Iranian documentary filmmaker Mina Keshavarz. Photo supplied.
Female filmmakers in Iran are taking incredible risks in the face of censorship and government control to create documentaries chronicling social and political issues in the country. Blocked at every turn by secretive security agents and funding freezes, genuine cinema is being pushed into the shadows. Yet despite interference from authorities, a handful of women directors are determined to join with their male counterparts to bring Iranian cinema to the world.
In May 2011, somewhere in Paris, a cake box arrived via overnight delivery. The frosted confection had been packaged hours before in Iran and shipped to France, but when the recipient peeled back the cardboard lid and pulled it out of the box, he had no plans to eat it.
Instead, the cake was sliced open and a USB drive was carefully extracted from inside. Here, smuggled out of Iran by banned filmmaker Jafar Panahi, was the ultimate in Iranian protest cinema, a 75-minute documentary about the filmmaker’s battle against Iranian censorship, aptly named “This Is Not a Film.”
For many Iranian filmmakers, Panahi has become a symbol of all that troubles those who wish to make art under the Islamic regime. Repeatedly banned from screening his works in his home country, Panahi nevertheless built an international career for himself in cinema, winning awards including the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and the Golden Lion at Venice. In 2010, however, he was arrested alongside his family on trumped-up charges of distributing anti-government propaganda, and eventually sentenced to six years in prison. His jail time, much of which he served out under house arrest, was perhaps not as painful as the penalty that came alongside it—a 20-year ban on making films of any kind, an absolute hold on his passport, which made leaving the country impossible, and a strict prohibition from giving interviews to any media.
Panahi was, in essence, cut off. Which is what made his stunt with the cake-smuggled USB drive, allowing “This Is Not A Film” to be defiantly screened at the 2011 Cannes Film Festival in the presence of his wife and daughter, so spectacular.
Panahi’s story is one of the best examples of the plight of the Iranian filmmaker. In a nation so rich with history, so full of culture and endowed with such a deep heritage, the bane of censorship and governmental control has pushed some of its brightest in cinema into the shadows.
Ironically, in a country also infamous for its repression of women, female filmmakers have stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their male counterparts in their bids to create genuine cinema and export it to the world. Censorship, these women filmmakers say, is egalitarian in its grip. Whether you are hidden by the hijab or not, it is your camera, and not your gender, that poses a threat to authorities.
“After 2009, the government figured out what a documentary is and what a documentary can do,” says Mina Keshavarz, a 31-year-old documentary filmmaker from the Iranian city of Shiraz. She is referring to the sweeping anti-government protests that raged through Iran’s major cities in June 2009 in response to a disputed election victory by former Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The movement, which lasted for seven months spurred on by Twitter, other social media and the inspiration of Arab Spring revolts throughout the region, was dubbed the Green Revolution. Many spectators around the world believed that cloistered Iran was on the verge of cracking open to freedom at last.
The optimism was short-lived. Ahmadinejad’s government cracked down hard on the demonstrations, battering peaceful protesters and killing several dozen. Iran today remains as closed-off and censorship-heavy as before.
Keshavarz understands that to be a filmmaker in Iran is to face a whole additional slew of burdens in an already difficult industry. Complicated permits from police and municipal authorities must be obtained before appearing in public with a camera, and the application process requires submitting a film’s script for scrutiny. If the project is deemed subversive, in any way critical of the government or simply not up to the authorities’ standards of what constitutes acceptable film, a director is blocked from moving forward.
The pathway to funding is equally abstruse.
“We don’t have any funds,” Keshavarz says bluntly. “There is an organization especially for documentary films, but it’s totally government-run…they are full of censorship and if you work them, they are the decision-makers, not you. I don’t want to work with them.”
Keshavarz’s current project, “Will She Win The War,” reads like an allegory of her own wrangling as a female filmmaker in Iran. The documentary follows a woman named Roghieh who set up a bazaar for 800 female craft workers in an impoverished city in the country’s south. The bazaar thrived and became a haven of commerce and economic mobility for the women, and when city officials decided to tear it down, Keshavarz was there with her camera to follow the struggle.
It is her fourth documentary film, and her second to run full feature-length. She isn’t finished filming, but when we meet, at a hotel in Turkey where she is speaking to potential investors, she says she feels confident with the storyline she has honed in on and is excited by the interest she’s receiving in the project.
Keshavarz was able to skirt regulations by not showing the authorities a complete script, a tactic she says is immensely common among filmmakers in the Islamic Republic. Whether or not she will face issues when she returns home and continues to film remains to be seen.
“It’s complicated because there aren’t any rules in Iran,” she says. “I mean, I published my trailer on the Internet two months ago for a crowdfunding campaign and anyone in Iran who has a cellphone has access to it. I’m a bit scared now that it’s been published everywhere, but fortunately for me, nothing has happened yet.”
Maryam Ebrahami, a Tehran-born filmmaker now based in Sweden, wasn’t willing to wait for that inevitable “something” to happen. She met her husband, an Iranian-born journalist who had been working for many years in Sweden, when he returned to his home country to report. They spent three years together in Iran before her husband decided the authorities were making his life as a journalist too complicated, so Ebrahami made the difficult decision to leave her home country and permanently relocate to Sweden.
She and her husband now have a joint Stockholm-based production company, Nima Films, and together have launched a number of political documentary productions, including “No Burqas Behind Bars,” a stirring look at a women’s prison in post-Taliban Afghanistan; and “I Was Worth 50 Sheep,” about a 10-year-old Afghan child bride sold to a man five times her senior.
But for her latest project, about which she remains tight-lipped, Ebrahami has returned to her native Tehran to dig through a history both personal and national. Her husband is no longer allowed to enter Iran, so it’s a solo project, and the contrast between filming now versus in the years before her exit to Sweden has not been lost on her.
“The time that I was working in Iran was more free—not totally free because it was a dictatorship, and there is no real freedom to speak of in a dictatorship, but if you can imagine a cage, this cage had room,” she says. “But now it’s really terrible. We can’t get permission to work as filmmakers. If we want to do a documentary film in Iran, it cannot be anything at all critical. And as documentarians we mostly work with social issues and political issues, so it’s very difficult to work in Iran.”
Ebrahami has short-cropped hair and a no-nonsense attitude. Her filmmaking is richly visual and intensely emotional, but she wears a hardy layer of grit and pragmatism above any more deep-set sentimentality. This comes across both in her work and in her demeanour.
She loves her home country, where her parents and sister still live, but when this project is wrapped up, she will be content to live and work in Sweden, she says. As for the censorship from Tehran, the government’s grip, she believes, is slipping. All it takes is a little broadband and a beat-up iPhone to get around the blockade.
“The Internet was a pest before, and now they simply cannot control it,” Ebrahami says. “They do block the big sites, but people find their way.”
Ebrahami agrees, however, that at least when she is filming in Iran, the challenges she faces have nothing to do with her being a woman.
“It doesn’t matter if you are a woman or a man. As soon as you take your camera out of your bag, [the authorities] arrive,” she says. “Even if you have the right permits, you can still be stopped, you can still be arrested, you can still be sent to jail if they feel you are doing something against the system or the regime.”
Keshavarz also struggles with the constant stops and checks, and the fear that her project will be deemed unsuitable and she’ll be banned from making her art. After the failure of the 2009 revolutions, she says, she considered leaving the country, as Ebrahami did.
“But I couldn’t,” she explains. “I think, what can I do in another country, in another society? I need to be here. Maybe someday it will truly get bad and I will have to leave the country, but for now I prefer to stay in Iran and to work on social issues, on issues that I care about.”