By Ali Moosavi.
Bahman Maghsoudlou has produced such a comprehensive, yet intimate portrait of this great and tragic icon of the Iranian Cinema.”
Ask any scholar of the Iranian Cinema to name the top five Iranian directors from the advent of cinema in Iran till now and Bahram Beyzaie will be there. As will Abbas Kiarostami. Sohrab Shahid Sales ought to be there too. The others would come from a number of prominent directors including Dariush Mehrjui, Asghar Farhadi, Nasser Taghvaie, etc. Beyzaie, however, is unique among all these directors in that he is equally renowned and revered in the Iranian theatre as he is in cinema. Bahman Maghsoudlou – who in his marvelous documentary, Razor’s Edge, provided a detailed and probing social history of Iranian actresses – in his new documentary, Bahram Beyzaie: A Mosaic of Metaphors, looks at the career of this key figure in the Iranian cinema and theatre. For this documentary Maghsoudlou has talked to Beyzaie on a number of occasions, both in Tehran and also at Stanford University, where he currently resides, teaching cinema and theatre. Maghsoudlou has also interviews other key figures in Beyzaie’s films, including actresses Susan Taslimi, Parvaneh Massoumi and Mozhdeh Shamsai (who is married to Beyzaie).
In Iran, Beyzaie first became known through his groundbreaking plays which drew inspiration from classic Persian literature. Both in his plays and films he draws heavily on metaphors. Beyzaie states, “I think Iranian culture is metaphoric by nature.” He developed an early passion for cinema and theatre and would read religiously and watch all the new movies that he could. He started by writing and publishing plays while still a teenager. At university he studied Persian literature but when his professor did not agree with his choice of thesis, which was history of the Iranian theatre, he dropped out. His plays were performed at the main Iranian theatres and at art festivals.
Beyzaie’s interest in cinema was developed by watching American films, in particular those of Hitchcock’s. But the film that had most influence on him was Max Ophuls’s Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948). Later by watching films like Seven Samurai (1954) he was introduced to films made by directors working outside USA.
In 1965 the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young Adults (Kanun) was established. It became the place where a number of Iranian filmmakers, including Kiarostami and Beyzaie, honed their craft by making films for children.
Beyzaie’s big breakthrough was with Downpour (1972), a lyrical and humorous story of a teacher sent to a school in the poorer districts of Tehran and a love triangle involving him, the sister of one of his students and the local butcher. It won the Jury Prize at the Tehran International Film Festival. Though many people read hidden messages within the simple story, Beyzaie says that he has always tried to avoid messages. Downpour was the first of a trilogy that he made with actress Parvaneh Massoumi, the other two being Stranger and the Fog (1974) and The Crow (1976). These films had a dreamlike quality. Beyzaie says, “I don’t see any demarcations between reality, dreams and nightmares. They follow each other. Our daily lives are the realization of the dreams we have or those we are deprived of.”
After the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Beyzaie returned to the theatre. Post revolution, the censorship was centralized and every art form, from literature to cinema, was scrutinized for any hidden messages. His first two films after the revolution, Ballad of Tara (1979) and Death of Yazdgerd (1981), were denied screening permits. These films also marked that start of his collaboration with Susan Taslimi, arguable the greatest actress in the history of Iranian cinema. Beyzaie says, “Iranian directors realized that they would need to learn to fly with tethered wings.” He then used Hitchcock as an inspiration and made the psychological thriller Maybe Some Other Time (1983). Next was a film that many consider Beyzaie’s masterpiece, Bashu, the Little Stranger (1984). This tale of a little boy who escapes from the war torn south of Iran to take refuge in the North, was also banned. The authorities’ objection was that Muslims should not escape from fighting. It was eventually given screening permit but with the proviso that Susan Taslimi’s name should not be listed as the main actor. Beyzaie says, “At that time, Susan and I had a very strong cerebral relationship. We were both under tremendous pressure. I had two films banned and she had been fired from her job at the City Theatre.” In a survey carried out by BBC Persian among 100 Iranian film experts in 2019, Bashu, the Little Stranger was selected as the best Iranian film made after the 1979 revolution.
During the making of his next film, Travellers (1992), Beyzaie started working with actress Mozhdeh Shamsai whom he married shortly afterwards. This allegorical story was written by him in 1975. He decided to film it as he had difficulty raising budgets and the action of this film was mainly confined within a house. Killing Mad Dogs (2001), which Beyzaie describes as being about “a society that talks about morality but is very materialistic,” was very successful at the box office.
Like Bashu and Travellers, most Beyzaie films feature women as central characters. According to Susan Taslimi, “Beyzaie was one of the first Iranian filmmakers to place a woman at the centre of the film, while questioning the patriarchal society. This was painful for our society and for those who valued male chauvinism.”
When We are All Asleep (2009) was the last film that Beyzaie made in Iran. He says, “All my films are about identity.” He and his wife decided to leave Iran in 2010 and move to the States, where Beyzaie was offered a teaching position at Stanford. He says, “I hate politics and politicians. I am not necessarily a religious person, but I witnessed my parents’ suffering and I could not bear someone insulting my children.” Beyzaie’s parents belonged to the Baha’i sect which is not recognized in Iran, and its followers are often persecuted.
His wife, Mozhdeh Shamsai says, “Bahram’s love for Iran is such that just hearing the name of Iran, brings tears to his eyes.” Beyzaie is “hopeful that a new culture will emerge in the new nation and with it, a new Iran.” One is thankful that Bahman Maghsoudlou in Bahram Beyzaie: A Mosaic of Metaphors has produced such a comprehensive, yet intimate portrait of this great and tragic icon of the Iranian Cinema while he is still alive.
Ali Moosavi has worked in documentary television and has written for Film Magazine (Iran), Cine-Eye (London), and Film International (Sweden). He contributed to the second volume of The Directory of World Cinema: Iran (Intellect, 2015).