Often described as one of Iran's premier film directors, Rakhshan Bani-Etemad is celebrated for her contribution to the country's cinema. She excels in representing contemporary situations, often in relation to the changing roles of women but also covering a broad spectrum of social issues, including war, poverty, domestic abuse, and class mobility. In her most recent film, Tales (2014), she seamlessly intersects seven different stories. In these narratives, Banietemad's most memorable women characters once again take the stage, reminding audiences of the historical and cultural significance of her previous films and how she has shaped the history of Iranian cinema in terms of the representation of women. Banietemad's characters embody a sense of nostalgia, in that women like Tooba (Golab Adineh), Nobar (Fatemah Motamed-Aria), and Sara (Baran Kosari) have become iconic. Yet in revisiting these characters, they are rewritten, re-described, and reinvigorated in dialogue with Iran's present. An oral history of Rakhshan Banietemad's career offers a rich lens into Iranian cinema and culture over nearly three decades.

Rakhshan Banietemad was born in Tehran in 1954. Immediately after graduating with a BA in film direction from the University of Dramatic Arts, Tehran, in 1979, she started to make documentaries for Iranian National Television. In the early stages of her career, documentaries were her dominant form of filmmaking. Even after she gained international esteem for her dramatic features, she continued to make documentaries with tremendous success. Our Times (Ruz-egar-e ma, 2002), for example, was the first documentary ever to be released in movie theaters in Iran. It was broadcast on the Franco-German television network ARTE and shown at prestigious festivals such as the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and the Sundance Film Festival. Banietemad's documentary practice has been so effective that her works often change the lives of her subjects. She says that she has “never ended the strong connection that she has always felt with documentaries.”

FIGURE 1.

Rakhshan Banietemad

FIGURE 1.

Rakhshan Banietemad

As a writer and director, Banietemad made her first dramatic feature film, Off Limits (Kharej az Mahdudeh), in 1986. Only a few years later, she became the first woman recipient of the best director award at the Fajr International Film Festival in Tehran for Nargess (1992). In 1995 she won the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival for The Blue-Veiled (Rusari Abi, 1995). Her magnificent Under the Skin of the City (Zir-e poost-e shahr, 2001), a family saga on the scale of a nineteenth-century novel, was the highest-grossing film in Iran that year. That film, along with Gilane (2004) and Mainline (Khoon bazi, 2006), garnered major awards at more than fifty film festivals.

The realist authenticity of Banietemad's feature films can be seen as stemming from her documentary approach to character and narrative. She excels in representing contemporary situations, often in relation to the changing roles of women in Iran, but also covering a broad spectrum of social issues, including war, poverty, domestic abuse, and class mobility. Banietemad's memorable characters often recur throughout her films: women like Tooba (Golab Adineh), Nobar (Fatemah Motamed-Aria), and Sara (Baran Kosari) have become iconic. Yet in revisiting her characters she always rewrites, re-describes, and reinvigorates them in dialogue with Iran's present.

In her most recent film, Tales (Ghesse-ha, 2014), Banietemad seamlessly interconnects seven different stories in an ingenious relay structure. By creating a series of short stories that connect as if by chance, she eliminated interference from censorship—normal for feature film scripts, but not for short films. The structure not only allowed relative freedom of representation, but also manifests a complex cross-section of Iranian society and a multifaceted understanding of human relations. In the narratives, Banietemad's iconic women characters from her earlier films once again take center stage, underlining those previous films’ historical and cultural significance.

Since very early on in her career, Banietemad has been one of Iran's most noted filmmakers. Her films have won awards at many international festivals: Jury Grand Prize of the Asia Pacific Screen Awards (2014), Vesoul (2006), Locarno (2002, 1995), Karlovy Vary (2001), Moscow (2001), Torino (2001), Montreal (1998), and Thessaloniki (1995). In 2008 she received an honorary doctorate from the University of London, and in 2010 she was awarded the distinguished Prix Henri Langlois from the Vincennes International Film Festival. Tales was awarded best screenplay in the main competition section of the Venice International Film Festival in 2014.

Banietemad, one of Iran's premier film directors, has worked for nearly three decades to shape the history of Iranian cinema in regard to the representation of women, inviting critical conversations about gender politics and women's issues on the Iranian screen.

This interview was conducted via email over several months in the winter of 2016.

kay armatage and zahra khosroshahi: How did you begin your career in cinema?

rakhshan banietemad: After secondary school, I planned to study architecture. Coincidentally, at the moment I was about to enter university, the School of Television and Cinema was offering an intensive course in stage assistance, and I applied. About five hundred people participated in these exams, and I was one of the twenty who were accepted into the program. At first I thought that I would work in television while continuing my studies in architecture, but when I was confronted with the power of the screen and the world of cinema, I changed my mind and direction entirely. The next year, I took the national exams for the Faculty of Dramatic Arts and selected the field of film directing for my degree. As I was completing my studies, I also continued to work in television. In that same period, I was able to work as an assistant director on a few feature films. Working in television while studying cinema helped me gain the experience I needed to pursue a career in the field. Upon completing my degree, I started making documentary films and I directed my first dramatic feature film, Off Limits, in 1986.

ka and zk: For that first feature film, did you have any mentors to guide you in the process?

rb: I didn't have any mentors. Instead, my academic education and practical training in cinema helped me, along with hard work and various experiences in film production. Most importantly, my personal sensitivity to social issues created a strong base for my work and established me as a filmmaker interested in social cinema.

ka and zk: Your work was celebrated internationally from very early on. To what extent did these international awards impact your career?

rb: My first international film award was for Off Limits, at a comedy film festival in Italy. Perhaps the main reason for the success of my films is the way they expose social problems. Audiences and critics were interested in the bold way I represented these issues. On the other hand, as a woman director, I was criticized by some commentators who expected me to make films that were more emotional and sentimental. But I continued on without paying any attention to what they said. I established my work and style in a cinema that I found interesting and that I was passionate about—one that, to this day, I feel connected to.

ka and zk: One of your earliest successes was Canary Yellow (Zard-e Ghanari, 1988). It appears to be a very low-budget film, but it covers a huge terrain with many locations. What were the production conditions?

rb:Canary Yellow was made with two producers: Abdullah Eskandari, who is regarded as the most experienced makeup artist in Iranian cinema, and the late Ali Shoaei. The numerous locations and actors each had their own specific production needs. Many parts of Canary Yellow were filmed outside the city and across different locations in Tehran. At that time, technical equipment was almost nonexistent, and so the film was made under very basic conditions. The final scene, when the car crashes into the store, was filmed with two handheld cameras without any special effects. The filming was raw and so real that it almost killed the entire film crew!

ka and zk:Canary Yellow is one of your few films with elements of comedy. The central character's performance seems almost like a combination of Charlie Chaplin and sad-sack Buster Keaton. You have stated many times that you're interested in social films. How does this one fit into that agenda?

rb: My first three films (Off Limits, Canary Yellow, and Foreign Currency [Pul-e Khareji, 1989]) were comedies, all motivated by the social implications of the respective screenplay. Of course, each was different in terms of plot and structure.

ka and zk: Was there any specific reason for leaving comedy behind in your films?

rb: I am still at times tempted to make comedies, and maybe I will once again make a social film with a comic tone.

ka and zk: You followed Canary Yellow with Nargess, abruptly shifting attention from the deserving poor comically duped by scammers to empathetic insights into the criminal world and the desires of no-longer-young women. It was a significant change in mood and complexity of character. Many think that you became recognized with Nargess. To what extent did this film impact your career?

rb:Nargess, which was set in the beginning of the 1990s, found a very special place in Iranian cinema. Prior to this film, the characterization and filming of women protagonists in Iranian cinema faced many difficulties. A plot involving a love triangle between a man and two women was unheard of. The representation of a character such as Afagh, who was excluded from society but nonetheless evoked deep sympathy and compassion from the audience, was a new topic that went against the grain, and offered a new cultural narrative. In general, Nargess created a new climate for its time, daring to enter a prohibited area in cinema. The film was an experience unique to itself, and each film after it has had its own different experiences. Even now, after many years of working in cinema, I find that each film offers its own new experiences.

ka and zk: There is a remarkable scene in Nargess that must resonate with every woman over the age of thirty. Abel, the young male protagonist, has been trained in love and criminality from the age of fifteen by Afagh, who is at least a decade older than he is. Abel is now in love with Nargess, a woman his own age, and an apparent innocent. Unable to succeed in the straight world, he returns to Afagh for one last criminal job. As he knocks on her door, she takes a second to refresh her makeup. In this brief, economical scene, empathy for the woman protagonist is at its peak. Could you comment on the writing and direction here?

rb: Many factors are involved in creating a scene in a film: script, performance, lighting, sound, set design, and so on. Directing is about bringing all of these together to help create that moment the filmmaker is after. In my opinion, one of the most important elements of this scene was its location. A hidden upstairs room that faces the alley, with a wide mat hung from the large window and light peeking through the window—this helped convey Afagh's lonely and sad life, and her corrupt relationship with the outside world.

ka and zk:Nargess was followed by The Blue-Veiled. In this film, a conflict of class and age complicates love. Rasoul, a wealthy widower, owner of a tomato sauce factory, falls in love with Nobar, one of his farmworkers, who wears a blue veil in the field. His adult daughters, their husbands, and his extended family are horrified by the socially inappropriate class and age connection and do their best to persuade him to abandon the relationship. How did you conceive the screenplay of The Blue-Veiled?

rb: The different characters of The Blue-Veiled were inspired by my research into the conditions of working women, and those who are marginalized. I was interested in the problems they face in society. For about two years I lived with families that were deprived and marginalized, and the impact of that experience is clear in the film.

ka and zk: In The Blue-Veiled there is a brief but wonderfully telling scene in which Nobar visits her drug-addicted mother in prison. The mother finally reflects on whether she had been a good mother to Nobar, as she previously had been thinking only of the younger daughter and taking Nobar for granted. This wider backstory is suggested brilliantly through a single sentence. So much is conveyed so economically. Again, could you comment on the writing and direction here?

rb: Here, dialogue is an important element. At times, writing a single sentence that conveys a deep meaning in the most concise way can take weeks. I try very hard to avoid scenes or dialogues that are there only to relay information to the audience. The prison scene in The Blue-Veiled is one of those moments where I could show the relationship of the mother with her life and children in a brief encounter.

ka and zk: Another remarkable scene in The Blue-Veiled is the end, at the railway tracks: Nobar and the children approach the railway crossing with the train speeding by. We wonder: Where are they going? Is she committing suicide? Is the train going to stop for them to get on? And then, through the passing train wheels, you see her lover Rasoul's white car approaching! Brilliant. How did you come up with this scene? Was it in the original script or conceived on location?

rb: Naturally during filming, issues always arise. But the themes and visual symbols that have a specific role in the narrative are certainly written during the screenwriting stage. The ending of The Blue-Veiled had to show the delicate line between Nobar leaving and Rasoul's return, indicating that he is continuing the relationship. In choosing a location for the scene, I decided on the railway crossing. I saw a few trains pass by from a number of angles, and decided on this one for the film's ending and wrote it into the screenplay.

ka and zk: Your Bronze Leopard for The Blue-Veiled at the Locarno International Film Festival was your first award from a major film festival. How did this award impact your career in Iran and the film festival world?

rb: I was in competition with some very important and well-recognized films at the festival, and thus it had a huge impact on my career. However, in the same way that the success of Nargess didn't limit me to a specific style, the positive feedback for The Blue-Veiled also didn't impede my filmic exploration. This can be seen in my next film, The May Lady (Banoo-Ye Ordibehesht, 1998), which was made very differently and has its own unique style.

ka and zk: In The May Lady, the main character is a woman filmmaker and a mother. To what extent is The May Lady autobiographical?

rb: Naturally, the concerns of the filmmaker and the social conditions that she faces in the film-within-the-film are drawn from my own experiences. But the character's inner qualities, her calmness, and her personal life are far from, and even contrary to, my personal characteristics and life story.

ka and zk: Your practice as a director and screenwriter is evident in The May Lady in visual metaphors such as the black-and-white photos on the table, the endless treks up the stairwell, as well as poetry and something akin to music as we hear the two lovers speak. As the film's sole screenwriter, did you conceive such details in the writing of the script?

rb: The themes that appear in The May Lady were chosen to convey the social conditions of a woman filmmaker, and at the same time her love story. Writing a screenplay for this film was a big challenge. Under the restrictions on our cinema, especially at that time, showing an intimate bond between two lovers was a difficult task. I decided to eliminate visuals of the male character altogether and replace him with every possible symbol and gesture, and as a result this produced a very unique cinematic love story.

While I was writing the screenplay, I determined the visual details and produced them by decoupage. This is my usual practice: the screenplay includes all these elements, so that the film will produce the intended tone. Before shooting, everything was coordinated with the cinematographer (Hossein Jafarian). Lighting, mise-en-scène, design, costume, and other details were all carefully directed to make sure the visuals were as close as possible to the initial idea.

ka and zk: In this film, we meet Tooba and her family. The film also makes a reference to Nargess. Did you always intend to return to these characters and their stories?

rb: During the making of The May Lady, the screenplay for Under the Skin of the City, which had been written years before and was actually supposed to be my first feature film, still hadn't received permission and filming rights. But The May Lady also makes reference to Nargess and The Blue-Veiled, as well as to the research I conducted for my documentaries. And the character of Tooba was included, although I had not yet made a film for her.

ka and zk: In Under the Skin of the City each character is fully fleshed out with a backstory and tiny moments that don't necessarily push the plot along but nevertheless enrich the characters. For example, Tooba (Golab Adineh) straightening the tree in the courtyard while gently speaking to it, or Abbas (Mohammad Reza Forutan) dancing so beguilingly with the toy monkey. Can you talk about how these characters came to you, and whether they were written in detail in the script?

rb: Before being written into the screenplay, characters come to life in my head. The creation of characters is very much linked to their social conditions, personalities, cultural status, and many other factors. From the moment I become interested in a subject and during its research phase, I spend a lot of time trying to connect with and live with these concepts and ideas. For example, the character of Tooba was written after a long period of personal interaction with women factory workers. Tooba isn't a “copy” of any of them, but she embodies all the characteristics of such workers and is inspired by real-life examples.

And yes, some scenes don't necessarily drive the plot forward, but instead offer a deeper insight into the characters’ identities. This stems from my style of writing screenplays and the way I visually translate them onto the screen, where I use real and tangible instances in order to invest the films with a deeper meaning. The small tree planted in Tooba's courtyard still has its roots in the soil even in the midst of destruction. Tooba's continued attention to it, even when she is experiencing pain, suggests a much deeper meaning than just a tree in a courtyard. It becomes a concise and cinematic expression of a family's displaced dreams.

FIGURE 2.

Tooba (Golab Adineh) and Abbas (Mohammad Reza Forutan) in Under the Skin of the City (Zir-e poost-e shahr, dir. Rakhshan Banietemad), 2001.

FIGURE 2.

Tooba (Golab Adineh) and Abbas (Mohammad Reza Forutan) in Under the Skin of the City (Zir-e poost-e shahr, dir. Rakhshan Banietemad), 2001.

ka and zk: Also the performances are excellent, particularly Tooba and Abbas. Can you talk about how you worked with the actors? Were there any elements of improvisation, or was it all scripted?

rb: I work the same way with all the actors in my films, but naturally each actor has his or her own special needs and conditions. It's important to fully analyze and deconstruct all the characters early on, which I go through with the actors over several sessions. We spend lots of time reading scripts, doing individual rehearsals and then group rehearsals, all before filming begins. Everything gets written in full detail before the filming, but during rehearsal, if one of the actors or I have a new idea, and if it is in accordance with the original line of thought, I definitely consider it. But there's no place for discussions and arguments during filming. Everything must be as clear as possible for the actor, and he or she must own the character so convincingly that in front of the camera, there's no time or energy wasted. I believe that if the actor is tired or becomes impatient because of the number of takes that we go through, even the best performers won't generate convincing results. Of course, working with me requires a lot of patience. I want the actors to put themselves in the hands of the project and have the patience for hours and hours of rehearsal. Naturally I cast actors who are familiar with my approach, and because they have full confidence in the end result, they are happy to surrender themselves to the work.

ka and zk: In Under the Skin of the City, there are extremely rich visual metaphors that deepen the tragedy. For example Abbas haggling over the house deed with the developer while in the foreground black shovelfuls of dirt are thrown in the air, indicating that construction is under way and there is no chance for reversal. Dirt is also being thrown metaphorically, besmirching the family and their future. Another example is the white wedding dresses being thrown off the truck as it drives through the darkness, a heartbreaking image because Abbas is surely losing his chance at marriage as he completes this doomed journey. Finally there is the scene on the road when Abbas realizes what has happened to the drugs. This is another brilliant scene that could have been played for melodrama, but instead we get an extremely wide shot of Abbas standing by the truck on that deserted road. He is a tiny, solitary silhouette against the barren, frozen landscape that stands for his future, and his body language bespeaks his despair. Were these images in the script as you conceived it, or were they developed during production? Do you storyboard your films in advance? Do you work collaboratively with your cinematographer, or do you take firm control of all details à la Alfred Hitchcock?

rb: I usually write images into my scripts, but at the time of making the film, certainly before filming, I use decoupage. I don't, however, draw storyboards. That said, the details, views, angles, and shot scale are all written in. I even use a small camera during rehearsal and preproduction, incorporating all the details that I've written down so that the cameraperson, acting crew, set designers, and sound designers can visualize the scene.

ka and zk: The film begins and ends with Tooba being interviewed by a filmmaker. In the opening scene, evidently asked to comment on working conditions for women, she is frustrated because she can't find the words to express her thoughts. In the final scene, apparently asked to comment on the election, she lashes out in anger, something like, “Who the hell is going to see this anyway?” Could you talk about this bookending structure?

rb:Under the Skin of the City opens with a group of TV reporters who want to cover the conditions of the working class, but not in depth. Tooba becomes incapable in the face of such cliché interviews, where she has to fix her headscarf and provide the cliché answers. But in the final scene, it is Tooba who interrogates the camera, a camera that now functions as her platform for demanding answers.

FIGURE 3.

Sima (Bita Farahi) and Sara (Baran Kosari) in Mainline (Khoon bazi, dir. Rakhshan Banietemad), 2006.

FIGURE 3.

Sima (Bita Farahi) and Sara (Baran Kosari) in Mainline (Khoon bazi, dir. Rakhshan Banietemad), 2006.

ka and zk: It can be said that Under the Skin of the City creates a “village” within the city with neighbors who are close friends and Tooba's extended family looking after one another. And these characters recur in later films: in Tales, Abbas runs into Masoomeh (Mehraveh Sharifinia) and takes care of her, and Tooba reappears in a crucial moment. So as audiences, we return in later films to familiar faces and reengage with their stories at a later point, which in a wonderful way connects us to the “village.” Did you foresee this when you were writing Under the Skin of the City?

rb: At the time that I was making Under the Skin of the City, I naturally didn't know that I would bring these characters back years later in Tales. But before that, in The May Lady that was made prior to Under the Skin of the City, characters from Nargess and The Blue-Veiled were present. I wrote the first draft of Under the Skin of the City in 1985, and it was supposed to be my first feature film, but it didn't get approved until sixteen years later. Of course, in these sixteen years, the drafts were revisited and rewritten based on changing social realities, until finally in 1999 the film got approved. In The May Lady there is a scene where Tooba goes to visit her son in jail. This is a character from a future film who had not appeared in a film before it! This was because years ago, I had made a firm decision that Golab Adineh would play this role. The reason these characters always remain present in my mind is the same as I explained earlier: every single one of them is symbolic of many other real-life people that I come into contact with, and who continue living in my head forever.

ka and zk:Our Times, a documentary, chronicles women's political participation as candidates for election. Later you made another film on a similar theme, We Are Half of Iran's Population (2009). But we want to ask first about Our Times. Do you think documentary films can impact politics?

rb: Given the political and social context, any public engagement in Iranian elections is quite sensitive. During the 2002 presidential elections, as a result of the changes that had taken place during Mohammad Khatami's government in his first four years in power, young people and women became actively involved. This was seen both in the number of people voting and in the candidates running for office. The number of women who ran as candidates during this election period was beyond the imagination. And even though the majority of these candidates were neither political nor socially prepared for this kind of responsibility, in my opinion this movement itself was noteworthy.

ka and zk:Gilane (2004) is about a war that continues to be felt in Iran. Its narrative offers an important perspective on it. How did you and your cast prepare? Did you have to conduct research? How did you go about it?

rb: After the war, and the destruction and damage that it caused, the losses and suffering of veterans and their families, and what the victims of war faced during those dark times, Gilane was my praise for peace. I spent close to a year with surviving families of war. The wives of combatants who had been disabled by war and chemical weapons were truly symbolic of patience, enduring serious difficulties even after the war ended. To show the extent of the catastrophic dimensions of the conflict, I chose the city of Deylaman, in the northern county of Siahkal—a part of Iran that during the war didn't hear the sound of even a single shot but had tasted the bitterness and severe damage of war nonetheless. Many young people from across Iran who left home for war returned with wounded and disabled bodies. During my research, I heard and saw many painful stories before I finally wrote the script for Gilane.

ka and zk: What were some of the challenges you faced in making Mainline? The main character is played by your own daughter, Baran Kosari. Did this make things difficult emotionally?

rb: In terms of acting ability, choosing Baran for this role was the most appropriate option. But aside from that, the actor for this role had to undertake a very tough task in terms of research: six months before filming, she spent much time in close contact with youth who were struggling with addiction, and was present in tension-filled rehab centers. She gained knowledge of where drugs are sold and a deep understanding of addiction. Very few actors would have the patience for this difficult and emotional experience. But from my knowledge of Baran and how seriously and professionally she takes her job, I knew that she could handle this tough task. Naturally there were very difficult moments for me behind the scenes. But during my research and through my encounters with real examples of youth suffering from addiction, I had been equally heartbroken.

ka and zk: This film was made during Khatami's presidency, which lasted from 1997 to 2005. Did this make it easier in terms of making and screening the film?

FIGURE 4.

Sara (Baran Kosari) in Tales (Ghesse ha, dir. Rakhshan Banietemad), 2014.

FIGURE 4.

Sara (Baran Kosari) in Tales (Ghesse ha, dir. Rakhshan Banietemad), 2014.

rb: During Khatami's time, not only cinema, but the entire cultural and artistic arena was subject to a much more open climate that was different from the period before, and especially different from the period after.

ka and zk:We Are Half of Iran's Population returns to a documentary subject similar to that of Our Times, but in a subsequent election. Women's rights activists discuss their opinions on pressing contemporary issues. Three of the four presidential candidates view the footage for comment, with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad declining to participate.

rb: In the elections of 2009, and after the restrictions and pressure that women felt under Ahmadinejad's first four years, women activists cleverly took advantage of the open climate that usually results from election periods. All women's rights organizations, for the first time ever, united in bringing their demands to the public. This experience was unique. We Are Half of Iran's Population was the documentation of this exceptional series of events.

ka and zk: A number of the activists seen in the film were later arrested in the post-election protests. Were these political documentaries allowed to be screened in Iran?

rb:Our Times was screened in Iran, but We Are Half of Iran's Population didn't receive screening rights.

ka and zk: After your film Mainline in 2006, you didn't make any feature films until Tales in 2014. Was there a specific reason for this gap?

rb: After Mainline and under the Ahmadinejad government, I boycotted filmmaking. I didn't accept the new management of the ministry of arts and culture, and I didn't want to make films under such conditions. Thus, Tales was made up of shorter films, which meant it didn't require a license, and as a result was made independently.

FIGURE 5.

Tooba (Golab Adineh) interviewed in Tales (Ghesse ha, dir. Rakhshan Banietemad), 2014.

FIGURE 5.

Tooba (Golab Adineh) interviewed in Tales (Ghesse ha, dir. Rakhshan Banietemad), 2014.

ka and zk: In the opening scene of Tales the central character, a filmmaker, says, “This is how I see the world.” Was there any specific reason for casting a man for that role?

rb: The position of the documentary filmmaker in Tales represents the position of filmmaking in general, where his camera is not able to record the “real”—that is, in the sense that the perspective of the filmmaker and the way he views the world is through a camera lens only as a means to record and hold on to that moment in time. This is a professional condition for filmmakers regardless of gender. The problem as a female filmmaker in this situation isn't different from that of a male filmmaker. And I didn't want to cast a woman for this role, since that might make it seem as if I was relaying a personal story.

ka and zk: In Tales, you return to some characters from your previous films. How do these characters and stories stay with you?

rb: The characters of my screenplays aren't entirely born from my imagination. Each comes to life with a long-term connection and contact with hundreds of people who are shaped by their specific and societal conditions. It is natural that none of my characters is fully based on a single person, but instead created from many real-life events and characters. Thus, at any moment, I can look at any corner of society and see characters coming to life for me.

ka and zk: Was Tales subject to censorship?

rb: Naturally, films that engage with social issues are much more sensitive to censorship. Despite these restrictions, I have always managed to find a solution to whatever extent possible. I have refused to allow censorship to hurt or damage my films—often at the price of months and months of dialogue and resistance. With many challenges, endless debates, and arguments, I can happily say that Tales was shown without any censoring.

FIGURE 6.

Rakhshan Banietemad posing with her award for Best Screenplay for Tales (Ghesse-ha) at the 2014 Venice Film Festival.

FIGURE 6.

Rakhshan Banietemad posing with her award for Best Screenplay for Tales (Ghesse-ha) at the 2014 Venice Film Festival.

ka and zk: Did Tales have production and screening rights in Iran? Can you be more specific as to the challenges you faced in its making, production, and screening?

rb:Tales wasn't screened until four years after completion. It didn't receive the right to be screened under the presidency of Ahmadinejad (2005–13). Even with permission to be screened, which came under Hassan Rouhani's presidency (2013–present), the immense pressure of opposing groups resulted in a two-year ban. Billboard ads for the film were forced to come down. The main cinemas that belonged to government institutions in Tehran and other cities boycotted the film and prevented its screening. They even blocked me from attending Q&A sessions and other events. At the end, without any publicity, and without any television or radio advertisement, and very few exhibiting slots, the film was screened. Despite all this, and without any advertisement, it took in ten billion rials.

ka and zk: Considering Iran's current situation and the social and political movements in the country, have censorship laws weakened? Are artists and filmmakers enjoying a more open atmosphere?

rb: The management of cinema, under current conditions, is almost entirely different from what we experienced in the eight years under the presidency of Ahmadinejad. That said, cinema continues to be under serious pressure from hard-liners and conservative groups, and any movement toward a more moderate climate in cultural and artistic initiatives is critiqued and often rejected. In general, however, there is a more open atmosphere today than under the former president.

ka and zk: Your films deal with serious, emotional, and even painful subjects, such as poverty, addiction, and violence. How do you remain positive while dealing with such harsh realities?

rb: There's nothing more depressing than passivity and surrendering oneself to existing conditions. In the face of painful issues, resistance and struggle bring hope. For me as a filmmaker, hope for a better future comes through raising awareness through my films. My work keeps alive my aspiration to deal with the traumatic struggles that inspire and motivate life.

ka and zk: Gender issues are often central to your films. How do you think cinematic and artistic works in Iranian society, specifically with respect to the women's movement, can influence social change?

rb: Without any doubt, the arts, and cinema more specifically, have a deep cultural influence on society, even if the changes are not immediately obvious in the short term. Through the representation of cultural and social issues, cinema creates and evokes insightful discussions among its audiences. Issues and subjects related to women—who are half of society—are among the most critical issues that I naturally address in my films.

ka and zk: You strongly support women's rights movements and organizations and make films that challenge systems of patriarchy. And yet you have said many times that you're not a feminist. Do you have a specific reason to reject feminism?

rb: The term feminist in our society has been subject to confusing interpretations. Apart from progressive groups and intellectuals, it has created an inverted image that results in a feeling of disconnect between ordinary people and feminists. My job is to make social films, and what is most important for me is to have trust from the general public and to be able to communicate with them. And while I support various social institutions and NGOs, I am not an official member of any. I also provide support to women's organizations and institutions in the cases where my views are aligned with what they do. But again, I am not officially a member of any of these organizations because I don't want to limit myself to any single one. I am familiar with women's issues, and through my films and my social status I try to create a path for resolving some of these issues.

ka and zk: In your films, we're confronted with many social issues—domestic abuse, addiction—that are often concealed in Iranian society. In your opinion, what kind of influence can films have? How can they help to open dialogue about taboo topics?

rb: Cinema cannot claim to function as a mirror for an entire society. However, addressing cultural taboos can become a way to challenge social issues and norms. The point isn't for us to expect an immediate change after the production and screening of every film. Instead, artistic and cultural works are like water slowly dripping onto a boulder until, over time, cracks begin to appear. I see these “cracks” of knowledge creating deep change within the heart of society and culture.

I started working in television at eighteen, and I have gained valuable experiences in a variety of areas in cinema. I continue to work with the same energy. Cinema isn't my job; cinema is my life. Not that I am fascinated by cinema per se. Rather, cinema is a tool that visualizes and brings to the screen my concerns for my society and my country. Art for the sake of art has no meaning for me. Art is a vehicle for raising awareness and producing knowledge, especially in societies like Iran. I am pleased with my portfolio, in the sense that whatever I have made I have done so with full belief. I value the social impact of my films more than their artistic success.