Still in Time: On Kianoush Ayari’s The Newborns

Iranian cinema has become synonymous with its most significant rupture: the 1979 Revolution. This is true across popular, journalistic, and academic sources. Scores of monographs, articles, and festival programs insist upon pre- and post-revolutionary cinema as the most logical structure for Iranian film historiography. Books end abruptly in 1979; articles interrogate the long-term effects of the revolution on film production; and international film festivals tout the unexpected miracle of post-revolutionary Iranian cinema. Of course, one should not diminish the significance of the revolution to the film industry in Iran. Such a massive political event inevitably resulted in social and cultural corollaries that changed what it meant to make a film in the country. However, one might wonder what gets lost in this traditional periodization of Iranian film. What moments, movements, and measures slip through the cracks of this narrative, which so neatly snaps over a century of Iranian cinema neatly into two?

One such slippage is Kianoush Ayari’s Tāzeh-nafas-hā (The Newborns), a film which is neither pre-revolutionary nor post-revolutionary. It is just revolutionary. Here, I am not evoking the popular definition of the word “revolutionary” to mean that The Newborns is radically different than other films—although it may be. Rather, I mean that the film documents the revolution as it unfolded in real time. The Newborns, commissioned by state television in 1979 and shot on 16mm film, includes footage that the young director shot in Tehran during the spring of that year. Because, in the end, the documentary did not get screening permissions, it remains unfinished, a loose assemblage of shots and scenes that do not create a coherent narrative but instead capture a revolutionary zeitgeist in all of its excitement and possibility. In the film, the revolution is everywhere—in the snippets of theater productions condemning the Pahlavi monarchy; in the debates about whether the leadership of the revolution has followed through with its promises; in pop-up political satire comedy performances in parks; and in the lingering shots of Che Guevara posters for sale. In The Newborns, the whole city seems to have become a carnival, as Fereydoun Shahbazian’s playful soundtrack bounces alongside street vendors, photobooths, picnics, and skateboard races. And yet occasional images from Tehran’s slums serve as a somber rejoinder to the film’s festive tone, a reminder of the uncertain and perhaps devastating future that lies ahead.

It was likely the multitude of revolutionary perspectives that made The Newborns controversial by 1980. History remembers revolutions as singular, momentary events. The new order requires a coherent narrative about what the revolution was, and what it wasn’t. However, The Newborns refuses to pick just one side. Ayari captures a utopic moment when everything was unsettled and anything possible. That such a moment existed at all already unravels the tidiness of historical memory. The revolution didn’t just happen in an instance but rather meandered unevenly through time. Indeed, all of the revolution’s different political orientations occupy space on screen. They are represented in the books for sale, the impassioned debates between people on the sidewalk, and the impromptu speeches that gather large crowds. Other than hope for a better future, the ordinary people who appear in The Newborns agree on very little. Even the final scene—which includes images of people excitedly preparing for an upcoming election—leaves everything open to possibility. The film’s tenor of uncertainty and possibility could not accommodate the needs of state-run television at the time, which sought to consolidate the story of the Islamic Revolution.

Thus, for many years a rough cut of The Newborns collected dust in the archives of the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB). The director added the text “Summer 1979 in Tehran Today” to the opening frame before depositing it in the IRIB archives. As Tara Najd Ahmadi argues, although the film is largely unedited, this text gave some semblance of closure to the incomplete film, protecting it from possible misappropriation as raw footage. The text “Summer 1979 in Tehran Today” also keeps the film still in time, as Summer 1979 will always be today. This condition of stillness foreshadowed The Newborns’s fate as an artifact banished to the archive—unfinished, untouched, and unscreened—where it rested for decades still in time.

In the mid-2000s, The Newborns was discovered and smuggled out of the IRIB archive, nearly three decades after its original production. The film was digitized and entered into the informal DVD market in Tehran, where it began to attract the attention of cinephiles and movie enthusiasts. It was through this informal network of DVD shops that The Newborns became the subject of a documentary, Gomshodeh-hā (The Lost Ones, dir. Elham Hosseinzadeh, 2009). In The Lost Ones, filmmaker Elham Hosseinzadeh tracks down the film on DVD and watches it with its Kianoush Ayari, who hasn’t seen the footage in three decades. Their curiosity about the ordinary people in the film lead them on an adventure to track down one of its most memorable figures, a man named Morteza Peykari, whose comedic imitations of the biggest political and cultural figures attracted large audiences in Mellat Park. The odds are against the two filmmakers, since they have no idea whether Peykari still lives in the country. Through sheer determination and a bit of luck, Hosseinzadeh and Ayari are able to find Peykari, and the documentary ends with Peykari and Ayari returning to the same hillside in Mellat Park where Peykari had performed for a large audience in The Newborns. After living in Germany for several years, the soft-spoken Peykari now works as a salesman. As the two middle-aged men walk among the park’s grassy knolls, speaking barely above a whisper, we as viewers are left wondering whether they the lost ones of Hosseinzadeh’s title.

Shortly after the documentary, The Newborns began finding its way to video-streaming sites like YouTube and Aparat, reaching a wider but still limited viewership. It was the kind of film that one had to know about in order to find, and since most versions online had no subtitles, viewership was largely confined to Persian speakers. Its inclusion on the Docunight platform, thus, represents an important development for the film, signaling its importance to the history of Iranian cinema and also supplying meticulous English subtitles for greater accessibility. Now that the film has been brought to light, what new things about the history of cinema in Iran can it reveal? What previously obscured lessons does a revolutionary film like The Newborns teach us?

American University of Beirut

Docunight is a platform where a diverse range of documentaries about Iran have been compiled and screened since 2014.

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