The Secret Life of Videocassettes in Iran
How Iranians forged a vibrant, informal video distribution infrastructure when their government banned all home video technology in 1983.
In 1983, the Iranian government banned the personal use of home video technology. In Underground, Blake Atwood recounts how in response to the ban, technology enthusiasts, cinephiles, entrepreneurs, and everyday citizens forged an illegal but complex underground system for video distribution. Atwood draws on archival sources including trade publications, newspapers, memoirs, films, and laws, but at the heart of the book lies a corpus of oral history interviews conducted with participants in the underground. He argues that videocassettes helped to institutionalize the broader underground within the Islamic Republic.
As Atwood shows, the videocassette underground reveals a great deal about how people construct vibrant cultures beneath repressive institutions. It was not just that Iranians gained access to banned movies, but rather that they established routes, acquired technical knowledge, broke the law, and created rituals by passing and trading plastic videocassettes. As material objects, the videocassettes were a means of negotiating the power of the state and the agency of its citizens. By the time the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance lifted the ban in 1994, millions of videocassettes were circulating efficiently and widely throughout the country. The very presence of a video underground signaled the failure of state policy to regulate media. Embedded in the informal infrastructure—even in the videocassettes themselves—was the triumph of everyday people over the state.
“Atwood weaves history and everyday life into a narrative teeming with war and state corruption. The research is thorough, surprising, and passionate; his interviews, eye-opening and uproariously funny. Underground is a real thigh-slapper!”
Negar Mottahedeh, Professor of the Humanities, Duke University; author of Whisper Tapes: Kate Millett in Iran
“In this outstanding and highly original book, Blake Atwood changes how we think about home video. Through its focus on the informal media distribution networks forged by everyday Iranians in the face of government regulation, Underground tells a unique and compelling story of cultural resistance and ingenuity, and its rich oral histories provide readers with an intimate sense of movie culture as it is lived and remembered.”
Dan Herbert, Associate Professor, Department of Film, Television, and Media, University of Michigan
“An entry point into the ambivalent, experimental world of post-revolutionary Iran, Underground is a material history of media that operates outside of the West and rethinks how we engage in media theory.”
Brian Larkin, Professor of Anthropology, Barnard College, Columbia University
"Underground by Blake Atwood offers a history of the elusive ultimate chapter in the cultural life of the portable magnetic record in Iran: the informal trade in videocassettes that shaped the experience of moving-image media for a generation. The work is truly innovative in the way it reveals a practice that is not easy to track."
Technology and Culture