More than three decades of hostile relations between Iran and the West have meant that images about Iran and Iranian women circulate in a charged political environment. In this geopolitical context, Iranian women filmmakers have often found receptive audiences abroad who turn to documentaries as sites to reveal the truths of contemporary Iran. The enthusiasm for these works, however, also exerts pressures on filmmakers to adhere to familiar narratives about Iran and Iranian women or risk losing their audiences. Focusing on Nahid Sarvestani's Prostitution behind the Veil (2004) and Mahvash Sheikholeslami's Where Do I Belong? (2007), this article examines two tendencies in recent Iranian documentary. The former film exemplifies the prevalent trend of repeating troubling but familiar tropes about Islam and Muslim women, while the latter is an example of attempts to provide a more nuanced picture of Iran's social and political problems. Placing these films in the broader context of the history of nonfiction films in Iran, the article also draws from both feminist scholarship on representations of the Muslim world and longstanding debates within documentary studies to show the high stakes of producing films about Iran and to suggest that documentary works by and about Iranian women should be more rigorously interrogated for their ethical and political implications.

Since the 1979 revolution, encounters between Iran and “the West” have been fraught with tensions. Images and discourses about Iran circulate in a context in which the country is dominantly identified as an irrational pariah state bent on repressing its citizens. Cinematic encounters have not been immune to this dynamic. Indeed, due to the perception that they are a medium of truth-telling, documentaries have become increasingly popular among transnational audiences as sites for visualizing contemporary Iran. Iranian works by or about women are imbued with further ideological significance because of, on the one hand, the various restrictions the Iranian state places on women, and on the other hand, a persistent drive to “liberate” Muslim women, a tendency that has been exacerbated in the West since 9/11.

This geopolitical context means that women filmmakers often find receptive audiences abroad who are keen to gain access to the life and work of Iranian women. By the same token, this interest can be limiting, since foreign and diasporic audiences bring their own assumptions about life inside Iran to the experience of viewing: Iranian filmmakers risk alienating their audiences and losing access to distribution networks if they confound these expectations. As such, filmmakers are faced with two options: to surrender to the prevailing wisdom about Iran or to explore a more nuanced view of the country's social and political problems. This article focuses on two films that exemplify each tendency: Nahid Sarvestani's Prostitution behind the Veil (2004) and Mahvash Sheikholeslami's Where Do I Belong? (2007).

By analyzing these films in the broader context of the history of nonfiction films in Iran, we see that the development of documentary filmmaking in Iran has always been caught in the push and pull of politicized contexts of production and reception. In conversation with longstanding debates within documentary studies, as well as feminist scholarship about representations of the Muslim world, this essay shows the high stakes of producing nonfiction work about Iran in the current political climate and argues that documentary works by and about Iranian women should be more rigorously interrogated for their ethical and political implications.

Like the Pahlavi monarchy that it replaced, the Islamic Republic has had an ambiguous relationship with documentary films and filmmakers. Both states recognized the potential usefulness of the nonfiction form, often commissioning—and then banning—works of social documentary. The history of documentary filmmaking in Iran, therefore, has been rife with paradoxes and entanglements with the authorities. This article begins with an overview of this history, highlighting how filmmakers have responded to domestic and international developments and the changes in production and distribution that they brought about. It also traces the work of women, revealing that while they have been a part of the history of social documentary in Iran from its earliest days, their numbers and participation only began to surge in the 1990s. Before proceeding to the main analysis of Prostitution behind the Veil and Where Do I Belong?, I address how scholarship on documentary ethics and feminist interventions in discourses on Muslim women has informed my interpretation of the films.

The Documentary Form in Iran

The 1963 documentary The House Is Black is the earliest and most celebrated documentary by an Iranian woman. A little over twenty minutes long, The House Is Black is a lyrical film that portrays consummate outsiders: residents of a leper colony in the province of Azerbaijan (figure 1). Directed by the famed and controversial poet Forugh Farrokhzad, the film has been noted for its original style, its compassionate treatment of its subjects, and its influence on Iranian cinema. Several staged scenes in the beginning and end of the film have led some to argue against calling it a documentary;1 however, this blending of fact and fiction has been credited with establishing the cinema verité style in Iranian films.2 And while Dariush Mehrjui's fiction film The Cow (1969) marked the full-fledged appearance of the Iranian New Wave, The House Is Black hinted at its imminent arrival. In particular, Jonathan Rosenbaum has drawn parallels between the mix of literary and film poetry in The House Is Black and the works of New Wave directors such as Abbas Kiarostami.3 Also focusing on the poetic elements of the film, Hamid Naficy has argued that The House Is Black left a mark on nonfiction filmmaking in Iran, allowing oppositional filmmakers to use poetry and poetic realism as a form of complex critique.4 He has also pointed out that the documentary was the first to depart from accepted institutional styles, despite the fact that it was indeed an institutional documentary: the film was funded and commissioned by the Iranian Leprosy Society. Rather than relying on the expository convention of an authoritative, voice-of-God narrator and a linear narrative that acknowledged the work of the Society, Farrokhzad opted for an experimental approach that played with words and images. Indeed, while ostensibly a film aimed only at bringing attention to the condition of lepers in an isolated colony, The House Is Black also leaves room for seeing the marginalization of lepers as a metaphor for the state of Iranian society more generally. Similarly, The House Is Black can be read as condemning a society (and audience) that allows the isolation of its own members. In support of this reading, Nasrin Rahimieh has argued that the film's focus on the abject creates an “unsettling of the self” that prompts a “critique of ways of seeing and making meaning of the discarded and stigmatized.”5

Figure 1.

The House Is Black (dir. Forugh Farrokhzad, Iran, 1963).

Figure 1.

The House Is Black (dir. Forugh Farrokhzad, Iran, 1963).

Following The House Is Black, the remainder of the 1960s saw steady development in Iranian fiction and nonfiction films, including independent, commercial, and institutional works backed by the state. Although neither was directed by a woman, two important social documentaries on women's issues were made in this period. Kamran Shirdel's short documentary Women's Prison (1967) and his Fortress: The Red Light District (1966/1980) harshly critiqued the condition of women prisoners and prostitutes, respectively. These films were made for the Ministry of Culture and Art and sponsored by the Women's Organization of Iran (a state institution), but they were openly critical of official policies. In this regard, they were similar to Farrokhzad's film in straying from the conventions of institutional filmmaking, but they went one step further in directly challenging the sponsoring organization. As a result, Fortress was banned during filming and the footage confiscated. After the revolution, Shirdel was able to retrieve the material and edit it, a story that is narrated in the opening credits of Women's Prison. Other critical documentaries in this period shared a similar fate, including Ebrahim Golestan's Iran's Crown Jewels (1965) and Khosrow Sinai's Beyond the Barrier of Sound (1968). In its combination of documentary and staged footage as well as the subject of the film (a school for the deaf and mute), the latter has some echoes of The House Is Black. Despite the expansion of documentaries and their increasing boldness in addressing social issues across the 1960s, The House Is Black stands alone as a documentary made by a woman during this time. Farrokhzad herself did not make another film: she died in a car accident in 1967, at the age of thirty-two.

Increasing restrictions on works with political or social messages made it difficult for critical documentarians to film or distribute their work in the 1970s. Like Shirdel and Golestan, critical filmmakers intended their films for Iranian audiences. Simmering intellectual and political circles critical of the ruling monarchy provided potentially sympathetic audiences for such works, but many such films were allowed only limited circulation or none at all. At the same time, the Iranian state cosponsored and/or promoted a number of documentaries as a part of a broad public relations campaign aimed largely at audiences outside Iran. Shahrokh Golestan's documentary Flames of Persia (1972), narrated by Orson Welles, is among the best-known works in this category. Not all officially sponsored works were overtly political, as a number of ethnographic documentaries were also made during this period. Upheaval later in the decade, which culminated in the 1979 revolution, shifted the focus of documentarians directly onto the demonstrations and rapidly unfolding political developments. None of the known films about the revolution were made by women, although both amateur and professional women were among the many who attempted to document these historic events on film.6

The political purges and violence that characterized the postrevolution period and the transitional first years of the newly established Islamic Republic of Iran greatly hampered the work of many documentarians; some departed the country for temporary or long-term exile. Like the state that it had overthrown, however, the Islamic Republic was aware of the usefulness of nonfiction film, and many documentaries about the revolution, as well as the eight-year war with neighboring Iraq that would soon begin, were broadcast on national television. However, state television programming also allowed for documentaries on other topics, and a number of films by women were broadcast. Rakhshan Banietemad, who is most often celebrated for her fiction filmmaking, made three films about public health services in Tehran from 1979 to 1982 that were broadcast on national television.7 Farideh Shafai's Bread from Mud (1981), about child labor in Tehran, was shown as part of a series on the topic.8

While women's filmmaking and documentary filmmaking in particular would not see a surge until the next decade, the political and legal developments of the early postrevolutionary period influenced the topics that women filmmakers would take up, as well as how their films would be received both inside Iran and outside the country. For this reason, it is important first to briefly address some of these postrevolutionary shifts. What successes the Pahlavi monarchy may have had in promoting images of a modernizing, secular society with a rich cultural heritage were almost immediately undone with the violence of the revolutionary period and the rise of fundamentalist religious factions. The 1979 hostage crisis, in particular, guaranteed that footage of angry bearded mobs and blindfolded Americans were broadcast nightly into U.S. and European homes. The perception that Iran was regressing to a dark era was underscored by Ayatollah Khomeini's March 1979 decree of mandatory veiling for women as well as ensuing changes to the legal system which replaced the secular civil code and required that legislation accord with Islamic principles. None of these changes have gone uncontested by women during or since that period. Thousands of women protested the mandatory veiling decree, for example, and challenges to legal discrimination against women continue. However, the perception of a uniformly oppressed (and passive) population of Iranian women endures in the West.

The late 1980s and early 1990s saw a revitalized Iranian cinema, with the films of directors such as Majid Majidi and Abbas Kiarostami receiving international praise and circulation. The end of the Iran-Iraq War and a percolating reform movement inside Iran energized various forms of cultural work and critique, and many innovative works of fiction and nonfiction were produced in this period. Women were visibly a part of this process and were instrumental in pushing cinematic boundaries set by the state: increased parity of dialogue between men and women onscreen, exploring strategies for depicting intimacy onscreen (contact between unrelated male and female actors is forbidden), and even showing women with more makeup marked major shifts from films of the early postrevolution period. Such changes can be largely attributed to the efforts of women filmmakers.9 The 1990s also saw the production of several films that show nonnormative forms of gender and sexuality, and such depictions have continued through the new millennium. Many women fiction and nonfiction filmmakers have contributed to this trend.10

The election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami in 1997 brought renewed hope for change, and many female filmmakers took up social issues in their works. One of the films of this period, Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini's Divorce Iranian Style (1998), captures the complexities of making socially conscious films for international audiences. Shot for BBC's Channel 4, the film follows several women who have divorce-related cases filed with the Iranian court. The film does not play down the legal and social disadvantages for women seeking a divorce in Iran, but it also shows the women's assertiveness and clever strategizing in dealing with the system. Furthermore, the directors—in particular Mir-Hosseini, who had herself previously written about the painful process of obtaining a divorce in Iran—are neither absent in the film nor claim any objective stance. According to Lindsey Moore, Mir-Hosseini's narrative is linked to those of the films’ subjects: rather than the filmmaker “letting” the women speak (whereby an existing power relation remains unacknowledged), the women speak for Mir-Hosseini as well.11 The film's ability to achieve this is all the more impressive given the conditions of production and reception. The BBC originally rejected the film, claiming that its subject was not appealing enough. Although the Iranian authorities had granted the directors license to film, it was also rejected from Iran's Fajr Film Festival on spurious grounds. Reactions among Iranian audiences also reflected a deep ambiguity about how non-Iranian viewers would perceive the country.12

Women's participation in documentary filmmaking continued to develop in the 2000s, with two overlapping political developments sharply impacting the conditions of production and reception. In Iran, the reform movement was waning. The 2005 election of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who became infamous for his controversial pronouncements on the international stage, magnified negative attention on Iran, further whetting international appetite for tales of repression and resistance. Globally, 9/11 and the launch of the “war on terror” meant that images and narratives about veiled women became even more ideologically charged. A spike in foreign funding for “democracy promotion” available from sources in the United States, the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and other European countries expanded media projects and platforms that embraced stories about oppressive aspects of Iranian society. Launched in 2009, the Persian BBC Television Channel (funded by Britain's Foreign and Commonwealth Office), for example, has been an outlet for the dissemination of both short- and long-form documentaries (including the works of the two filmmakers considered at length below). In this new atmosphere, a new generation of women filmmakers also found an audience for their work. Mahnaz Mohammadi, whose first film was about homeless women in Iranian shelters, is one such filmmaker. Her situation captures both the possibilities and dangers for Iranian filmmakers. While her work has been well received in international outlets, interest from foreign audiences has come with the price of unwanted attention from Iranian authorities, who have detained her and banned her from filmmaking.

The two films considered below were made during this period, with the “war on terror” and foreign interest in the lives of Muslim women in full bloom. Both films circulated within similar distribution channels that included international film festivals and television broadcasts. Before moving to a close consideration of both films, I will briefly turn to a discussion of two bodies of work that inform my analysis. The scholarship on documentary ethics and the feminist literature on discourses about women in the Muslim world are vast, though rarely in conversation with each other.13 As will become evident in the ensuing discussion, both are central to my interrogations: the literature on documentary brings attention to why this form of filmmaking is particularly susceptible to ethical breaches, while feminist interventions show what is at stake in dominant representations of Muslim women.

Documentary “Truths” and Representations of Muslim Women

In his seminal 1976 piece “Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming,” Calvin Pryluck focuses on the observational mode of nonfiction filmmaking to ask how the rights of participants are to be measured against a society's right to know: always an outsider, the filmmaker—who at some point will finish filming and move on to other projects—can never fully understand the world of her subjects or be able to predict the consequences of filming. For this reason, legal solutions such as “informed consent” will always be inadequate. Neither of the documentaries considered below is purely observational, but Pryluck's concerns still apply.14 Indeed, as Stella Bruzzi has demonstrated, the evolution of an observational mode of documentary shows that many contemporary documentaries now employ techniques that were rejected by earlier practitioners, such as interviews, music, conversations with the filmmaker, and so forth.15 Similarly, while he identifies several different documentary forms and the specific moral questions they engender, Bill Nichols makes the claim that ethical issues are central to documentary filmmaking in general: unlike participants in fiction films, whose work is defined within the part of an actor, participants are “social actors” who are asked to conduct their lives as they normally would.16 As such, Nichols argues that nonfiction filmmakers bear a bigger burden of responsibility to their participants, whose lives can be impacted in unpredictable ways. If we add to this Paula Rabinowitz's observation that documentary is a boundary-crossing form that circulates between the public and private as well as the personal and political spheres, the task of the documentarian who wishes to minimize harm to her subject becomes even more difficult.17 Topics in documentary ethics are also tied to issues related to documentary truth claims. Questioning its historically privileged place as a truth-telling medium, Trinh T. Minh-ha has critiqued the totalizing consequences of works that claim to provide all the answers to the issues they interrogate.18 Michael Renov similarly has questioned documentary claims to truth, arguing that “real” footage by itself guarantees nothing: it is interpretation (which is shaped by the context) that is central.19

These issues in documentary dovetail with questions pertaining to discourses on Muslim women: here, too, issues of ethics and representation, claims to truth, and totalizing narratives are key. Minoo Moallem, for example, has pointed out how race and religion are articulated through gender difference as a way to affirm the otherness of Islam and the Muslim world. Furthermore, she argues, in this process, women's bodies become figurative borders for drawing the line between the “civilized” and the “barbaric.”20 These processes of boundary-making are in turn linked to the impetus to “rescue” Muslim women. In a much-cited essay written after 9/11, Lila Abu-Lughod shows how Muslim women are constructed as “cultural icons” that are used to simplify the complexities of Muslim countries. These representations, in turn, are crucial for justifying foreign intervention in the Muslim world.21 A constructed imaginary of the Muslim woman as victim requires an oppressor: the dangerous Muslim man. The usefulness of these interdependent constructions is not limited to the international realm, but also has been used to justify domestic policing of local Muslim communities in Europe and the United States.22 While these representations (and feminist responses to them) have increased since 9/11, their roots are far deeper. Quoting Leila Ahmed, Mohja Kahf has pointed out that the following narrative has been central to Western discourses about Islam since the eighteenth century: “Islam was innately and immutably oppressive to women, that the veil and segregation epitomized that oppression, and that these customs were the fundamental reasons for the general and comprehensive backwardness of Islamic societies.”23 These prevalent and longstanding representations, in short, define the contexts where documentary works by and about women are received. The extent to which these documentaries repeat or reject these parameters is the focus of the ensuing analysis.

From Temporary Marriage to Mixed Marriages

The films of Nahid Sarvestani, an Iranian-Swedish director, hinge on popular tropes about Iran and Iranian women and typify the kind of films that are embraced by audiences outside Iran. Four Wives, One Man (2007) and Prostitution behind the Veil (2004), for example, show a robustly patriarchal society in which seemingly no likeable men reside, with women struggling under the bonds that have been placed on them. In both her films and her public statements, Sarvestani emphasizes her position as an exilic Iranian who is critical of the postrevolutionary Islamic state in Iran. This opposition to the Islamic Republic is often indistinguishable from her criticism of Islam, and Sarvestani uses her self-positioning as both an exile and an insider to make a number of troubling decisions and arguments in her films. Sarvestani's films are not made to be screened in Iran and are instead geared toward festivals and other outlets abroad. In addition to making the rounds at international film festivals, for example, Four Wives, One Man ran on Britain's Channel 4 and Canada's CBC television networks. Rather than take the opportunity to provide the non-Iranian audience with a complex picture of Iran's social and political landscapes, her films play to reductionist assumptions about the country. Her work exemplifies a simple but entrenched narrative about Iranian women that is evident in a range of media popular outside Iran, from Azar Nafisi's American best-seller Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) to the HBO-produced documentary For Neda (2010), which covers the story of a young woman whose murder during the 2009 Teheran demonstrations was caught on camera and widely circulated throughout the world.24

A more seasoned filmmaker than Sarvestani, Mahvash Sheikholeslami has been directing fiction and nonfiction films since the 1970s and worked in Iran both before and after the 1979 revolution. She also has worked on well-known Iranian television series throughout her career and has taught production at Iranian universities. Unlike Sarvestani, her critiques of Iranian society are not delivered as an outsider claiming insider connections. Neither sensationalist nor self-aggrandizing, Sheikholeslami and her films receive comparatively little attention in the non-Iranian or diaspora media. While some of her films were commissioned by foreign sources, Sheikholeslami also produced films in collaboration with the state-affiliated Tehran Documentary and Experimental Film Center, with whom she has an extensive history of working.25 Three of her most recent films, Murderer or Murdered? (2003), Article 61 (2005), and Where Do I Belong? (2007), variously consider legal obstacles and double standards facing women in Iran. The former two films were commissioned by a French company with plans to broadcast them via European distributors (France's Arte, BBC's Channel 4, and Finland's Yleisradio). Both films are about women prisoners serving out sentences for crimes they claim were committed in self-defense. The film considered at length below, Where Do I Belong?, has screened in Iran and abroad, and was broadcast online on Link TV's Bridge to Iran program. Sheikholeslami's films are notable in being able to address both foreign and Iranian audiences without either oversimplifying or overcomplicating the issues at hand.

Of the two contemporary works considered below, Sheikholeslami's Where Do I Belong? is more attuned to the ethical conventions of documentary filmmaking. As is evident from its title, it is also explicit about its focus on Iran's outsiders. The steady stream of Afghan refugees and migrants who have sought shelter and work in Iran over the past three decades has resulted in many marriages between Afghan men and Iranian women. Unlike unions between Iranian men and foreign women, in which spouses and children are given full citizenship rights, discriminatory laws against women mean no such rights are granted to their foreign husbands or children.26 Sheikholeslami's film covers the legal and social woes of these mixed families. Her subjects are marginal in often multiple and interrelated ways: they are outsiders for marrying foreigners, outsiders for being foreign-born, and outsiders for being the children of Iranian women who married foreign men. Sheikholeslami's film is a rarity in probing a discomforting issue for general Iranian audiences. The disenfranchisement of Afghans and Afghan-Iranians is a visible part of daily life in many major cities in Iran, and the social and institutional exclusion of this population can be only partially blamed on official policies. Individual and societal prejudice contribute as much—if not more—to the hardships these people face. In this regard, Where Do I Belong? is similar to The House Is Black in that audiences are implicated in the inequalities depicted.

Numerous couples and the offspring of such unions are interviewed throughout the film: sometimes they are interviewed as a family, while at other times various members appear alone, always speaking directly to the camera (figures 23). Through numerous individual stories, edited to intersperse images showing other details of their lives, a rich portrait emerges of what it means to have Afghan connections in Iran. The vignettes of each family are presented in succession, with no apparent interconnection among them. The effect is a steadily paced exploration of the diversity of this population. The audience cannot anticipate a pattern other than expecting to hear the unique difficulties faced by mixed families.

Figure 2.

Where Do I Belong? (dir. Mahvash Sheikholeslami, Iran, 2007).

Figure 2.

Where Do I Belong? (dir. Mahvash Sheikholeslami, Iran, 2007).

Figure 3.

Where Do I Belong? (dir. Mahvash Sheikholeslami, Iran, 2007).

Figure 3.

Where Do I Belong? (dir. Mahvash Sheikholeslami, Iran, 2007).

The first part of the film takes place in Iran, where many children of mixed marriages tell of their varied experiences. Most of these interviews are captured in long shots that suggest the subjects’ positioning on the periphery and often show the sparseness of their living conditions. A boy sitting with his parents and brother on the ground against a white wall in a bare living room, for example, recalls not knowing what to answer when his teacher asked him if he is an Afghan or an Iranian. Eight years later, as a sixteen-year-old, he has no documentation and expresses concern about how he might marry without papers. As his younger brother speaks about his life and work, the film cuts to scenes of them making sausage in an industrial kitchen. Over the image of young boys twisting long trails of sausage, the younger brother admits to having some curiosity about Afghanistan but wanting to remain in Iran: “Our mother is like a hope, a national identity card for us; as soon as we say that our mother is Iranian, they can't harm us anymore.” While it is not clear who “they” are, here the boy is attributing power to the mother although the state denies it to her: despite the state's refuses to transfer to her children national identity in the form of a document, she is able to pass them less tangible—though significant—forms of identity and protection.

Another family captured in long shot, this time six siblings appearing without their parents in a more colorful living room, introduce similar nuances. An older boy, perhaps in his late teens or early twenties, tells of a schoolmate in the fourth grade asking him about the war in Afghanistan. The boy notes that he did not even know what war his schoolmate was talking about, and the film cuts to a medium shot of him concluding this story: “I consider myself Iranian because I have never seen Afghanistan. I have never seen Afghanistan because I was born here, and I've grown up in this culture and society.” Also addressing these difficulties, his brother chimes in to clarify that not all Iranians treat them as outsiders and suggests that those who mistreat them have themselves been hurt economically or otherwise, and are simply taking it out on a population they perceive to be even weaker than themselves. The young man's attempt at a psychosocial explanation shows that the challenges of being of mixed descent in Iran are not due only to matters of policy, but also arise due to societal prejudices and pressures.

About midway through Where Do I Belong?, the film transitions to Afghanistan. At an Afghan embassy in Iran, a long line of men wait to receive documents to travel. To do so, they must prove that they are Afghans: an employee informs a man seeking papers that policy requires that two men with documents testify that he is an Afghan. Exclusionary bureaucratic hurdles, it seems, are not restricted to Iranian agencies. As such, the film prepares its viewers for the shift to Afghanistan, where mixed couples continue to face difficulties. At a bus depot seemingly in the middle of nowhere, passengers await buses to take them to Afghanistan. In a sequence that recalls The House Is Black, a young woman's voiceover reads a lyrical piece about leaving Iran and the life that awaits her as passengers prepare for departure and make the journey to Afghanistan.

While it eventually returns to its interviews of mixed families, the film departs for a time from the structured approach of its first half. The filmmaker, who had never before traveled to Afghanistan, seems to be taken up with visually exploring the unfamiliar landscapes and practices. For several minutes, for example, the film shows a large circle of hundreds of men watching a dog fight: as the fight gets more violent, the men move in and begin fighting among themselves, the sounds of their shouting drowning out the dogs’ noise. The scene has no visual or narrative connection to what precedes or follows it. Rather, it is reminiscent of the fiction films of the Mohsen Makhmalbaf and other films of Makhmalbaf Production house,27 where a gratuitous focus on the “strangeness” of the Afghan belies the posture of the benevolent filmmaker. This is most evident—and has been most remarked upon—in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar (2001)—which, serendipitously for the director, coincided with the U.S. attack on Afghanistan. Panned for its orientalist approach that painted a “‘primitive’ and ‘peculiar’ nation in need of ‘liberation,’”28 the film is filled with numerous extreme long shots that contrast barren landscapes with clusters of people, who are herdlike in appearance and movement. Other techniques Makhmalbaf uses similarly foreground the strangeness of the land and its inhabitants. In one sequence that also underscores the idea of a people in need of saving, about a dozen one-legged men race one another on crutches as they rush to get a limited number of artificial limbs that are being parachuted into the country. The sequence begins with the men running in slow motion as nondiegetic Afghan music plays, thereby literally extending the time it takes to watch the spectacle. While Where Do I Belong? does not resort to any such techniques to enhance the otherness of Afghanistan, the inclusion of the dog-fight scene that has no apparent narrative or visual connection to the rest of the film is reminiscent of Makhmalbaf's film.

The segment in Afghanistan also repeats other troubling tropes about Afghanistan: what began as an exploration of the particular difficulties of mixed families deteriorates into familiar depictions of the misery of life for women in Afghanistan. In some cases, such as a woman who self-immolated because her husband married another woman, and an unhappy fourteen-year-old bride, it is not clear what connection, if any, the woman and girl have to Iran. In other instances, where the connection is explicit, the situation of women in Afghanistan is still emphasized. One Iranian woman, married to an Afghan and now living in Afghanistan, notes, for example, that “one is free in Iran, but here it seems as if we are locked in.” While these comparisons underscore the difficulties faced by mixed families who would presumably live in Iran if citizenship laws were equitable to women, they do so without providing any context for the current situation in Afghanistan. In many ways, the film's second half becomes about the general horror of being a woman in Afghanistan, rather than an exploration of the institutional and social forces that marginalize Iranian women, their Afghan husbands, and their children.

Nonetheless, the diversity of persons and circumstances covered in Where Do I Belong? provide a counterargument to totalizing assessments of Iranians and Afghans. The film's distribution on Link TV's Bridge to Iran program may be particularly important for its function in this regard: to American and other international audiences accustomed to Iran being demonized for thirty-plus years, it may be a shock to see that the country is considered a safe haven for floods of refugees. In addition, despite the above-noted issues with representations of Afghanistan and Afghans, Sheikholeslami's film reveals no breach of her subjects’ trust. This is in contrast to Sarvestani's Prostitution behind the Veil, in which the director continues to film despite her subjects’ protests. With the exception of the teenage bride appearing at the end of Where Do I Belong?, all the main characters who are interviewed in Sheikholeslami's film speak directly to the camera and seem to be relatively comfortable in narrating their experiences. In Prostitution behind the Veil, on the other hand, the filmmaker's constant imposition of her own reading of the Iranian state and society undercuts her subjects’ abilities to tell their own stories.

Prostitution behind the Veil makes several interrelated arguments: the revolution in Iran went awry because of a takeover by fundamentalist Muslims; women are exploited in Islam; and postrevolution Iran is an amalgamation of various forms of misery. Fariba and Mina, two drug-addicted young mothers in the film who make ends meet by prostitution, are the vehicles for making these arguments. In her narration, Sarvestani often articulates her concern for the young women. Similarly, both promotional material for the film and catalogue descriptions stress that the filmmaker treats these women's stories with compassion and humanity.29 Yet close examination reveals a more troubling picture: the presentation of women's exploitation itself becomes exploitative. As Sarvestani shows and tells it, there is no joy, no hope in contemporary Iran—neither, by extension, is there any for her two protagonists. They are outsiders who are doomed to stay as such. Indeed, the notion of being an “outsider” almost loses its meaning in her film since it provides no evidence of any life beyond that identity.

The film (figures 45) opens with an establishing shot of a young woman and a child across a busy street; as a prostitute haggles over a price with a potential customer, the background track plays gloomy and generically Middle Eastern music. After the title credit, we see Sarvestani in profile, looking thoughtful in a moving car, and her voiceover narration begins. She establishes herself as an outsider by recounting having had to flee Iran after the 1979 revolution. Tellingly, her narration is in Swedish, indicating that the primary audience is neither Iranians in Iran nor those in diaspora. She goes on to tell a story of the Iranian Revolution that is very familiar to her non-Iranian viewers, one that reduces the complex event and its aftermath to a sound bite: an Islamic takeover of the revolution, and then the country, followed by oppression and misery. Similarly, in attributing the women's problems only to Islamic cultural practices and political institutions, the film reassures foreign audiences about their own privileged status rather than prompting them to think about parallel structures that disadvantage women in their own societies. One blogger reviewing the film, for example, concludes her piece by noting: “It did make me grateful that I have grown up in a country where I am not considered property, and where I can get an education and vote and make my own choices.”30 Contrary to this reviewer's assumption, women in Iran not only vote and go to school, but they also have consistently outnumbered their male colleagues on campuses for a number of years. Sarvestani's film does not allow for any other possibilities for these women's lives, and it is this foreclosure that limits audience interpretations as well. More importantly, the reviewer's last point about making her “own choices” is particularly indicative of how Sarvestani's film does not show the protagonists as having any agency or will to resist. This is particularly noteworthy given that in interviews about her film, Sarvestani presents herself as possessing the strength to overcome limitations set by the Iranian state. The police tried to interfere with her filming several times and even detained her during the shooting of Prostitution behind the Veil, but Sarvestani tells an interviewer, “When I decide to do something, I have to do it. Nothing and no one can stop me.”31

Figure 4.

Prostitution behind the Veil (dir. Nahid Sarvetani, Iran/Sweden, 2004).

Figure 4.

Prostitution behind the Veil (dir. Nahid Sarvetani, Iran/Sweden, 2004).

Figure 5.

Prostitution behind the Veil (Nahid Sarvetani, Iran/Sweden, 2004).

Figure 5.

Prostitution behind the Veil (Nahid Sarvetani, Iran/Sweden, 2004).

When Sarvestani introduces her two main protagonists, she declares in voiceover: “I am curious about Fariba's and Mina's lives, which could have been mine.” This claim of identification with her subjects and their outsider status is offered without evidence. One is left to assume that this is a fate that may befall any woman in Iran. The assertion of identification also seems to absolve the filmmaker from responsibilities toward her subjects: she is an insider in their outsiders’ world. Both protagonists come from broken marriages to drug-addicted husbands involved in various criminal enterprises, and both claim that their husbands introduced them to drugs. Other details about their lives emerge throughout the film, especially Fariba, who is more gregarious about her past and whose family appears on camera on occasion. When the film begins, the women are living in a rundown housing complex with a number of other economically and otherwise disenfranchised individuals, one of whom—Habib, an older man who sells fortunes on the street—is featured prominently throughout the film. Almost all of these individuals, from the protagonists to minor characters who are featured only marginally in the film, offer glimpses into their complex personalities and histories. Yet the filmmaker's continuous voiceover commentary about the revolution and the state undermines the subjects’ own stories, subsuming them under Sarvestani's grand narrative about life in the Islamic Republic of Iran. While in a general sense, almost all documentaries deploy their subjects in making an argument, this bluntly instrumental use of the characters is particularly problematic given their vulnerable outsider status and given the filmmaker's assertions of caring for them. As such, Sarvestani's approach stands in contrast to the films of Farrokhzad, Sheikholeslami, and Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini, whose cinematic style and interaction with their subjects are more in line with the conventions of documentary ethics.

Prostitution behind the Veil deliberately conflates prostitution with sighe, a form of “temporary” marriage allowed in Shia Islam that has prompted extensive feminist debates.32 While Sarvestani may be right to show that sighe often acts as a cover for prostitution and to point out religious hypocrisies around the issue, she provides no nuance or explanation for this position. Instead, she rests on Islamophobic tropes about patriarchy and Islam, ideas with which her foreign audience is likely familiar. Instead of examining the complex social factors and personal histories that led to her protagonists’ current situation, the film presents them as victims of the Islamic Republic and of Islam more broadly. This inadequate explanation for their fate also seems to provide an implicit justification for how the film deals with its incidental characters.

This is most evident in a scene involving a young cleric who agrees to perform a temporary marriage between a young girl and the sixty-something fortune seller Habib. Sarvestani assures the cleric that neither his voice nor his image is being recorded. The fact that the documentarian does not edit out his protest—essentially flaunting her disregard for the subject's preference, a preference he states while inside his own home—indicates a brazen disregard for his privacy and perhaps even pride in her actions. Similarly, the fortune teller himself becomes an instrument for Sarvestani's broader narrative about Islam and patriarchy. The vendor is a frequent participant in the film, and he was her primary subject before Sarvestani met her two female protagonists. With his family living in a rural area, Habib is in the city to provide for them. He lives in the same dilapidated housing complex as the two young women protagonists. Yet from the film's perspective, his participation in temporary marriage, including his offer to take Fariba as a temporary wife if she sobers up, makes him fair game.

In this regard, he is treated only slightly better than the cleric. Neither the filmmaker nor the film shows any sympathy for him, for example, when his possessions are stolen from his apartment. He accuses Fariba of the theft, saying that a drug addict has no honor and cannot be trusted. In her voiceover several moments later, Sarvestani says that she never found out whether it was Fariba who stole his possessions, but that in any case, Habib did not report her to the police. Sarvestani tells the audience this as she shows us a melancholy Fariba, leaning her head on her hands against the crumbling wall of her residence. Fariba, not Habib, is the object of empathy. And once again, the film misses an opportunity to dig into the socioeconomic factors that have brought Fariba and Habib to the same shoddy dwelling in an unnamed urban center.

Indeed, no one in the film, neither the main protagonists nor the unidentified adults and children who appear on the street, is allowed to escape Sarvestani's narrative about the cause of their situation. Several times throughout the film, Sarvestani provides observational glances of the urban streets, where her focus is predictably on the destitute, especially children. Once again, their appearance and stories are drowned in Sarvestani's story about the evils of the revolution's outcomes. Many of the children working on the streets for scraps are Afghan refugees or their children, and, as Sheikholeslami's film Where Do I Belong? has made clear, the reasons for their marginalized position lie in a complex matrix of factors, including Iranian and Afghan official policies as well as societal prejudices that cannot be reduced in any accurate sense to “the revolution.” Sarvestani's film provides no indication that any factor other than the legacy of the revolution is at play in their lives.

In fact, Sarvestani's repetitive reminders to her audience about the consequences of the revolution rob her subjects of agency. In other words, because the film refuses to move beyond the revolution—ignoring more than three subsequent decades of social and political change and contestation—it can provide only a superficial account of the lives of Fariba or Mina. Characters big and small are stripped of their ability to change their circumstances and seem consigned to their fates as outsiders. The director's claims of concern for her protagonists would be more convincing, and the film enriched, had the film allowed its subjects to provide the details of their histories without always attempting to recuperate them within her own grand narrative.

Power, the Past, and Lessons for Contemporary Documentarians

As two contemporary works with similar successes in distribution abroad, Where Do I Belong? and Prostitution behind the Veil present very different approaches toward telling the stories of marginalized populations in Iran. Sarvestani, who stresses her friendships with her subjects in both her commentary within Prostitution behind the Veil and in interviews, does not acknowledge the power dynamics that structure her relationships with her subjects. Indeed, her claims of closeness elide the privileged position she adopts as the one who has the camera, the funds, and the protection of a foreign passport. Sheikholeslami does not fall into this trap in Where Do I Belong?. While both films combine observational and interactive aspects, Sheikholeslami does not rely on structuring devices such as voiceover narration and is never seen (and is heard only once). Where Do I Belong? does not claim to be collaborative, opening the space for the audience to judge her relationship with her subjects. Unlike Sarvestani's film, there is no evidence in Where Do I Belong? of what Pryluck would call the imposition of the filmmaker's personality on the subject. Of course, this does not mean that there is no power dynamic at play in Sheikholeslami's work. Yet with the exception of some of the scenes shot in Afghanistan, the film appears to be mindful of allowing its subjects the space for self-reflection and self-narration.

In defense of Sarvestani, one could argue that her explicit—if repetitive—framing of herself as a critic of the Iranian government in Prostitution behind the Veil lends honesty to her work. In fact, some have argued that the rejection of an “objective” stance in oppositional documentaries is what allows them to “make visible the liminal political spaces.”33 Yet, as the above discussion of Prostitution behind the Veil has shown, the film functions to erase rather than reveal these spaces: rich social and political circumstances are evacuated, becoming a shell in which the filmmaker can deliver her message. Sheikholeslami, who takes a more observational approach in Where Do I Belong?, condemns both the Iranian state and Iranian society while pointing to the range of complex factors that have led to the plight of Afghan migrants and their families. Whereas Prostitution behind the Veil likely confirms the preconceived notions of her non-Iranian audience (e.g., ideas about the nature of the Iranian revolution and the status of women in Iran and in Islam), Where Do I Belong? unsettles Iranian and international audiences alike. Iranian audiences are called to interrogate their stance and implication in the disenfranchisement of Afghans and Afghan-Iranians, and non-Iranian audiences are challenged to see the nuances of Iranian society and institutions.

Despite their vast differences, Nahid Sarvestani and Mahvash Sheikholeslami are faced with similar contexts of distribution and reception for works screened outside Iran. I have argued that postrevolutionary politics and circumstances give urgency to holding filmmakers accountable for how they depict Iran and treat their subjects. As Poonam Arora has argued, stereotypical representations are more easily understood by mainstream Western audiences because they confirm audience preconceptions.34 Yet meeting audience expectations is not without consequences. The history of Iranian documentary is rife with many examples in which filmmakers have chosen the difficult route: defying their sponsors, defying stylistic conventions, and defying audience expectations alike. Some of the more enduring films—in terms of both critical reception and social impact—were the result of such risk-taking. For Iranian women filmmakers to continue making strides in the field, defiance of representational norms should be paired with conformity to the ethical standards of documentary.


Thanks to Mehdi Semati and Martin Johnson for comments on drafts of this article.


Maryam Ghorbankarimi, “The House Is Black: A Timeless Visual Essay,” in Forugh Farrokhzad, Poet of Modern Iran: Iconic Woman and Feminine Pioneer of New Persian Poetry, eds. Dominic Parvic Brookshaw and Nasrin Rahimieh (New York: IB Taurus, 2010), 140.


Khatereh Sheibani, The Poetics of Iranian Cinema Aesthetics, Modernity, and Film after the Revolution (New York: IB Taurus, 2011), 70.


Jonathan Rosenbaum, Goodbye Cinema, Hello Cinephilia: Film Culture in Transition (Chicago: Univeristy of Chicago Press, 2010), 261.


Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 2 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 88.


Nasrin Rahimieh, “Capturing the Abject of the Nation in The House Is Black,” in Forugh Farrokhzad, Poet of Modern Iran, 126.


Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 3 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 55. Naficy cites the case of Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa, who was active in filming demonstrations, noting that some of this footage appears in her 1994 film A Tajik Woman.


Hamid Naficy, A Social History of Iranian Cinema, vol. 4 (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 165.


Ibid., 53.


Minoo Derayeh, “Depiction of Women in Iranian Cinema, 1970s to Present,” Women's Studies International Forum (2010): 151–58.


Roshanak Kheshti, “Cross Dressing and Gender (Tres)Passing: The Transgender Moves as a Site of Agential Potential in the New Iranian Cinema,” Hypatia 24, no. 3 (Summer 2009): 158–77.


Lindsey Moore, “Women in a Widening Frame: (Cross-)Cultural Projection, Specatorship, and Iranian Cinema,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 2, no. 2 (2005): 23.


According to Lindsey Moore, the film was rejected for filming without the main actors’ consent, although in fact the directors had obtained their written permission. Moore also expands on Iranian audiences’ mixed reactions to the film. See Moore, “Women in a Widening Frame”: 25–26.


While many strides have been made in bringing feminist scholarship and film theory in particular into conversation with works on documentary, much room remains to integrate the work of feminist scholars studying the Middle East and/or representations of Muslim women. For examples of the former, see Diane Waldman and Janet Wakle, eds., Feminism and Documentary (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999).


Calvin Pryluck, “Ultimately We Are All Outsiders: The Ethics of Documentary Filming,” Journal of the University Film Association (1976): 21–29.


Stella Bruzzi, New Documentary (New York: Routledge, 2006).


Bill Nichols, Introduction to Documentary (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001), 5.


This boundary crossing is also why Rabinowitz says that gender is an often central but ignored category in documentary rhetoric. Paula Rabinowitz, They Must Be Represented: The Politics of Documentary (London: Verso, 1994), 6.


Trinh T. Minh-ha, “The Totalizing Quest of Meaning,” in Theorizing Documentary, ed. Michael Renov (New York: Routledge, 1993), 90–108.


Michael Renov, “Introduction: The Truth about the Nonfiction Form,” in Theorizing Documentary, 9.


Minoo Moallem, “Muslim Women and the Politics of Representation,” Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion 24, no. 1 (2008): 109.


Lila Abu-Lughod, “Do Muslim Women Really Need Saving? Anthropological Reflections on Cultural Relativism and Its Others,” American Anthropologist 104, no. 3 (2002): 783–90.


See, for example, Sherene H. Razack, “Imperilled Muslim Women, Dangerous Muslim Men and Civilised Europeans: Legal and Social Responses to Forced Marriages,” Feminist Legal Studies 12, no. 2 (2014): 129–74.


Leila Ahmed quoted in Mohja Kahf, Western Representations of the Muslim Woman: From Termagant to Odalisque (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1999), 1.


In their analysis of For Neda, Semati and Brookey have shown how Neda's image and story (as told and circulated almost exclusively by men) are constructed to both fit “the mold of the Western rescue myth” (150) and to eliminate any understanding of Neda as a feminist. Mehdi Semati and Robert Alan Brookey, “Not For Neda: Digital Media, (Citizen) Journalism, and the Invention of a Postfeminist Martyr,” Communication, Culture, and Critique 7 (2014): 137–53.


The Tehran Documentary and Experimental Film Center's website includes examples of Sheikholeslami's past work with the center. See (accessed October 2014).


For background on gendered citizenship laws, the history of Afghan-Iranian marriages, and the challenges faced by families with unequal access to social services, see Ashraf Zahedi, “Transnational Marriages, Gendered Citizenship, and the Dilemma of Iranian Women Married to Afghan Men,” Iranian Studies 40, no. 2 (2007): 225–39.


Mark Graham has discussed some of these troubling representations and their consequences, especially as they appear in Mohsen Makhmalbaf's Kandahar (2001). As Graham notes, Makhmalbaf claimed that his film was made with “humanitarian” intentions (80), a claim that echoes the assertions of filmmakers considered in this paper. For more information, see Mark Graham, Afghanistan in the Cinema (Urbana and Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2010).


Shahab Esfandiary, Iranian Cinema and Globalization: National, Transnational, and Islamic Dimensions (Bristol, UK: Intellect Books, 2012).


See, for example, the Tribeca Film Festival's film guide, (accessed October 2014).


“Prostitution: Behind the Veil,” Documentary Daze, May 2, 2013, (accessed October 2014).


Nathan Aduddell, “‘My Camera Was My Power’: A Conversation with Nahid Persson Sarvestani,” World Literature Today 83, no. 6 (2009): 58.


Shahla Haeri's Law of Desire: Temporary Marriage in Shia Iran (1989), for example, is well known for laying out the complexities of the practice. While the work examines religious laws and debates about temporary marriage, its focus is largely on the individual stories of women engaging in the practice for reasons ranging from economic expediency to fullfilling their own sexual desires.


Dora Apel, War Culture and the Contest of Images (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012), 6.


Poonam Arora, “The Production of Third World Subjects for First World Consumption: Salaam Bombay and Parama,” in Multiple Voices in Feminist Film Criticism, eds. Diane Carson, Linda Dittmar, and Janice R. Welsch (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1994), 303.