MANIA Akbari’s 20 Fingers begins with a couple driving down a dark road, with the woman talking about how she played ‘doctor’ with her male cousin as a child. Her fiancé is jealous; even her insistence that she played ‘doctor’ only till the age of nine — after which they were only allowed to play ‘teacher’, which involved much less physical contact — and that they weren’t allowed to play with the door closed, doesn’t mollify him. He stops the car and administers a virginity test.
Iranian cinema has received great critical acclaim over the past few decades for its honest and sensitive depiction of society, warts and all. It has evoked astonishment from the rest of the world; after all, the popular narrative about Iran is that of a restrictive society, with morality dictated by regressive ayatollahs and enforced by the brutal Revolutionary Guard. How could such a society allow such a thriving anti-establishment film industry? The perplexity is doubled when one considers the role of women in the success of the industry: while estimates vary, it is generally accepted that between 10 and 25 percent of Iranian films every year are made by women (only six out of 125 Bollywood releases in 2012 were directed by women). At the International Association of Women in Radio and Television (IAWRT) Asian Women’s Film Festival, held in Delhi this week, 12 such films of various lengths were displayed, exhibiting not only the robustness of female participation, but also the diversity of theme and style.
Akbari’s film stands out among the festival’s selections for its simplicity. Dealing with the petty jealousies of the Iranian male and the typical arguments of contemporary couples, the film is made up of seven one-shot vignettes, conversations between the same two actors playing seven different couples. The themes aren’t the most original: adultery, abortion, alternate sexuality. But the in ti mate conversations find powerful personal drama in the quotidian. Most importantly, the men are not caricatured male chauvinists, but interested in understanding the women’s perspective, even if they are rigid in their views.
The subtlety of Akbari’s work, and that of Iranian filmmakers in general, is perhaps a unique case worldwide of a culture of censorship actually benefiting a country’s cinema. The Iranian New Wave, after all, is strictly post-Revolution, when Ayatollah Khomeini introduced strict directives on what could and could not be shown on celluloid. More astonishingly, this era — noted for its restrictions on the freedoms of women — saw the genesis of the woman filmmaker. “Before the Revolution, we only had actresses in the film industry,” says Sara Namjoo, whose animated short, The Rock, was shown at the festival. “In television, we had directors, producers, cinematographers who were women. But only one woman had made a feature film, with the help of her husband.” Khomeini’s diktat initially led to fears that the film industry was dead, but as audiences flocked to the cinema after being denied other sources of entertainment, the industry reinvented itself, using allegory to make social points without alerting the censor. Soon, the Hollywood and Bollywood rip-offs, which had characterised pre-1979 cinema, were replaced by a thriving arthouse circuit.
Shirin Barghnavard, an experimental filmmaker, whose autobiographical documentary 21 Days and Me — where she struggles, at age 35, with the decision to have a baby or not — was another highlight of the festival, says that women found it easier to enter the industry once it was given the official sanction to be considered culture. Another documentarian, Mahvash Sheikholeslami, whose Where Do I Belong? tracks the lives of Afghan refugees who fled the Taliban into Iran and married local girls, calls the idea that women are oppressed in Iran a media myth. Barghnavard concedes that gender inequality persists, but says that 60 percent of students in Iran are women. “Although women don’t have a high proportion of policy posts,” says Roqiye Tavakoli, another director, “in cultural fields, they outnumber men.”
The women come from varying backgrounds — while Tavakoli was educated in Tehran, Sheikholeslami went to film school in London. But the latter says there is no difference in perspective, in aspirations, in struggles, for “while we belong to the worlds we inhabit, we also inhabit the world of cinema.”