An Iranian Traces the Path of a Woman's Life
By Joan Dupont
International Herald Tribune
November 24, 2000
THESSALONIKI, Greece Some day, the Western eye may be sated with the
sheer beauty and simplicity of Iranian cinema - messages planted like signposts
in the landscape: children racing after balloons, old men bearing blackboards
on their backs. But not yet, and not in Thessaloniki, the Greek harbor
where festival audiences applauded Marziyeh Meshkini's first film, ''Roozi
khe zan shodam'' (The Day I Became a Woman), and the jury awarded her the
prize for best director.
''The idea was to show what a woman's life is like at three different
periods - childhood, young womanhood and old age,'' Meshkini said. ''In
traditional communities, girls are considered adults at the age of 9; the
child needs to be free, she can't bend to the laws. I call the girl in
the first part of the film Havva, which means Eve, because of the temptation
of the apple.''
Nine-year-old Havva's mother tells her to prepare for impending change:
It is the day she is to become a woman. ''She dawdles on the beach and
tries to enjoy her candy quickly during those last moments. Then, her mother
appears and the smile on her lips dies. She is expelled from Paradise,
from her desires and pleasures.''
The soft-spoken Meshkini is the second wife of Mohsen Makhmalbaf, who
wrote the screenplay. ''The idea of Eve came from a talk I had with Mohsen
one day when we were walking down the street, but the dialogues belong
to me. I wanted to make a movie about the problems of young girls because
in the Islamic religion, people think that a 9-year-old is ready to marry.''
Meshkini, 30, is a sister of Makhmalbaf's deceased wife, and the aunt
of Samira Makhmalbaf, who won the director's prize in Cannes for ''Blackboards,
'' written by her father. Meshkini worked as assistant director on Samira's
''Blackboards'' and ''The Apple'' and on Mohsen Makhmalbaf's ''Silence''
and ''The Door.'' ''My love for making films is part of my love of life
and my love for Mohsen and Samira,'' she said.
The filmmaking dynasty includes a son, Maysam, and a daughter, Hana,
who worked on ''The Day I Became a Woman.'' Hana, who is 12, has also made
a short video entitled, ''The Day My Aunt Was Sick.'' One of Iran's most
famous directors, Mohsen Makhmalbaf emerged from seven years in jail as
a political prisoner and started the Makhmalbaf Film School in Tehran,
which now includes a production unit, the Makhmalbaf Film House, with eight
of his family members. Students learn screenwriting, editing, camera, sound
mix, history and analysis of film, as well as art history, photography,
cooking and computer science.
''I learned cinema from Mohsen,'' Meshkini said. ''It was so nice because
we could spend hours everyday without tiring, and the lessons included
bike riding, skating and swimming. When we did biking, for example, we
biked eight hours a day for a month. Mohsen feels that if you want to be
a filmmaker you have to be strong in body and mind.'' In her film, which
was shot in the Gulf, the second episode, entitled ''Ahoo'' (Deer), opens
on a herd of running deer. Ahoo, a young woman draped in black, is biking
along the rocky beach road, racing against a herd of women cyclists. ''I
wanted to show a girl - it could be Eve again - who has lost her freedom.
She rides a bike to get free because biking is forbidden for women. Don't
ask me why, I don't know why.''
As Ahoo pedals furiously to catch up with the other racers, men on horseback
pursue her, order her to dismount, shout threats: If she continues her
stubborn course, her husband will divorce her on the spot. ''Her husband
and his tribe tell her that even God is against her, the whole world is
against her. At the end, when she gives up her bike, she loses her aim,
and becomes an old woman who can possess many material things, but who
has lost her best days.''
In the third episode, ''Houra'' (Nymph), an old lady arrives in the
city to buy everything she has always wanted and forgets one item. ''There's
nothing sadder than to forget that very important thing she always wanted.
Houra buys modern things, but her head is stuck in the past. Just as she
can't accept that men can see her daughter unveiled, she can't buy a glass
teapot. It's so transparent it's naked.''
''The Day I Became a Woman'' is a look at three women buffeted by tradition.
A gentle look. Jafar Panahi's ''The Circle,'' a film about women who leave
prison to find themselves enclosed in yet another kind of prison, is far
less gentle. If you say this to Meshkini, she smiles and says, ''Most women
in Iran understand what they are up against, what they look like on the
street is not how they are at home. ''
To make the movie her way, the director did not go through the usual
channels. ''I didn't get the government permit. If you get permits, you
can get film and a camera cheap. I couldn't wait, and preferred to make
the movie myself.'' That is, with the Makhmalbaf Film House, which has
been turning out prizewinning films. ''Of course there are differences
between our films. Each has his or her own style. My point of view on women's
problems is because I am a woman; it's soft, spiritual. A woman can better
understand other women.''
Meshkini allows that the allegorical shape of Iranian films is due not
only to a storytelling tradition: An oblique approach skirts censorship
problems. ''I also think that the reason our cinema has developed so strongly
is because of censorship. Our cinema is very different from Western cinema.
American films are not allowed in Tehran and because we don't see them,
we're not affected by them. We're not allowed to show sex in movies, and
I think that's good. We can't show violence either. So we try to show a
small corner of real life that can be easily understood.'' Censorship is
a blessing in disguise? She laughs. ''They don't allow Hollywood films
in, and that helps Iranian directors. Hollywood has occupied cinemas all
over the world. Because we're not occupied, we can develop a cinema of
Meshkini, who was born in Tehran, describes her family as ''simple.''
Yet she was not raised like the Eve of her film. She studied geology and
biology at the university before joining the Makhmalbaf clan. ''I'm so
happy because I live in a family that is united by our love of cinema.
In Iran so many families don't have anything to keep them communicating
with each other. We have problems in our country, but we can solve them.
If I hadn't had these difficulties, I couldn't have become a director.
I make movies to try to show people's pain.''