Hoshang Kavoosi – the Iranian film critic who knew too much

Omid Habibinia is an Iranian journalist and media researcher, and the co-founder of the International Association of Independent Iranian Journalists.

Omid Habibinia
Omid Habibinia

“I still can’t understand why they are censoring kissing shots in the movies, is there something more passionate and human than kissing in life?”

These are words of Iranian film critic and historian Dr. Hoshang Kavoosi, who died on March 22 at the age of 90. His sharp criticism of inane, commercial Iranian films gave him lots of enemies within the country’s film industry. Yet, he continued to write about them with his bitter, stinging and perfectionist pen.

Hoshang Kavoosi, widely considered as one of the leading journalists in the first generation of Iranian film critics, went to Paris after the end of WWII to study law and political science. He left the university and entered IDHEC (Institut des hautes études cinématographiques), the famous film school, to learn film directing. He eventually worked with famous French directors such as Claude Autant-Lara and received his PhD in Dramatic Literature from Sorbonne University and became the first Iranian film critic at that time who had a PhD in a related field.

hoshangBack to Iran in 1954, a company hired him to direct a movie, but when it turned out they could not work together he started to write film critiques. His articles became popular at a time when the critic profession was still in its infancy in Iran. He continued to make movies, all of which were unsuccessful.

Kavoosi invented the term Film-Farsi. At that time there was a simple cliché behind many Iranian movie scripts; you had a hero who usually came from the slum parts of the city where he belonged to one of the violent gangs; a girl who was likely to be a belly dancer in the cabaret fell in love with the poor guy, all while gangsters tried to seduce and hurt her. These scenes would involve a significant dosage of beating, dance and singing. At the end the (good) slum guy and his girlfriend stood victorious.

Kavoosi labeled this formula Film-Farsi.

Later on he established two key institutions in Iranian cinematic history – the Cine Club and Tehran Film Festival.

As the censorship under the Shah tightened during the 1970s, and American movies dominated the cinemas, there was little room for independent and alternative filmmakers. The situation put more pressure on film critics too, however Kavoosi gained employment with festivals, TV as well as teaching jobs at university. He even joined the surveillance office for cinema products.

Other film critics were under severe pressure by the production companies when the Iranian film industry faced its first crisis in the 70s.

During the 1979 revolution, Islamic groups exploited the opportunity and set cinemas on fire; one of the most dramatic attacks occurred at Cinema Rex in Abadan, when a pro-Khomeini militant killed several hundreds.

After the Islamic Republic’s establishment, Kavoosi sat at home and started to translate from Persian to French and vice versa, when finally he was allowed back to the university in the 1980s. He did not want to cooperate with the new cinema managers who sought to Islamize the business, and instead started to write film reviews for the famous magazine FILM.

He knew that if he criticized the official media policy or those who supported it in any way, such as Makhmalbaf, who later became a reformist and resided in Paris, this would mean the end of his journalism career. He started to change his bitter tone; although sadly this bitterness continued to strike some of the leading independent filmmakers who were not tolerated by the regime, such as Bahram Bayzai.

Ultimately, however, Hoshang Kavoosi must be remembered as the only one from the first generation of film critics who remained active inside Iran after the revolution, and it was certainly hard for anybody to ignore his inimitable voice. 

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