Thursday, 6 February 2014

Women’s Role in Iranian Cinema

'You all have lost a woman, you all are looking for your lost one.'
(B. Beyzaie, Fath Nameh Kalat)
Dir. Tahmineh Milani, Yeki Az Mā Do Nafar (One of Our Two), 2011.

by Niloofar Beyzaie, IranDokht

In February 1994, Ms. Niloofar Bayzaie gave a lecture titled “A Look at Women’s Role in Iranian Cinema” in Frankfort. Ms. Beyzaie graciously provided us with a written version of her lecture. Due to limited space in the magazine, we will provide only parts of her text here. Another friend and colleague, Jamileh Nedaee, also discussed women's cinema in the same seminar, and we hope to publish her lecture as well in the future.

The movie camera is a tool to record images. It searches the world to find and select particular subjects. The camera focuses on personal problems and displays what it finds to the audience, which. Is then obligated to see what the camera shows. With that in mind, when a male filmmaker directs a female actor, he focuses only on those aspects of women that are important and worthwhile to him. Therefore, the female character is influenced by the director’s own stereotypes. Now let’s look at a female filmmaker directing a female actor. Under this theory, a female director would portray women differently than a male director. Does this actually occur?

In reality, not every woman filmmaker is capable of creating work that truly defends women’s rights. Additionally, most movies made by men are extremely anti-feminine, since our patriarchal society emphasizes the power and capabilities of men and the weakness and incapability of women. Studying the roots and causes of this problem is not within the scope of our discussion.

A Brief Look at the Post-Revolutionary Cinema

The dominant image of women in post-revolutionary cinema is that of a tempting, seductive and dangerous person.

Female stereotypes were established in early Iranian movies and later solidified in such movies as “Mr. Haji, the Movie Actor” (Haji Agha Actor Cinema, 1931). This movie secretly records Mr. Haji, a religious and traditional man, who, upon seeing a naked female sculpture, shamefully and shyly covers his eyes but takes a glance through his fingers. Several years later, in the movie “Harpoon’s Treasure“ (Ganja Sharon, 1965), Ali “Bi Guam” (happy-go-lucky Ali), a traditional man, tells Ms. Frozen, who is wearing a bathing suit, “It isn’t nice to be wearing this; nice women don’t wear these types of things” while staring at her body. The subjects of most “union” movies are traditional men who are subjected to women’s seduction. In the movie “Love’s Finale” (Ghiamate Eshgh, 1973), and later “Mrs. Ahoo’s Husband” (Shohare Ahoo Khanom), religious and moral people are seduced by women and end up losing their way.

The dominant female character in most of these movies is neither a mother nor a wife. That is, she doesn’t conform to the society’s expectations. In these movies, seductive women are transformed into wives by men who show them the right way. That is, they go from one extreme to the other. There are many examples of such movies: “A Woman Named Wine” (Zany Be Name Sharab, 1967), “ The Red Haired One” (Moo Sorkheh, 1974), “The Dagger” (Deshneh, 1972) and “Love’s Weapon” (Salahe Eshgh).

To answer the question as to why, in post-revolutionary cinema, women consistently appear as semi-prostitutes and cabaret dancers*, and why men draw them to a life of marriage and family, requires a detailed historical and sociological study. We will take a brief look at this issue within the framework of this discussion.

After around the year 1920, women began to play larger roles in society, and entered into many different professions. In a patriarchal society, women have a hard time gaining acceptance outside of their family role (motherhood and homemaking). Thus, in my view, the semi-prostitute and cabaret dancer women were the images produced by the patriarchy in response to the new presence of women in society and outside the usual boundaries of the family.

In the movie “Thunderstorm” (Ragbar, 1972), Parvaneh Masoomi portrays a new kind of woman in Iranian cinema, which does not conform to common stereotypes of the time. She is a woman who works and is independent, and is neither seductive nor timid.

The “new wave” movies of the 70's, which addressed social problems, and, in a way, were supposed to be the Iranian movie anti-thesis, illustrated different shortcomings in filmmakers' portrayals of women.

The seductive women were eliminated and the movie’s women were now portrayed as causes of disarray. Since women could not defend themselves, they needed the protection of men (Ghaysar, Kimiaee), Alternatively, there were portrayed as “sluts” (Vaghiheh) who seduced and eventually robbed the provincial idiot “Mr. Idiot” (Aghai Haloo, Mehrjooie). The new movies were the arena where the velvet-hated (Kolah Makhmali) bullies and mean lowlifes would bring tears to the audience's eyes by relying on society’s traditions. These movies, while presenting a critical view of society’s injustices, had preserved the traditional patriarchal view of women.

A look at Post-Revolutionary Cinema

In post-revolutionary cinema there are five good female directors. However, since few of them portray women as the main focus of their movies, we will review only the two that feature women prominently in their films. Tahmineh Milani began her movie career with ”Children of Divorce" (Bachehaye Talagh). In this movie a new subject is introduced: separation and its psychological impact on children. Although a woman makes this movie, it ultimately projects a male point of view. Although the man is portrayed negatively - he beats his wife and children, is an addict and has an affair with another woman - at the end of the movie, he indirectly orders the wife to come back home. The woman sacrifices herself for her children and accepts an unhappy life. She is an object who chooses to silently remain with the man and be a dedicated mother.

Mrs. Milani’s second movie is “The Myth of Sigh” (Afsaneh Aah), about a discontent woman who uses her imagination to put herself in the place of five other women with different social, class strata and geographical locations. She finally decides to remain who she already is. In this movie, Milani attempts to portray the suffering of women in different groups, and in doing so, declares herself as a female director as well.

If we lived in a world where men valued their feminine side and women valued their masculine side, wouldn’t it be more balanced? Let’s return to “The Myth of Sigh”. Although Ms. Milani does not possess many technical and professional filmmaking skills, she brings forth a social dilemma in “The Myth of Sigh”. Unfortunately her inquiry remains at a superficial level.

In “So What’s New?” (Digeh Che Khabar), Milani portrays a girl who does not behave in the usual, modest and stereotypical manner of the Iranian society. The girl suffers from the fact that since childhood, his brother (because he is a boy) is treated as more important. The brother loves computers and even builds a robot. The girl loves literature and romance. The film’s wit helps with its progress; however, the ending affirms the same conventional norms.

"The Lost Time”, by Pooran Derakhshandeh, is about an infertile woman, and, despite its weak production, delivers new subject matter. In fact, other post-revolutionary directors have explored the subject of women's infertility. However, Ms. Derakhshandeh’s view of infertility, her reflection of the complex psychological problems resulting from it and her female character’s attempt to bring forth a new meaning of birth, are interesting and noteworthy, despite the film’s weak expression and production.

In “The Small Bird of Happiness” (Parandeh Koochak Khoshbakhti), a young teacher at a school for special children encounters a difficult dumb student named Maliheh. She ultimately learns that Maliheh became dumb after her mother’s accidental death. Maliheh blames her father for her mother’s death and is finally cured through the teacher’s involvement. Ms. Derakhshandeh, in response to the question of whether she has “feminist” tendencies, must contradict herself in order to escape society’s disapproval and avoid imprisonment. She defends feminism at one point and then states that she does not believe in feminism in the next sentence.

Another filmmaker, Darioosh Mehrjooie, has ignited many discussions with his two movies, “Hamoon” and “Sara”.

"Hamoon"’s main story is a familiar drama of Iranian husbands and wives, except that the husband and wife belong to the intellectual elite. In this movie, the woman’s future is clear from the start. She is the same sinful, timid, ornery woman of Iranian movies, but her ignorance is at a sophisticated level. She displays ignorance in such matters as art and fashion. This, as usual, prompts the unnecessary guidance of her husband. She is insulted and diminished much more than women in non-intellectual Iranian movies. The reason why Hamoon compares his love to the love between Abraham and Ishmael remains ambiguous.

The movie is filled with beatings, cursing, misunderstandings, and the advice of friends to “let the stupid bitch go” or “if it were me I would have given her a kick to get out!”

The argument begins with Hamoon’s wife's decision to follow her artistic interests. Hamoon criticizes the dirty house and complains about the amount of money being spent on her paint and canvases. Hamoon starts acting crazy and bores the audience by getting into spirituality, God, and religious chants. Hamoon’s famous statement to his wife that: ”if I become the me that you want I would not be me anymore” is the protest of an introspective man to a materialistic wife who knows nothing but selfishness.

In “Sara”, Mehrjooie, in his own opinion, portrays women more positively. This time the woman is a sacrificing and unselfish creature who, without telling her husband, borrows four million toomans from his friend in order to help with her husband’s cure. She tries to pay for this debt by secretly working at night. When her husband finds out about this he gets upset for no good reason. At the end, the woman whose husband has not understood her leaves him.

It is as if in this movie, Mehrjooie has gathered all his strength to convince himself that women are not that bad. However, Mehrjooie demonstrates female virtue and sacrifice through cooking, sewing clothes, setting the table, and other domestic chores. There are many long scenes in which the beautiful main character is frying eggplants and cooking. (A man’s ideal picture of a woman). According to Mehrjooie, “Sara” was a free take on Ibsen’s "A Doll's House", yet Merjooies’ production does not show the least bit of understanding of Ibsen’s intent.

Among the movies produced after the post revolution years we come across even fewer movies with a fair view of women. Ali Reza Reissian, in “Raihaneh”, delves into one of the most important problems facing Iranian women: a woman’s inability to vote and decide on the most important issues of her life, from choosing where to live to choosing her life partner. Raihaneh is a woman driven from her husband’s home that seeks the support of her own family but is not accepted by them. She finally seeks refuge with other relatives, and she falls in love with their son. Despite the family’s protests, she runs away with the young man. In this movie Iranian women’s extreme loneliness is portrayed. Raihaneh’s love for the young man is emphasized as the main reason for her escape with him. On the other hand, we see that the only way for a woman to escape life’s bad and difficult circumstances is to seek the support of a man and that a woman alone does not have a chance for a life on her own.

In the movie “Madian” by Ali Jakan, which is also close in concept to “Raihaneh”, women’s lack of right to choose becomes the central issue as well. In “For Everything” by Rajab Mohamadin, the physical presence of men is minimized and all the main roles and most of the supporting characters are women. It is admirable that in the anti-female government of the Islamic Republic, a moviemaker would focus his production on women’s roles and problems. The fact that the supervisor, the physician, the hospital personnel, and even the truck driver, are all women, is considered a rare phenomenon in post –revolutionary cinema.

After the revolution, most Iranian filmmakers tried to distance themselves from endings with a union between the man and the woman. The fondness and feelings of the man and the woman towards each other is accompanied by one-sided attachments. These attachments are shaped through the man towards the woman. As usual, all the difficulties resulting from the pressure of censorship and repression on this issue, lead to portraying women in Iranian cinema such that there is no room for representing women’s true feelings. As a result, women remain as mere spectators who stop at short protests, and sometimes even their protests degenerate into meaningless nagging. Men are constantly talking; they have vitality and are in action. Since women are portrayed through men’s point of view, they find their usual and established standing. A man looks at a woman and sees her in a wedding gown. We see the use of wedding gowns in different movies despite their different viewpoints: “Hamoon” by Mehrjooie, “The Bride” (Arooce) by Afkhami, “Majnoon” by Makhmalbaf, “Picture of Love” (Naghshe Eshgh) by Parsipoor. The interesting point is that in none of these movies do the men and women who love each other reach happiness together. That is because either the brides leave ("Hamoon"), or marry someone else ("Majnoon"), or the union leads to a deeper separation ("The Bride"). In “The Chrysantemum Flowers” (Golhaei Davodi) by Sadrameli, which is a family drama, the woman’s character does not play a central role.

In “The Actor” (Honarpisheh) we see a woman who is afraid of infertility and considers a child a manifestation of her standing. A woman who is unsure of her own importance to her husband and carries the baggage of historical pessimism. The anxiety of this woman, her fear of being alone and being lonely, has penetrated all the fibers of her brain. She is a woman whose human side has remained hidden behind an unrevealed mask throughout history. Can she still remain beloved without a child?

In pre-revolutionary cinema, men, within the framework of the patriarchal traditions, would get into fights to defend a woman’s honor. In contrast, in post-revolutionary cinema men are distanced from this framework. This means their fond attraction to the opposite sex is the cause and the main excuse for their falling into weakness, and not a cause to enhance their potential strengths.

In many movies men are portrayed as individuals who lack the financial means to get their favorite women. Many of these movies, in their subject matter, are reminders of the patterns of the post-revolutionary cinema. For example, in “Hamoon” and “The Bride” (Arooce), women are in wealthy positions and men are in the ranks of the poor.

What has rarely been accomplished in Iranian cinema is the discovery of the new and unknown aspects of familiar characters. There remains a resistance to explore the exceptions. The art of filmmaking, in addition to requiring competence in filmmaking techniques, needs an open artistic viewpoint without limits, and without the usual social dogmas. If censorship plays a significant role in limiting filmmaking possibilities (which it does) then the other important aspect, the self-censorship and the anti-female mentality that governs many Iranian filmmakers should not be overlooked either. Breaking with tradition is possible only when we break our own traditional mentality. I eagerly await that day! " The art of filmmaking, in addition to requiring competence in filmmaking techniques, needs an open artistic viewpoint without limits, and without the usual social dogmas. "

Via IranDokht

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