran and the loss of the country’s treasures. But some of the films were realist, like Still Life, which showed the hypocrisy of the system and the forgotten poor in the rural north area of Iran. Downpour portrayed an activist teacher in the poor area of Tehran who is forced to leave his job; he is taken away by a death figure reminding the audience of the Savak.

Golestan turned to filmmaking right after the Coup. In fact, he filmed the last days of Mossadeq. He was once a member of the Tudeh party, the famous pro-Soviet Union Communist Party, but he left it due to conflict with the leadership. He soon started making documentaries for the oil companies in Iran. He bought state-of-the-art film equipment and opened his own studio. Brick and Mirror is the first feature film in Iran to be shot with direct sound. Golestan’s films were both realistic and metaphorical. His years of freelancing as a photojournalist and news cinematographer for foreign television stations and his background in documentary gave his work a strong sense of realism, while his poetic and political interests made it philosophical and symbolic.

Golestan has always been a legendary and fascinatingly mysterious figure for me ever since I was a teenager living in Iran in the mid ‘60s. Beyond his achievements and connections, he also had an intimate and controversial relationship with the feminist and revolutionary poet, Forough Farrokhzad (1935-1967). Forough was the Joan of Arc of modern Persian poetry. Many worshipped her, but at the same time her bold rebellious voice angered male critics. She talked openly about her feelings and desires, challenged the repressive norms and expressed her despair about the social system of Iran. For more than a decade, she was the centre of controversy. The day she was killed in a car accident at the age of 32, the whole country mourned her loss. She became a cultural martyr, a myth, a sacred figure, the most beloved, respected and popular modern poet. (It is interesting to see that even those who banned her poetry, the most radical Islamists, quote her lines regularly, often not knowing their source.) Forough met Golestan in 1958 and remained in a close relationship with him until her death. She worked in his film company, the Golestan Film Unit, learnt about filmmaking, and made her amazing short documentary The House is Black (Khaneh Siah Ast, 1962), which Golestan produced and also co-wrote part of its narration. She collaborated with Golestan on many of his other films. She edited A Fire, acted in his unfinished film, Why the Sea Became Stormy (Chera Darya Tufani Shodeh, 1962) and The Arranged Marriage (Khastegari, 1962), and briefly appeared in black chador in the beginning of Brick and Mirror as the passenger who gets into the taxi and leaves her baby in the car.

When I took an interest in filmmaking in Iran, I saw Golestan’s short documentaries and witnessed the praise of the film critics (both inside and outside of Iran), especially for the shorts Wave, Coral and Rock and The Hills of Marlik. And finally I saw his last feature, The Secret of The Treasure of the Jinn Valley, a bold political film about the Shah’s regime and the corruption of the system. Soon after, I heard that Golestan had left Iran and settled in a palace-like castle near London, not wanting to be bothered by anyone.

Although many Iranians were curious about his relationships to both the Shah and to Forough Farrokhzad, no one dared ask him about either. Perhaps they sensed an unwillingness to talk about his private life. When I interviewed him about the origins of Brick and Mirror, he talked about the film as an allegory of the country at the time: the failure of the Tudeh party; the downfall of Mossadeq; the destruction of the country by corrupt people and agencies; and the mistake of people (especially the Tudeh party) in not supporting Mossadeq. He never made the slightest reference to anything personal, but it is possible to see some resemblance between his life with Forough and the relationship of the couple in the film: the unafraid strong woman and the athletic man who is reluctant to commit himself fully to her – he does not keep the child she wants and is concerned about the neighbors. Although the film clearly represents the fear dominating Iran at the time and the Shah’s Savak, there is also room for this personal reading.

Golestan spoke to me about an exhibition of the excavated objects he visited before creating The Hills of Marlik. A beam of light hitting these objects, buried for thousands of years, inspired him to make the film. He told me the story of how the one of the Shah’s young relatives would come in the middle of the night to the site and steal the precious objects to sell to foreigners. He said it made him want to cry – adding that, for him, this was the history of the innocent people of Iran.

A unique aspect of Golestan’s films is their beginnings. They make us see the present time in the light of the past: the history of the film’s subject. He told me that ‘when you tell a story, it has to become everyone’s story’. That is why Golestan sets the tone for each of his films: providing us with a introductory scene to relate it to a much bigger world, inviting us to view the work in that context. The Hills of Marlik starts with a shot of the hands of the archaeologist (Ezzat Negahban) sitting by a stream, putting the broken pieces of an ancient excavated object together. Then we see an excavated statue of a farmer plowing the earth, using cows set in the foreground of a landscape, and then the present time where we see a farmer plowing the earth in the background, also using his cows. The image shows the similarity between the two and makes us think that nothing has changed in the course of thousands of years; the farmers are still using the same technology to plow the earth.

Later on Golestan shows some excavated swords and other weapons against a black background; they are paraded before our eyes, flying across the screen. These are the objects that have been used in fights and wars in ancient times. In the following scene, we see the statuettes of a naked man and a naked woman placed opposite of each other against the natural background of Marlik hills. The voice-over talks about the call of male and female for love, mating and procreation – another emphasis on the same story of human life. As the film reaches its end, our attention is led towards the question of change and a more philosophical quest for a different vision that human beings need to have for the future.

The Crown Jewels starts with the landscape of a village and some poor sweating farmers working on the land. Then we see the beautiful jewels set on red velvet in the museum of the Central Bank of Iran. We never see a long shot of the museum or its visitors, but we hear them in English, French and Persian admiring the jewels displayed in different windows. The opening scene has nothing to do with the crown jewels, but Golestan brings the image of the poor farmers to our attention before we see the jewels.

Wave, Coral and Rock is about the three-year process of developing an oil export terminal in the Kharg island of the Persian Gulf. The construction process involves the laying and burying of pipelines under the ground, from the oil field to the island and under the water, as well as the building of the exporting station by the water. The film opens with a long shot of a tanker parked on the blue waters of the Persian Gulf. Then the camera goes under the water to show the life at the bottom of the sea. It follows the fish swimming around. We hear the narration asking the fish what they’re looking for. Then the camera emerges from under the water to reveal the white coral rocks on the shore. This scene is followed by a series of shots moving through the ruins, finally ending on a static shot of a shepard combing his beard while he sits next to his cattle – a peaceful environment that is suddenly shaken by the sound of a landing airplane and an explosion in the water, the first steps in building the oil terminal. The narration brings our attention to a distant history. These beautiful opening shots provide us with the context, a bigger picture that gives us a sense of history of the place, and a philosophical question about life, before we watch the process of construction.

The opening scenes of Brick and Mirror also set the tone and create a context. The film starts with night shots of Tehran’s streets lit by several neon lights. A cab driver comes into view. We see that he is listening to his car radio. We hear a play (specifically, Golestan’s voice) talking about fear, chaos and a sense of confusion, the enemy who is in disguise, and the hunter and the prey who are in the dark. This narration sends a message of paranoia and anxiety. The driver picks up a veiled woman (played by Forough) who leaves her baby in his car. After dropping the woman, he notices the abandoned infant in the back seat of his cab. To find the baby’s mother, he goes back to where he dropped her. But he enters a deserted construction site with darkened stairs. He meets a homeless couple and a woman with an absent-minded look who tells him, in a theatrical tone, about the desertion and destruction of the place. (Golestan told me that the scene was, for him, an image of Iran after Mossadeq’s time.) In the same vein, the driver looks around and goes up and down the dark stairways before finally returning to his taxi and taking refuge from barking dogs. This scene, setting the tone, stands out from the rest of the film, because its treatment is not realistic; its expressionistic and allegorical look is in contrast with the documentary realist style.

Another significant aspect of Golestan’s films is their narration. The precise, poetic voiceovers always add a historical and philosophical dimension. The Hills of Marlik, The Crown Jewels and Wave, Coral and Rock all have great narrations recited by Golestan’s beautiful voice. I cannot recall such a powerful, poetic voiceover in any other industrial or documentary films made in Iran, apart from Forough’s narration in The House is Black.

Golestan edited all of his films and paid close attention to the sound effects and their orchestration. The hypnotic rhythm of the shots of children looking at the camera in the orphanage, and the fantastic rhythm of machinery laying the foundation of the oil terminal in the water in Wave, Coral and Rock, like the musical structures of both The Crown Jewels and The Hills of Marlik, or the court scene where the cab driver goes in and out of doors to find the right person in Brick and Mirror, are good examples of how documentary/industrial films can be turned into poetic films (as in Alain Resnais’ Le Chant du styrène [1958]).

Other than editing and the duration of the shots, camera movement and the rhythms of both dialogue and performance contribute to the overall rhythm of the film. Brick and Mirror has many poetic moments due to the arrangement of dialogue and the silences between the couple. Their long, silent walk on the street after a heated conversation, in which the woman loses hope in her lover, as well as the orchestration of the pseudo intellectuals’ dialogues in the café, are great examples of these arrangements. Also, the dramatic beats of the performances are very important to the overall movement. The camera lingering on certain moments of non-action – such as when the man or the woman are waiting and thinking, uncertain and confused – gives the film a particular quality.

Although Golestan’s documentaries have similar styles, his two features are very different. Brick and Mirror is an existential slice-of-life about an unmarried couple over the course of a night and a day. Their relationship falls apart following the experience of having a child for one night and then losing her the next day, due to the lack of sense of responsibility and the weakness of the man ‘s character. Although the story opens with the man, it shifts to the woman and her strong character. The documentary scenes of Tehran’s streets and Government offices are placed next to the more theatrical bedroom, where the man spends the night with his lover. The fear of the invisible neighbours, whom he constantly checks from behind the curtains, dominates his personal life. Golestan is one of the few Iranian male directors (apart from Bayzaee) to have such a powerful, loving woman character. The woman (played by Taji Ahmadi) is strong because she loves and cares, is both unafraid and responsible.

In the café scene at the beginning of Brick and Mirror, we see a short but intriguing action of a woman singer. Instead of appreciating her performance, several members of the male audience get into a fight. Disgusted with their stupidity, the woman stops singing and leaves the stage. Golestan uses the streets of Tehran as a major part of the narrative. He also distances us from the characters when we enter a public space and a social institution. (Sometimes this created problems for him. For example, when the couple passes an alley, not talking to each other, a coffin is carried through. People in the alley thought it was a real coffin; when they found out it was fake and a part of the movie, they got angry at the crew.) Golestan’s camera stays on the minor characters longer than necessary for the plot, in order to allow us to listen to and see the dilemma and struggles of ordinary people. For example, in the long scene in the orphanage and police department, we remain inside scenes long enough to hear other people‘s complaints and issues that signify the typical social and cultural problems of the time (the long conversations of the nurse and the woman who wants to adopt a child, and the longer scenes of the bored, indifferent police officer who talks to the angry doctor). Golestan does this skillfully, without turning these characters into caricatures of social types. Every minor character has a life and not just a function to advance the story. This is very similar to the scene in Report where the main hero eats his sandwich in a deli so that we can hear other men talking about cars and economy. Such distancing gives Brick and Mirror a kind of episodic character, culminating in the final sequence, the long scene in the orphanage. The orphans whom we never get to know nail us to the screen for a solid amount of time – as do the children in The House is Black.

With his last feature, The Secret of the Treasure of the Jinn Valley, Golestan moves to a different style. The film is a strong social critique of the Shah’s time. A villager finds gold treasure under the ground. He buys himself many imported goods and rules the village like a king. He remarries and builds himself a tower (very similar to the tower that the Shah made in Tehran at the time). But soon his glory falls apart and he loses everything. According to Golestan, the film predicted the fall of the Shah, given the hypocrisy and the corruption of his era. Its allegories, and the similarities of its characters to real people, were very obvious to Iranian audiences at the time. They were amazed by Golestan’s bravery in mocking and criticising the regime in such an obvious way. But, in Golestan’s account, when the film was premiered for the authorities and dignitaries, many of whom the film directly criticised directly, no one in the audience noticed its real message. This was mainly due to the fact that the characters and actors were the same as in a famous popular television show of the time. Parviz Sayyad played Samad, a sweet naughty villager in Golestan’s film. Consequently, most members of the audience thought it was another film about Samad’s comic adventures. It was only later that the censor noticed the film’s true agenda.

This film is entertaining mainly due to the amazing acting of Sayyad, one of the best actors in contemporary Iran. But otherwise it lacks poetry and the other qualities of Golestan’s previous films. It is his angry response to what was going on in Iran at the time. Seeing it recently for the second time, just like the first time I saw it in Tehran on its initial release, I again found it both passionless and contemptuous towards its characters, despite its accurate depiction of society. (Golestan told me that, at the time of shooting, no one knew the film’s real purpose; he kept it from all cast and crew members in order to protect it from the censors’ sabotage.) The Secret Treasure of the Jinn Valley is full of references to the Shah’s time and culture, the stupidity and the megalomania of the ruling class, their empty pride. It is an overtly political film about the system and culture of the Shah, the self-absorbed dictator and the opportunists who follow him, the innocents who become corrupt overnight and the few who remained honest but were crushed – like the teacher who is mocked and harassed, or the loyal patriotic soldier who gets killed while trying to do the right thing.

Although Golestan’s features are impressive, my favorite films of his are he shorts The Hills of Marlik and The Crown Jewels, especially the latter. It is remarkably condensed, very beautiful and powerful – the best example of Golestan’s mastery of form and rhythm in a cinema that is both political and poetic.

 

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© Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa and Rouge 2007. Cannot be reprinted without permission of the author and editors.
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