Federico Fellini's "The Clowns."
Federico Fellini's "The Clowns."

In recent years, much of the English-speaking world has heard about Iranian cinema. Many Western audiences have seen the Oscar-winning "A Separation" and explored the filmography of Abbas Kiarostami. With the imprisonment of seminal Iranian director Jafar Panahi, plenty of stories about the challenges of making movies in Iran have circled the world. But what about the challenges of writing *about* movies in Iran?

You may never have heard about Iranian film critics, about how they watch movies in a country that never screens foreign titles and where DVDs are not sold in stores. Allow me to fill that gap. What you are about to read is my personal account of watching movies in Iran as a film critic, but I am certain much about my experience applies to other young critics in the country.

The first thing I remember about movies is a single picture: Federico Fellini with clown make-up from the movie "The Clowns" on the cover of Film, the oldest monthly film magazine in Iran (published since 1982). I vividly remember how it terrified me. My father, a film buff before the Islamic Revolution in 1979, used to buy the magazine and he was the man who introduced me to cinema. He told me many stories about movies he had seen before the Revolution, when movies were dubbed into Persian and cinemas were interested in screening popular American movies like "Gone with the Wind" and "Casablanca." He recalled that there were few cinematheques (the first was founded by Farrokh Ghafari in 1941) that only screened European movies such as those made by Ingmar Bergman or Michelangelo Antonioni.

In the mid-1980s, the only ways to know about movies in Iran were from the latest issues of Film and a television program called "Honar-e Haftom" ("Seventh Art"). Since I couldn't read yet, I watched the program, which featured classic movies such as "Metropolis," "Rashomon" and "Psycho."

There was another way of watching movies in late 1980s and 1990s that many people around the world will fondly recall: VHS. Although video players were banned then, many people owned them anyway. While we didn’t have one, sometimes my father borrowed his friends' machines and let me watch "appropriate" movies like Charlie Chaplin's "Modern Times," "The Beauty and the Beast" or "Sound of the Music." However, I sometimes sneaked out of my bedroom late at night and secretly watched some guilty pleasures -- "Goldfinger," on one occasion -- when my father put them on for himself.

By the mid-1990s, the VHS ban was lifted and Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997 – 2005) brought the country several cultural reforms. As a result, more movies were available and CDs became popular. By the late 1990's, the movies were everywhere.