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BOOKS & THE CULTURE Questioning the Mullahs BY RACHEL PROCTOR I n the 1990s, Iranian cinema became the darling of the inter national film scene. Inside Iran, movies have long served as an insistent voicealbeit muted by censorshipfor openness and reform. Among the pioneers of Iran’s cinema is director Rakhshan BaniEtemad, 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 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 demnation 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-Eternad: 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 24 THE TEXAS OBSERVER 6/7/02