Veiled Voice and Vision in Iranian Cinema:
The Evolution of Rakhshan Banietemad's Films
By: Hamid Naficy, 2000
Banietemad's Veiling and Unveiling Strategies
Looking at the film career of the foremost woman director Rakhshan Banietemad, it becomes clear that her artistic development parallels the transformations from the first to the third phase of Iranian cinema itself. She was born in 1954 in Tehran, graduated from the College of Dramatic Arts in 1979, just before the purification process shut down universities, and began work as a set designer for National Iranian Television. For the next six years she directed television documentaries and worked as assistant director on several feature films. Her first feature film, Off the Limit (Kharej az Mahdudeh, 1987), set the pattern for what became a characteristic of her style, social realism. The film is about a young middle class couple who discover that their newly acquired house is located in a district that has accidentally been omitted from city zoning maps, and for all intents and purposes does not exist and is not subject to the jurisdiction and protection of any legal or police authority. As a result, thieves and robbers have a field day in this no-mans-land, which is ironically called "Chaos City" (hertabad). The residents are placed off limit, out of bounds, and therefore made invisible (veiled). However, in a move toward self-determination (visibility), they begin to enforce the laws themselves, capturing the thieves and reforming them. The name of the city is now changed to "New City" (nowabad). Although the film is a biting social satire that criticizes the chaotic social conditions, which the film conveniently labels as belonging to 1972, Banietemad reproduces the dominant view of women under the Islamic Republic. The wife is uncritically shown to be so confined to the home that her husband has to do the shopping for their daily necessities. Moreover, she is not only confined to the four walls of the home, but also deprived of the one avenue of intimate expression available to women, recitation of poetry. Her husband, however, has access to it, as in a scene in which he recites a famous love ballad to her while she serves him his meal. This is clearly a phase-two representation of women. American and Iranian audiences abroad consistently expressed surprise that the director of such a traditional representation of women was a woman. Despite its timidity in representing the wife, the film is somewhat bold in the political solution that it offers to the community's dilemma. For it urges the community to take charge, restore order, and patrol its boundaries. Ultimately, however, the zealotry of this new order is no less problematic than the lawlessness of the previous order.
The aesthetics of veiling that govern the actors' behavior, dress, and emotional expression, also affect Off the Limit's mise-en-scene and filming style. Objects and boundary-marking features such as fences, walls, and columns constantly obstruct vision. Long tracking shots with these obstacles in the foreground highlight them as visual barriers and as metaphors for modesty and veiling. The reciprocity of veiling and unveiling, however, necessitates that the obstructions that seem to conceal certain things from view also reveal something else, namely, the director's intention. Indeed, in one of the early shots, before the residents of Chaos City have realized their zoning problem, the camera looks down from above the walls of a house into the adjacent street. In the background, the husband is walking down the street, alongside a wall. In the foreground, a fence made of barbed wire and dry bushes on top of the wall partially obstructs the view of the street below. Toward the film's end, after the community has taken up the enforcement of the laws, a similarly composed shot is shown, but with a major difference. The foreground is no longer a decrepit fence but a row of beautiful flowers in full bloom, signaling the transformation from Chaos City to New City. The director's activist vision that beauty and prosperity require political will and independent action is made visible in the barrier that conceals vision. That which veils also unveils.
In her next film Canary Yellow (Zard-e Qanari, 1989), Banietemad depicts the women of a family, particularly the mother, to be strong, mature, and level headed, ruling the men who are naive, unscrupulous, or weak through the force of her personality and acumen. Despite such a strong representation of women, the film's moral center is a man, who defiantly demonstrates that virtue overpowers vice. This ambivalent configuration of female--male power relations points to the internal tug of war in Banietemad's works between liberalism and conservatism. In Nargess (1991), her groundbreaking film noir that brought her to international attention, she not only continues to focus on the lives of ordinary--even marginal--people, but also transgresses the limits on the depiction of love in cinema by examining a love triangle involving two women and a male petty thief. The film also pushes the boundaries of what is permissible in terms of direct eye contact, especially between the male protagonist and his young wife-to-be, Nargess. However, the love triangle configuration itself is not as radical an idea as it seems, for polygamy is a traditional practice in Iran that was revived under the Islamic Republic. Banietemad recuperates this practice in the interest of romance. But this recuperation demonstrates again the political balancing act that Banietemad has engaged in each of her films. Banietemad insists that she does not want to be identified as a female filmmaker or a feminist filmmaker, but as a filmmaker who happens to be a woman ("Ghamkhar-e bi Edde'a-ye Zanan-e Darmandeh: Goftogu ba Rakhshan Banietemad," Zanan 25 (Mordad/Shahrivar 1374/1995), pp. 44-50). She won the first prize in the 1991 Fajr Film Festival for directing Nargess, the first woman in Iranian cinema to garner such an award for a feature film. Indeed, this recognition by the film industry and the official film culture corroborates her status not as a woman filmmaker but as a top Iranian filmmaker. In her subsequent The Blue Veiled (Rusari-ye Abi, 1994), she continued with her social realist examination of Iranian society, this time centering on the manner in which love between a proud young peasant woman (Nobar who wears a blue scarf) and an aging owner of a tomato plantation (Rasul), makes possible the crossing of age and class barriers. They express their secret love for each other in affectionate words and actions that defy social norms but make for an uncertain future. This is symbolized in the film's last shot that shows the lovers walking toward each other, when suddenly a passing freight train splits the frame, separating the two. The modesty rules, which force directors to continually devise new, ingenuous, and sometimes distorted ways of implying heterosexual relations, are at work in this film as well. To suggest that the lovers, who never touch each other, have consummated their relationship, she employs a remarkably economic and beautiful single close-up shot: Nobar's bare feet sticking out of her fancy embroidered white skirt (implying a wedding dress), walk gracefully and playfully on a richly designed Persian carpet to the tune of an extradiegetic dance music. With this single shot, Banietemad implies lovemaking without breaking modesty rules. On other occasions, however, she does break the rules. Disregarding the modesty conventions, Nobar is not a passive figure in her body language and behavior. She walks purposefully and assertively, fights for her rights, and in one scene she violates the rule of no physical contact between men and women by beating up her younger brother whom she catches stealing. In another scene, Banietemad resorts to a ploy for evading modesty censors that has become common in the Iranian post-revolutionary films; that is, she uses a child as an adult substitute. One night, Rasul is affectionately telling a story to Nobar's young daughter from a previous marriage, who has placed her head on his lap. While Rasul and Nobar's daughter seem to have genuine affection for one another, this is a ruse, for the exchange of glances and smiles between Nobar and Rasul strongly suggests that the daughter is a stand in for her mother who, because of modesty rules, cannot touch her lover. Banietemad's latest film The May Lady (Banu-ye Ordibehesht, 1997) pushes the boundaries of modesty and tradition further by centering the story on a female documentary film director who is a divorced single mother who insists on pursuing her profession, her liaison with a man to whom she is not married, and her raising of her rebellious teenage boy who likes photography and partying.
However, the film breaks more than just the thematic taboos of divorce, single motherhood, and unmarried relations with the men. It also expands the vocabulary and extends the grammar of veiling and modesty in cinema by introducing fascinating textual and narrative innovations--forced by the imposition of the veil. One of these textual innovations is the way mise-en-scene and filming suggest unveiling. In one shot, the diegetic director (named Foruq Kian) arrives home from a day's hard work filming a documentary. In a medium shot, she walks through a hallway toward her bedroom. The camera pans with her as she walks briskly in that direction. As she gets close to the door, she reaches for her headscarf and lifts it in a characteristic gesture that signals the imminent removal of the scarf. But just before the scarf is off, she disappears through the door, leaving the unmistakable impression of unveiling without actually having done it. Unlike some male filmmakers, such as Dariush Mehrjui in his Leila (1997), who have attempted by means of ingenuous mise-en-scene and filming to distract the audience from the artificiality of the veil in private spaces, Banietemad has ingenuously incorporated it in The May Lady as a natural part of the diegesis. As Norma Claire Moruzzi astutely observes, this direct incorporation of veiling as "a cinematic issue may be the most effective way of establishing the film's realism" (1998, p. 7). The result is intensified spectator identification with diegetic characters.
One of the narrative innovations is the way the male lover is simultaneously both effaced and inscribed in the film by means of a complex game of veiling and unveiling as well as voicing and unvoicing. He is visually absent from the entire film, but he is simultaneously present throughout by the epistolary means of telephone, letters, and voice-over poetry. Using her cordless telephone, the diegetic director (Foruq) talks with him frequently and intimately (he is called Mr. Rahbar). They also exchange letters and, using one of the favorite Iranian devices of intimacy, sexuality, and love, quote poetry to each other (Foruq's name is an homage to Foruq Farrokhzad, one of the greatest and boldest modernist poets of Iran). While throughout these exchanges the woman is the primary speaking subject, from time to time, the man's voice is heard speaking to her on the phone or reading his own poetic and flowery letters to her. In addition, from time to time, Foruq's voice on the soundtrack tells of her feelings and thoughts about her son, her career, her films, and her lover. Sometimes these first person musings are inserted in the middle of her phone conversations with her man, deepening our access to her subjectivity. The lovers' voices on the soundtrack reading letters and poems to each other and Foruq's autobiographical voice-over musings create a dense tapestry of free indirect discourse braided together by various voices and subjectivities. This is the first example of this discourse that I know of in Iranian feature films. These interweaving male and female voices symbolically substitute for the desired but dreaded--because outlawed--physical contact between unmarried couples. By means of the verbal epistolary communications, they are able to express their mutual love for one another and by means of voice fusion, they are able to become one vocally. None of this type of expression would have been possible if the characters were shown together. This is because veiling rules do not govern vision and voice uniformly. By cleverly taking advantage of this discrepancy, voice contact more than replaces the missing eye contact between the lovers which would have been constrained anyway, or would have been deflected and averted by unfulfilled desire and by modesty rules. The filmmaker's expressive use of the voice, turns the characters' voices into acoustic mirrors in whose grains the spectators recognize not only the lovers' love and longing for each other but also our own desire as spectators for such intimacy in the taboo-ridden Islamic Republic's cinema. The absence of the male object of desire and the female point of view filming have another felicitous outcome, which is that the film forces us to focus on female desire as such, regardless of its specific object--and this is a very feminist move in the restrictive Iranian social context.
A comparison of The Blue Veiled and The May Lady demonstrates the plasticity of the hermeneutics of female--male physical contact. It appears that physical contact in situations of violence is permissible but not in moments of tenderness. In the former film, Nobar's beating up of her brother is shown prominently, while in the latter film, Foruq, who wants to express her concern and love for her son, is forced to do so by touching him through a mediating cloth. In one scene, she shows tenderness by drying his wet hair with a towel. In another scene, when after a heated verbal fight her son retreats to his bed, she follows him, sits by his side, and caresses him through his covers. These gestures of physical expression may seem innocent and small, but they are potent and transgressive in the context of modesty rules and prevailing practices that prohibit public heterosexual physical contact. To be sure, the insistence in The May Lady on female representation (Foruq is the sole star), female subjectivity (Foruq's visual and vocal viewpoints dominate), female autobiography (Foruq provides the film's first person voice-over narration), female enunciation and authorship (represented by both diegetic and extra diegetic directors) overdetermines female subjectivity and agency. At the same time, however, this insistence points to Banietemad's anxiety about the uncertain and complicated social position of women in Iran, which stems from a burning desire to stake a claim on cinema but also from the profound fear that the ground underneath may shift and crumble. Perhaps it is this fear in Banietemad that drives Foruq to intervene in a dispute between her Westernized son and a young Islamist security agent, whereby she urges them to reconcile. Some people have criticized her that by urging reconciliation she is appeasing society's reactionary forces. I do not think that that is the case, for this episode points once again to a characteristic of Banietemad's style (and perhaps personality), which is the internal tug of war between rebellion and resignation, progressivism and conservatism.
The May Lady intermingles the two forms of film making that Banietemad has practiced throughout her career, documentary and fiction film making. As Foruq films and edits her documentary on "ideal mothers," snippets of it are shown. Some of the women are actors playing a variety of ordinary women, and some of them are prominent women (a lawyer, a publisher, a newspaper editor) who play themselves in their direct address interviews about social conditions of women. This documentary film within a fictional film functions in two ways: it embeds Banietemad's usual concern for the society's lower depths in the fictional story of Foruq that is highly personal and private, and it gives The May Lady a decidedly self-reflexive style--one that has become popular with prominent art cinema filmmakers (especially with Abbas Kiarostami and Mohsen Makhmalbaf). But what Banietemad does which goes beyond the self-reflexivity formula is the intertextual manner in which she deploys in this film the actors and characters of her previous films. For example, Nargess appears as one of the women in the documentary, this time carrying a baby in her arms, thus, updating her story from where the previous film Nargess had left off (in which she had no baby yet). Finally, the intertextuality of documentary and fictional modes bespeak Banietemad's own continued dual involvement with these forms. For while she was making these fictional films, she continued to make documentaries, including Last Visit with Iran Daftari (Akharin Didar ba Iran-e Daftari, 1995), an affectionate portrait of a famous actress, and Who Will You Show These Films To? (In Filmharo beh ki Neshun Midin? 1992-4), a searing documentary about the homeless people and the shanty town dwellers of Tehran that has not been shown publicly (Nargess was also banned for a while).
During the third phase, despite the continued oppression of women and draconian censorship, the constraints on women's representation lessened and filmmakers with each film pushed the boundaries of what was allowed. In addition, not all women directors fully or equally abided by the regulations. Some fought them by indirection and implication, others head-on. And women were not alone in this struggle, as several prominent male directors engaged in sustained efforts of both sorts. Bahram Baizai, Dariush Mehrjui, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf cast women as strong protagonists and seriously explored gender roles, female--male relations, and women's position in society. While all women directors cast women in key roles, not all the male directors did so, even some prominent ones, such as Kiarostami, whose film world is usually without women. While women's presence as directors is impressive, women are under represented in many technical areas of the film industry such as in production, distribution, and exhibition. Finally, a large number of Iranian women directors are working in exile and diaspora in Europe and North America in all formats and genres of film and television. Among them are Shirin Bazleh, Shirin Etessam, Marva Nabili, Shirin Neshat, Mehrnaz Saeedvafa, Mitra Tabrizian, and Persheng Vaziri. Interestingly, a few of them returned home to make films there and a few of those who normally work at home made films abroad for home consumption and for export. This crossing of geographical and national boundaries--which is also occurring with the male filmmakers--is part of the globalization of culture and cinema in general and of Iranian cinema in particular as well as of the emergence of a transnational Iranian cinema.
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