OK, so one thing the clear in the wake of the Abbas Kiarostami series is how necessary some light-shedding is on pre-1979 Iranian film. Thus far, the Kiarostami films from the era are basically all that I've seen. What I do have, however, are a few photocopied or digital sources on the country's pre-1979 cinema (several unavailable or not readily available online), so, here's a partial primer written/compiled by me, in the interests of people like me on this point, i.e., they know very little but want to know more, and really want to see the films. Those who've got their own knowledge on the matter are welcome to add to or (please!) correct these entries ...
Introduction and a Projective Overview of Cinema in Iran
According to Yves Thorval (in Cinemaya 44), Shah Muzaffereddin brought cinema to Iran after seeing films at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1900, though there are unsubstantiated (?) reports that the Shah's 1896 coronation had been filmed which would date the "first" Persian-cinematic moment a bit earlier. In the early years it was strictly a thing for upper and middle class viewers--but not for long. Ebrahim Khan Akkas Bashi, a court photographer, made the first Iranian film, Battle of Flowers. "It was set in Belgium and 'starred' the Shah surrounded by pretty ladies in revealing dresses." Early private or public movie theaters often ran into opposition from various religious factions, but in the 1920s a viable film culture existed in the country. Most of the films shown were not Iranian at all, however: in 1930, apparently 310 films were shown on Iranian screens--133 American, 100 French, and many others from the USSR, Germany, India, and Egypt. "The two first real cineastes apeared in Iran around 1925: Ovanes Ohanion (or Oganiantz, 1900-61) and Ebrahim Moradi (1898-1977)." (Via Thorval.) Ohanion made the first two feature films in 1930-31, both silent: "a successful adaptation of the Danish comedy Double Patte and Patachon, and Hajji Aqa, Film Actor." The latter is a pro-cinema, pro-modern (Western?) work. Talkies came onto the scene around 1933-34. The 1940s seemed to be a dry period, subject to state censorship. The next decades saw the firm establishment of a healthy film culture, with various "popular" and "serious" models. For a great overview of all of this, or more specialized information, online, go to some of the links providied throughout. There seems to be plenty of information provided by Iranians on the history and currents of their own national cinema. From here on out I'm going to move away from the big picture and zero in on filmmakers, movements, and genres in an brief capsule format, a makeshift "reference guide" for myself and anyone else ...
Abdolhossein Sepanta (1907-1969)
Thorval calls him "the first master of Iranian cinema." A Parsi who made the first Farsi talkie (though, in India), The Lur Girl. He mostly worked in India, "'orientalist' period films with song and dances, all rooted in Indo-Persian cultures.'" He made films for less than a decade, however.
Esmail Koushan (1917-1983)
George Sadoul has called Koushan "the father of the Iranian film industry." He dubbed foreign films into Persian, and his success at this led him to bankroll Mitra Film, Iran's first production company. He started directing films in the late 1940s, with The Amir's Prisoner ('48), a "flop" that closed down Mitra. He established another production company (Pars Film Studios) and found success in the 1950s and 1960s, when a "golden age" for the country's cinema saw the establishment of various genres (and under the auspices of various production companies). According to Gholam Heidari's "Prominent Figures in Iranian Film Industry" (in a back issue of Film International), he is Cain to Gafary's Abel, a champion of popular cinema. He also worked for Goebbels during WWII.
The 'Film-e Farsi'
I'm just going to transcribe all of Thorval's text on this topic: "Literally, the 'Persian Film,' this was the Iranian-style B-series inspired by values deeply rooted in the Iranian psyche: esprit de corps, defense of the oppressed, revenge for the sake of honour, family prestige, whose archetypes were embodied by the champions (pahlawan) of the Shah Namah [national epic of Persia--ZC] and its more accessible avatars--the Javanmard (Young Man), and Jahil and Luti (Men of Honour and Hooligans). This was the origin of a production that doped the film industry at large with more than 220 films between the late 50s and the early 70s. They were especially popular among the proletariat and rural people uprooted in Tehran, bachelors or men having left their wives in their village. In a way the 'Film-e Farsi' offered Iranian competition to the imported foreign stunt films of that period, spaghetti Westerns, family honour (Parivaar ki Izaat) Hindi films, Egyptian Furuwwahs, Turkish Bandits of Honour and American gangster films. One could cite the emblematic Chivalrous Hooligan (1958) by Majid Mohseni which demonstrated that chivalrous traditions were alive in a changing Iran, or the Jahel (Justice) Baba Shamal by Ali Hatami (1972)."
Houshang Kavusi (?)
Studied at IDHEC in Paris, the first Iranian graduate. Seventeen Days Before Execution (1956) is "a well-made thriller," and it, like several other films of the era (Thorval mentions Irano-Armenian Samuel Khachikian's "striking and successful fantasy comedy" An Evening in Hell) seems to be an indication of cinema for the masses with serious aspirations.
Samuel Khachikian (1924-2001)
Known for his innovation; he also seems to have been a good jack-of-all-trades: director, screenwriter, editor, trailer-maker, special effects guy. He rebelled against the lack of "character" in other commercial films of his time, starting to make cinema in 1952, and he pioneered the use of trailers and teaser footage in Iranian film culture. According to Heidari--"'Murder-Mystery Lighting' was the term he used for films like Cross-Road of Events (1954), Storm in Our City (1957), Midnight's Cry (1960), One Step to Death (1961), Horror (1962), The Blow (1964), and The Frenzy (1965)." He would like to light these films with a lantern for mood purposes, leaving outer swaths of the screen dark. Apparently his 1970s films were not so well-received, though The Eagles ('84) was popular.
Slamak Yassemi (?)
"Prolific" according to Thorval, who singles out Treasure of Qarun (1965) as a huge box office hit. The IMDB transliterates "Syamak Yasami," very useful to know considering that "Siamak Yassemi" (the spelling "Slamak" draws few Google hits) brings up an Iranian mathematics professor.
Mohammad-Ali Fardin (1930-2000)
An actor, not a director! Fardin played chaste heroes who were identified with by the poor. The 1960s and to a lesser extent the 1970s, Fardin was a huge star in Persian popular cinema. (Yassemi/Yasami directed Fardin in several films...)
Farrokh Gafary (1921-2006)
A major figure for the development of "serious" film. Paris-educated. First film was South of the Town ('58), the town in question being Tehran, and the people depicted being the impoverished. It was a neorealist work, and unpopular, and apparently also banned. The Night of the Hunchback (1964), a crime drama (Thorval calls it a "powerful and humorous noir tale"), seems to be one of the most important Iranian films of the decade, and, by the way, it is showing in New York this spring at the Tribeca Film Festival. (Hope I can get a ticket!) There are umpteen different transliterations of this fellow's last name, which makes Internet searching for him in a Western alphabet quite inconvenient.
Ebrahim Golestan (1922-present)
It seems like he's mentioned right after Gafary in each of my sources. Noted for Adobe and Mirror (1965). Some things he's written for the Iranian appear here.
Davud Mollapur (?)
Graduated of the London Film Institute. Made Mrs. Gazelle's Husband (Thorval: "unconventional in tone and interpretation" ... "a hit with female viewers").
Noorreddin Zarrinkelk (1937-?)
An important animator who worked for IIDCYA; I wonder if he made the sequences in Kiarostami's Toothache?
Fereydoun Rahnema (?)
Also studied in Paris. "Sought to renew the cinematic language" (Thorval). Made Siyavash in Persepolis (1967), "shot in the ruins of Achemenid Persepolis and inspired by the Shah Namah." The film has a non-linear temporal structure, and harkens back to antiquity, which makes yours truly wonder how the work looks next to, say, Pasolini's historical films, or the non-linearity of Godard, et al. ...
All of the "serious" filmmakers of the 1950s-60s are mentioned as precursors to what is sometimes called the Iranian New Wave, the Moj-e No (or Sinema Motafavet), plus the "Free Cinema" of Iran (Cinema-ye Azad) which--as long as we're not talking about the 1990s, which is also sometimes referred to as the country's New Wave--I suppose is something that we can say began at the end of the 1960s and went on for a decade. Also, it was in the mid-1960s that independent film production started to rise, according to one online source, 10 films in 1964, and 17 in 1965. Film schools become more common in the mid- to late '60s. National Iranian Television (1969) and cinematheques or films clubs pop up.
Masud Kimiai (1941-present)
Known for making films about "the life of rebels and troublemakers" (Heidari). Started work as an assistant for Samuel Khachikian (Goodbye Tehran, 1966), then worked with Hollywood filmmaker Jean Negulesco on the Iranian-US co-production The Heroes aka The Invincible Six (1969). Made Caesar, "a blood and revenge melodrama where rapists and killers are punished" with "what was dubbed a 'Hitchcockian touch'" (Thorval). Others of the period: his debut Come, Stranger ('69), Qaysar ('69), Baluch ('72), The Soil ('73). Thorval also singles out Dash Akol (1971), "a Manichean jahel film" adapted from Sadegh Hedayat, and The Deer ('74), "an ambiguous film on political repression in the troubled 70s." (This last film, according to Olaf Möller, was the object of a major riot, hundreds of casualties, during the uprisings in Iran in 1979.) I gather he was known for unusual, maybe somewhat eccentric and serious psychological forays. Had a friendly, productive, and lasting collaboration with film composer Esfandiar Monfaredzadeh, too--the pair of them introduced vocal singing into Iranian film (during the credits) with 1969's Reza, the Motorcyclist. Late films have Kimiai doing many of the same things, it appears: Journey of the Stone ('78), Snake Fang ('90), The Sergeant ('91), Sultan ('97), The Cry ('99), and The Protest (2000) "describe the lives of emotionally wounded heroes with whom the viewer is expected to identify."
Dariush Mehrjui (1940-present)
UCLA trainee. Directed The Cow ('69), the most famous pre-1979 Iranian film (at least in the US; apparently the film flopped in its home country). Then, The Postman (1972), "an allegory of the alienation and impotence of the poor," and Mina's Cycle (1974), a "powerful" film.
Gholam Hossein Saedi (1935-1985)
Socially-conscious playwright and screenwriter behind The Cow and Mina's Cycle, both directed by Mehrjui. Also wrote Taghvai's Tranquility Among Others.
Sohrab Shahid Saless (1943-1998)
Studied in Vienna in Paris, and expatriated to West Germany in 1974. He made a few films in Iran, however, A Simple Event ('73, scorned by critics and not [initially?] shown to the Iranian public) and Still Life ('74), the photography on which Thorval says "amounts to masterpieces of painting." In the Jul/Aug 2004 issue of Film Comment, Olaf Möller wrote a long appreciation of Saless.
Bahram Beyzai (1938-present)
"One of the most gifted of Iranian cineastes" who "made major films in various styles and forms" (Thorval). Downpour (1972) and The Stranger and the Fog ('74) are noted by Thorval as pre-'79 masterpieces. Many people, including Susan Sontag, love(d) his early '90s film Travellers, which I've been meaning to see for a long time now. Möller considers Beyzai the greatest Iranian filmmaker. Actress Susan Taslimi starred in several films by Beyzai.
Amir Naderi (1945-present)
First a cinematographer on several Kimiai films, among others. His 1971 film Goodbye, Friend deals with suicide (Taste of Cherry ain't the first!), and Tangsir ('73) also drew attention. Harmonica, produced by the Institute for the Intellectual Development of Children and Young People (which also produced most of Kiarostami's early films), "offers a biting insight into childrens' 'sadism'" (Thorval). Heidari divides Naderi's work into two classes, one (largely early work, which includes Goodbye, Friend and Harmonica) is narrative, and the other (later work, like The Waiting ('74) and The Runner ('85), among others) is anti-narrative.
Parviz Kimiavi (1939-present)
Studied at the Vaugirar School of Cinema as well as IDHEC in Paris. Worked in documentary in France (including a doc on May '68) and Iran before making The Mongols (1973), "a Godardian onirico-ideological satire of incommunicability between both the couple and between the rural and the urban masses when television starts spreading in the country." Has made later films in France and Iran.
Nasser Taghvai (?)
Tranquility Among Others was made in '70 but banned until '73.
Kamran Shirdel (?)
Graduated from Rome's Centro Sperimentale. "Iconoclastic short films" before going on to do The Night It Rained ('67), a 35-minute film about "the frontier between truth and lies" (Thorval).
Ali Hatami (1944-1996)
"Among the seven features ... made before the Revolution, one must quote his Baldheaded Hassan (1970), the strange modern Arabian Nights-like story of a man who falls in love with an unknown woman seen in the park and is given the fulfilment of six vows by a jinn (genie) against the sixth of the lifetime remaining to him" (Thorval). A lot of his cinema comes from a fascination with traditional/folk storytelling and language's rhythms, according to Heidari, who informs us that he was considered the "most Iranian" Iranian filmmaker.
Arbi Ovanessian (?)
Irano-Armenian. The Spring (1970), which is the only film by this filmmaker in IMDB.
Nosrat Karimi (?)
The Coach Drive (1971).
Hajir Daryoush (?)
Bita (1972), which is the only film directed by Daryoush listed on IMDB.
Bahman Farmanara (1942-present)
I missed chances to see two 1970s Farmanara films recently, so I'll allow myself to spend a day in the stocks. But his work seems to have general acclaim, both pre- and post-1979, and he also produced a lot of noteworthy films, including Kiarostami's The Report ('77) and Valerio Zurlini's The Desert of the Tartars ('76). He was unpopular with authorities in his own country during the 1980s and '90s and unable to actually make any films during those two decades. He lived in France and Canada during most of this time.
Mohamed Reza Aslani (?)
Chess Game of the Wind (1976), produced by Farmanara.
I've mostly elided actors, dubbers, and other important figures in the industry, for the sake of simplicity among other reasons ... I trust I don't have to say too much about Kiarostami, either ... and as for dates of birth and death, or film release, I found a lot of sources disagreeing by a year or so: thus, take them all as provisional at best.
Links - Cinema of Iran, and plenty of good things at the Iran Chamber Society's page for cinema (this great source I've only begun to look through, so...).