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The right to exist
Interview with film director Maziar Bahari

By Golnar Motevalli
January 1, 2003
The Iranian

Maziar Bahari is one of Iran's youngest and most controversial filmmakers. His latest film And Along Came a Spider is a close-up sojourn into the life and mind of the 'Spider Serial Killer' Saeed Hanaei, one of Iran's most prolific criminals, hanged in April 2002 for the murder of 16 female prostitutes in Mashad, north east Iran.

Bahari not only provides an incredibly insightful and revealing portrayal of a mass murderer, but more importantly, his film addresses some of Iran's most contentious societal problems, including prostitution, drug addiction and sexual inequality.

And Along Came a Spider, which marks a departure from Bahari's previous efforts such as Football: Iranian-style, is an indication that Iranian cinema maybe crossing over into more explicit and realist expositions of Iranian society, offering stark and at times brutal portrayals of social misogyny and sexual violence against women.

Evidently, Bahari shows a marked interest in the role and treatment of women in Iran, however, he is also keen to assert that as a filmmaker he is not exclusively concerned with these issues.

Although, his most recent incarnation, a play entitled
A Fairly Justified Revenge (currently being performed in Copenhagen) is based on the bizarre murder of a man by his temporary wife, after she discovers that he has been raping her 14 year old daughter. Not for the faint hearted, his play, like his film, has received admonishment as well as praise for its graphic presentation of the event.

I met Bahari after a screening of his film at the University of Durham Institute for Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies.

G.M: Why did you decide to make And Along Came a Spider?

It's a story that tells you something about a section of Iranian society. In general when I make films, I'm looking for stories that tell you something beyond the story itself, this story was the same.

G.M: How did you secure permission to interview Hanaei?

It took a long time, I had to apply through the prison... I mean in Iran it's very haphazard, you never know if your going to get the permission or not. It depends on the official or individual working there at a certain point in time. The laws are so ambiguous especially in regards to the media; they were devised at the beginning of the revolution, when people really didn't have a clue about how to rule and how to govern the country... so they devised really ambiguous laws which can be interpreted in many different ways by different individuals... .so I got permission from a judge to interview him with some prison officials.

G.M: Do you think that people in Iran are educated enough about social problems such as prostitution, given that your film is not yet permitted to be screened over there?

I haven't even tried to show it Iran... I know that Iranian television will not show the film, I don't think it's even worth my time to go there and ask, the state-run television is one of the most hard-line conservative institutions in Iran -- the most hard-line elements work for television. But I have promised two of the characters not to show the film one year after making it. Until then, I'll probably show it to student groups in cultural centres etc... but whether Iranian people are educated enough? No they are not, there is a general ignorance towards prostitution and towards certain groups of people... I think what happened in the film [the killings] is very emblematic of many other situations where a group of people disregard other people's right to exist. Because of their ideology -- whether they're communist or Islamist -- they think they can do what they want. Most people like this are not killers, but someone like Hanaei comes along and becomes a hero for those people.

G.M: To what extent do you think the current interest in Iranian films will be just a passing Western fascination? Is the movement strong enough to become a tradition?

I think there are different elements involved in the success of Iranian cinema... one of them is that world cinema was really tired of Hollywood, things like Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind... films had to please mass audiences, children, so most Hollywood films were targeting eight year olds! So there was a need for a different kind of just happened that the Iranian cinema was taken care of by three very open-minded intellectual people, which was rare for the that time. Khatami was minister of Culture and Islamic guidance, Anwar was the vice-minister in charge of cinema and Beheshti was in charge of the Farabi film foundation. They encouraged and helped Iranian filmmakers and somehow resuscitated the national cinema during the mid-1980's. This coincided with the emergence of some brilliant talents working in Iranian cinema at that time, Kiarostami was the most talented, as well as Makhmalbaaf... so all these factors miraculously came together and created this festival phenomenon. But it's important to understand that Iranian cinema is only very popular in arts circles in the West, not the West in general.

G.M: Your film and your up coming play A Fairly Justified Revenge focuses upon violence against women, do you think therefore that Iranian society and the way it positions women, make them particularly susceptible to victimisation?

I don't think that we can say that Iranian society positions women in a way that they can be victimised but I think that women are positioned in society in general in a way that they can be victimised, like in many other patriarchal societies. They are more prone to being victims. But my problem with the question is that you are asking me whether I think this is a problem in Iranian society... every society has this problem.

G.M: Given that the West is very accustomed to seeing negative portrayals of Iran and Islam, in particular with regards to their approaches towards women, isn't it about time a filmmaker made something which illustrates the more positive and intellectually stimulating facets of Iranian society?

I think I somehow did do this with the female journalist in And Along Came a Spider... the film is narrated by a woman, which was a conscious choice. And my other film Football: Iranian Style tried to do that as well... but I think we will see more films about the progress of Iranian women in Iranian society. But I don't think that you could prescribe an attitude to any filmmaker or artist, it has to be ingenuous, the artist should be doing what he or she should want to do.

G.M: There is an argument against rather harsh films, because they are sometimes seen to be perpetuating negative stereotypes about Iran and Islam.

Yeah, I think stereotypes exist away from these films and one of the things about people is that they can have the most wonderful films about the progress of women, but in the context of a stereotype against Iranian women, they can be used in that negative way. I don't really think a film can perpetuate, increase or intensify the stereotype, I think it just exists. Also the films which we are making, we are preaching to the converted usually, we are not making the films for a mass audience. Even if they are shown on major channels, I think they are always seen be a certain group of people... I think stereotypes just exist in the mass media.

G.M: Why are you interested in the role of women in society in general?

I general I think women are more interesting than men... in terms of their activities, especially in Iran. They are more active than men, the progress of women is more symbolic, and their role is more symbolic of what Iranian society is about these days than men.

G.M: You seem to be quite popular with feminist writers and observers. Do you class yourself as a feminist or would you prefer to be seen as ideologically neutral?

If feminism means women and men are equal then I am a feminist. But if it means that women are better than men, or that you have to look at everything from a specific angle or a feminist angle, then no, I am not a feminist. But I guess I get praise from feminists because I concentrate on women in my films. There is a big role for women in my films. But this is true for most Iranian filmmakers these days. Women are very prominent.

G.M: You describe yourself as a documentary filmmaker. How do you go about making sure you do not upset the balance between objectivity and biasedness?
I try to be objective! Its unconscious I guess... I don't know it's a difficult question to answer... I try to give an equal chance to different people in the film.

G.M: So you are aware of the fact that you may be accused of exploiting your interviewees?

I am aware of that, along with other things. But I'm not worried about that, because I cannot live a life based on what people may or may not think of me, so I just do my work and hope for the best and try to communicate with as many people as possible. I have been accused of many things, especially for this film, like last week the film was premiered in Amsterdam's International Film Festival and there were some Iranian opposition groups, accusing me of being an agent of the government, because the most positive character of the film is the cleric and at the same time I was accused of portraying a very negative image of Iran.

G.M: Your play tackles the subject of rape within the family, murder and domestic violence. How do you think Iranian audiences would react if they were allowed to see it?

I don't know. I wrote the play for Danish audiences, not Iranian audiences. It depends on the Iranians who watches it, Iran is not a homogeneous country, there are different people living in Iran. A pro-reform, secular person may like the play or be against it and a religious person may be the same.

G.M: Do you ever worry about the effect your work may have on you reputation or personal security in Iran, since it could attract much institutionalised hostility?

That's always a worry for any person working in Iran. But if I wanted to worry about these things or be conservative about doing these things, I would be a dentist or an accountant living in Canada!

G.M. Do you tire of questions which constantly try to relate your religion some how to the way you approach your work?

M.B: Yeah, yeah, but I guess sometimes it is a necessary evil because, especially in the post-9/11 world, you get pigeon-holed as a Muslim and there are negative connotations about Islam. Sometimes it's good to be pigeon-holed as a Muslim, because it gives you more time to say what you want. But sometimes it's really tiring because I am an Iranian as well as a Muslim, and Iran existed centuries before Islam and also I have lived 12 years of my adult life outside of Iran.

G.M: Who are your main influences?

Most of the films that I like, I am not influenced by. I am influenced by them in terms of content but not in terms of form. My favourite films are by Fellini, Bergman, Ken Loach and Kiarostami. But I don't like to think that I can make films like them, I mean in my dreams I like to think that I can make a film like Fellini, but the way that I am going is not leading me in that direction.

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