Mahnaz Mohammadi on the set on Son-Mother, Source: Europe Media Nest

Tackling Tradition with Mahnaz Mohammadi

by Mehdi Pilehvarian, Marisa Sittheeamorn

Mahnaz Mohammadi is an Iranian director, producer, writer, actor and women’s rights activist, whose most recent film Son-Mother premiered in the discovery program at the Toronto International Film Festival this fall. Mohammadi’s debut narrative follows the story of a mother, Leila, and her son, as she receives a marriage proposal. Ultimately, Leila must choose between financial security, and tearing her family apart.

FCC had the pleasure of sitting down with Mohammadi to learn more about her transition into the world of narrative filmmaking, and inspiration behind the film.

FCC: Congratulations on your film! We know you have a long and successful history of being a documentarian. So, what motivated you to create a narrative feature?

MM: Documentary has always been a part of my life, and I believe that documentary is more me than narratives are. But, I really wanted to experience something and learn something new through this different process.

FCC: What was the filmmaking process like for you? How did you come to choose the story behind Son-Mother?

MM: I have a pretty good understanding of myself and know that I am drawn to stories that are interesting or stories I have no information about. Therefore, I go through the process of choosing the theme and the story of the film differently; I find myself documenting a story without having spent time choosing the theme of the film. In fact, it’s me who goes on with the story. As a female documentarian who has always been concerned with women’s rights and social issues, choosing the subject is not a difficult stage in my practice.

I define the situation around today’s society as a deterrent, and believe that others make decisions for women. This is also quite evident in minor issues. My dad always said life is like a rough road and it is our job to pave the way for ourselves and others. The stories in my films are not just transient events but a way to convey the passage of my journey to those around me.

FCC: Have there been any stories you found interesting but couldn’t adapt into film, and gave up on?

MM: Yes, there have been, but I have never felt limited. There is always a way. In my 40 years of life, I have never felt that there has been a limitation. Maybe it’s because my dad always told me that I could do anything I wanted, and set my mind to. I’m a patient person and never get disappointed – even when I was in prison.

I’m always trying to find a way to tell my stories, and turn them into film.

Still from Son-Mother (Mahnaz Mohammadi, 2019), Source: Beta Cinema

FCC: Since the film was so personal to you, what was most important for you to get right in the story?

MM: As a woman, the most important thing influencing my life has been tradition, which is the hidden enemy we are all fighting with, but that nobody cares about. Tradition for me is most important, because it is the first thing that pushes me back as a woman in society. It even happens with men, but everybody knows it’s worse for women. Tradition makes our situations worse, and no matter the problem, I cannot just sit and do nothing about it.

First, we should find the solution. I’m not fighting tradition, but instead trying to show people how we are all dealing with tradition through Son-Mother. In the story, Kazem, Leila, Mahan, everybody is so nice, but the result is a tragedy. If people aren’t able to understand their own responsibilities and care a lot about the role of tradition, tradition will never disappear. It’s in our history, and will pass down from shoulder to shoulder, generations at a time. We will never think, oh listen, my life has been completely destroyed and maybe it’s because of tradition.

I love it when people watch the film and don’t think that Leila should change, but instead that we as a society should change. We should change our beliefs so we can all do better things with our lives.  If we are all responsible for the actions we have to take in our society to make it easier, it’s not an easy task. Leila doesn’t have a choice because she turns to society. She’s expected to be a good mother, and a good wife, but ultimately, all of them are sacrificed.

FCC: One of our favorite aspects of the film was how it was separated in ‘Son’ and ‘Mother’ sections that were flipped, almost in the sense that the ‘Son’ section was focused on the actions of the mother, and vice versa. Can you speak about how you came to this idea?

MM: There are two episodes, and their names are something else. I start by telling the mother’s story, and every action that goes into her life, that nobody cares about. In the first episode, the mother is trying to find a solution, but Amir is the only grown up person you can see. The main thing is his absence, which is very prevalent in our culture. It’s very common. But in the second episode, we see Amir, and his mother is not there. There is a big hole in his life, and, if you see his life from a  psychological point of view, you realize he will go through his whole life trying to fill it. Amir Ali at the beginning of the movie is just starting to grow up, and continues to do so until the end of the film.

Mahnaz Mohammadi and “Amir” from Son-Mother (2019), Source: Europe Media Nest

FCC: Why is filmmaking in Iran so important to you?

MM: As I mentioned earlier, I tell stories that I am curious to know more about, and of course Iran, as the country where I live, makes this situation easier for me. It is a challenge that I want to overcome and create a better life; I am paving the way for all of us and it’s our right to have a better life. Of course, this is the only way I can think of and to compensate for the pains I’ve suffered over the years.

FCC: How does it feel to be the only director behind the only Iranian feature film at TIFF this year? How will it impact your future work?

MM: I hope it works, and makes my way easier.

FCC: Do you think there needs to be more Farsi-language films in the lineup? And if so, what are some of the steps FCC can take to promote the cause?

Mm: I’m sure there have been other films that deserve to be included, but for some unknown reason their name was removed from the list. I’m not aware of the political ties and backstory, but I think the approach to this region needs to change, and films need to be evaluated from another angle. Iranian cinema deserves more.

FCC: We did some research on the history of Iranian films at TIFF, and found that there some prior programmers that were very interested in cinema from the Middle East, and specifically Iranian cinema. They brought retrospectives on Abbas Kiarostami, Jafar Panahi, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, and many other big names – and programmed them throughout the year. Since they left, around five years ago, no one has come in to promote it in the same way.

MM: There’s probably some political reasons behind this too. Yes, there definitely is – maybe because of sanctions.

FCC: With all these issues Farsi-speaking filmmakers are facing, what can organizations like FCC do to bridge the gap between industry production and film festivals?

MM: The situation is similar to mine in Iran. I’m always telling my friends that, we, as Iranians, need to have more solidarity and help each other. The most important thing for Farsi Cinema Center is to be a messenger for Farsi Cinema. I told you how Rakhshan Bani Etemad sent me your newsletter, and was the one who told me my film was featured – she was so happy, and wished me so many good things.

Be our voice. Be the voice that they are trying to silence. I was able to create my film, and there are many talented women out there, able to do the same.

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