Iranian Women Make Films
Film International, (Quarterly)
Vol. 2, No. 3, P.P. 4 - 13
by: Reza Tahami
Cinema was only five years old when it came to Iran at the beginning of the 20th century. The arrival of cinema was initiated by Mozaffareddin Shah, the monarch who endorsed the country's first constitutional law. He had ordered his royal court's special photographer Mirza Ebrahim Khan, in 1900 to buy the equipments of cinematography from France and bring them to his capital, Tehran. Screenings started almost immediately at noblemen's houses, though not equally for both sexes. Special arrangements were in fact made for women who had to see early moving pictures at segregated screening sessions.
However, men - and only men - in the street had to wait another five years for going to the movies. For women the privilege was to come in 21 years, when the country's first professional cameraman, khanbaba Mo'tazedi, opened a movie theatre for women in 1926. Traditional circles were, however, still strongly against going to the movies; a place they believed advocated western values and secularism, if not blasphemy. Mo'tazedi's Cinema Khorshid was closed down after one year when it did not have any more movies to show. Two years later he opened another theatre, Cinema Sanati, which was extraordinarily successful but, it was soon demolished in a fire. Mo'tazedi took advantage of the incident saying that the women would have felt more secure if they had been accompanied by their husbands or brothers when the fire broke out. He had a clear but hardly possible proposal: mixed theatres. A practical solution, however, made it possible: Ladies on the right, gents on the left.
Cinema Pari opened under such conditions and with the support of the police. Soon other theatres followed suit and admitted mixed audience. The doors of movie theatres were thus opened to Iranian women about three decades after the arrival of cinema in Iran.
The first Iranian movie was produced in 1930. Abi and Rabi, a comedy with no women on the cast or the crew. It was still too outrageous even to think of women in front of a movie camera in Iran. But the spell was broken this time pretty soon. The second Iranian movie, Brother's Revenge (1931) had two women on the cast, both non- Muslim women. Thus the taboo was bypassed; and this became an example to be followed in third film to be made in Iran Haj Agha the Film Actor (1933). That movie was directed by Ovaness Oganiance. Its interesting story advocated cinema, yet its leading actress was an Armenian woman, Asia Koestanian. Oganiance later opened Iran's actors' studio to train actors and particularly actresses for the burgeoning Iranian cinema: but his attempt failed.
The man to break the spell was Abdolhossein Sepanta who made Iran's first talkie with a Muslim woman, Ruhangiz, playing its leading role. Quite a surprise was. After The Lur Girl (1933), Sepanta made a number of other films in India, where the first one had been made, each with a new actress. The list of Iranian actresses became longer and longer although Iranian families were generally against their daughters' presence in the movies. About one third of the four thousand people who have appeared in Iranian films in leading and supporting roles in the past 60 years or so, are women.
Yet, acting is the only field in filmmaking that has attracted the biggest number of Iranian women. Second to that is screenwriting only if one fails to take into account the position of script girl which is predominantly tailored for women. Of the 600 people who have written at least one screenplay only 22 are women. Even from among them 17 have written a screenplay only once in their lifetime. This leaves only Ensieh Shah- Hosseini, Moniru Ravanipour and Jahan Khademolmeleh as real screenwriters among Iranian women. A few others who can have the same title are better known as film directors. All of these women have their careers formed in the years following Iran's Islamic Revolution. Before that only seven Iranian women had written screenplays.
After screenwriting. there is film production (16 women) and directing (11 women). There were more women producers in the years before the 1979 revolution but most of them were actresses who had produced their own films or those who had contributed to a family venture. Only one of them Marva Nabili (The Sealed Soil, 1978) was a director who happened to finance her own movie; which she took with her abroad. Nevertheless, none of them can be categorized as professional producer.
The five women producers of post-revolution years are quite different women. Their work is characterized by consistency and efficiency. Fereshteh Taerpour, the successful managing director of the House of Arts and Letters for Children and Adolescents of Iran has so far produced more then 20 feature films and TV series. She is followed by director Tahmineh Milani who has co-produced three of her films, director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, director Pouran Derakhshandeh and production manager Mahvash Jazayeri.
Three women has ever made a feature film in the years before 1979; one in 1956 and the other two in the late 70's. On the other hand, of the 8 women who have directed films after that, 4 are making their 4th or 5th movies, one has made two movies and tens of TV programs, and two others are beginners. None of them, even Tahmineh Ardakani who died in a plane crash last year, were accidental film directors. However, 11 women directors are just a few when seen among the 450 Iranian film directors.
Even fewer are the women who have chosen the technological side of filmmaking. In the past 84 years there has been only one camerawoman in Iran: Parvaneh Mohayman, whose husband is also a cinematographer. She has shot three films.
The situation is little bit better among composers. There are two of them! Giti Pashaee (the wife of director Massoud Kimiaee) who composed original film scores for three films by her husband between 1986 and 1991; and Susan Shakerin (the wife of another director, Rajab Mohammadin) who has made three original film scores for her husband's films between 1988 and 1990 and one for Cyrus Alvand's Strike (1991). Except for film editing, women's presence in the other fields of filmmaking is next to nothing. But outside the domain of professional cinema, women seem to be more active. Relatively a large number of girl students in film schools look promising; yet there are many indications that filmmaking in Iran is a men's job.
IRANIAN WOMEN'S PRESENCE IN FILMMAKING
Field total (1930-94 women (1930- 79) women Acting 4000 1200 500 Screenwriting 600 22 7 Film production 650 16 11 Film directing 470 11 3 Music 110 1 -- Cinematography 180 1 1 Rakhshan Bani-Etemad
Born in 1954, Shiraz, Started her career at the Iranian television in 1973 as director. Made several short documentaries. Started her career as professional filmmaker as assistant director to Kianush Ayyari (The Monster, 1985) and made her first feature film, Off Limits in 1988. She has just finished her fifth movie. The Blue Scarf.
Films 1985: Off Limits, 1989: Canary Yellow, 1990: Foreign Exchange, 1992: Nargess, 1994: The Blue Scarf.
"I still haven't reached such categorizations like feminine or masculine cinema. I don't know what is a woman's cinema. I don't like this kind of segregation.