Nosrat Karimi (22 December 1924 – 3 December 2019) was an Iranian actor, screenwriter, make-up artist, voice actor, puppeteer and director who is responsible for many ‘firsts’ in Iranian cinema. He made the first stop-motion film, first puppet-film and founded the first animation studio. Also the first filmmaker in the world to be sentenced to have his hands cut for making a film. A filmmaker whose service to the art and culture industry in ten years was as much if not more than thousands of government officials, and somehow spent the next 41 years of his life isolated in his house.
Before returning to Iran in 1965, Nosrat Karimi had spent 5 years in Prague studying film and television directing. A principal reason behind Karimi’s decision in moving to Prague was puppeteering as Czechoslovakia was a pillar for puppet theater. He graduated from university with a 3-minute stop-motion animation titled “Life Insurance” in 1959 and introduced himself as one of the first Iranians to have ever made an animated film in cinema history. Upon his return to Iran, he immediately founded the first modern animation studio along with Esfandiyar Ahmadiyeh and Jafar Tajarchi, and began working on the first farsi animated short-film. He was the first Iranian filmmaker to employ technics like ‘cel animation’ and ‘cutout animation’ and created animated short-films like “Life” and “Jamshid’s Palace”. Karimi would interpret similes, poems and oral tales in all his animations and much like many greats of his generation, especially his favorite Abdolhossein Noushin, integrated ancient Iranian stories with modern techniques.
Video excerpt taken from “Life” (1965)
Karimi’s main talent in cinema was manufacturing and directing puppets. He had learned the traits of puppeteering and stop-motion animation in Czechoslovakia from great filmmakers like Jiří Trnka and Karel Zeman. Thanks to his familiarity with plasticine figures, he had a unique understating of the different types of folks in a society and later used this knowledge in creating characters for his live-action films as well. In 1967, Karimi made the first puppet short- film of Iranian cinema titled “Lion Skin, Mouse Heart” shot by Maziar Partow. This film is regarded as the foundation upon which puppet cinema was established in Iran, which encouraged many young artists to join the field. The shadow of Karimi’s film loomed over Iranian cinema for years and even a film like “City of Mice”, which was made 20 years after, is clearly influenced by Karimi’s film.
Video excerpt taken from “Lion Skin, Mouse Heart” (1967)
Nosrat Karimi had studied cinema in Italy during his youth and was struck by Italian neorealism cinema after working with esteemed directors like Vittorio De Sica and Luchino Visconti. In 1971, Karimi made his first live-action film titled “The Carriage Driver”, which was heavily influenced by Italian neorealism. However, Karimi’s interest in comedy made “The Carriage Driver” more similar to post-neorealism comedies like those of Mario Monicelli and Pietro Germi than neorealist giants like De Sica and Rossellini, since the film didn’t directly tackle social issues and rather wore a comedic mask to deal with them. The film tells the story of two middle-aged people’s love for each other and the biggest obstacle in their way: their children’s love for each other. The romantic arrangement of the film (i.e. man falls for woman whose son falls for his daughter) clearly exposes conservative beliefs of the society like hijab, honor, etc. in his next films, including “A Bed for Three”, he used sheer math to ridicule other stigmas that existed in society.
Video excerpt taken from “The Carriage Driver” (1971)
The most controversial film of Nosrat Karimi’s short-lived career is titled “Nikah Halala”. The film revolves around a man who triple divorces his wife, which he later regrets and sets out to find another man to sleep with his wife as the “Halala”. The tension between sexual desire and traditional customs is one of Karimi’s favorite dynamics, which makes him similar to Pietro Germi, the creator of “Divorce Italian Style”. But unfortunately, “Nikah Halala” is not well known because of the film itself, but rather for the controversy that surrounded the film after its release. Morteza Motehari, an influential religious clerk of the time, criticized the film without ever seeing it and accused Karimi of profanity against Islamic traditions. It was the filmmaker’s bad luck that six years later Motehari’s government came into power and Karimi was sent to jail. He was first sentenced to have his hand cut, but thanks to his popularity, his sentence was reduced to revoking his right to ever direct another film. If Karimi were ever able to freely make films, he would have made a comedy from that situation, but unfortunately traditional beliefs are just as comic as they are tragic and terrifying in real life.
Video excerpt taken from “Nikah Halala” (1971)
Nosrat Karimi’s right to make films or act was taken away after the revolution, but he couldn’t stay idle and worked in other mediums. He wrote, made some short commercial films, appeared in a few documentaries, did some voice acting, supervised scripts, experimented with make-up and most importantly, rediscovered the world of his puppets. There was never any sign or picture of him in the media for 41 years after the revolution, but those who knew him could recognize his voice or his puppets on stage or on screen. In the opening credits of the 80s kids program “Bache-ha Man Voroojakam”, his voice, his puppets and his stories made appearances. It was probably sweet and entertaining for kids at the time, but for those of us who know of Karimi’s destiny, watching it ignites nothing but shame and remorse.
Video excerpt taken from “Bache-ha Man Voroojakam” (1992)
Puppets and figurines were Nosrat Karimi’s companions. He had learned acting from puppets and would alter his face on stage or on screen just like how a clay figurine would change facial expressions. After the revolution, he devoted himself to creating puppet faces and made nearly 500 faces of different types and moods. These faces are all essentially the roles he could have played in these dark years. 500 characters that were killed before being born; 500 characters that were stopped in their tracks before ever taking a step; 500 masks of death for one of the liveliest artists of Iranian contemporary art.