Cinema-ye Azad: The Lost History of the Iranian Independent Cinema Collective

by Hadi Alipanah

In the 60s in Iran short films were mainly produced as commissioned works. Historical events and industrial developments were captured on film to glorify state achievements. Independent productions were rare since the necessary equipment for 16mm and 35mm film was only available to governmental institutions and film studios.

Professional equipment was not easily accessible to independent filmmakers. For the few self-produced films that were made under adverse conditions, there were hardly any distribution possibilities.

Against this background, on 3 October 1969 in the courtyard of a kindergarten in the center of Tehran a meeting took place. There, organized by young, open-minded cultural enthusiasts and filmmakers, some independently produced 16mm films and one 8mm film were shown on a makeshift screen.

[Fig. 1] Screening of Collection of Cinema-ye Azad short films, Shiraz Art Fest 1975 or 1976 (Source: Hadi Alipanah, date unknown).

[Fig. 1] Screening of Collection of Cinema-ye Azad short films, Shiraz Art Fest 1975 or 1976 (Source: Hadi Alipanah, date unknown).

After the screening, former journalist Basir Nasibi gave a speech—he himself showed two of his own unfinished 16mm film works that evening.

Unfortunately, this speech was not recorded; the memories of those present are partly summarized in the book Ten Years of Cinema-ye Azad.

During my research in recent years, I interviewed some of the participants. Through my questions, long-forgotten memories came back to light. Basir Nasibi, for example, founder and leader of the Cinema-ye Azad movement, remembers well what was manifested that evening. Mainly, the engaged group declared its dissociation and dislike for the Iranian commercial cinema of those days. The call in the Tehran backyard was for them to become independent of the state power that wanted to control the content and approach of filmmakers, and to devote themselves to self-determined narratives and creative content. There was a call for experimentation and to overthrow state dogmas with film works.

The handy 8mm film cameras spread rapidly at the end of the 60s. Among professional filmmakers, however, the format was frowned upon as amateur film material.

But because of the greater and easier accessibility to cameras and material, and for lack of alternatives, Nasibi advocated that 8mm film could be used just as much as a serious, artistic means of expression. For it is not the camera that makes the film, it is not the size of the frame that matters, but the creativity and the motive of the filmmaker. The new movement was founded. A few days after this event, the film director Fereydoun Rahnema suggested that Basir Nasibi call the collective of the young creatives Cinema-ye Azad (Cinema-ye Azad literally means “Free Cinema,” referring to independent filmmaking).

In the beginning, the group mainly organized film screenings at universities. To get into the exchange, interested people had to attend the collective’s screenings, to which Basir Nasibi was usually present, or the followers had to write letters. Cinema-ye Azad did not have an office. There was only a mailbox at the Tehran post office with their name. It was important for the group to answer the requests and suggestions of the supporters that were reaching the collective from all over Iran. Nasibi devoted hours every day to answering the letters. Through newspaper articles and advertisements in film magazines, the Cinema-ye Azad movement drew attention to itself. The number of letters increased with each passing month. Meanwhile, the group produced many films, mainly short films, and submitted them to film festivals.

Cinema-ye Azad started to receive a lot of attention and recognition. Recognized filmmakers were now aware of their work and attended the film evenings. And more and more enthusiastic supporters wanted to pick up a camera themselves. Studying film in Iran was not easy at that time, it was only offered as a minor with limited access at Tehran University. There was no curriculum. Outside the capital, opportunities to study film as an art form was even more limited. In other regions of Iran, not possible at all. Here, only enthusiasm and autodidactic knowledge counted, which was gained by sharing experiences at common film evenings and reading film magazines. Motivated young artists who wanted to make a film themselves worked according to the trial-and-error principle. As soon as someone mastered the camera, he passed on his knowledge to others.

As Cinema-ye Azad became more and more professional, the group made a decisive contribution to cultural policy in the film sector. Their work was not limited to the production and screening of short films, but also to the development of Provincial offices throughout Iran. Publications and the first film magazine on short films, independently organized film festivals that formed regionally, and even a television program dedicated to short films were part of their achievements. The scale of Cinema-ye Azad’s activities were such that in 1974 the collective managed to gain the financial and general support of Iranian National Television while maintaining their independence. Some cultural and governmental organizations tried to imitate the concept of Cinema-ye Azad even back then.

Through the work of the collective, showing cinematography on 8mm became common in universities, cinemas, and festivals. A few commercial film studios tried to sign the talented filmmakers of the Cinema-ye Azad movement as directors for feature films. During their 10 years of activity, the group had more than 300 members, produced about 1,000 short films and 5 full-length films for television. They maintained 20 active offices in several Iranian cities and organized 9 festivals, 3 of which were international; more than 30 regional short film festivals were also regularly organized as part of the Cinema-ye Azad movement [Fig 1-3].

[Fig. 2] Poster, Cinema-ye Azad Film Week, 1975 (Source: Hadi Alipanah 1975).

[Fig. 2] Poster, Cinema-ye Azad Film Week, 1975 (Source: Hadi Alipanah 1975).

[Fig. 3] Poster, Cinema-ye Azad, 9. Festival, 1977 (Source: Hadi Alipanah 1977).

[Fig. 3] Poster, Cinema-ye Azad, 9. Festival, 1977 (Source: Hadi Alipanah 1977).

In 1979, a few months after the Islamic Revolution, Nasibi had already left Iran, when the remaining members of the collective were invited to a meeting on Iranian state television. After attending this meeting, they realized that the new regime would no longer allow them to operate freely. Therefore, they all decided together to stop the movement. The new leaders in the country tried to continue the activities, with new members and name change from Cinema-ye Azad to Islamic Amateur Filmmaking Center. However, they failed to imitate the pulse of the movement.

When I started researching the history of Cinema-ye Azad, apart from the book Ten years of Cinema-ye Azad by Basir Nasibi, which was published outside Iran and is very hard to get, there were no reliable and accurate documents of the movement’s activities, nor were the films available. In the preface to his book Nasibi describes that his memory has shortcomings, but he did not want to be deprived of the attempt to reinterpret the memory. The biographies and works of most of the filmmakers have not been archived.

Despite my efforts, I did not manage to get support from state or private institutions to carry out this research. Many documents from the central and provincial offices of Cinema-ye Azad have been lost. Part of my work is researching the films and documents and preserving and archiving the pieces I have found. To date, I have been able to recover about 300 films made during the active period of Cinema-ye Azad. Contacting and talking to the filmmakers of the movement helps me to compile additional material on the films. Many of the filmmakers now have transnational biographies, and studying their fates gives me a deeper insight into Iran’s film history. My search goes on and on, the curiosity about each lost film and their makers is a journey in itself. I keep asking myself, how could such a significant film movement be forgotten?

Translated from Farsi by Afsun Moshiry

Further Readings

Aghighi, Saeid. 2019. “چرا سینمای آزاد؟ [Why Cinema-ye Azad?]” Findan Magazine, October 3. Accessed June 2, 2023.

Alipanah, Hadi. 2019. “دوباره از آغاز | به بهانه پنجاه سالگی جنبش سینمای آزاد [Again, from the bigging: for the 50th anniversary of Cinema-ye Azad].” Findan Magazine, October 3. Accessed June 2, 2023.

Fakhriyan, Majid. 2019. “موج این‌جاست!، سینمای آزاد و خاطراتش [The wave is here! Cinema-ye Azad and its memories].” Findan Magazine, October 3. Accessed June 2, 2023.