Poster for The Thief in Black (1968), directed by Amir Shervan who would later helm the trash classic Samurai Cop (1991) (images courtesy Ehsan Khoshbakht)

In Abadan, Iran, on August 19, 1978, as the Cinema Rex audience watched Masoud Kimiai’s The Deer (1974) — a rebellious, street-level drama starring Behrouz Vossoughi, one of Iran’s most versatile actors — four individuals barred the entrances and doused the theater with gasoline. An estimated 400-plus people were killed as the building went up in flames. This tragedy is the point of departure for Ehsan Khoshbakht’s archival documentary Filmfarsi. Bridging the riotous expression of a country in the midst of an identity crisis with the vilification of cheap thrills by revolutionary fundamentalists, Filmfarsi unearths a buried genre of low-budget films in Iran. This sensational cinema, unjustly targeted by those it represented, reflected not only the nation’s self-loathing, but also its verve under brutal modernization. To quote a fictional film title from Samad in Dragon’s Way (Parviz Sayyad, 1977), Filmfarsi is a pop culture requiem featuring “Sex, Violence, and Karate.”

Khoshbakht, along with editors Niyaz Saghari and Abolfazl Talooni, used illegal VHS copies to uncover what he calls the “veiled cinema” known as Filmfarsi. Coined in 1953 by critic Amir Houshang Kavousi, the term would refer to the farcical and amateurish quality of micro-budget productions such as Elephant and Teacup (Rahim Roshanian, 1966). These productions had threadbare sets and limited light sources, and often featured non-professional actors. Khoshbakht summarizes the shoestring appeal of these movies as “a vertigo of zoom-lens shots and stolen soundtracks.” Gangsters, wrestlers, and machine-gun-wielding nurses lit up the screens of Iran — at Filmfarsi’s peak, around 43 million cinema tickets were sold annually in Tehran alone — producing a recognizable picture of the nation’s urban anxieties and fraught sexual politics. Khoshbakht posits that, while providing a kind of escapism through song-and-dance shows and sex comedies, the genre went on to aid Iranian audiences coping with social unrest from widening economic gaps between the 1953 coup d’état, in which then-Prime minister Mohammed Mosaddegh was overthrown, and the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Editing together a generation’s worth of cinema, Saghari and Talooni highlight the fragility of their material: the corrupted textures of decrepit videotape. The copies of featured Filmfarsi productions are mostly monochromatic and bleary, the imagery struggling to hold together like a faded dream. This is referred to in the opening credits as “VHS-scope,” a specific vision of a bygone era. By overlaying images of rusted film canisters and freezing frames fractured with scratches, the significance of viewership is continually reinforced. To see the ruinous condition of these films is to see the journey they’ve made through governmental censorship and black market trading, continuing to find audiences through decades of exile. Reminiscent of archival artist Bill Morrison’s Dawson City: Frozen Time (2017), a doc constructed from damaged reels of early North American silent films, Filmfarsi projects the fragility of cinema’s format, and the ideas it carries, against volatile conditions. In the former, it’s a combustible silver nitrate base, in the latter, a combustible political climate. These movies are survivors!

Filmfarsi and arthouse star, Behrouz Vossoughi.

Comprised of beloved artifacts, it is a pronounced cinephilia — there are three references to Orson Welles — that drives the documentary. Khoshbakht is co-director of Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, one of the largest repertory film and restoration festivals in the world, where cinema is resurrected from obscurity. Films by the “Iranian Hitchcock,” Stanley Khachikian, in Filmfarsi, were included in the 2017 festival. Khoshbakht addresses his interest in rediscovery through moments of personal remembrance, discussing his grandmother’s shifting relationship to the moving image via television. Cinema, however we come by it, can change our lives if we pay attention. During Filmfarsi’s opening credits, pop star Marjan sings “this is not the world, but a peep show” in Hail, Love (Azizolah Bahadori, 1974). With this, Khoshbakht alludes to the voyeurism inherent in the genre’s appeal. Audiences were invited to peer into fantasies and to leave their worries outside the theater, but the contradictions at the heart of Iranian life were inescapable, and expressed in these films.

Following public shootings in El Paso, Texas and Dayton, Ohio, which totaled in 31 deaths, Universal Pictures are withholding the release of factional satire The Hunt to avoid a perceived insensitivity to these events. This was preceded by Donald Trump’s tweet indirectly accusing the Blumhouse production of being “made to inflame and cause chaos” — as if Americans are not already daily victims to a staggering amount of gun violence. This positioning of a mid-budget thriller as the catalyst for further violence is a brazen attempt to appropriate victimhood on behalf of pro-gun legislation and place blame on a nebulous “Liberal Hollywood” as Trump labels it.

This is the latest example of reactionary governments blaming fictional creations for societal ills in the face of real-world horrors. Khoshbakht refers to this phenomenon as “mass graves of collective consciousness.” If we bury the artistic expressions of our times, or scapegoat them to expunge our tangible responsibilities, reality wallows in ignorance. During the identity-swap comedy Samad and Sami, Leilia and Leili (Parviz Sayyad, 1972), a dandy from the city says to his peasant doppelgänger’s mother “Nothing moves you. You’re happy that there will be a Resurrection Day. Though if the molecules of our body vanish, they will be gone for good.” Poignant words, for a lost farce.

Paul Farrell

Paul Louis Farrell is a freelance critic based in Birmingham, UK. His bylines include MUBI Notebook, Vague Visages and The Digital Fix. He can be found on Twitter.