May 2016, arsenal cinema

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad Retrospective

TALES, 2014

"Who do you make your films for anyway? Who sees them anyway?" It's these questions which Iranian director Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s protagonists repeatedly address to camera and which have become a leitmotif of sorts for her filmmaking work. For over three decades, she's painted a precise picture of her country in both features and documentaries and established herself in the process as one of the most important influential directors in post-revolution Iranian cinema. Her films are shown at major international film festivals and awarded prizes, but also have successful theatrical runs in Iran. We are showing a retrospective of eight of her features and documentaries and are very happy to be able to welcome Rakshan Bani-Etemad as our guest at Arsenal on May 6th and 7th.

Bani-Etemad was born in 1954 in Teheran and started her professional career in television, where she started off shooting documentaries. Her first features at the end of 80s were social satires that took a sharp look at social realities and contradictions even then. Her breakthrough came with NARGESS, a love triangle set in the petty crime milieu with which she became the first woman to win the prize for best director at the Fajr International Film Festival in Teheran. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad's cinema is primarily rooted in the Iranian reality of the underprivileged and those without rights, it stands for the empathetic exploration of human fates and always talks of universal conflicts and themes at the same time. Her characters are clearly close to her heart and gifted with a true spirit of resistance and power, although she must often watch how they are worn down by the daily battle for survival, family worries, and the desire for their own personal freedom. The wayward women in her films are not afraid to fight for their rights and speak openly about the discrimination they've suffered, an openness which makes Bani-Etemad's position within Iranian cinema all the more radical. This strident approach to showing women and their living conditions often finds its form as a film in film, in which the characters speak directly into the camera.

For Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, her film work is irrevocably linked to the struggle for freedom in art and women's rights. She regards film as a means of social change – and to return to the question posed at the beginning: her films are indeed supposed to be seen by people in Iran.

GHESSE-HA (Tales, Iran 2014, 6.5., screening attended by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad & 14.5.) With TALES, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad returns to different characters from her earlier films and imagines how their lives might have continued. This multi-layered account about social realities in Teheran brings together an ensemble of characters, including Tuba and Abbas from UNDER THE SKIN OF THE CITY (2001). It shows the everyday lives of people from every different social strata, touching on drug addiction, the (im)possibility of political action, domestic violence, and the public morals of romantic relationships, as well as the absurdity of an omnipotent bureaucracy that disregards its citizens and the arbitrary nature of state power. What all the characters have in common is their constant struggle for dignity in an often inhumane system. The episodes are held together in masterly fashion by a young documentary filmmaker, whose work is constantly being hindered but who remains sure of one thing: "no film remains on the shelves forever, at some point it has to be seen". In order to get round the censors, who became particularly strict under President Mahmud Ahmadinedschad, TALES was conceived as a series of five shorts, which are subject to a less complicated approval procedure, and were then combined to form a feature. TALES was completed in 2011 already, but was only able to be shown in 2014, once the political climate changed following the election of President Hassan Rohani. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad won the prize for best script for the film at the Venice Film Festival

ZIR-E PUST-E SHAHR (Under the Skin of the City, Iran 2001, 7.5., screening attended by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad & 12.5.) The portrait of a family in Teheran held together by mother Tuba, a feisty worker at a textile factory. Despite his qualifications, her eldest son Abbas works as an errand boy and dreams of getting a visa for Japan so he can earn money there – as well as of finally plucking up the courage to speak to the women he loves. Her eldest daughter is married but beaten by her husband, and yet has no other choice but to keep returning to him again and again. To the displeasure of their parents, the two teenage children are not afraid to speak about politics with easy self-confidence. It is this – it is the period of the coming elections – that is always present in the background. The feeling there’s no way out weighs heavily on all the family members, not only due to the rigid conception of morals, but also because of the marked contrast between rich and poor and the impossibility of earning enough money to feed a family with legal work. Rakhshan Bani-Etemad paints a picture of Teheran as a relentless juggernaut with great intensity and emotional force.

NARGESS (Iran 1992, 10. & 20.5.) A love triangle among the marginalized of Teheran. Petty thief Abel gets to know the young, reserved Nargess, who instantly bewitches him. His mother refuses to set up a wedding for him, whereupon he enters into a deal with his partner and former lover Afagh: she will pretend to be his mother if he continues with their partnership. Nargess, who comes from a poor background, is unwittingly pulled into a vortex of feelings, conflicting ideas of love, rivalry and crime. Due to how it challenges traditional gender roles and its unflinching representation of poverty and the battle for survival, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s atmospheric film about people as lonely as they are lost broke several taboos.

BANOO-YE ORDIBEHESHT (The May Lady, Iran 1998, 13. & 21.5.) 42-year-old Forough Kiya (a reverent nod to the most well-known Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad) is a documentary filmmaker and single mother of a nearly adult son. She is divorced from her husband and longs for a new relationship. In order to gain some clarity about the conflict between her role as a mother and her desire to live her own life, she starts a film project that aims to find the "exemplary mother" and asks numerous women (including Tuba, who we will see again in UNDER THE SKIN OF THE CITY and TALES) about their experiences. Confronted with the most varied of life plans all united by the external restrictions they must endure, her feeling of being trapped by convention only grows stronger. The man Forough loves is simultaneously there and not there. Only his words can be heard, during intimate telephone conversations, when reading letters aloud and reciting poems, a sophisticated way for Rakhshan Bani-Etemad to represent the forbidden and to place her focus entirely on the desire of the woman. With the last sentence in the film – "I am Forough" – she lays claim to her autonomy as a thinking and feeling subject.

RUZEGAR-E MA (Our Times, Iran 2002, 8. & 18.5.) The 2001 presidential election, which confirmed reformer Mohammad Chatami in office, is documented by Rakhshan Bani-Etemad from two different points of view and thus captures the prevailing mood, which lies somewhere between hope and resignation. One of these perspectives is that of her 16-year-old daughter and her friends, who are allowed to vote for the first time. Full of passion and enthusiasm, they organize an election campaign for Chatami and demand their right to freedom and self-determination in self-confident fashion. This optimism stands in stark contrast to the second part, in which Rakhshan Bani-Etemad finds several of the 48 women who put themselves forward for election, none of whom were ultimately permitted to run. One of their number is the 25-year-old Arezoo Bayat, who is divorced from her drug addict husband and now must provide for her daughter and sick mother alone. Her badly paid office job is hardly enough even to survive and when she is forced to leave her apartment, she gets into serious difficulties, as it’s almost impossible to get an apartment in Teheran as a single woman. Aside from all this, Arezoo, whose candidacy challenges the patriarchal system and draws attention to the day-to-day discrimination she suffers due to her sex, shows impressive fighting spirit.

MA NIMI AZ JAMIA-E IRAN HASTIM (We Are Half of Iran's Population, Iran 2009, 8. & 18.5.) During the campaign for the 2009 presidential election, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad has women from all sections of society publicly express their demands to the candidates and pose questions directly to the politicians. A coalition of several women's rights groups draws attention to the legal discrimination against the titular half of the population and demands the abolition of discriminatory laws. All the candidates are invited to discuss these demands. In a controversial election, the winning candidate turns out to be the only one not to accept the invitation. Many of the activists that appear in the film were arrested during the protests that followed – the optimism that Rakhshan Bani-Etemad captured in OUR TIMES has finally evaporated. As in all her documentaries, Bani-Etemad is herself very much present: not just as the one being addressed, but also with her thoughts and reflections of what is seen and heard.

GILANEH (Rakhshan Bani-Etemad & Mohsen Abdolvahab, Iran 2005, 11. & 24.5.) It's 1988, towards the end of the Iran-Iraq war. The widowed Gilaneh accompanies her pregnant daughter Maygol from their village Espili to Teheran, where they hope to find Maygol's husband, who has deserted from the army and not been in contact since. On their way to Teheran, they encounter a stream of people fleeing the city. The journey becomes a trip into darkness, fear, and tangible danger. In 2003, 15 years following the end of the war, Gilaneh has now grown old and cares selflessly for her son Ismael, who returned from the war destroyed in both body and soul. The current television images of the US troops marching into Iraq evoke old traumas in mother and son alike. They are alone with their pain and tortuous memories, forgotten by society – two lives destroyed by war.

KHOON BAZI (Mainline, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad & Mohsen Abdolvahab, Iran 2006, 15. & 22.5.) The laidback scenes between Sami and her grown-up daughter Sara in their apartment at the start of the film are deceptive. Sara (played by Bani-Etemad’s daughter Baran Kosari) is, like many young people in Iran, a drug addict. Her fiancée has no idea and has emigrated to Canada, dreaming of having her join him. A joint car journey to the Caspian Sea, where Sara is supposed to enter a rehabilitation facility, brings the conflicts between mother and daughter inexorably to light. Sara oscillates between self-hate, destructive tendencies, and the desire to stay, while the mother wrestles with unconscious despair. A visit to her father, who Sami is separated from, also tears open old wounds. With a handheld camera trained closely on the protagonists and in strongly de-saturated colors, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad gives an account of the horror of not being able to help your child from the perspective of the mother. (al)
With thanks to Noori Pictures and Anke Leweke.

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