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Shane Farrell

Digging up the seeds of the Iranian Revolution

 have no discernable eye for art, but as a history buff the prospect of having a triple dose of old documentaries that highlight the seeds of the 1979 Iranian Revolution was too good to miss. Beirut Art Center (BAC) held the event titled Blue Hour Part 1, which took place on Wednesday night and which comes under the venue’s current exhibition, “Revolution vs Revolution.”

Shot in the 1970s, the documentaries showed grainy footage and sometimes crackling sound, an interesting change for someone used to an ocular diet of Hollywood movies.

Directed by Ebrahim Golestan, the first documentary called Yek Atash (A Fire) chronicles a fire accident at an oil well in the Khuzestan region in southwest Iran and the relentless efforts to extinguish it.

The fire, which shoots up vertically and spews vast amounts of black smoke, is as spectacular as it is frightening. Iranian firefighters, with their rickety tractor and water hoses look completely outmatched by the powerful flames that raged on for 70 days.

The footage and voiceover document the effect the fire had on local villagers, who are forced to relocate in order to avoid being poisoned by residual gases. But the life-threatening tasks captured on raw footage of firefighters approaching the vast flame have a resounding effect on the viewer.

In the end, the fire is extinguished using an insulated, dynamite-filled box that is dropped by a tractor into the flames. It explodes at the source of the leak, presumably using up all the available oxygen.

But while the review presented A Fire as “the privileging of foreign interests” in pre-Revolution Iran, this was not immediately apparent. George, who preferred not to give his last name, said he was keen to understand the factors that led to the Shah’s ouster. However, the message behind the first documentary was difficult to discern. And while he enjoyed seeing a different perspective on Iran, he felt the sound of the fire and “monotone commentary” unsettling. 

The second documentary titled Tehran is the Capital of Iran depicts the devastating poverty among the deprived located south of the capital. The film opens and closes with shots of the homeless lying outstretched and limp in a cave.

Then the camera takes us into a classroom where young women with children repeat in unison the words of the teacher. Many of the local children, the voiceover notes, are abandoned.

One homeless man interviewed in the documentary sums up his helplessness, saying, “What kind of a living is this? […] Instead of giving some help to miserable wretches like me… They oppress us. Are we not too [sic], Moslems?”

Unsurprisingly, the film was banned when it was first released in Iran. Director Kamran Shirdel, deemed by some the pioneer of critical documentary filmmaking in Iran, was told to cease production of his second film.

Jihad Saade present at the event was impressed with Shirdel’s film as he was with the other documentaries. As a film student, Saade was particularly taken by how the director captured a specific aspect of history in its raw form. Tehran is the Capital of Iran came in sharp contrast to other documentaries he had watched of pre-Revolution Iran that had portrayed the country as liberalized and wealthy. The deep-seated underbelly of poverty in 1970s Iran was a revelation to Saade, who felt he gained a better understanding of the country’s history.

The final documentary, Ya Zamene Ahu (O Guardian of the Deer), documents an entire day at the shrine of Imam Reza, the eighth Shia Imam, located in the city of Mashhad in northeast Iran. It is the image of fervent religiosity rarely captured in its purest form.

Director Parviz Kimiavi said about his documentary: "There is the religious belief which leads the human beings to the shrine… All the human beings and things in the film are real, nothing has been arranged." One cannot help but be struck by the rush of people to touch, hold and kiss the shrine, the wails of sobbing visitors, and other emotions that run through the short film.

Lina, who also preferred not to give her last name, said O Guardian of the Deer  was the most interesting of the three shown, since it allowed her to compare religious fervency in Lebanon and the Arab world to that witnessed in 1970s Iran. The latter, she said “was of a completely different intensity.”

While she was disappointed that the documentaries were not more directly related to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Lina plans to return for BAC’s Blue Hour Part 2, which is scheduled for March 26.

Watch the three documentaries shown at BAC’s Blue Hour Part 1 here, here and here.