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Ordinary (Muslim) woman
Shahrbanoo demystifying many cliches about Islam and Muslims in Iran

By Omid S. Marvi
June 6, 2002
The Iranian

A flim by
Hamid Rahmanin & Melissa Heibbard

This unassuming, insistently entertaining film has the virtue of a great topical subject: fundamentalist Islam and the people who believe in it. What's more, the country in question is Iran, a country that has recently been anointed as a locus of world evil by our politicians.

But if you expect to see guns going ablaze and fire-breathing militants blurting out poisonous rhetoric at the audience, you are mistaken. Instead, Shahrbanoo offers an intelligent and illuminating look at the lives of ordinary men and women who seem amazingly similar in their outlook to men and women living anywhere else in the world.

The film-makers were able to win the trust of the extended family of the film's central character because she worked for many years as a part-time maid in the family household. This gave them sanction to film these people in the protected inner sanctum of their homes.

Out of long hours of conversation and interview, the husband and wife team of Hamid Rahmanian and Melissa Hibbard have fashioned a marvelous new documentary that shows the lives, mores and precepts of ordinary people as they are actually lived and practiced, demystifying many cliches about Islam and Muslims in the process.

Although Shahrbanoo is eminently watchable and informative, it would be wrong to mistake it with ethnography or political sociology. It is a delicately funny and engaging film that is full of poignant and touching moments.

After being introduced to the American narrator of the film, we learn about Shahrbanoo, the eponimous central character of the film. We are told that she is a devout "mother of a martyr" whose son has presumably been lost on the fronts of the Iran-Iraq war. Her other son too has lost a leg and an eye in the conflict. She says he was "chemistrized", meaning that he had been attacked by chemical weapons, courtesy of Mr. Saddam Hussain.

They all live in very cramped dwellings in south of Tehran. Shahrbanoo is a hard-working woman who, in many ways, is typical of the women we meet. She bears her poverty and difficulties in life stoically and with an understated magnanimity. She is also, as she never tires of reminding us, always thankfull to God for providing her and her family with food and shelter.

There is an ebeulence and zest for life in her that is truly contagious. In particular, her interactions with Melissa, the narrator of the film make for some memorable scenes. The two women, one a fundamentalist woman from the slums of Tehran, the other, a liberal feminist from New York City, soon strike a friendship that transcends all the language and cultural barriers that separate them. Can nations do the same thing?

But this is not Paris or New York where people discuss the latest intellectual fad in their bohemian café societies. This is Iran. Iran, in case you have forgotten, is the birthplace of fundamentalist Islam, the country that took Americans hostage and its leaders used to believe in exporting their particular brand of stridency to other countries.

Ironically, Iran is the only muslim country in the world today where fundamentalism is in retreat, its advocates increasingly discredited and isolated. It is a tribute to the young film-makers that we see both aspects of the situation given their proper treatment.

Halfway through the picture, a relative named Mohammad walks into the film. He is a self-described "economist" who writes for a hardline paper in the provinces. Even here, the character leaps out of the film in full three-dimensionality. He is one of the soldiers of the Revolution. The very bedrock of support for the conservative mullahs, those who have blocked all attempts at reform.

He tries to engage the American narrator of the film into discussion by asking her "about the fact that women in the west are nothing but playthings for the whims of ungodly men." It becomes clear very quickly that he intends to have no discussion with her at all, but merely to reinforce his unshakable belief in his own dogmas. He refuses to answer any questions from her and departs, smiling triumphantly.

That other Iran is also in display when we see how the young people of the family question the very foundations of their elders' world view. At one point, the young grandson of Shahrbanoo asks the American guest if they burn Iranian flags in the United States. Thus starts a lively discussion among the family members that provides a fascinating insight into the dynamics of a society in transition and fermentation.

All of these lead us to the film's craftsmanship. To an uninitiated viewer, the film may give the look of a homemade product, like when the narrator reports the microphone has stopped functioning but she goes ahead and narrates the scene. But this is a deliberate strategy aimed at undermining the omniscience and objectivity of the camera lens.

While posing its questions, the film makes use of the full panoply of techniques available in modernist film-making, including voice-over, interviews, dialogue, self-reflexive editing and inter-titles. For example, the cameraman is actually a player in the film. He periodically intervenes by saying things to other people or answering questions, thus changing the dynamic of what is being filmed in unpredictable ways.

This deliberate strategy complicates the voice of the film in an interesting way. It adds a contemporary, personal resonance to the people and the situations being filmed. But this is not a modernist work for the sake of being modernist -- or postmodernist -- as is the case with many films of the recent years.

Modernist -- or Postmodern -- art best corresponds to a contemporary understanding of our position in the world. How else can you give an honest portrayal of a maddeningly challenging subject as islamic fundamentalism? These are the kind of coordinates that could help us navigate in the difficult and turbulent world we live in.

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