Ebrahim Golestan

Ebrahim Golestan (born October 19, 1922 in Shiraz, Iran), is an Iranian filmmaker, writer, translator, journalist and photographer. He is undoubtably one of the most distinguished intellectual figures of Iran and his role in elevating contemporary Iranian art and culture is undeniable. In the world of cinema, he’s made a few documentaries and two highly influential feature-films. Moreover, he paved the path for many other Iranian intellectuals, including Forough Farokhzad, to enter filmmaking by establishing Golestan Studio. His most prominent work is called “Brick and Mirror”; a striking and era-defining film that according to many critics, is the first modern Iranian film.

By establishing Golestan Studios, Ebrahim Golestan founded the first ever modern filmmaking studio in Iran. Despite being partially financed by the National Oil Company, Golestan succeeded in maintaining his artistic independence and delivered cinematic experiences that were unprecedented, due to his social and political influence at the time. A significant attribute of Studio Golestan of that era was developing a modern and professional environment for a truly collaborative effort. Meaning, each person would first train in a specific field and later practice their specialty profesionally. The Minasian brothers and Shahrokh Golestan (Ebrahim Golestan’s brother), were directors of photography; Rouhallah Emami and Forough Farokhzad were editors; Najaf Daryabandari would handle official duties with Karim Emami and Fereydoun Rahnama taking on the production of documentaries. The documentaries created in Studio Golestan were not only modern films in form and content, but also entirely modern in their production.

Stills taken from “A Fire” (1961)

“Moj, Marjan & Khara” (“Wave, Coral and Rock”) is Ebrahim Golestan’s most essential documentary and an era-defining work of Iranian cinema. Ebrahim Golestan co-directed this film with Alan Pendry in 1962. The film itself was requested by the National Oil Company and it revolves around the construction of the Gachsaran pipeline To Khark island. This films is similar in many aspects to the British/American documentaries that were common at the time, but the poetic and somewhat cutting commentary of Golestan makes it stand out among similar documentaries that had more of an official and matter-of-fact approach in their commentary. This film is among the first examples of “poetic industrial documentaries”, a sub-genre propagated by Bert Haanstra in the 50s that took on a poetic approach to creating documentaries surrounding the process of industrial creation in the modern world. Many intellectuals and art critics at the time, including Houshang Kavousi and Bahram Beyzai, praised Golestan’s documentary and described it as “an epic of labour”. Even though “Moj, Marjan & Khara” might appear to be a film advertising the industrial advancements of the Pahlavi regime, but some frames, as well as Golestan’s ironic commentary, cleverly emphasizes on the shallowness of the government’s industrial advancements and highlights how deprived people were of the vast natural wealth in their country. In the film’s final scene, we witness Ebrahim Golestan’s most brutal criticism of Pahlavi’s imported modernization.

Stills taken from “Moj, Marjan & Khara” (1962)

One of the unique qualities of Ebrahim Golestan’s documentaries was his artistry in using sounds and words. With his documentaries, for the first time in the history of Iranian cinema, sounds weren’t only reporters of the image. Instead, there was a complex and dialectic relationship between what was viewed and heard. The scripts of his documentaries were at times official and informative, and at times unexpectedly poetic and heralds of broader concepts. Additionally, and much like the sound, the editing didn’t only serve linear storytelling; it would at times become aesthetically pleasing in and of itself and turn the film into a much more experimental experience.

Stills taken from “The Hills of Marlik” (1963)

Many critics regard Ebrahim Golestan’s “Brick & Mirror” (1964), along with Farrokh Ghafari’s “Night of The Hunchback” (1964), as the first examples of modern films within Iranian cinema. An key quality that made “Brick & Mirror” stand out from the films preceding it was its realistic depiction of a modern city. Many of Tehran’s modern and historical locations were put on display for the first time in Iranian cinema, and the raw reality of many different locations, like courthouses, police stations, hospitals, cafes, and even the slums of the capital were documented. The film’s protagonist is a taxi driver whose wanderings around the city allowed for a wider range of areas to be covered. We see Tehran documented both during the day and during its quiet and eerie nights. “Brick & Mirror” also pioneered live sound recording in Iranian cinema and recorded the raw sounds of 1960s Tehran. Thus, we can regard “Brick & Mirror” as Iranian cinema’s first ever “urban symphony”.

Stills taken from “Brick & Mirror” (1964)

“Brick & Mirror” is a film of many ‘firsts’ for Iranian cinema. It’s the first Iranian film with a realistic portrayal of a woman as opposed to just another acclamation of cliches. Its the first time that an Iranian film defamiliarizes and redefines the cafe experience by not including any farce scenes of dancing and buffoonery. For the first time in Iranian cinema, there’s an intellectual character present, and for the first time ever intellectuals are criticized on film. And it is the first Iranian film to explore ideas like urban culture and consumerism. “Brick & Mirror” has formal innovations as well. In many instances, the editing is not continuous, and much like contemporary American and European filmmakers, the director breaks the 180°-rule with poetic editing. The scene where Zakaria Hashemi encounters an unknown old lady in the slums is aesthetically and formally one of the most modern and beautiful scenes in Iranian cinema to this day.

Stills from “Brick & Mirror” (1964)

One of the main qualities of “Brick & Mirror” is the omnipresence of an existential dread and fear. Most scenes take place at night, which along with the slums, odd strangers, peculiar events, a mourning ritual and complex bureaucracy, gives everything a Kafka-esque feel. The characters of “Brick & Mirror” always fear something unknown and live in continuous misery. Not even intimacy has the ability to diminish these fears, and a fundamental form of fear, much like those in a Gholam-Hossein Sa’edi story, clouds the film entirely. Some critics interpret that fear as an allusion to the brutal modernization of Pahlavi, which alienated many people from their lives and communities. Others point to the excessive role of SAVAK agency as the proprietor of this misery and mayhem. A newly-founded agency that hovered over people’s private lives like a phantom and controlled their every move like an almighty and omnipresent god.

Video excerpt taken from “Brick and Mirror” (1964)