Until about a decade ago, Iranian film histories limited themselves to a double dichotomy. First, they represented Iranian cinema prior to the 1979 revolution as a constant battlefield between the highbrow art cinema—namely, the New Wave of the late sixties—and the lowbrow popular films collectively known as Filmfārsi. Second, they focused on the postrevolutionary Islamization of the cinema, which led to the emergence of an oppositional cinema in the form of both politically poignant films and a new mode of poetic realism in the works of several festival-favorite auteurs.
This dominant historiographic approach underwent a considerable change in the 2010s, led by Hamid Naficy’s four-volume Social History of Iranian Cinema, along with a few other valuable monographs and edited collections: Pedram Partovi’s Popular Iranian Cinema before the Revolution, Golbarg Rekabtalaie’s Iranian Cosmopolitanism: A Cinematic History, Blake Atwood’s Underground: The Secret Life of Videocassettes in Iran, and Matthias Wittmann and Ute Holl’s edited collection Counter-Memories in Iranian Cinema. This new generation of scholars has begun a move toward more sociocultural histories where concepts such as the popular, the forbidden, the technological, and the national are redefined and explored anew. Continuing this trajectory, Kaveh Askari’s new book opens the young field of Iranian film studies to alternative histories of film distribution and reception.
“It is a book on circulation written during a peripatetic twelve-year period,” writes Askari in his acknowledgment (xi). But rather than Iranian films, or cinema, the subject of the book is the national and transnational circulation of objects such as film prints, scores, and publicity materials in Iran during a time when the country’s policies were manifestly pro-Western. As a child of “circulation studies and media archeology” (8), Askari provides a fascinating history of nonfilmic objects, much in the same way as Eric Smoodin and others do as they document the trend of New Cinema Histories. This historical approach requires extremely time-consuming dives into archival sources whose volume of data can be frustrating.
The case of Iran is especially challenging because media archives outside Iran rarely contain paracinematic materials tied to Iran, while the Persian sources are also mostly inaccessible. Askari, however, has dealt with these problems by gathering and analyzing an extensive list of midcentury Persian periodicals, the trade press, and pop magazines as well as visiting many archival institutions in the United States and Iran. As a result, while characterized by the utmost academic rigor, Relaying Cinema in Midcentury Iran reads like an engaging but sophisticated detective novel that aims to solve one big puzzle: how did Iranians experience cinema from the silent era through the 1960s, and what can the material and aesthetic forms of their experience reveal about the nature of transnational media movements?
To answer these big-picture questions, Askari uses the metaphor of “relay”—a concept that refers both to the amplifying moment of a signal in mediated communication and the moment of exchange or turn-taking in team sports. Askari uses this metaphor to expand on how cinema is conceptualized, (re)authorized, advertised, and consumed, reminding the reader that, far from a monolithic entity, cinema is a malleable construct that can mean different things to different people at different times and places. Film, then, is redefined in this book as constantly remediated sets of objects and concepts, with each chapter of the book narrating the story/history of one such set.
The first chapter focuses on the ways that silent films, especially serials, reached Iranian cinemas—mostly in Tehran—long after they were originally released. Disowned by their distributors, the overused, amortized, and decade(s)-old “junk prints” acquired traffic networks across relay points as varied as Moscow, Cairo, Istanbul, and Baghdad. By analyzing the Persian advertisements of serials such as The Tiger’s Trail (1919) or stand-alone re-edits of a D. W. Griffith film, Askari emphasizes that studying the afterlife of a film in its international reception is as crucial to understanding regional film cultures as the national policies governing various modes of film production and exhibition.
This filmic afterlife is further analyzed in the second chapter, where more attention is given to tracing how secondhand prints were reauthorized after World War II. Askari is meticulous in outlining how American distributors’ struggles to enforce profitable copyright regulations were met by Iranian technological innovations and creative forces, most saliently visible in the work of Tehran’s dubbing studios and voice actors. Building on what Askari has proposed here, one can hope for other histories of the long-neglected Persian dub industry and its transnational travels.
Introducing relay as both recycling and reformatting helps Askari revisit the bourgeoning Iranian film industry of the 1950s and 1960s from the viewpoint of appropriated media objects and concepts. In chapter 3, he delineates how Iranian sound studios incorporated and manipulated foreign film scores for the soundtrack of their domestic products. In a way, this chapter is the most representative aspect of Askari’s argument about relayed cinema. Using several examples, Askari demonstrates how the creative use of collaged sounds re-formed the soundscape of the Iranian film industry and gave new meanings to the original scores. A comparable phenomenon is detectable in the audiovisual strategies of many Turkish Yeşilçam products of a decade later, albeit with less-subtle craftsmanship. Nevertheless, these bold acts of intertextuality deserve to be studied in terms of both their material technology (and aesthetics) and local audiences’ engagement with them.
In the last two chapters, Askari shifts his focus to the ways Iranian cinema tried to appropriate foreign genres, worldviews, and images. In particular, he addresses the reconfiguration of film noir in the films of Iranian pop auteur Samuel Khachikian, and some forgotten and failed attempts at international collaborations and Western imitations. In chapter 4, Khachikian—the “Iranian Hitchcock” according to the Persian periodicals of the time—is reevaluated as an underappreciated filmmaker whose crime thrillers provide a visual trope for the cinematic exchange, translation, and creative agency in a “relayed” genre.
It should also be emphasized that Khachikian’s oeuvre serves as an excellent example for understanding the anxiety of urban transformation in midcentury Iran. Resulting mostly from the nation’s ambivalence toward the West, these anxieties reached their boiling point with the onset of the Islamic revolution. The dilemma of the West for the new urban population can also partly explain the cinematic failure of the case studies in the fifth chapter, including Jean Negulesco’s The Invincible Six (or The Heroes, as its Iranian production studio advertised) and the Western homages made by another Iranian pop auteur, Masud Kimiai.
Applying the sportive connotation of relay allows Askari to explore both the achievements and failures of media transfer in order to examine not only the agency of players but also the boundaries of the game. Whatever the consequences of transnational transformations may be, a cultural history of relayed media can amplify some of the much-overlooked aspects of regional engagements with cinema—a goal that inherently undergirds Askari’s innovative investigation of cinema in Iran until the turbulent 1970s.