Gender issues and the place of women in the society were often tackled this week, particularly during the session dedicated to the Islamic Republic of Iran with the projection of two documentaries, Talk Radio Teheran (40’) and Fest of Duty (60’), made by two Iranian female film-makers, respectively Mahtab Mansour and Firouzeh Khosrovani.
To the beat of talk radio, Talk Radio Teheran features three astonishing women who defy stereotypes by occupying unusual jobs in today’s Iranian society. Madam Nosrat was the first female bus driver in Teheran when she started 10 years ago. Since then she has been driving a bus following the same route every day and her husband is in charge of home duties. Ironically, she has two daughters, among whom one does not study because her husband does not want her to work. Zohreh is a rally racer who won several championship prizes and Sepideh forms with her colleagues the world’s only all-female firefighting team. The spectator follows them in their workplace, on the bus, in a garage repairing a car or on intervention. We hear their testimonies as well as interviews with other people who are asked by the film-maker to give their opinion on women working as firemen or rally racers. The answers given show very diverse views within the society and answers also vary when only women or men are interviewed. It appears that the most controversial job for women may be firefighter, because it can imply a physical contact with victims. Also, the contacts between the film-maker and the firefighting female team were complicated because their chief was a man and he was there to approve (or disapprove) every question raised or comment made by Mahtab Mansour.
The second film Fest of Duty focusses on the issue of wearing a hijab in Iran based on a symbolic religious ceremony organised in schools by the authorities. This ceremony is seen as a real “celebration”. It takes place in almost all schools in the country, except in some regions. The aim is to formalise the transmission of Islamic beliefs and values to 9 years old girls. At the age of 9, it becomes a legal obligation for girls to wear a hijab in public. The film follows two teenagers, Melika and Mariam, who were about 15 when the film was shot in 2013. They are cousins, went to the same school and had their Fest of Duty together at school in 2008. Firouzeh Khosravani films them some 8 years after the ceremony and shows the path they have chosen when growing up. The Fest of Duty is only for girls and did not exist before the Revolution. It is organised by religious authorities as a real rite of passage. Girls pray and wear a hijab for the first time in their lives and learn all situations where they have either to cover their faces or take the hijab off, the rules being taught with songs. During the ceremony they receive a Koran, have to go under a symbolic ribbon and they are offered a cake, usually in the form of the Kaaba, which makes the whole process very kitsch. Eight years after the ceremony, Melika never covers her head if she is not outside home and dreams to become an actress in the US. On the contrary, Mariam has chosen to wear a hijab on her own free will. She was raised in a more religious family, even though his father is willing to show that the family is really open-minded and that he will leave his daughters decide what they want to do in their life, whom they want to marry… The contrast is particularly obvious when the film shows Melika’s birthday, an indoor party attended by many young people, no face is covered, music is loud and boys and girls mix together. On the other side, Mariam’s family is filmed during the Shia rituals for the ceremony of Ashura, welcomed as a period of mourning and sorrow where people commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn Ibn Ali, the grandson of Muhammad at the Battle of Karbala on 10 Muharram in the year 61 AH.
The two film-makers attended the projection which was followed by a debate, and explained the conditions to shoot a film in Iran, especially on these kinds of topics. Mahtab Mansour shot her film in a sensitive period after the 2009 uprisings, which followed the elections. She was asked several times about the scenario and had to organize several trips to Iran to finish her film. Firouzeh Khosrovani did not have any authorisation from the government to film this documentary, so she used private video archives of the 2005 Fest of Duty in Mariam’s and Melika’s school kept by families as a souvenir of this very important moment. The rest of the documentary was filmed inside homes and all outdoor scenes were shot within the residential area where the families live, Firouzeh Khosrovani being ready to pretend that she was filming for private use if needed. The film has already been shown in several countries and festivals, but never in Iran because as Melika does not wear a hijab, the film would be censored.
Both documentaries show the dichotomy of the Iranian society, often in conflict with itself as confirmed by the two movie-makers. In Fest of Duty, Melika’s family represents the secular, “laicist” part of society and Mariam’s family is a symbol for typical religious households. The two families which both belong to the upper middle class show the societal divide in terms of politics and religion, which are closely linked in Iran. Meriem’s family who is more religious would tend to be pro-regime, which may not be the case of Melika’s family. The documentaries are also an opportunity to reflect on the status of women in the Iranian society, which cannot be separated from a broader political and social reflexion.
(1) Festival “Proche-Orient, ce que peut le cinema”, 7è édition, du 20 au 29 novembre 2015, au cinema Les 3 Luxembourg (Paris 6e).