How Iran's 'filmfarsi' Remains the Biggest Secret in Cinema History

By Ehsan Khoshbakht


Shortly after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the country’s national newspapers published a joint subpoena, unique in film history: all the key stars of “filmfarsi” – a form of popular cinema which embodied the aspirations and illusions of a modernising society – were summoned to the Revolutionary Court. The careers of hundreds of actors and directors ended overnight. Unlike the Hollywood blacklisting of the McCarthy era, there was not even the opportunity for a mock hearing. The cinema, seen as emblematic of corruption, “westoxification” and the decadence of the ousted Pahlavi regime, was consigned to oblivion.

This marked the end of one of the most thriving film industries in the Middle East, a cinema of song and dance, sex and seduction, violence and vengeance which combined the western genres with local flavour – though always with an eye on Shia Islam, as the ultimate code to put everything in its right order. Iranian cinema, so often hastily labelled as one of poetry and humanism (though both elements existed in some of the pre-revolutionary arthouse films) was anything but. Millions of filmgoers cared more about a good popular song, the latest tearjerker and a car chase through the streets of Tehran.

Cinema was introduced to the country as the exclusive toy of the Qajar kings. Sporadic efforts to create a national cinema were interrupted by the Allied occupation of neutral Iran during the Second World War. After the war, the new shah, the Swiss-educated Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, was so busy making Iran a modern “island of stability” (a compliment paid to him by US president Jimmy Carter some thirty-two years later) that cinema was abandoned in favour of social and military infrastructure.

It was then that the people on the ground took control of the camera and from then, until the 1979 revolution, told their own tales. They even created their own national genres like “jaheli” films, stories of tough guys in brim hats from south Tehran, pulling knives in the name of honour and hooking up with local cabaret singers, eventually saving them from a life of disgrace.

The term “filmfarsi” was coined to ridicule the sloppiness of these films. Today, they can be more properly judged in the broader context of Iranian mainstream cinema: genre films with popular stars; village girls lured by the big city but eventually returning to the tranquillity of home – as if everybody knew from the start that the modernisation project wouldn’t last. A miniature of Iranian society, foreshadowing things to come.


Not surprisingly, women were the stereotyped, as either mother or whore with hardly any shades in between. Yet, it was filmfarsi that for the first time gave them the chance to be seen. It even offered women agency and power. If the forced unveiling of women under the first Pahlavi was a crucial point in the history of Iranian women, the real unveiling, though highly fetishized, was through these movies in which women travelled, taught, fought and settled their scores.

Gradually, talented figures emerged from the mainstream, overcame its limitations, and transcended the familiar subject matter with their own style and vision. One of them was Samuel Khachikian, an Iranian of Armenian origin, who today is best remembered for his film noirs and thrillers. After I presented some of his films at Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in Bologna in 2017, I received a phone call from Drive director, Nicolas Winding Refn who was amazed by the films and their brisk, hybrid form. “I wish I had made those films,” Refn told me. 

Some of the biggest talents of more recent Iranian cinema undertook their apprenticeship on this type of commercial film. Abbas Kiarostami designed title credits, Dariush Mehrjui – whose ground-breaking The Cow (1969) was a key moment in the birth of the Iranian “new wave” – began his career directing a James Bond parody.

In the process something rare, euphoric and mad was recorded on celluloid: The Iranian way of life after the Second World War, with all its paradoxes. Even the sleaziest films became documents. If the majority of key Iranian arthouse films of the 1960s and 1970s were set in villages and rural areas (a tradition continued until after the revolution), filmfarsi was about the thriving cities, which were expanding blindly, thanks to petrodollars. 


Boy-meets-girl stories found an edge, as the Iranian way of life encountered a new world through American, Italian, French and Bollywood films. When Iranians loved a foreign film, they sometimes remade it. There is an Iranian version of Hitchcock’s Vertigo, as well as a feminist version of Billy Wilder’s Sabrina in which two sisters compete for the affection of the family chauffeur. The result was often camp, and only the barest traces of the original storyline remained. However, a confused and frustrating search for an identity through this bizarre process is detectable. Across roughly 1,000 films, they forged it in a remarkable way.

For many Iranians today filmfarsi is the souvenir of a lost past. For me, after spending the last four years making a film about filmfarsi, I view the films as documents of how Iranian society changed; its schizophrenic nature in grabbing onto anything "modern" with one hand and rejecting it, at the same time, with the other.

It is also the story of a tragedy, both cinematic and real. One of the turning points of the Iranian revolution, and the key moment when the bells tolled the death of cinema, was when the Islamists set fire to the Rex Cinema in southwest Iran, where people were watching the second run of The Deer (Masoud Kimiai, 1974) – an immensely popular drama about two former classmates rebelling against the system, which tested the censors. Starring some of popular cinema’s best loved figures, it transformed filmfarsi into something profound and politically committed. Four hundred people burned alive in that cinema. The pain is still there. But out of its ashes there arose a new Iranian cinema.

Forty years after the Iranian Revolution, filmfarsi, with all its joyful vibrancy and popular eclecticism, remains one of the biggest secrets of film history. 

This article was originally published in The Guardian, July 11, 2019