Tehran behind the screen
Confiscated or tangled in legal disputes, the old cinemas and theatres of Iran’s capital risk disappearing or being turned into museums
Nasr Theatre, located in the rear garden of Grand Hotel Lalehzar, was definitely the place to go for a hip night out in Tehran in the 1940s. By the end of that decade, it had already changed name and appearance to Tehran Theatre when, on 5 June 1950, its then manager and member of parliament Ahmad Dehghan was assassinated in the theatre’s offices. Hassan Jafari, an employee of the AngloPersian Oil Company, was convicted and sentenced to death during a controversial trial, where the big elephant in the room, a plotted murder or an attempted coup, was deliberately overlooked. This story serves as the main backdrop to the 1998 memoir An Innocent to the Gallows, a work of personal investigation as well as an archaeology of legal reports by Abolghasem Tafazoli, the lawyer who defended Jafari’s case in court. But there are many more unrecorded stories buried behind the sealed doors of old and often dilapidated theatres and cinemas around Tehran. Such an architectural body, one must remember, contains the double spirit of two lines of past events — those which happen on as well as off the stage or screen. Metropole Cinema, for one, was inaugurated in 1946. One of those better-known cinemas on Lalehzar, it was renamed Roodaki after the revolution, and was finally shut down in 2008. The design of a modest but strictly modern symmetrical grid, with a tall, projecting sign extending vertically across the façade, is only a minor legacy of Vartan Hovanessian. The building once again met with the cinematic apparatus during the filming of Masoud Kimiai’s 2013 thriller Metropole. The Metropole is cast as both the location and a character, incarnated in the others whose stories unfold all over its ruins. Another landmark
of this sort would be Radio City Cinema, which is located on Valiasr (Pahlavi) Street and was opened in 1958. Designed by Heydar Ghiai, this Googie edifice used to be embellished with populuxe neon works on the face of its giant and gentle curve. It was famous for its regular screenings of fresh arrivals from Hollywood, and also for the red velvet cover of its cosy chairs. Almost all of these buildings are technically confiscated properties, occasionally caught up in legal arguments between different (para-) governmental organisations, on the one hand, and the Bureau of Beautification within the Municipality of Tehran, the Cultural Heritage Organization of Iran, or even some private art institutions on the other. In 2017, a campaign was successfully wielded by a large group of culturati for the preservation of Nasr Theatre. The proposal is to turn it into the Theatre Museum, which will also include with a cafe and all the fuss. However, the spectral and the corporeal, as well as the dramatic and the mundane, had, from the beginning, populated these places together. Now the only way out from destruction, or a rusty storage, is to accept museumification. But what would be left of a cinema if the spirit of drama is exorcised? What would raise and fulfil curiosity for a night at the museum? It is the pull of imagination that seems to have vanished, and no museum can simply bring it back.
Mahan Moalemi is a writer and curator. He currently lives in Tehran. Giovanna Silva (Milan, 1980), photographer, founded the magazine San Rocco and the publishing house Humboldt Books.
This spread: cinemas that have now been closed along Lalehzar, once a luxury shopping street modelled after the ChampsÉlysées in Paris with 16 cinemas and 6 theatres, commissioned in 1980 by Nasser al-Din Shah Qajar
Two views of Lalehzar Street, formerly Tehran’s road of cinemas, with a detail of the façade of the Metropole cinema