Iranian feminist films dare to report abuses

The screening of two documentaries by Iranian film director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad exemplified the effectiveness of cultural awareness in highlighting civil rights issues. Last Monday, an audience gathered in the Paresky Auditorium for the U.S. premiere of both Angels of the House of Sun (2009) and We Are Half of Iran’s Population (2009) followed by a Q&A with the director. The Persian-language films were geared primarily towards an Iranian audience rather than an international art house or festival. Bani-Etemad’s documentaries opened a quiet but profound window into the lives of Iranian women, lending them a human dignity they are often denied.
The candid Angels samples day-to-day existence at House of Sun, the only privately run women’s shelter in Tehran, which also serves to rehabilitate women with a history of drug use. Its owners, Ms. Arshad and Ms. Monshizadeh, train, educate and medically treat the patrons to offer them a chance at a better life. Shot with long sequences and few effects, Angels introduces the viewer to the lives of the women without pretension. The screen is often filled with thickly clothed bodies and furniture in cramped quarters, visually simulating the tension between limited resources and the number of those who need them. Besides Arshad and Monshizadeh, the faces of the patrons are blurred throughout or else unclearly displayed. A matter-of-fact soundtrack of crying children, ringing cell phones and rustling conversation resonated with Bani-Etemad’s intimate but plain filming.
While no overriding narrative united Angels, a series of short, separate incidents expressed a complete picture for viewers of life at the shelter. Bani-Etemad takes the audience inside the classroom, where women learn about AIDS and HIV from staff members. We see Arshad and Monshizadeh in their catch-all roles as arbiters, counselors, educators, mothers, sisters, custodians and humans. Angels also documents what sort of women might visit House of Sun, without singling out anyone in an artificial way, for problems ranging from addiction and poverty to extreme abuse. The tragic murder of one reformed inmate, Fereshteh, and its bitter effect on the shelter serves as a reminder of House of Sun’s limits in an environment of fear.
We Are Half of Iran’s Population, however, more crisply addressed the broader issue of women’s rights in Iran before the June 12 presidential elections this year. The project by Bani-Etemad presented the aggregate perspectives of Iranian feminists to the then-presidential candidates – except Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who declined to meet with the other candidates for the project. Leyla Rouhi, professor of Romance languages and Bani-Etemad’s translator for the evening, composed the film’s English subtitles.

Visually, Half captures the nuances of Iranian feminism in a country now retrogressive on women’s rights. More so than Angels, Half remained aware of its role as a movie project, as the women often commented on the presence of the camera and discussed the importance of educational outreach to the government. Scenes panning from the theater of the screening to the contributions of women standing on the streets or in parks offered a varied perspective, coupled with the clean cinematic touches of occasional background music and carefully positioned interviews with the leading female speakers and the candidates. Sadly, however, Bani-Etemad revealed to the viewers that three people were jailed – one still currently detained – as a consequence of this movie.

In lacking some of the organic quality of Angels, Half more professionally presents the cases of these women to the candidates. The spectrum of speakers is startling – ranging from lawyers, authors, journalists and entrepreneurs to university students and working mothers. After such efforts by so many, the candidates’ responses seemed a little weak on screen, although Bani-Etemad confirmed that they were quite struck by the film and even used the issues uncovered there in their televised debates. Overall, Angels of the House of Sun and We Are Half of Iran’s Population poignantly found the heart of women’s issues in Iran with neither exploitation nor fear, bringing much-needed attention to the people who so actively seek change.