To be heard
Of hope and despair: Rakhshan Bani Etemad's Our Times
January 23, 2002
Every Monday at the beautifully refurbished Artists' Forum or Khanehy-e
Honarmandan on Iranshahr St., a documentary is screened often followed
by a Q & A session with the director. The Forum stands on the southern
side of a large park. In addition to galleries and workshops for artists,
it houses a vegetarian restaurant whose point of pride is a sweet tea made
of seven different herbs.
This past Monday, The Forum premiered Rakhshan Bani Etemad's new documentary
Roozegar-e Maa (Our Times) and as a testimony to the popularity
of Ms. Bani Etemad, the place (which the week before had screened Bahman
Kiarostami's "Tabaki" to a relatively empty room) was packed.
At six sharp they announced those with seats 150 and higher have to go to
the 3rd floor as there no longer was any room in the regular screening hall.
We made our way up only to be told very rudely by the two attendants
there we need to take our shoes off before we go in. Several people exchanged
some nasty remarks and went downstairs. I tried to sneak by but was caught
and ordered to take my shoes off. "But I don't want to pray,"
I said but it turned out that the extra screening room was actually a theater
rehearsal room which the attendants could have been decent enough to tell
us more politely.
None of this took away from the fact that Ms. Bani Etemad's documentary
is a great portrait of Iran. It is, as is usual with her, a subtle critique
of contemporary Iran and an explicit praise for people, both rich and poor,
who make their way through life here on a daily basis.
What sets Ms. Bani Etemad apart from other Iranian filmmakers, and in
particular Ms. Tahmineh Milani, the other well-known female director, is
that while she portrays the depth of despair she never condescends and never
victimizes her characters. This is evident in her best-known feature films
Nargess and the hugely popular Under the Skin of the City,
and now in this documentary.
Roozegar-e Maa is a two-part film. The first is about a group
of teenagers (including her daughter Baran Kowsari) who during the most
recent presidential elections decided to set up a Khatami campaign headquarter.
The second part is about the women who nominated themselves as presidential
candidates (none of whom received permission to run), and in particular
one woman named Arezou Bayat.
In the Q & A session that followed, Ms. Bani Etemad spoke of the
election period as an important time because for her, it was a time when
the scales of hope and despair had tipped visibly towards the latter. In
the first section, she manages to portray both: The intense hope of the
youngsters that clashed at times with the intense despair of their elders.
The young people who set up the campaign headquarters are mostly young
artists or children of famous artists. They are quite comfortable in front
of the camera, incredibly eloquent, with a sharp sense of humor. Scenes
of their campaigning are inter-cut with interview with them in their rooms:
Teenage rooms with stuffed animals, posters of films, books, and computers.
In these interviews they express clearly their needs and desires: One
says simply "dignity and the other "a chance to experience life
our own way. During the campaign, they,re also attacked by opponents, one
with a razor to her face and another with a fist to his eye. They're both
matter-of-fact about it, the girl moving in front of the camera and proudly
saying she was wounded for Khatami and would take on even more.
Some of the best parts are the jokes they crack amongst themselves when
for example one of the volunteers reveals to the rest that the campaign
manager, a clean cut boy in his 20s, had written his number on the back
of a picture of Khatami and passed it on to a girl.
Ms. Bani Etemad best records this balance of hope and despair in street
scenes where people react to these teenagers handing out fliers and urging
them to vote. Some say we voted last time and look what happened, others
would say you're too young to understand, and one man even asked them who
paid them money to say these things. The response to all this is often
a plea for more patience, a promise that things will get better, and a reminder
that four-years ago, no one would've dared stand in the streets and argue
politics like this.
In a striking scene that both proves and disproves this idea, Ms. Etemad
focuses her camera on a man sitting in the front row of a Khatami speech.
As the speech progresses, he becomes angrier and angrier, first saying
"koss-e she'r" (bleeped out but everyone could read his lips)
to himself and then getting angry and yelling at the podium, after which
he was surrounded by a large group of people and beaten up.
The second part, while a bit too long and not tightly edited, is a reflection
of Ms. Bani Etemad's unique skill in depicting contemporary Iran in general
and women in particular.
Ms. Bani Etemad and her crew manage to track down some of the 48 women
who had nominated themselves as presidential candidates this past year.
What was most striking was both how young these women were and how so many
of them were lower-middle class or from the urban poor. Several were in
their early 20s and almost all of them expressed their motive behind their
nominating themselves as helping women in this country.
Most of the scenes were comical in the implausibility of these women's
acts; one even went as far as expressing disappointment for not being accepted
as a candidate as she was sure she would,ve gotten more votes than Khatami.
What is amazing about the film though is that Ms. Bani Etemad manages,
while reflecting the comical side, to imbue in these women's act great meaning
and dignity. As she says in a voiceover and as she demonstrates, for these
women nominating themselves became a way of asserting their existence and
of demanding to be heard.
Ms. Bani Etemad takes up one them, Arezou Bayat's demand to be heard
and for the rest of this segment follows her around as she searches for
a house for herself, her 9-year-old daughter, and her blind mother. She
has a beautifully open face, which reflects all her feelings as she is continually
rejected both because she does not have enough money and because she is
single. Arezou is 25, twice married, and twice divorced due to the husband's
drug addiction. When she is asked why she nominated herself, she responds
by saying that she understands this society because she has experienced
all that there is to experience. She knows their pain.
In the end, the two parts of the film mesh nicely: The first part ends
with the joy of these first-time voters after they have cast their votes
for Khatami. The second ends with the information that Arezou did not vote
in the presidential elections as her birth certificate was lost in her move
from one house to another.
A comparison here can be drawn between the films of Tahmineh Milani and
those of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad. Both are our most accomplished female directors
and both popular inside Iran. But while the women in Milani's films are
drawn with wide brushstrokes to maximize the often not-very-subtle messages
of her films, those of Bani Etemad are deeply rooted in a network of conditions,
relations, and circumstances, victim at some point, victimizer at another.
This could lie at the reason why films such a Two Women or
The Hidden Half, both courageous yet loud and melodramatic portraits
of very important topics received much more attention abroad than Bani Etemad's
Under the Skin of the City, which was a box office hit in Iran last
The woman at the heart of Under the Skin of the City (played magnificently
by Golaab Adineh) is an ill factory worker who runs her family of five:
An invalid husband, two sons, and one teenage daughter. Life constantly
works at breaking her but not once does Bani Etemad allow us to victimize
her, not once does she allow the audience to give credence to their superior
notions of being saviors of the less privileged. She does so by creating
a complex portrait of a woman whose womanhood in the Islamic Republic of
Iran is merely one of her many dimensions.
In her feature films and now in her documentary Roozegaar-e Maa
Bani Etemad offers an alternative form of protest. Shouting obscenities
at the world and at others is a common skill practiced by many. Giving
dignity in this society to those so often refused it is a skill only a handful