Bleeding slowly from a bullet wound and carrying a suitcase full of stolen bank money, Ghodrat (Gharibian) searches for his high school best friend, Seyyed (Vossoughi), to give him shelter. When he finally locates Seyyed, instead of the imposing school legend renowned for his toughness and valour, Ghodrat finds a burned-out heroin addict who is barely hanging on to his current job as a barker for a lowly variety theatre. Despite an initial memory lapse, Seyyed eventually remembers his old friend and happily takes Ghodrat to his small and humble rental room in a large house with several other poor and down-on-their-luck neighbours, which he shares with his girlfriend, Fati (Partovi), an actress in the same theatre. Ghodrat gradually reminds Seyyed of his past glory and encourages him to stand up for himself. Seyyed’s reawakening leads to a number of violent confrontations, which include him beating his despotic landlord, and stabbing to death his main drug supplier, Asghar (Raoufi). Ghodrat, who now thinks that Seyyed has regained his honour, asks his old friend Fati to deliver the stolen money to another trusted friend. Upon their return, they find the house surrounded by an army of policemen who are after Ghodrat. Seyyed convinces the police chief to allow him to negotiate a peaceful surrender with Ghodrat. But when he runs toward the house, he is shot and wounded. He survives to join Ghodrat for one last heroic stand. In the end, the building where Seyyed and Ghodrat are barricading themselves is subjected to a hail of bullets and is blown to bits by heavy explosives.
By the time The Deer was released in 1976, 35-year old Massoud Kimiai, with films such as Gheysar (1969), Reza, the Cyclist (1970) and Dash Akol (1971), was already established as one of the leading directors of Iran’s New Wave Cinema of the 1970s.1 His visual style and thematic consistency had also solidified his reputation as an auteur par excellence. Starting with Gheysar, his second film (and one of the possible starting points of the New Wave), a documentary-like approach, real location shooting, kinetic and restless camera-style, and fastpaced editing based on constantly changing camera angles marked all of Kimiai’s films. Accordingly, he regularly worked with certain actors (including Vossoughi and Gharibian who play the two protagonists in The Deer) and production crew members (including cinematographer Haghighi). He also consistently collaborated with the famed composer Esfandiar Monfared-Zadeh and counterculture singer-songwriter Farhad Mehrdad in most of his pre-Revolutionary films. Together MonfaredZadeh and Farhad (as he was known by his first name only) not only composed memorable music for Kimiai’s films, but the pair also created the soundtrack of Iran’s disaffected urban youth of the 70s, thus associating Kimiai’s films with that generation’s angst and dissatisfaction with social and cultural norms.
However visually and aurally consistent Kimiai’s films were, his auteurial signature and presence was most significantly recognised in terms of the thematic and narrative coherence of his cinema. Again, starting with Gheysar, themes of refaghat (male friendship and loyalty), gheyrat (the traditional masculine code of honour and pride), namous (another masculine code of honour concerned with the protection of women’s virtue) and vigilante justice almost always structured Kimiai’s dominantly revenge narratives. Kimiai’s stories were also populated with the lower middle class and/or working-class characters, who embodied many of the above-mentioned traditional values. He often wrote his own screenplays, but even when he adapted well-known literary works such as Sadegh Hedayat’s (Iran’s most celebrated twentieth century writer) Dash Akol, the same themes were central in the film adaptation.
It was precisely this apparent cultural traditionalism that put many modernist intellectuals and artists in adversarial position toward Kimiai and his films. Traditionalism was also one major factor contributing to a lack of acceptance and cultural translation of Kimiai outside Iran’s borders. Even when occasionally shown at film festivals, his films were judged to be too parochial for a Western audience. He never attained the same degree of post-Revolutionary international success that many colleagues of his generation, such as Abbas Kiarostami, Bahram Beyzai and Amir Naderi, enjoyed. The unease that many Iranian intellectuals felt toward Kimiai was definitely not an isolated case, but symbolised a certain social tension between two possible paths for Iran’s future (both critical of the Shah’s despotic regime) that manifested itself in the cinematic sphere. Regardless, Kimiai always enjoyed domestic popularity and success.
While The Deer displays many of the same formal and thematic aspects of Kimiai’s previous films, it also marks a number of shifts. Firstly, gone is the gross misogyny of Ghazal (1975), in which two brothers kill the woman they both love in order to resolve their sibling rivalry. The main female protagonist of The Deer, Fati, is a strong, outspoken and financially independent woman, who takes care of Seyyed. Now this does not mean a feminist turn in Kimiai at all; masculine codes of honour, gheyrat and namous, still play a significant role in the film. Fati expects Seyyed to protect her against the sexual advances of her co-actors and is disappointed when he does not confront them. Seyyed’s indifference toward defending Fati’s honour has downgraded their sexual relationship to a platonic one. The first sign of Seyyed’s reawakening after Ghodrat’s arrival is punching the male lead of the play for pinching Fati, a seemingly chivalrous act that reignites Fati’s romantic feelings for Seyyed.
While friendship (refaghat) is one the film’s main themes, it is presented not as a given and fixed entity (as it had been in Kimiai’s previous films), but as a complicated and layered relationship that needs to be constantly renegotiated and reconstructed. Ghodrat and Seyyed’s exchange of disbelieving gazes and the failure to remember old friends create a heartbreaking moment signifying disillusionment and shattered dreams. The enigmatic title of the film, Gavaznha (The Deer, plural) itself is a euphemism for wasted potentials and a fall from grace. Hamid Naficy quotes Kimiai recalling a childhood memory: ‘He remembers as a schoolchild his teacher telling the class that deer have ugly legs, but beautiful horns, and that what saves them in a tight spot is their speed, thanks to their ugly scrawny legs, while that which snares them is their long pretty horns. The reverse is true of the film’s main character: two close friends with a vast potential for social good fall victim to vice – one to heroin addiction, the other to robbery’ (2012: 383–4). And like deer locking horns, it is only through brutal honesty and confrontation that Ghodrat and Seyyed are able to remember and reconnect as friends and eventually as allies. However, it would have been easily decipherable for Iranian audiences in the 70s that Ghodrat and Seyyed’s characters are heavily encoded by Kimiai as allegorical constructions of social forces: their complicated relationship certainly conveys social and political significance that goes beyond a simple friendship.
One may justifiably argue that The Deer is Kimiai’s first explicitly political film. The questions of class and social (in)justice that had always been bubbling under the surface in the previous films, here emerge as central themes. The figure of Ghodrat (literally meaning power), a moustachioed bank thief wearing glasses (iconic visual signs of Iran’s leftist intellectuals in the 70s) and speaking the leftist rhetoric of revolutionary resistance, ambiguously represents the first cinematic acknowledgement of that era’s urban guerrilla warfare.2 Vossoughi’s tour-de-force performance as Seyyed becomes a thinly veiled allegory for the traditional lower classes, easily recognised and decoded by the literate urban spectators. Seyyed needs to be reminded and reawakened by Ghodrat’s persistent questions about his honourable past identity and his present passive and parasitic existence, a dialogue that was at the core of the urban guerrilla warfare meant to shock and mobilise the passive populace. Although Seyyed’s decline is largely attributed to his drug addiction, his current position as a theatre barker is not accidental. By linking mass entertainment, drug addiction, indifference and passivity to class oppression and by delineating an integrated network of social relations, The Deer constructs a social map of 70s Iran. The violent explosion in the final act seems to foreshadow the political upheaval a few years later.
The question of violence, in previous films always framed in ritualistic terms of codes of honour (gheyrat and namous), is now reframed in The Deer as the oppressor’s brutality versus the righteous self-defence of the oppressed. In one key scene, in response to Seyyed’s observation that despite their different paths in life, they have both ended in the same place – Ghodrat with a bullet wound in his stomach and a briefcase full of bank money, and Seyyed a drug addict and a former petty pusher – Ghodrat patiently but resolutely rejects any similarities between their positions. He explains the difference between the drug business’s devastating effect on the youth of the nation and his own justified bank robbery that redistributes the wealth, feeds the poor or provides shelter for the homeless. This discussion seems to be the catalyst for Seyyed’s righteous acts of violence that ensue shortly. The difference between Ghodrat and Seyyed in terms of violence is also shown in their choice of weapons. The traditional Seyyed uses a switchblade to kill Asghar, while Ghodrat uses an automatic handgun in his confrontation with the police. Ultimately, both weapons seem inadequate in confrontation with the overwhelming military might of the state in the final scene. While the film depicts the heroic stand as tragic and futile, once the hail of bullets starts, the camera never goes back inside Seyyed’s room and never shows the comrades dying or dead. In a way, the denouement acknowledges the social potential of such isolated moments of resistance, as the final shot and freeze-frame shows the building after the explosion with smoke rising from it, perhaps a foreshadowing of the social upheaval to come.
Regardless of all the film’s formal and narrative qualities, The Deer has become a quintessential film in Iranian film history for three main reasons. First, it was the movie in which Vossoughi transcended his popular image as a superstar and matinee idol and became universally hailed as a skilled actor for his complex and layered portrayal of Seyyed: a conflicting combination of an addict’s desperation for the next fix and selfness sacrifice for an old friend. Although the Iranian Revolution disrupted Vossoughi’s career, he is still respected as one the best actors in the history of Iranian cinema. Undoubtedly, his Seyyed in The Deer is one of the most highly regarded performances of his career. The visual transformation of Vossoughi from a dashing action and romantic hero into a hunchedover, burned out, drug addict was a remarkable crossover success that also marked the merging of popular and art cinemas, at least in certain moments.
Second, the unambiguous and explicit depictions of violence and poverty, veiled references to urban guerrilla warfare, and most importantly, the enthusiastic public reaction to the film brought the censors’ wrath upon The Deer. The synopsis that was presented in the beginning of this piece describes the first version of the film that was screened for the first time in the third International Tehran Film Festival and that was immediately banned. According to Ahmad Amini, ‘in various circulating synopses of the film and even in a conversation with Kimiai in the festival’s bulletin, Ghodrat is unconvincingly and repeatedly characterised as an ordinary burglar. [H]owever, the film’s audacity was intolerable and it was confiscated.’ (1993: 226).3 Vossoughi was interrogated by SAVAK (the state’s secret police) several times and was threatened with death, even though he had won the festival’s best actor’s award and was present at a screening in the royal palace with the Shah’s sister, Ashraf Pahlavi (Naficy 2012: 385–6). Kimiai and the producers were asked to make certain alterations in order to get the permission for public screening including ‘altering some of the dialogue and reshooting and reediting parts of it with fewer police in the final shootout’ (Naficy 2012: 386). There were at least two alternative endings in the altered versions. In one ending, Ghodrat shoots Seyyed, and in another ‘Ghodrat was re-fashioned into an ordinary burglar and deserts Seyyed to surrender to the police’ (Amini 1993: 228)..
Despite the censors’ attempts to transform Ghodrat’s personality, even to this day, in its heavily censored available version, the dominant reading of The Deer is that of an allegory of urban guerrilla warfare and heroic resistance against the police and the government. The attempt to erase Ghodrat’s political character backfired precisely because inconsistencies between the narrative’s ostensible portrayal of him as a burglar and his other attributes as a redeeming and provocative agent opens holes, i.e. interpretive possibilities that run counter to the censors’ intentions. It was exactly because of and not in spite of censorship that the public always remembered the original version and tried to reinterpret the altered versions to insert what they imagined had been erased from these versions.
1. The Deer is forever linked in the public imagination with the Cinema Rex fire where 470 spectators perished in an arson set at a screening of the film by the extremist Islamists in the Southern city of Abadan on 19 August 1978. Even though the causes of the event and the public trials related to the fire are very significant in relation to Iranian cinema and the Iranian Revolution of 1978–79, they are not directly related to Kimiai’s film, therefore, they will not be part of this essay’s discussion. For an illuminating discussion of the significance of the Cinema Rex tragedy see Hamid Naficy’s A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 3, Durham, NC, Duke University, 2012.
2. Historically, the start of urban guerrilla warfare in the late 60s and early 70s by The Organization of the People’s Fedayeen’s Guerrillas of Iran’s (OPFGI) and The Mujahedden-e Khalgh (The People’s Mujahedeen or MEK) was a startling event in Iran’s desolate political landscape. Regardless of the successes and failures of this strategy against a highly organised and well-financed military machinery and secret police, the presence of these active and unpredictable young intellectual urban guerrillas marked the public imagination and social consciousness in profound ways.
3. English translations from Farsi are by me.
Cast and Crew:
[Country: Iran. Production Company: Maysaghieh Studios. Director: Masoud Kimiai. Producer: Mehdi Maysaghieh. Screenwriter: Masoud Kimiai. Cinematographer: Nemat Haghighi. Music: Esfandiar Monfared-Zadeh and Farhad Mehrdad. Editor: Abbas Ganjavi. Cast: Behrouz Vossoughi (Seyyed), Faramarz Gharibian (Ghodrat), Nosrat Partovi (Fati), Garshasb Raufi (Asghar), Enayat Bakhhi (Ali Agha), Parviz Fanizadeh (Mohammad).]
Ahmad Amini, Sad Film-eh Tareekh-eh Cinema-eh Iran (One Hundred Films of The Iranian Cinema), Tehran, Shaida Cultural Institute, 1993.
Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, Volume 2, Durham and London, Duke University Press, 2012.
The Routledge Encyclopedia of Films, Edited by Sarah Barrow, Sabine Haenni and John White, first published in 2015.