Tradition versus Modernity in Iranian Society

in 38th Moscow International Film Festival

by Mo Abdi

Daughter(Dokhtar) by Reza Mirkarimi- winner of the Best film prize in the competition of 38th Moscow International Film Festival- talks about the most crucial issue in the history of Iran’s society in a century (especially during the last 37 years, after Islamic Revolution): Tradition versus Modernity.

The simple story of the film tells us about a young daughter who wants to travel to see her friends in the capital of Iran, but her traditional father does not want to let her go. The film opens in Abadan, a city in south of Iran, which is well-known for oil. This father, Mr Azizi, works as a manager of the technical section of a huge refinery. From this point onwards the film makes it clear it is talking about authority: the father as a symbol of power, which is connected to a regime, who has oil (money/power) and desperately wants to control people, especially women.

Despite being too long, one of the crucial sequences is the girl’s conversation in the cafe. They talk about freedom, how they should fight for it, how fathers/the regime do not want to give them what they need. Women’s aims and their situation within a very complex social structure is the main thematic push of the film, where the traditional father/regime uses its traditional power structures to control women.

The film follows this story in a very linear fashion: the daughter, without telling her father, goes to Tehran and hopes to come back on time, but her flight is cancelled. The second part of the film happens in Tehran; where the angry father comes a long way to take “home” his rebellious daughter.

Two parts of the film- in Tehran and Abadan- has a very sensitive connection: aunt; a rebellious female heroien who fought with her brother for her freedom many years ago and who, in the film, confronts her brother once again. This conflict allows us to get inside the fathers character: we see that he is as scared to lose his daughter as was, once upon a time, to lose his sister. This fragile line connects the daughter and her aunt very strongly; where women, generation to generation must fight for their freedom to just have this ability to decide for themselves. This is perhaps the most crucial aspect of the dichotomy that the film tackles head on: Tradition versus Modernity within Iranian Society.

Mirkarimi started his career with a broad theme, developed in his earlier films: searching for God. But later pointed his lens towards society as a whole and as individuals, and his treatment of his subjects became very different. In these new films he is talking about a very complicated society for whose ills, maybe no one can prescribe a treatment: where tradition is really mixed with religion and it’s confrontation with freedom which we see nowadays. The truth is that the Islamic revolution added many more layers to this reciprocity: whatever the Shah did try to reduce this gap between tradition (and religion) with modern life, The Islamic regime made it much more complicated: In schools, national TV and all other official tribunes they talk against the freedom and human rights- as we know and as we would believe and understand it in modern life- and they criticise it and belittle it as “freedom in a western way”.

Daughter talks about a moment where a young girl- symbolising a generation- stands against the moralistic, pharisaic and brutal behaviour, which she feels in daily life: inside her home and outside in society.

But the film- cleverly- does not try to give us an answer for this problem. As a matter of fact, if you know this society, you would probably, and accurately, guess that there is not a clear answer for it. As a result, Mirkarimi stands back: he does not want to judge someone. Even the father, with all his brutality is not totally a “bad man”: we see him stopping in the road to help other people, he pays his sister’s debts and in some scenes he is full of genuine human emotions. On the other hand the film does not offer the aunt as a successful outcome: she cuts her relation with her stubborn brother, but she is not necessarily successful in her life. In a very crucial and telling piece of dialogue she tells her niece: “At least he came for you, but he did not come for me!”

However, the daughter draws something more than mere satisfaction from this, and the dialogue between the aunt and the father which talks about situation of a lonely woman. In this other scene the aunt tells the girls father exactly what the daughter does not dare tell him. Very soon we realise she is not happy about this conversation and her emotion becomes one of pity for her father.

Despites some strong layers of melodrama, the simplicity of form save this film. In all the sequences- even during heightened emotion- the camera is a cold observer; standing back and just looking. The camera does not need to interfere with the scene. This style is one which Iranian cinema is well-known for and is indicative of Mirkarimi’s style.

At the end neither we nor Mirkarimi has an answer. He chooses an open ending: the father does not apologise and instead film offers us the idea that there is no answer. We are left with the sense that the deep beliefs and questioning of this filmmaker might lead him to come back to a theme which he worked on in his earlier corpus: searching for god; the father with dirty hands looks upon the sky. Destiny is very powerful.