“Activists from the women’s rights movement Fermen carry signs during an International Women’s Day rally in Paris on March 8,” 2018.
Source: The Washington Post, Photo: Nurphoto/Getty Images”

Women Fight for Freedom, One Film at a Time

by Marisa Sittheeamorn

Recognizing the Problem

A reflection of social, political, and cultural environments, film offers a glimpse into the traditions, values, and challenges faced by various communities around the world. One major theme that has persisted through time in global cinema, is the representation of women both on and off screen. The twentieth century fostered generous advances in gender equality at variant rates among diverse populations, and across many disciplines. Yet, there is still a lot of progress to be made.

The film industry in particular is infamous for perpetuating high rates of discrimination, and further marginalizing women through distributed content. While the resurgence of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements demonstrate the dire situation of gender imbalance in Hollywood, inequalities in other societies are grounded in the multiple social, political, and cultural states unique to each region. The role of women in film industries is vital to the manner in which audiences determine their worth. In order for progress to continue, women need to be the ones creating the images that shape the way society views them.

Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan are very male-dominant societies, where the rights of women are heavily restricted. Despite the reality of its patriarchal culture, the film industries of the Farsi region present an unexpected anomaly; an abundance of highly respected, and critically-acclaimed female filmmakers. In 2010, HSBC ran an ad which read, “Only 4% of American films are made by women. In Iran it’s 25%.” The statistic sparked defensive exploits on the rights of women in Iran from Americans, yet succeeded in communicating the vast amount of talent, drive, and ambition of women in Iran, to the rest of the world.

Celebrating the Champions

While the success of women in the Farsi film industries does not correlate with the state of equality in the respective societies at large, this post is dedicated to celebrating the women who have worked tirelessly to remain relevant in a highly cut-throat industry. It is about celebrating the multiple levels of oppression they have had to overcome to make their voices heard. Despite the immense amount of Farsi female talent, FCC highlights the select work of leaders who have, through their own initiatives, expanded the role of women in the Farsi film industry. One film at a time, these women are reclaiming their place in society and fighting for the freedoms of other women around the globe.

The Original Pioneers

Filmmaker portrait of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad,
Source: Walker Art, Photo: Eliza Summerlin

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad

Heralded as the first-lady of Iranian cinema, Bani-Etemad is considered as one of the premier female filmmakers to find success as a director and screenwriter out of the region. Bani-Etemad carries accolades in both narrative and documentary genres from the most competitive international film festivals, and now regularly serves as a jury member at them. She is also a former jury member at FCC’s partner festival, IRAN:CI, in the Czech Republic. When asked about her approach to cinema, Bani-Etemad claims, “For me, cinema has a definition based on which I try to portray my beliefs and thoughts.” Determined by the subject matter and the theme of the film, Bani-Etemad is strategic in choosing a structure and technique that will best communicate her message and accurately represent her voice as a woman. Experimenting with a wide array of aesthetic methods, Bani-Etemad has served as an inspiration to many of the old and new generation filmmakers coming out of the region.

“Forough Farrokhzad near Tehran circa 1966,”
Source: The New York Times, Photo: Ebrahim Golestan

Forough Farrokhzad

Forough Farrokhzad was a controversial and highly influential poet and contemporary artist whose life was cut short in a car crash at the age of 32 in 1967. Though her work was known to advance the female perspective and explore female desire, Farrokhzad rejected the notion that her work was feminine. Instead, she purported that “what is important is humanity, not being a man or a woman. If a poem can get to that point, it is no longer connected with its creator but with a world of poetry.” While she rejected the “femininity” of her work, she embraced her position as a catalyst to spark discussion about the role of women in Iranian society. In the foreword to her first poetry collection, “Captive”(1955), she addresses the public reception of her work: “Perhaps because no woman before me took steps toward breaking the shackles binding women’s hands and feet, and because I am the first to do so, they have made such a controversy out of me.”

In addition to her poetry, Farrokhzad also directed The House is Black, a short documentary about a leper colony where she lived for twelve days. Her film gained international recognition, and remains a source of inspiration for filmmakers and other artists around the world today. According to the New York Times, the film served as an allegory for Iranian society. Following the end of Iran’s secular monarchy in 1979, the Islamic Republic banned her poetry for almost ten years. This only strengthened her influence on new generations, who idolized her as an icon of artistic, personal, and sexual freedom.

The New Generation

A still from “Wolf and Sheep” by Shahrbanoo Sadat,
Source: The Hollywood Reporter, Photo: Cannes Film Festival

Bani-Etemad and Farrokhzad paved the way for the new generation to continue many of the conversations they ignited through their artistry. Major players in the newer generation of female filmmakers include Roya Sadat, Suzan Iravanian, and Niki Karimi. Roya Sadat, from Afghanistan, is best known for her film A Letter to the President which includes a famous slap scene. In the scene, a husband slaps his wife, and she retaliates by slapping him back. The slap only affects the character’s husband, but is also, “a slap to the face of all the injustice women face here [in Afghanistan].” Suzan Iravanian’s film Leakage was the only Iranian feature length film that was selected to screen at this year’s Berlinale festival, and Niki Karimi, who has worked under Abbas Kiarostami, has won awards for her work as an actor and director on the international circuit. There has also been an explosion of young, emerging talent, from within the region, and from artists around the world with Farsi backgrounds. Shahrbanoo Sadat, an Afghan filmmaker, won the top prize during the Directors’ Fortnight sidebar at Cannes in 2016, for her first film, Wolf and Sheep. She was only 26 years old at the time.

Ana Lily Amirpour, Source: Blue Cat

Filmmakers living outside the region with Farsi roots, have also been widely embraced by audiences. Ana Lily Amirpour, an American-Iranian filmmaker and mastermind behind A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night, which premiered at Sundance in 2014, fuses her love for western cinema with her Iranian background. The Persian vampire western follows the experiences of a small Iranian town haunted by a vampiric presence who is just as lonely as the locals, and combines elements of film noir with the poetic and illusionary approach of Iranian Wave Cinema. Ultimately the film serves as a commentary on the socially conversative nature and repression of women in Iranian society.

FCC’s Commitment to the Inclusion and Celebration of Women

Inspired by the determination of women like Bani-Etamad, Farrokhzad, Roya Sadat, Suzan Iravanian, Niki Karimi, Roya Sadat, Shahrbanoo Sadat, Ana Lily Amirpour, and the many others not mentioned above, Farsi Cinema Center is committed to incorporating values of diversity and inclusion, to diversify and promote minority endeavors in the cutthroat industry that we know as global cinema. Through networking forums, educational workshops, and film festivals geared towards amplifying the voice of Farsi creatives, FCC aims to serve as a resource to women filmmakers around the world and play a small part in their journeys to reclaiming their freedoms.

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