The Red Suitcase: The false narrative of fleeing for freedom
For Iranians, who are so often plagued by associations in the Western imagination with the pariah Islamic regime, anything that breaks through the stigma is to be celebrated. And thankfully, Iran's world-class cinema is one such example.
Historically, the Academy Awards and other international film festivals have been a testament to the quality of Iran's cinematic output, from Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation and The Salesman to Majid Majidi’s Children of Heaven; 2023 alike saw the nomination of Iranian-Luxembourger Cyrus Neshvad’s The Red Suitcase for Best Live Action Short.
But, unlike the Oscar laureate films before it, the film relies on Orientalist tropes that play on audiences' worst assumptions.
"The Red Suitcase contributes to the worst of Western interventionist narratives that try to "save" women from their own families, rather than empowering them to play an active role in transforming their country from autocracy to democracy"
The Red Suitcase tells the story of a sixteen-year-old girl who is sent by her father to Luxembourg to marry an older man.
The film begins at baggage collection as she hesitates to enter the arrivals hall, and ends with her escaping her fiancé, leaving everything behind – including her relationship with her father and her beloved red suitcase full of her art – in the process.
Neshvad has made clear in publicity for the film that his aim was to support the protesters in Iran, but his work is out of sync with the stated purpose of the movement.
Protesters risk their lives to oppose all the ways in which the regime subjugates Iranians, including discrimination on grounds of gender identity, religion, or ethnicity.
However, The Red Suitcase depicts Iranian women’s struggles as a struggle between Iranian men and women, rather than regime insiders versus regime outsiders.
In focusing on the father-daughter relationship, The Red Suitcase contributes to the worst of Western interventionist narratives that try to "save" women from their own families, rather than empowering them to play an active role in transforming their country from autocracy to democracy.
In addition to The Red Suitcase’s underlying message, the film plays with numerous tropes of the Western gaze towards the Islamic world that Neshvad ultimately gives in to.
The association with terrorism from a veiled woman clutching a suitcase in an airport invites the viewer to question their unsavoury assumptions, but in doing so unwittingly validates such an assumption in the first place.
When the protagonist removes her hijab, shorn of the context of protests against the Iranian regime on their intrusion into women’s bodily autonomy, it falls back on the Orientalist stereotype of unveiling a woman to reveal a character that is much more sympathetic to the audience.
Ultimately, it remains challenging for Iranians to see themselves in the film. Subtle cultural cues, such as the inauthentic way the protagonist wears her hijab, or her Farsi signature that seems more akin to a first grader’s than a budding artist’s, reinforce that the audience for this film is not an Iranian one who see their struggles against theocracy reflected, but rather a Western one unable to note the difference.
Though actress Nawelle Ewad does an admirable job acting in Farsi as a non-speaker of the language – her ability to physically inhabit the fear of her character is one of the best aspects of the film – the dialogue remains jarring to a native speaker.
Without the nuances of intonation that a fluent speaker of the language brings, she remains relegated to a voiceless woman, not a feminist freedom fighter. The casting is also a missed opportunity to raise the profile of an Iranian actress, especially in light of how many Iranian actresses are at the forefront of the protest movement.
Perhaps these are intentional sacrifices, with Neshvad directing a film palatable to and targeted at the West, calling on them to offer support to the protestors.
Indeed, the underlying message of the film is that for Iranian women to survive, their only choice can be found in freedom abroad. But the Iranian protesters are categorical on this point: though they refute the regime's attempts to court Russia and China, they want to strike their own path in a democratic Iran rather than blindly imitating the West.
Raising awareness of Iranian films abroad is most certainly a cause for celebration. But Iranians have produced world-class, sophisticated cinema that doesn't need infantilising.
The last year has seen some brilliant work worthy of the international acclaim it has received, including Holy Spider, No Bears, and Leila’s Brothers.
With so much competition and the international media’s interest in protests in Iran waning, the Oscar committee's nod to the protest movement is appreciated. But they were most certainly right to award the prize to someone else.
Tiara Sahar Ataii has worked in humanitarian response for the UN and major NGOs in 11 countries. She founded SolidariTee, which fights for refugee rights. She is also part of the 2022 'Forbes 30 under 30'.
Follow her on Twitter: @tiara_sahar