Thursday, 16 April 2015

A Tribute to Parviz Davaie

Parviz Davaie
I'm honored to publish this personal, intimate portrait of Iranian author and film critic Parviz Davaie on my blog, not only because it gives insights about the man whose work I've always admired, but also because it is written by no one but his old friend and collaborator, and another pioneer of (modern) film criticism in Iran, Kiomars Vejdani.

By Kiomars Vejdani

"Davaie speaking." His voice at the end of the phone was my first contact with Davaie for over fifty years. It had not changed a lot. The same soft tone reflecting his gentle nature. For the first few moments he was formal, serious, and rather reserved. But soon as he found out the identity of the speaker the formality gave way to unreserved warmth and welcoming friendliness. Exactly the sort of response I was hoping for.

A Setareh Cinema cover from November, 1966
Since moving away to England I have now and then been thinking about my period of work at Setareh Cinema and  happy memories among my friends there. The wish to contact them was always there. When I found out that Davaie is living in Prague that wish turned into decision. Getting his address from a mutual friend I wrote him a letter not hoping to receive an answer after all these years. Contrary to my expectation shortly afterwards I received a long letter from him. Loyal as ever he was pleased to hear from me. His letter gave me the encouragement for further contact. Shortly afterwards as I was making a journey to Prague I thought I could take this opportunity to pay him a visit. Hence the purpose of my phone call.

We arranged to meet the next day at eleven in the morning at the central square by the clock tower. (suggested by him as a place in Prague familiar to and easily found by tourists and visitors.) Next morning I was at the site a short while before the appointed time, looking in every direction for Davaie not quite knowing how he looks like after all these years (by then I had not yet seen his recent photos on the internet).

There was an element of  Hitchcockian suspense as I was looking at any approaching stranger wondering  with anticipation. Then at exactly eleven o'clock he was there (Davaie was always well known for his punctuality.) The same tall slim figure and handsome features. But the passage of time had turned his raven black hair into snow white, matched by equally white eyebrows and now an added becoming beard. He had aged. (Time does not stop for anyone.) His long black coat completed his dignified image of a writer and a  poet.

Unless it was my imagination his skin looked a shade darker. But he certainly looked thinner than his younger days. (Unlike me who has gained weight with advanced age.) We tentatively approached each other. His reaction to my first few words was total amazement.  "But you can speak Farsi!" Apparently in my letter I had given him the impression that I had completely forgotten my native language which is almost true. My command of Persian language is very basic and nothing like the days gone by. Nevertheless with a mixture of English and broken Farsi I managed to communicate with him. We talked about cinema, life,  our past, and everything under the sun. Within less than an hour it felt as if we had never been separated. For we had a good deal in common. We were more or less the same age (born in 1935و he was three years my senior.) We were both born in Tehran and spent our childhood and youth in that city. And above all cinema was the love of our lives.

But this is where similarity ends. After graduating from high school I followed my brain and for the sake of material security chose medicine and entered Medical College. Davaei on the other hand followed his heart and entered College of Literature (in September 1954), mastering the wealth of Persian literature which gave him a firm foundation for his future career. For his study of foreign language in the collage he chose English literature. He has been using that knowledge for translating foreign ever since. Among our group his command of English language was better than the rest and any difficult text would end up on his desk for translation.

Even before his graduation from college in 1958, he had started his career of writing about cinema (both reviewing films as well as translating texts from foreign sources), initially at Roshanfekr magazine before  joining Setareh Cinema writing reviews there for many years.

My career as a film critic started much later than Davaie. For a long while I was nothing more than a serious spectator. During this period I read a lot about cinema including reviews and papers in Setareh Cinema. I was particularly fond of Davaie's writing (at the time he was writing under a number of pseudonyms, all starting with the letter P) and one of the joys of joining the group of film critics at Setareh Cinema  for me was getting acquainted and striking a friendship with someone whom I had admired his writing for many years.

Jean Douchet (center) with Kiomars Vejdani (right) and Parviz Nouri in Tehran. Early 1960s.
My period of working at Setareh Cinema is among the happiest days of my life. It was an exciting time. Cinema was going through a major revolution and we at Setareh Cinema were experiencing that transformation direct and at first hand. The friendship within the group was based at sharing of that joyful experience.

The four of us (Davaie, Parviz Noori, Manouchehr Javanfar, and I) were inseparable. We were nicknamed  Cousins, after Claude Chabrol's film. There was hardly a day passing by with us not seeing each other. We were going through the same routine every day without ever getting bored. Starting with meeting at the office of Setareh Cinema, having a discussion about cinema as well as every thing else, continuing with our discussion in the streets, invariably going to a cinema  followed by dinner in a restaurant, with some more discussion over the dinner, which again continued in the streets before we separated to go home.

In going to cinema we were in the habit of sitting fairly close to the screen, leaving a large gap between us and the rest of the audience behind. Going to cinema every night meant seeing practically every film shown during the week. Good films as well as bad ones. In fact we went through a phase of deliberately watching the worst films made (mostly Italian B movies) as we could see in them a sort of comedy by default (the audience must have been puzzled by seeing four youngsters sitting near to the screen laughing their heads off.)

But when it came to serious films our choice was the best of American films and works of Hollywood's masters and veterans of filmmaking. After all these were the films that Cahiers du Cinema group used to re-invent the language of cinema. We had familiarised ourselves with their theories and were eagerly waiting for European masterpieces (Antonioni's Eclipse and  Fellini's 8 ½ had just appeared on the scene.)

We were in the habit of watching the film for as many times as necessary until its images were imprinted on our mind (that habit has still stayed with me). Then we would compare our observation and findings about these images and their meaning. We would have heated discussion among our selves, and some times, as a  united front with other groups. On one occasion our discussion over Hitchcock's Torn Curtain with another group who were critical of the film lasted three consecutive evenings.

Among Davaie's favourite directors, apart from Hitchcock and Hawks, I could mention Nicholas Ray,  Vincente Minnelli, John Ford, and George Cukor. His favourite genre was western with Rio Bravo and Searchers on top of the list followed by others including Nicholas Ray's Johnny Guitar, Peckinpah's Guns in the Afternoon and Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz. He was particularly fond of its beginning with the image of Gary Cooper on horseback in the wilderness with the words "and some came alone" superimposed on the picture. The epitome of classic Western Hero.

Davaie's reviews were highly literary and lyrical. His ideas are presented with maximum of feeling matched by his poetic language. I, on the other hand, in my reviews tended to be objective, even clinical (perhaps due to my medical training background). I used to filter out all emotions for the sake of analysing the film. Davaie  once jokingly told me "You do not review film. You dissect them". And he was right.

With high number of  film reviews over so many years by Davaie it is impossible to name each one of them. But one review stands out well above the rest and that is his Hitchcock's Vertigo. The group had decided to publish a special as a tribute to Hitchcock, with emphasis on his Vertigo (it was Parviz Noori's brainchild). We all agreed that nobody else but Davaie should review Vertigo. Davaie put his heart and soul into that review. Every image of the film for Davaie was a source of dozen ideas (and he had seen the film God knows how many times) and each idea would lead to at least half a dozen paragraphs. And still inspiration continued and ideas kept coming along with no end in sight (it must have been a big worry for Noori as the editor.) The piece was nicknamed among us as "never ending review". But when it was finished (by then it was a booklet) it was worth waiting for. Davaie had done Hitchcock and his Vertigo full justice. It was the world of Hitchcock as well as world of Davaie, or rather world of Hitchcock through the eyes of Davaie. Undoubtedly Davaie's masterpiece of film review.

Like every other good thing happening to Iranian cinema, the best of Davaie's creative activities started after I left the country. He continued with his reviews and writing about cinema for a good number of magazines. Apart from Setareh Cinema they include Ferdowsi, Film va Honar, Farhang va Zendegi, and finally Sepid va Siah, where in his famous piece Farewell Friends [Khodahafez Rofagha] he declared his intention to give up film criticism and writing for the press (later on he was persuaded to resume his activity and he still now and then submits a paper to Film Monthly Magazine.)

Tonight at Setareh Cinema
Alongside his work for the press he expanded his activities into publishing books, initially translating foreign material. Most of his early translations were books about cinema. They include books on Hitchcock by Francois Truffault, Howard Hawks by Joseph Mc Bride, Growing Up In Hollywood by Robert Parrish , Cinema as Art by Ralph  Stevenson and Jean R. Debrix. He also translated screenplays of Johnny Guitar by his favourite script writer Phillip Yordan as well as screenplay of Vertigo.

Among his other translations are some of the works of Ray Bradbury including Zen the Art of Writing, Arthur C. Clarke's Mysterious Universe as well as some of his favourite novels like Stella by Jan de Hartog and Too Loud a Solitude by Bohumil Hrabal.

His move to Kanoon gave him opportunity to do some positive work for the cultural development of children and adolescents. He was the director of International Film Festival for Children and Adolescents from 1971 to 1973.

He also started to use his creative talent and skill to take part in film production by writing screenplays and working with various directors. Among his work we can mention Hengameh (Samuel Khachikian, 1968), Pesar-e sharghi (Masoud Kimiai, 1975), Lebassi Baraye Arossi (Abbas Kiarostami, 1976), and Baharak (Esfandiar Monfaredzadeh). In addition to these, he has written numerous stories and scripts for some Czech short animations.

Davaie's famous letter, "Farewell Friends", marks a moment of  major transition in his life and career: from cinema to literature, from being a film critic to becoming a writer and a poet. The best of manifestation of this change only came about after his move to Prague. He is in love with that city. It is his paradise on earth. He enjoys hours of writing in the quiet and peaceful environment of public library or tranquil meditation in his  favourite small park at the centre of the city. His move to Prague in no way has affected the national quality of his work. His roots in Iranian cultural heritage is too deep and strong to allow such a thing to happen.

In addition to the translated books mentioned above there are two further contribution towards art and culture of cinema , namely Fann-e  Senario Nevisi and Farhang-e Vazhe-haye Cinema-ie. Apart from these  the main bulk of is work is made of literary writings. To mention a few we have Bagh [Garden],  Bazgasht-e Yekke Savar [Return of the Lone Ranger], Boolvar-e Delyahe Shekasteh [The Boulevard of Broken Hearts], Emshab Dar Cinema Setareh [Tonight at Setareh Cinema], and Istgah-e Abshar [The Waterfall Stop].

Since his change of career to literature and poetry Davaie's interest in cinema (by his own admission) is not what it used to be. He still sees films (he was once elected as a member of the jury in Karlovy Vary Film Festival). But very few of today's films appeal to him. He likes Kaurismaki's Le Havre with its simplicity, purity, and humanity. He is also fond of Georgian films in general (seeing a film like Corn Island one can understand why). Otherwise he finds the majority of  films uninteresting. He particularly detests high level of excessive violence in them. In short cinema of today is nothing like the cinema he used to know and love.
Longing for the cinema of days gone by is only one aspect of Davaie's nostalgia. He has not quite managed to come to terms with today's fast age of technology and electronics. He misses the old simple way of life, and has created it  in his corner of the world. In this world there is no room for computer, word processor, and email. He has done all his valuable work over the decades in  hand writing, and that is all needed by a true man of letters. Just pen and paper.


  1. Such an insightful tribuite!Thank you for sharing! Is Parviz Davaie alive?