If you want to understand the social contradictions in Iran that lead to periodic explosions like those that took place recently, there is no better resource than Iranian film. Often risking repression, which at its most extreme cost the life of environmentalist Kavous Seyed Emami, filmmakers put a spotlight on the grievances of large parts of the population, especially women and those who have not benefited from the wealth-producing oil rentier state.
New Yorkers have an unparalleled opportunity to see Iranian film at its best this month from two unheralded directors. On February 14th, the Film Forum will be showing “Tehran Taboo”, a noirish animated feature by Ali Soozandeh who lives and works in Germany after leaving Iran in 1995 at the age of 25. I have no doubt that “Tehran Taboo” will get my nomination as both best foreign-language and animated film for 2018. It is the story of three women dealing with different aspects of a suffocating patriarchy and one young man trying to live the life of a free artist in an unfree society. On February 23rd, the Anthology Film Archives will be showing a retrospective of Mehrdad Oskouei’s documentaries that address Iran’s deep-seated gender and class injustices. While Iranian film is best known in the West for the narrative works of Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi and Asghar Farhadi, Oskouei deserves pride of place alongside such masters. His work has appeared at over 400 film festivals in over 50 countries and earning him over 90 awards, so it is high time for a retrospective here and now.
The opening minute of “Tehran Taboo” illustrates why such a film could not get past Iran’s censors. A woman is sitting in the front seat of a car haggling with the driver over the price of a blow-job while her young son is sitting in the back seat. In the press notes, the director mentions how the film germinated:
The idea came to me a few years ago when I overheard a conversation between two Iranian young men in the subway who were talking about their experiences with girls. They mentioned a prostitute who brought her child along on the job. This made me think about themes on sexuality in Iran.
The woman is named Pari (Elmira Rafizadeh) and her son is Elias, a mute despite being able to hear everything. Witness to almost every inhuman behavior in the story, he remains mysteriously unmoved by them—a technique for survival. Not long after getting done with her transaction, she takes Elias to visit her husband in prison who is serving time for a drug offense—just one of the casualties of Iran’s drug addiction rate that has doubled in the past six years.
Anxious to be done with her husband who is a repeat and hopeless offender, she makes an appointment with a judge, who like all others operating under the system’s sharia-based courts, is a robed and bearded cleric. He tells her that he will only sign the divorce papers if she agrees to become his kept woman.
He sets her up in an apartment in a high-rise in a middle-class neighborhood, a step upward for her and her son who begins to take great pleasure throwing water-filled balloons at people passing by on the ground from their upper-floor terrace. It is one of the few times we see him smile.
Before long, Pari makes the acquaintance of a woman living down the hall from her named Sara (Zara Amir Ebrahimi) who is pregnant and seemingly happy in her marriage to Mohsen, a banker. When Sara learns that Pari works nights (supposedly as a nurse rather than a streetwalker), she offers to look after Elias. Much of Elias’s time is spent sitting on the sofa with Mohsen’s diabetic father who watches porn with the child, making sure to switch to a religious station when he hears someone approaching the living room.
As Pari and Sara begin to become friends, they realize that they both share a desire for independence. While the prostitute expects nothing much more than getting the cleric to keep up his end of the bargain and to raise her son in a more or less serene and wholesome environment, Sara comes to the conclusion that her fondest hope is having a job commensurate with her educational background and ability rather than becoming a mother. She has already had two abortions and is not above having a third, especially since her husband insists that she remain at home.
Another high-rise resident is Babak (Arash Marandi), a dope-smoking DJ and musician who has a poster of Che Guevara on the bedroom wall of an apartment she shares with another free-spirited young man. One night, he offers a pill (Ecstasy, we might assume) to a young and very attractive woman he meets on the dance floor of an underground club that looks identical to the one you might see on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. Strongly attracted to each other and even more so under the influence of Ecstasy, they retreat to a bathroom, lock the door, and fuck their brains out.
A day later, the young woman named Donya (Negar Mona Alizadeh) calls Babak to tell him that he needs to help her out. She is engaged to be married in a couple of weeks and needs to have her virginity reinstated surgically or else her future husband will have the marriage annulled. Hyman repair in Iran, like drug addiction, is a growth industry apparently. Called Hymenorrhaphy, it is very big in the Middle East and Iran. Indeed, we learn later on that Donya is not engaged at all. She has signed a contract with a sex trafficker to be sold in Qatar, where virgins are highly prized by the emirate’s billionaires.
Over the course of the film, the lives of the three women and the young man become intertwined. Soozandeh’s disgust with the double standards of the system casts a dark cloud over the film that in its way evokes the radical Naturalism of Dreiser’s novels. An alternative title for his film might have been “An Iranian Tragedy”.
In the interview that appears in the press notes, it is worth quoting the director on his understanding of taboos in contemporary Iran:
By making this film, I wanted to break the silence that is a common practice in Iran. I would say breaking taboos is a way to protest against the restrictions. In Iran, legal prohibitions and moral restrictions are the forces that shape everyday life. When sexuality is regimented strongly, people can become very industrious at working around the many taboos. Iranians are a creative people and learn quickly how to handle the prohibitions and work around the restrictions. We find places free from rules. To compensate for forced public fronts, private life can go out of bounds in regards to sex, alcohol, drugs. The lack of freedom can push people into living with double standards. TEHRAN TABOO focuses on these double standards used to circumvent sexuality in Iran. This creates many social complications, which occasionally manifest themselves in absurd situations, often comic.
If Hymenorrhaphy is a common surgical practice in Iran, it does not come close to nose jobs. Right now, Iran is number one in the world. That’s a phenomenon that Mehrdad Oskouei examines in “Nose, Iranian Style”. In interviews with patients and plastic surgeons alike, you cannot escape the feeling that Michael Jackson is more of an influence on the country’s zeitgeist today than Ayatollah Khomeini. Indeed, in a classroom of high school girls all dressed in chadors, one tells Oskouei that she will only be happy if she is able to get a nose that looks just like Jackson’s.
Clerics tell Oskouei that the country has lost its spirit. The heyday of the revolution, according to one, was during the Iran-Iraq war when sacrifice to a higher cause was universally accepted, including from soldiers who lost a limb in the process. But as the years wore on, the youth lost connections to the fervor of 1979. They became materialistic and unmoored. When a cleric admits this to a documentary filmmaker, you must conclude that the country has a big problem on its hands, especially since sixty percent of the country is under 30. You know what they used to say, don’t you? Don’t trust anybody over 30 (except the chronically malcontented like me.)
Another interesting way of looking at the nose job epidemic is what it says about the country’s sexual mores. In more permissive societies, a woman can show off her body—wearing a miniskirt if she chooses. If you cover every part of a woman’s body except her face, naturally there will be a tendency to fixate on the most prominent part—the nose. When you hear beautiful Iranian woman moaning to Oskouei about how ugly their nose is, you feel sorry for them. I expect that if the new movement to challenge the forced dress codes is successful, the nose job craze will subside—the sooner the better.
Oskouei’s “The Other Side of Burka” continues in this vein. Set on the island of Qeshm off the southern coast of Iran, you enter a patriarchal hell. The film begins with villagers expressing shock over the death of a woman named Samireh, who hung herself with a scarf tied to a ceiling fan. Like the other married woman victimized by forced marriages at the age of 12 or 13, she was only permitted to leave her house if she remained within the confines of the block. One man describes the rash of suicides as an inconvenience and little else. You can always replace a wife just easily as an old pair of shoes, after all.
One of the things impossible to get used to in the film, besides the sexism of the men, is the mustache-like mask that they call a burka. The men who imposed this on women must truly hate females.
What makes “The Other Side of Burka” even more remarkable was the willingness of women to speak on camera about their hatred for patriarchy. They understand that the men are also oppressed (most, who are fisherman, have lost income due to depleting stocks) but that is no reason to take it out on their wives. They aspire to be independent, the same kind of dreams that the women in “Tehran Taboo” harbor.
Although it is not mentioned in the film, the Bandari people depicted therein are not of Persian descent. They are the ancestors of African slaves who were assimilated into Iranian society and apparently incorporated its worst tendencies. When the film began, I thought that perhaps it was one that Oskouei made in Somalia.
One of the few outlets for Qeshm women is participation in the zaar, a purification ceremony that allows them to “let loose” as if in a Southern Baptist service led by Jimmy Swaggart. A New York Times profile on Oskouei noted:
Mr. Oskouei even penetrates the pagan exorcism ritual of zaar, a dance that originated in East Africa but is practiced in the coastal regions and islands of southern Iran. It is a wildly expressive dance performed to the driving rhythms of drums and the chants of men, and provides a rare outlet for women to unleash their passions in a restrictive society.
Besides these two films, Oskouei is best known for his youth prison trilogy “Youth Behind Bars” that consists of “It’s Always Late for Freedom”, “The Last Days of Winter”, and “Starless Dreams”. The first two are focused on boys ranging from the ages of 12 to 16 and the last is about female prisoners in their late to mid-teens.
They have been jailed for petty theft, burglary, stealing motorcycles, drug offenses, etc. One 13-year old has been using crack since the age of 9.
Everybody interviewed describes themselves as incorrigible and predicts that they will be arrested and jailed again days after they are released. They don’t blame society for their problems but their parents (who tend to be thieves and addicts as well) but mostly themselves. Their only hope is to be saved by God. Praying to Mecca occurs throughout all three films.
If the films were nothing except a voyeur’s peek into prison life of the sort seen on cable TV in the USA routinely, they would still be interesting since they provide insights into the lives of Iranians untouched by oil wealth. However, the most memorable aspect of the film are the words of the young interviewees who are wise beyond their ages, and as articulate as those who judge them. One of the great moments is in “The Last Days of Winter” when the young inmates put on a mini-play where they dress up like cops and judges and carry out a trial and jailing of one of their own. They have mastered the rhetoric of law and order remarkably well for children, no doubt a function of having been arrested dozens of times.
Morteza, the 13-year old, who played the judge in the mock trial, has a conversation with Oskouei that speaks for all of the young prisoners:
Morteza: It’s true that the law is a good thing and the law should deal with those who commit crimes but they shouldn’t take those like us who are under 18, throw them in jail, and keep them from their parents, and make them sad, and suffer. We have to stop this kind of law.
Oskouei: Then who is going to stop you?
Morteza: Our parents. Our mothers and fathers should teach us how to behave.
Oskouei: What does freedom mean to you, Mr. Morteza?
Morteza: It means seeing my family. Only seeing my family. Even if they gave me a life sentence, but I’d have to see my family. If you stayed away from your family for 8 months, and only saw them once, wouldn’t you go to pieces? Wouldn’t you lose your mind? If I could just see them 5 or 6 times, they could even execute me. I’m not afraid of death. I’m afraid of life.