Questioning the Mullahs


In the 1990s, Iranian cinema became the darling of the international film scene. Inside Iran, movies have long served as an insistent voice–albeit muted by censorship–for openness and reform. Among the pioneers of Iran’s cinema is director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, whose feature films and documentaries have critiqued social norms, denounced cultural taboos, and confronted poverty since 1978. The honesty and style of Bani-Etemad’s work has resonated with Iranian audiences. Two of her last four films (1994’s The Blue Veiled and 2001’s Under the Skin of the City) were the top box-office hits in the years of their release.

Though she is one of only a dozen women directors in a male-dominated industry, Bani-Etemad’s determination has enabled her to win repeated battles with Iran’s censors, known as the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance. Until recently the censors approved all scripts and supervised production, thereby ensuring that no film that directly dealt with political questions could be shot. The ministry also forbade the depiction of unveiled women and physical contact between the sexes, rendering any realistic portrayal of romance or family life impossible.

Since the election of reformist president Mohammed Khatami in 1997, the government has retreated from its supervisory functions, but still maintains control over screening permits. Thus, even though a film such as The Circle (dir. Jafar Panahi), a searing condemnation of women’s oppression, can be shot, it cannot be shown in Iran. However, as Bani-Etemad explained during an April visit to Austin, Iranian filmmakers continue the struggle to realize their artistic vision.

Texas Observer: What issues do you explore in your films?

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad: There are quite a lot of social issues that make up the themes of my works, and some of my films deal with women’s issues in particular. Being a woman filmmaker, I’m expected by some of my audience to confine all my films to women. But I never limit myself like this. It’s true that I am more sensitive to women’s problems; however, I do not believe women’s problems are separate from broader social ones. Hence, even when women are the protagonists in my films, I still speak about various other social issues.

TO: Are there problems you face as a woman director?

RBE: The problems facing women directors, and any woman in a leadership role, are universal. Maybe they are slightly exaggerated in societies like Iran, but I know that similar problems exist in Western countries, which is why there are fewer female filmmakers all over the world. I started working in TV 30 years ago, that is, when I was 17. Also in those days, women were active in various fields connected to the TV. After the Revolution, some educated people transferred from TV to cinema, and thus, women who were then already accepted in TV affairs were accepted in the cinema as well. But personally I believe that I’ve never approached my job as a woman, and so I don’t allow others to brush me off saying, “You’re a woman.”

TO: Are there stereotypes about Iran that affect how your films are received outside the country?

RBE: When I do screenings in the West, it always takes me aback when I see that the audience is shocked by the characters in my films. I think this is because many Westerners believe women in Iran are passive, and they are surprised to see them strong and empowered. Of course women in Iran have legal problems and restrictions that keep them from being equal to men, but even though they have these problems, they stand up and fight, they have a say in what happens to them, and they take their futures into their own hands. Yet, this is not a general picture of women in Iran at the present time.

TO: Could the international success of films such as The Circle partially be attributed to the fact that they fit foreigners’ expectations about what women in Iran are like?

RBE: I can’t speak for what kind of characters or stories audiences want to see. And I don’t make films to please the audience, I just see what is in my society and reflect that. However, I personally do not agree with the depiction shown in The Circle. It presents Iranian women as trapped in an abyss of darkness and blackness with nowhere to go and I just don’t think it’s true. The particular cases these depict may be true, but the way they are weaved together creates this sense of disempowerment and passivity and not having any say in one’s future or life. Of course, it is true that there are moments and aspects of life for women that are disempowering, but overall, it is just not true for Iranian women.

TO: Your movies deal primarily with the effects of social norms and cultural expectations, rather than legal restrictions. Does this have to do with the censors?

RBE: Many of our problems in Iran are cultural, not legal, and it is those cultural ones I would prefer to talk about. There is censorship, but there are no clear rules specifying what can and cannot be said. And so every time I make a movie, I try to push the envelope a little more. Nargess (1992) was the first post-Revolutionary Iranian film that told a love story. The Blue Veiled [which depicts the secret marriage of a widowed factory owner to one of his workers, much to the horror of his class-conscious daughters] explores a taboo in our society, how people see their parents as holy, like they don’t have bodies or earthly needs. The May Lady (1998) came out at the same time as the 1998 elections, when there was a lot of discussion about the young vote and fulfilling the needs of young people, who are a majority in our country. It shows a scene where teenagers are taken to jail for having a party, and the mother argues at the police station that young people have needs that our society does not allow them to fulfill. This was the first time a film paid attention to young people [in this way].

TO: So how does the censor affect what you shoot?

RBE: The movie you see is the movie I made [that is, the censor does not cut pieces out of a finished film]. However, the movies do have to be approved, so when I am writing a screenplay, I think about different ways I can explore the themes I want to explore. For example, in The May Lady, I wanted to show a romantic relationship, not necessarily the sexual aspects, but I couldn’t even show the normal, everyday aspects of a relationship. So I got around it by not showing one of the members, the man. Instead I depict the protagonist talking with him on the telephone, or use voice-overs of their love letters and poetry. This was a unique thing to do. Another example is The Blue Veiled, when [the two lovers] meet. I show only their feet, the woman running barefoot across the yard, and when she meets the man I cut to a shot of the moon. That took four months to get through the censors, just for showing feet.

TO: How do you go about getting something through the censors?

RBE: There have been a lot of changes since Khatami came in, although that’s not because they “give” it to us, but because we take advantage of every little opening to push things a step further. When I was working on The Blue Veiled six years ago, the Approval Committee would have to approve the production from the beginning of the screenplay until it was done. This was a major difficulty that has been lifted, because now you can just show them the finished product. But once the committee sees the end result, they write a list of what needs to be changed [for them to issue a screening permit], and that’s when conflict starts. When that happens I just try to extend the discussion for as long as possible, until they finally give up and let it through. It takes a lot of time and energy, though.

TO: When you’re in such a conflict, is there any discussion about it in the press?

RBE: No, there’s no public discussion, because if it gets public it becomes a political issue and they can’t lose. So we keep it quiet.

TO: Your most recent project, Our Times (2002), is a documentary about political activity among women and young people. Why did you decide to make a documentary instead of exploring these same themes through a fictional film?

RBE: I started by making documentaries, and they are the base of what I do. I have made about ten already, and I always go back to it. It allows me to stay connected with ordinary people, and all of my feature films are based on the things I learn and people I meet through my documentaries.

TO: But wouldn’t the audience be greater for a fictional film than for a documentary?

RBE: It is true that in Iran, there’s nowhere for documentaries to be shown, so few people see them. But it is still important to make documentaries to record historical events. We need to document what’s going on in Iran right now. I am currently working on a plan to release Our Times in the cinemas, making it the first documentary to be released in this way in Iran. I want to set a precedent, so that all the documentaries that are being made and that don’t have a place to be shown can finally find an audience.

Rachel Proctor is a graduate student in the joint program in Middle Eastern Studies and Radio-TV-Film at UT-Austin.