Samuel Khachikian

Samuel Khachikian (October 1923 – October 2001) was an Iranian filmmaker, screenwriter, playwright & film editor of Armenian descent. He was the first filmmaker to be praised by film critics and audience alike, and managed to successfully bridge the gap between art and commerce in Iranian cinema. Khachikian experimented with various genres in his career, but his greatest talent was arguably in the crime-thriller genre. Some nicknamed him “master of thrills” and “Iranian Hitchcock”.

Samuel Khachikian was born in Tabriz to Armenian parents. He moved to Tehran as a teenager and began acting in the theatre, and over the years made himself one of the all-time most respected Iranian filmmakers. As many historians of cinema point out, Armenian immigrants had a pivotal role in the evolution of Iranian cinema (parallel to Jewish immigrants for Hollywood) and the landscape of what our cinema looks like today would not have been the same without them. As a religious minority they brought their familiarity with technique and art. Cinema was the junction between art and technique and therefore attracted many Armenians. The first filmmaker, the first film teacher, first winner of an international award, first genre- filmmaker and many other firsts in Iranian cinema were all achieved by Armenians. Khachikian’s filmmaking debut came in 1953 with “Return”, and followed it up a year later with “A Girl From Shiraz” which made him a household name. “A Girl From Shiraz” became the highest-grossing film of the year and managed to gain positive reviews from critics, which was a first for an Iranian film. Toghrol Afshar, one of the very first Iranian film critics, wrote after watching the film: “The birth of the first true Iranian filmmaker.”

An important quality that made Khachikian a stand-out among other Iranian filmmakers of the 1950s, was his professional set-designs and Mise en scènes. He preferred to shoot mostly on location or in a studio, which is why his films have significantly less exterior scenes compared to the majority of Iranian films of that era. He even disguised a single locations in various ways and shot multiple scenes in the same location; a trick that drastically reduced production costs, but also disoriented the audience and made the stories hard to follow (which many film critics including Houshang Kavoosi and Karim Emami criticized). Nevertheless, no filmmaker was as successful as Khachikian in creating Mise en scènes that represented a character’s emotions and mental state for the audience to immerse themselves in. In “A Party in Hell” (1956), Khachikian’s talent in designing abstract and ambiguous sets is clearly evident, especially the scenes that take place in hell. This film was in contention at the Berlin International Film Festival, which consequently made it the first Iranian film to be recognized at an International level.

Khachikian’s most notable trait might be his use of light. Most Iranian filmmakers weren’t too concerned with lighting and only used it as a tool to light scenes and faces of their actors. Khachikian, however, had learned the art of lighting from filmmakers of other countries, and so used lights and shadows in a myriad of ways during his career. In his films shadows are cast on the wall with varying contrasts, faces are partially lit and many are shot from underneath in order to infuse his films’ atmospheres with the qualities of film-noir or the horror genre. People are either close to darkness or appear out of darkness. Besides lighting, Khachikian also embraced all that sound design had to offer. With subtle noises of a ticking clock, dripping water or footsteps, made his films more three-dimensional and cinematographic than they were.

With “The Midnight Terror”, Khachikian stepped into the crime/mystery genre and created his most mature films yet. He knew that the most important element in cinema, especially crime- thrillers, is “rhythm”, and audiences are less drawn into the film without it. In order to achieve the perfect rhythm, Khachikian reduced the duration of each shot and by adding more cuts, managed to make his cinema much more rhythmic. Moreover, Khachikian had the most camera movement in his films compared to his peers, and actors also rapidly moved within each scene. He followed two basic principals in his filmmaking: apprehension and impact. The audience needs to be filled with apprehension, which is only possible by meticulously and rhythmically impacting them with emotion and technique. Interestingly enough, Khachikian has two films titled “Apprehension” and “Impact”. Khachikian brought elements to Iranian cinema that didn’t exist before him: pace, energy, suspense, horror, movement and excitement.

finalized film of Samuel Khachikian’s career. He achieves the rhythm he’s looking for, and with the help of his signature genre techniques, makes one of the best pre-revolution crime-thrillers. One of the reasons behind his fascination with this genre goes back to his personal life and his family. He refers to a memory of his father’s, who as a teenager during the Armenian genocide, spent many days among corpses and felt fear, anxiety and apprehension with every bone in his body. The footprints of such feelings are clearly evident in Khachikian’s Mise en scènes. An invisible force always threatens the characters: a dark, dreadful and omnipresent force.

Khachikian was one of the most well-respected and successful Iranian filmmakers in 1950s and early 60s, but his talent gradually declined and his films weren’t received as well- with the exception of the film “Eagles” (1984) which was made after the revolution. One of the reasons behind this decline was that Khachikian couldn’t align himself with social and political changes and his cinema was gradually left behind by the accelerating progression of society. Another reason was Khachikian’s inability to recognize the quintessential cultural and religious qualities of the Iranian public, and failed to comprehend and capture their desires and views after a certain point. The characters of his cinema, contrary to that of Film Farsi, weren’t inherently representative of a certain class, and therefore reflected the reality faced by everyday people. “Farewell to Tehran” might be considered as Khachikian’s point of decline, although it still possesses may striking moments.