In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Ethnographic Films from Iran

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Reference Works
  • Journals
  • Films on Tribes
  • War Cinema and After
  • Legacy of Nader Afshar Naderi
  • The Younger Generation of Filmmakers
  • Ethnographic Film and Its Theoretical Considerations
  • Television and Streaming

Anthropology Ethnographic Films from Iran
Persheng Sadegh-Vaziri
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 March 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0259


Iranian ethnographic films began with a focus on preserving Iran’s diverse traditions and indigenous cultures. Many of these films were salvage documentaries marked by nostalgia for disappearing traditions of rural and tribal life. The earliest film from this tradition is Grass (1924), which is about tribal migration and was made by American explorers before ethnographic films were recognized as a tradition. The impetus to preserve rural and tribal cultures first came from a group of filmmakers who were trained by a team of specialists from United States Information Service’s (USIS) film program and a team of filmmakers from Syracuse University, who came to Iran in the late 1940s and 1950s to help with development and modernization. They made propaganda and educational films that promoted industrialization, health, agriculture, and education in remote regions of Iran. They also trained Iranian filmmakers who later made actuality films, some of which could be considered ethnographic, with support from state institutions such as the Ministry of Culture and Art and National Iranian Radio and Television (NIRT). The notion of what constitutes ethnographic film has been debated by scholars and filmmakers since ethnographic film was first conceived. Ethnographic film has occupied a marginal space in the academic discipline of anthropology because many films that are considered ethnographic lack rigorous scientific research and are not made by anthropologists. Many of the films discussed here are documentaries that provide detailed documentation of daily life and customs of Iranian people but most are not films made by ethnographers. Meaningful university support for the production of academic ethnographic films was rarely available in Iran, except during the leadership of Nader Afshar Naderi at Tehran University’s Social Sciences division in the early 1960s. He introduced ethnographic film to Iranian academia and made several films with detailed attention to customs and traditions of Iranian tribes. Besides films about tribes and Iran’s cultural traditions that have continued into the present day, since the Iranian Revolution of 1979, films of ethnographic value have been made about the Iran-Iraq War and more recently about urban life. Filmmakers documented the eight-year war in a long-running television series that observed soldiers on the front lines. Finally, since the early 2000s, some independent filmmakers have made films that focus on city life, particularly documenting lives of young Iranians, or have made personal and autobiographical films by turning the camera on their own lives.

General Overviews

The first general studies of Iranian ethnographic films are found in overviews of documentary and narrative cinema and reviews of the history and traditions of documentary cinema worldwide, with sections dedicated to films of ethnographic value. Naficy 1977 provides a comprehensive historical and theoretical anthology of documentary film with sections on Iranian ethnographic films of this period. Issari 1989 presents an overview of Iranian cinema from 1900 to 1979, with a notable section on the contributions of the Syracuse University team, of which he was a part. Gharabaghi 2018 conducts a thorough exploration of the Syracuse University and USIS project in Iran. Naficy 2011–2012 is a comprehensive and critical exploration of Iranian cinema in four volumes that covers 1900 to the 1990s with sections on documentary and ethnographic films. The only volumes dedicated specifically to Iranian ethnographic films from 1920s to the 1990s are critical reviews, mainly in Persian, by Emami 2005, Emami 2009, and Naficy 2013. Fakouhi 2008 also offers a general study of ethnographic film history and theory with a few chapters that are dedicated to Iranian films.

  • Adel, S. 2000. Cinema-ye ghom pajoohi. Tehran, Iran: Soroush Publishing.

    This book is a general review of ethnographic films and its history since inception. Chapters include, “Beginnings of anthropology,” “Visual Ethnography,” and “Iranian Ethnographic Cinema.” Discussions of major theories and perspectives from filmmakers are also included plus a list of significant ethnographic films.

  • Emami, H. 2005. Pishine-ye ghom pajooheshi dar cinema-e mostanad Iran. Ketab-e Mah-e Honar 85, 86 (September, October/Mehr, Aban): 70–82.

    This article divides ethnographic film history into sections, such as travel films, pre-revolution films made in the Ministry of Arts and Culture, films of ethnographic interest made in pre-revolution Iran, the films of N. A. Naderi, and films made since the late 1990s.

  • Emami, H. 2009. Cinema-ye mardom shenakhti-ye Iran. Tehran, Iran: Afkar.

    (Ethnographic cinema of Iran). Emami starts with a historical overview of ethnographic films but quickly turns its focus on Iranian films and filmmakers whose films are of ethnographic interest. There are reviews of important films that have been made since the 1960s to early 2000s, mainly films that are concerned with tribal cultures and cultures of different Iranian regions and its people.

  • Fakouhi, N. 2008. Daramadi bar ensanshenasi tasviri va film-e etnographik (An introduction to visual ethnography and ethnographic film). Tehran, Iran: Nay.

    An overview of history and theory of ethnographic films, with particular attention to Jean Rouch’s contributions in France and McDougal and Ashe’s in the United States. It includes several chapters that are translations from French anthropologists’ writings. There are a few chapters dedicated to some aspects of Iranian documentary or ethnographic films, such as films about city life and Nader Afshar Naderi’s work, and a round table with Iranian documentary filmmakers.

  • Filmba.

    Filmba is a database of Iranian documentary films and filmmakers. It mainly contains basic information about the films and the filmmakers from various decades. There is also information on books and articles on documentary films, as well as documentary film festivals, worldwide.

  • Gharabaghi, H. 2018. American mice grow big!: The Syracuse audiovisual mission in Iran and the rise of documentary diplomacy, Doctoral diss., ProQuest Dissertations Publishing.

    Gharabaghi makes an impressive contribution to the activities of USIS and the Syracuse University’s audiovisual program in Iran that institutionalized Iranian documentary filmmaking and was a political project to bring modernity to Iran in endeavor to align Iran with the United States at the onset of the Cold War.

  • Issari, M. Ali. 1989. Cinema in Iran, 1900–1979. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press.

    Issari wrote one of the first books on Iranian cinema in the United States, covering the history of early films, fiction, and documentary films before the 1979 Revolution. There is a chapter on documentary and newsreel production, from 1950 to 1965. He pays close attention to USIS (United States Information Services) and Syracuse University team’s training of filmmakers and exhibition of newsreel films in Iran during this period, when Issari was an active member of that team.

  • Naficy, H. 1977. Film-e mostanad. 2 vols. Tehran: Azad Univ. of Iran.

    (Documentary film.) Volume 2 is focused on the history of documentaries and different genres of documentaries. There is a chapter on ethnographic films that introduces the important films and theories of ethnographic films and discusses some important Iranian films that cover tribes, religions, and rituals.

  • Naficy, H. 2011–2012. A social history of Iranian cinema. 4 vols. Durham, NC: Duke Univ. Press.

    DOI: 10.1515/9780822393016

    This four-volume book has sections on pre-revolution and post-revolution documentary and ethnographic films in volumes 2 and 4, respectively. The pre-revolution section offers a thorough examination of the beginnings of ethnographic film in Iran and includes interviews with some filmmakers. Post-revolution section effectively ends in the 1990s.

  • Naficy, H. 2013. The anthropological unconscious of Iranian ethnographic films. Anthropology of the Contemporary Middle East and Central Eurasia (January): 113–125.

    This article examines Iranian ethnographic films and salvage documentaries that are focused on disappearing traditions of Iranian tribes and rituals. It also discusses the support of state institutions and the influence of modernity. Again, Naficy is focused mainly on films on tribal traditions and religious rituals.

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