Reels of Freedom: How the feminist cinema of Iran has always sprung up from resistance
It was another day of September in Tehran, when Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Iranian Kurd was stopped, and detained by the Guidance Patrol or Morality Police of the country, for not correctly wearing the hijab or the headscarf, a mandatory religious dress for Iranian women.
In the next 72 hours after her arrest, Mahsa died. What followed her tragic death has earned the adjective ‘unprecedented’ in the history of Iran.
It didn’t take any time for the month-long resistance to grow, and find solidarity across the world, in countries far away from Iran. Since then the cry “We Want Freedom” has rocked the streets of Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, and several other European cities.
"By the 1990s, a definitive yet varied range of aesthetic language marked Iranian cinema. Cinema became a medium of negotiating and reworking the accepted understanding of femininity and sexuality"
The current protests, the ‘Mahsa Amini Protests’, are a result of a recent death, but deep within lies the legacy of Iran’s unfettered women’s movement that always had ‘freedom’ and ‘gender representation’ at its centrality.
In 1910, the first women’s journal Danesh was published. It was edited by Dr Kahal, an important figure in the early women’s movement in Iran. Although the journal was dissolved on its 30th issue, the very next year, the women’s movement in Iran went on surreptitiously, despite harsh censorship.
By the 1950s women-led organisations were advocating for social changes actively. The movement was political at its core, however, it also had a cultural trajectory to it, which would eventually manifest itself in Iranian Feminist Cinema.
The trailblazer was Forough Farrokhzad a 19-year-old divorcee. A rebel poet ahead of her time, Forough wrote about women’s desire, sexuality and need for freedom. Her words “O kind friend, if you visit my house, bring me a lamp, cut me a window” from her poem The Gift translated by Shole Wolpé, an American-Iranian author reflect the modern-day story of women of Iran.
Forough went on to direct a documentary about a leper colony titled, The House Is Black in 1962. With her organic, feminist perspectives, the documentary spawned a combination of lyricism and cinema vérité, brave and brazenly bold.
The documentary too would bring her negative attention just like her poetry. As destiny would have it, she died in a car accident in 1967 at the age of 32 leaving her solitary cinematic work behind.
The House is Black stood its ground even after its creator’s death much like a lone lighthouse on a stormy night while censorship and vigilance got tighter in Iranian cinema, completely ignoring women’s representation, onscreen.
Scripts were mounted on binaries of ‘good housewife’ or the ‘ambitious vile woman’, a threat to the family system.
Then Iranian Revolution happened. Cinema although initially unopposed, soon became a weapon of propaganda, but not for long!
Post-Revolution Iran saw the rise of women filmmakers like Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, Tahemineh Milani, Shirin Neshat, Mania Akbari who were striving to find their filmmaker identity and thus conceive different storytelling.
Rakhshan Bani-Etemad began with satirical, hard-hitting documentaries to move on to features later. Interestingly her work continued to be rooted in social realism centred around the lives of the disfranchised and marginalised.
Nargees (1991), one of her best-known, popular films was based on her earlier documentary research with homeless women.
While Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s filmography was a go-between melodramatic cinema and realistic documentaries others like Tahemineh Milani’s dwelled their work on a firm feminist fabric, being even labelled as “anti-revolutionary”, or “anti-state”.
Tahemineh Milani was imprisoned for her Nimeh-e Pinhan (The Hidden Half) in 2001 and was released after much ado and continuous support from the international film fraternity.
The director often expressed the inability of Iranian men and women to lead their real lives, burdened by mandates as the central crisis of the country.
By the 1990s, a definitive yet varied range of aesthetic language marked Iranian cinema. Cinema became a medium of negotiating and reworking the accepted understanding of femininity and sexuality.
There was no shying away from telling women’s stories in their own voices, even if that meant antagonising the state. Nineties filmmakers Marzieh Meshkini, Samira Makmalbaf, Mania Akbari’s works strengthened this rise of women-driven narratives.
Samira Makmalbaf (now exiled) took international cinema by storm, as one of the youngest Iranian filmmakers to participate in the Cannes Film Festival. Her critically acclaimed directorial debut The Apple (1998) criticised family as an oppressive, complex, social operative.
Interestingly Marzieh Meshkini (also exiled) who happens to be her stepmother was her assistant director in The Apple. In 2000 the former directed, her own film an audio-visually striking one The Day I Became a Woman, a story of three females of different ages facing and coming to terms with their identities.
The film has been often described as the template of Iran’s feminist cinema. In later interviews, Marzieh Meshkini confessed her challenges of filming in Iran, convincing her own film crew of her abilities.
Fast forward to autumn of 2022, as Iran continues to be shaken by women and girls-led protests, it would not be off the mark to say that feminist Iranian cinema, like its larger women’s movement, will brave through harsh criticism.
More reels and videos, often created by female students, will thus float on social media.
Who knows if a new generation of Furough, Tahmineh, or Samira are waiting on the wings to take up the central stage, and continue the legacy of realistic women-centric filmmaking?
History tells us that the women-driven cinema of Iran has always sprung up from resistance despite any and all embargoes.
Nilosree Biswas is a filmmaker, author, and columnist