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Of hope and despair: Rakhshan Bani Etemad's Our Times

January 23, 2002
The Iranian

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.

Click Here to Pay Learn More Amazon Honor SystemThis 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 year.

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 possess.

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