There is more than one historical reason for the phrase «giving voice to women.» Access to the public realm, such as the right to vote, has long been denied to women. But did you know that, to this day, women are not allowed to sing in Iran, and male singers sing all the songs?
Sreemoyee Singh, a filmmaker from Kolkata, India, has a beautiful voice, and it is this voice, singing magnificent songs, that like a ‘fil rouge’ flows through And, Towards Happy Alleys, her first feature film, a documentary about contemporary Iran – as a tangible expression of the longing for beauty and freedom under the Islamic Regime.
The director travelled to Iran and learned Persian to complete her research for her PhD on Iranian cinema in Post-Revolution Iran. Her in-depth knowledge of and her passionate admiration for the cinema of Iran gave her unique access to Iranian filmmakers, artists, activists, and women who are otherwise wary of interaction with foreign media. She collected a series of eloquent and candid testimonies and created a unique portrait of contemporary Iranian society.
It is her personal approach that distinguishes this film the most. In her first-person narration, the director openly talks about personal interests that led her to make this film. In the first place, her fascination with the poetry and personality of Forough Farrokhzad, one of the greatest Iranian poetess and certainly the most celebrated and dear to her compatriots in the last Century. Forough, who died in 1967 in a car accident when she was only 30 years old, is now a symbol of the love for life and freedom in Iran, a fact well represented in this documentary—starting with the title taken from one of her poems.
Her in-depth knowledge of and her passionate admiration for the cinema of Iran gave her unique access to Iranian filmmakers, artists, activists, and women who are otherwise wary of interaction with foreign media.
The artist’s responsibilities
Sreemoyee’s warm personality very well matches the sensibility that became the mark of the Iranian New Wave cinema, based on deep kindness and love for other people. She created space for the protagonists of her film to find their proper way of expression. The other subject of her fascination, who is also her host and the lead protagonist in the film, the filmmaker Jafar Panahi, even managed to indirectly direct some of the most delightful scenes. For example, when she followed him to the eyeglass store, he convinced her to sing for him and the storekeeper while filming them. This passively active approach also enabled her to create a series of unique meta-discoursive moments on Iranian cinema film lovers will be most pleased with. Among them Panahi’s own deeply honest statement about the artists’ responsibility. Because of his cinematic work, in 2010, he was convicted of propaganda against the regime and sentenced to 6 years imprisonment and a 20-year ban from making or directing any movies, writing screenplays, giving interviews to media, or leaving Iran. Yet, «after all this trouble», he told Sreemoyee, he sees himself as an artist, not a political person. «I couldn’t ignore the political situation in my country. I mean, when three million people come out to protest in the streets, I can’t close my eyes and say it’s not my problem. It becomes my problem even if I am not a political person.»
Focus on the people
With the same generous kindness, the director approached other protagonists. Nasrin Sotoudeh, the lawyer sentenced to 38 years of prison for defending the rights of the girls arrested for raising their scarves. Young women who decided for plastic surgery on their noses and the ones that decided not to. It is, explains the director, as if women strive to sculpt an almost perfect face because the body has to be kept covered. Obviously, here we encounter the same desire for beauty as when people are asking Sreemoyee to sing for them. This intimate look into Iranian society shows that the desire for freedom often overlaps with the desire for beauty.
Another fascinating feature of this documentary is that the focus is entirely on people while the grip of power is left out of sight as much as possible. It almost never gets represented by a face. It keeps appearing accidentally, in an almost humorous way, as the disturbance that intervenes any time the topic of conversation might reach the narrow limits of what is allowed. Every time one of the interviewees is about to start talking about his attitude toward sex, the masons in the apartment next door start drilling the wall. Or for example, in the cemetery, when Sreemoyee and her crew visit Forough Farrokhzad’s grave and workers start cutting down the surrounding trees. Yet, this is no more than a passing distraction. It can’t stop people from visiting Forough’s grave, which has become a destination for many lovers of her poetry who gather there to read her works. This is also the belief this documentary transmits: kindness and beauty will eventually prevail.