Shaping Modernity

Excerpt from "A Social History of Iranian Cinema"


Shaping Modernity
by Hamid Naficy

Hamid Naficy, Professor of Radio, Television, Film and Communication at Northwestern University, is one of the world’s leading authorities on Iranian film, and A Social History of Iranian Cinema (Vol 1 -- Vol 2, Duke University Press, 2011) is his magnum opus. Covering the late nineteenth century to the early twenty-first and addressing documentaries, popular genres, and art films, it explains Iran’s peculiar cinematic production modes, as well as the role of cinema and media in shaping modernity and a modern national identity in Iran. This comprehensive social history unfolds across four volumes, each of which can be appreciated on its own. Volumes 3 and 4 will be published in 2012. 


Disintegration and the Reemergence of the Family Republic of Letters

For several years in the 1970s, I returned to Iran to assist with creating the new multimedia Free University of Iran. As the director of its Broadcast and Media Center, I also served as the executive producer of a series of groundbreaking documentaries on what I called the country’s “indigenous technologies,” such as The Qanat Irrigation Tradition in Iran (Sonnat-e Qanat dar Iran, 1977) and The Pigeon Towers (Kabutarkhan, 1978). These were never broadcast, for the oncoming revolution disrupted everything.

The private family republic of letters was gradually ravaged by the state, first under Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi and then under the ayatollahs, resulting in the secret police’s arrest of scores of members, the execution of nearly a dozen, the imprisonment of many more, and the dispersal of many others to foreign lands. The political and ideological divisions within the family further exacerbated the actions of the repressive states. This politicization of the family intellectuals and cultural producers and the terrible toll it took was emblematic of the whole country. My much younger brother Said was arrested in 1973 along with my uncle Mohammad Naficy, the former editor of Call of Science, and my cousin Ali Naficy. They were tortured and imprisoned for two, four, and five years, respectively. When Said and others were arrested because of antigovernment activities, including the distribution of leaflets, my parents immediately threw their manual Olympia typewriter, which he may have used to write the leaflets, into a well in the yard that supplied the water to the pool. This was to avoid its discovery by the secret police, Savak, and marked the beginning of the family republic of culture’s dismantling.

Soon, in another tragic but necessary step, the family broke up the Ibn Sina Library by dividing the books thematically among a half a dozen members’ homes and gardens, where they were dispersed in closets, backrooms, and basements. The final nail in the coffin of the library came when one night I and Nooshin, my youngest sister whose cute baby pictures I had taken only a few years before, fearing that the Ibn Sina patrons’ ledger may incriminate the family, wrapped it in layers of plastic for safekeeping and buried it deep under a plum tree in the yard in our Bagh Jennat house. The familial purge took private turns as well. I burned a suitcase full of letters that I had written to my parents during the many years I had spent abroad, brokenhearted at the loss. I even destroyed pages from my own diaries in which I had discussed the Saeb Society events and other politically sensitive issues or mentioned the names of leftist friends and relatives. In authoritarian societies the worst kind of censorship is the self-censorship that authors engage in to preempt official censorship.

In the 1970s I visited my brother Said in the Qasr Prison in Tehran on many Thursday afternoons during official visiting hours, taking to him fruit, nuts, sweets, money, and clothes. Sometimes, I would coordinate my visits with those of my uncle Hasan Naficy and my cousin Jafar Naficy, who visited their respective brothers, Mohammad and Ali, in the same political prisoners’ ward. We were able then to see all three relatives together; in a bizarre ritual we shouted to them across the prison bars over the chaotic voices of a dozen other visitors meeting their relatives, exchanging information and pleasantries often in coded language. Their imprisonment caused trouble for their close relatives. One day, the chancellor of my university, Abdolrahim Ahmadi, a former leftist intellectual and a co-translator of Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (with Shahrokh Meskoob), which had been banned years ago, called me into his office. He showed me a terse letter from the Savak addressed to him, forbidding my promotion within the university structure beyond middle management (I was at the time already occupying such a position as an associate professor and the director of the Broadcast and Media Center). He asked what I had done to deserve such special attention. I confided in him and told him for the first time of the arrests of my brother, uncle, and cousin. I also noted that I had boycotted all the mandatory meetings of the single Resurgence (Rastakhiz) Party, which the Shah had created in the mid-1970s. He understood the situation, and we never discussed the matter again. It is ironic that such a warning against me was issued during the years in which university officers, myself included, were required to attend the annual official Noruz Salaam (New Year’s audience) before the Shah, where he shook hands with us and asked questions about our university’s progress.

All three of our prisoners were released with the 1978–79 revolution, only to be executed, disappear, and go underground, respectively, during the early Islamic Republic era. I was on a yearlong sabbatical in the United States in 1978 when the revolution toppled the Pahlavi regime. Although at first we celebrated the revolution for its emancipatory potential, soon the new Islamic regime’s theocratic and authoritarian intolerance and violence erased the gains. Some family members went into exile voluntarily; others illegally as refugees. Those who were abroad, like me, stayed put, forming an emerging diaspora. Tragically, during the reign of terror that followed, eleven family members were executed and many other lives and professions were derailed. Demonstrating the still patriarchal family structure in Iran, my three brothers and I went abroad for higher education, while my four sisters, married and with children, stayed home.

Despite the centripetal forces at work, the family culture of resistance proved resilient. It survived by shape-shifting, evolving, and regenerating with each succeeding generation, thanks to my sisters and their offspring. In the thirty years since then, the third- and fourth-generation children have written and performed plays and put on art exhibitions and photographic shows in the family homes. An editorial board consisting of eight children produced a handwritten and illustrated monthly magazine, Science/Knowledge (Elm), which like its predecessor, Call of Science, had varied departments. However, as Nahal Naficy, one of the youngest members involved in the project, told me, these editors added a new, sophisticated feature: extensively researched special issues. One of these was devoted to Zoroastrianism, and its preparation involved a group field trip to the seat of the religion in Yazd to conduct interviews there and to study the sacred text, the Avesta. The production process also became more collective and more regularized than its predecessor’s, consisting of regular monthly or bimonthly editorial meetings at a member’s home, sleepovers, and group writing and illustrating sessions (Naficy 2007c). Soon the production process was modernized by using typewriters and computers and by introducing new graphic features. As did the Pahlavi-era generation’s magazines, the Islamic Republic period’s Science/Knowledge served as the catalyst for other family-centered cultural, educational, and artistic engagements. An annual exhibition of the family’s arts and crafts was given at the end of summer 1985: a big affair to which the adults contributed not only their presence but also refreshments. “All this happened during the war with Iraq and political repression when the country was devastated,” said Nahal. “And this is how our family enriched itself and survived the trauma; but I also remember that there were a lot of concerns about our safety because we would be out during bombings, we would come home late, we risked being arrested by Komiteh (revolutionary committee), even though what we did never had political content; we were very careful about that” (Naficy 2007c).

Two chief editors of Science/Knowledge, Nastaran and Vahid, became fast friends and later married. Everyone called them an “Elm couple,” referring to the Persian title of the magazine. With the graduation from high school of some of the activists in this family republic of letters, the production of the magazine gradually ground to a halt. Yet soon two new venues replaced it. One was the creation in 1991 of a nonprofit institution for the middle-aged and elderly, one of the first in the country. Called Rangin Kaman-e Sepid (White Rainbow), the institution transmogrified the informal family circle into a formal, registered civil society institution with its own offices and employees that catered to non-family members. The nucleus was the partial reconstitution of the Ibn Sina Library (its children’s sections), with additional cultural and performance projects, which catered to the needs of multiple generations, particularly the elders. The activities included putting on plays, publishing a monthly magazine called Sepidar (Aspen), and holding art classes, art exhibitions, yoga classes, and diary-writing classes. The institution not only provides artistic and creative outlets for its elderly members, such as my mother in her eighties who takes yoga and painting classes, but also links the generations by mixing youngsters with the elders in various activities, such as in storytelling programs.

The other venue was the Internet blogs and Web pages, which are widely written and read by family members, particularly the third- and fourth-generation children. While Rangin Kaman-e Sepid expanded the circle to include others outside the family, the Internet transformed the actual face-to-face republic into a virtual global collectivity, which reaches far beyond the immediate family and the city of Isfahan to link nuclear and extended family members with others both inside the country and outside, in the global diaspora. Both institutions are indexes of the evolving globalization and modernity of Iranians, including the filmmakers discussed in these pages, something that propelled them beyond both kinship and nation.

Copyright Duke
University Press, 2011


Jahanshah Javid

Humble professor

by Jahanshah Javid on

If I had to name five brilliant living Iranians, Hamid Naficy would be one of him. His books are rich with wisdom and insight, unmatched by any other. I think more than anything, I like his humble, unassuming, manner. Clone him! We desperately need more like him.