The anthropological unconscious of Iranian ethnographic films
A brief take
Ethnographic filmmaking emerged strongly in Iran in the 1960s, partly because rapid modernization and its resulting population displacements and social restructuring brought urgency to the task of documenting and analyzing the country’s traditions and ways of life before they disappeared, and partly because of institutional support by the state. Nationalism was also a factor, both in its secular and religious – particularly Islamic – manifestations. Most ethnographic documentaries in Iran were not made by anthropologists or filmmakers trained in anthropology or ethnography. Neither were they deeply linked to university anthropology departments or research centers – all of which were state funded. As such, few films were part of larger academic anthropological studies or were organically informed by
anthropological or ethnographic concerns. Nevertheless, the majority of the filmmakers were supported by powerful national governmental cultural and media organizations, such as the Pahlavi era’s Ministry of Culture and Art and National Iranian Radio and Television; and the post-revolution era’s Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance, and Voice and Vision of the Islamic Republic. Some of them were freelance filmmakers commissioned by the state, private sector or non-governmental agencies to make ethnographic documentaries, some were civil servants employed by state organizations. Because of these structural and contextual features, the ethnographic documentaries were often embedded in politics, from their conception to reception. Textually, they tended to be straightforward, linear films that relied heavily on a wordy voice-of-God narration. However, there were many that experimented with visual, musical, lyrical and structural innovations. They can be divided into several thematic types, which evolved over time, particularly during the 1978–9 revolution and the subsequent eight-year war with Iraq.