Two Representations of Women in Recent Iranian Films

in 27th Stockholm International Film Festival

by Mihai Fulger

The Open Zone section of the Stockholm International Film Festival included two Iranian films launched this year that depict tragic experiences of women in contemporary Iranian society. Lantouri, the third feature written and directed by Reza Dormishian, starts as a wildly edited Iranian-style Bonnie and Clyde about a street gang, whose name provides the title of the film (in Persian, “Lantouri” translates as “leech” or “parasite”, but also as “ineffectual”). Pasha, played by Navid Mohammadzadeh, the main actor of the director’s previous feature, I’m not Angry! (Asabani nistam!), is the mastermind (i.e.: the “Clyde”) of the gang that is terrorizing Tehran, while Baroon (I’m not Angry! co-star Baran Kosari) is Pasha’s main partner in crime (their “Bonnie”), who is also desperately in love with him. However, the film’s narrative shifts radically to the in-depth study of a particular crime.

Pasha is desperately in love with Maryam (Maryam Palizban), an aristocratic journalist and a social activist campaigning against Iran’s law of retaliation (“an eye for an eye”), employed when crimes involve personal injury. Rejected by Maryam, Pasha resorts to the ultimate argument: “She is either mine or nobody’s”. Consequently, the man splashes acid on the woman’s face, thus hideously disfiguring her. Dormishian alludes to the terrible acid attacks on women in Iran, particularly in the city of Isfahan, often justified by male perpetrators, as it is in the film, by claiming, “She made me do it”. Lantouri delivers a straightforward indictment of male entitlement (Pasha), at the same time questioning retributive justice (Maryam) in contemporary Iranian society.

A subtler social critique can be found in Malaria, the striking sixth feature written and directed by Parviz Shahbazi. This time, the title of the film – bearing similar connotations, suggesting a disease of society – comes from the name of a street musical band, two of whose members, young lovers from the provinces Hanna (Saghar Ghanaat) and Murry (Saed Soheili), cross paths in Tehran. The female protagonist comes from a strict, conservative family and, as Shahbazi gradually reveals her background the audience finds out that Hanna’s abusive father caused her mother to leave home.

The film begins after the young woman also flees her repressive environment, accompanied by her lover; she texts her father that she has been kidnapped, and that a ransom is demanded. However, the violent parent is more concerned that Hanna will bring shame to his family, as his wife already did, than that her daughter’s life may be in danger. Therefore, he leaves for Tehran, together with his son and two other men who share his patriarchal views, determined to find Hanna and bring her back home, where she can be punished for her insolence. In a later confession, Hanna tells Murry that, after the first time she ran away, her father tried to set her on fire.

The question raised by Shahbazi is: While technology has evolved significantly (the viewers have to accept the convention that a large part of the film is recorded through mobile phones, everybody in the capital city has a smartphone to shoot with, surveillance cameras are everywhere, a policeman prides himself with taking a selfie next to an imprisoned musician, etc.), has society evolved in tandem when it comes to women’s positions and roles? How it is possible, in an era of accelerated globalization and technology advances, that a traditionalist father can assume absolute power over his daughter, her body and her future, without any opposition from the community, including law enforcement officials who are supposed to protect human rights? To some extent, the situation of the female protagonist, a victim of a despotic parent, may be compared to that of the baby chicks painted on the screen by a doorman, “because kids like coloured chicks and he can sell them better”. It doesn’t matter that several of the small, innocent creatures die during the process, because the end justifies the means. Doesn’t it?

As the 27th edition of the Stockholm International Film Festival directed its spotlight to the theme of identity, films such as Malaria and Lantouri can stimulate debate on female identity in contemporary Iranian society.

Edited by José Teodoro