Krakow Film Festival 2024

50 shades of censorship

IRAN / Six women seek to increase awareness of the multiple forms of discrimination against them and others through candid testimonies that advocate for liberation.
Director: Mostafa Heravi
Country: The Netherlands

«Is a woman’s body really that threatening? So scary? So terrifying?» Golshifteh Farahani, a talented musician and one of the most original actresses of contemporary cinema – you certainly remember her as Laura, the wife of Paterson (2016) in Jim Jarmusch’s film, and she was also a protagonist in films by Ridley Scott and Pirates from Caribbean series – does not hide her body. As she lets her long black curly hair flow freely in the wind, this unmistakably brings to mind the protests that started in September 2022 in Iran after Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old Kurdish Iranian woman, was arrested and eventually killed by the Guidance Patrol – because she failed to «properly» cover her hair. But the repression of women has a long tradition in Iran, and Farahani, too, is its victim. Born in Tehran, she started to play the piano when she was 5, and when she was 14, she accepted the role in Derakhte Golabi (The Pear Tree, 1998) by Dariush Mehrjui. The film became one of the most popular films in Iran. But Farahani was forced to leave.

Sansur Mostafa Heravi
Sānsūr, a film by Mostafa Heravi

Women Power

Her testimony makes part of the film Sānsūr (2022) by Mostafa Heravi, which will have its international premiere at this year’s International Human Rights Documentary Film Festival One World. Courageous, intelligent, and strong, Golshifteh Farahani is a fascinating representative of women’s power, but in Sānsūr, she remembers with bitter pain the prejudice that forced her to abandon her homeland. She wears the mask, created as «a wearable sculpture» by one of the other protagonists in this film because she likes the tradition. Yet her ardent expression of angry pride leaves no doubt that this is her way of censuring herself – hiding the pain that the repression of women is also causing her. Her mask.

The film became one of the most popular films in Iran. But Farahani was forced to leave.

Censorship and self-censorship

Censorship can have many faces, of course. The eloquence with which the women from Iran reflect on this subject might appear strange. Still, if we consider the democratic history of this country before the Islamic Revolution – documented, for example, in Coup 53 (2021), a historical documentary about the 1953 coup against Dr Mohammad Mosaddegh, the first democratically elected Prime Minister of Iran – it should be of no surprise. Throughout the film, we learn about various forms of state censorship and of ways in which the protagonists of this film self-censor themselves. Yasaman Khaleghian, the Iranian journalist, for example, investigated the events of January 8, 2020, when Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 was shot down minutes after taking off from Tehran, had to escape the country and took refuge in Istanbul. One of the protagonists who stayed and needed to remain anonymous remembers that she was censored even before she knew the word – in the art school, she sculptured female figures. Because of that, she was not allowed to show her work in an exhibition. As a result, her application for a visa was refused, and to survive, she started to «censor herself» – she moved to Kormutz, a faraway island, started dressing like the locals «to blend in» and «learned new things.» One of these new things is making a particular ornamental face mask that is part of local tradition and was used to protect women against the gazes of unrelated men. Yet for her, this mask has a double meaning: it «censors a woman» but at the same time attracts attention and is thus her means of expression too. Envisioned as a «wearable sculpture», this mask serves as a file rouge in this film – the object the protagonists exchange among themselves and thus bond.

Sansur Mostafa Heravi
Sānsūr, a film by Mostafa Heravi

The general and the particular

The actual political situation in Iran is what they have in common. Yet, their destinies are very different, sometimes even closer to women from other cultures and parts of the world. The director Mostafa Heravi, himself an Iranian living in the Netherlands, smartly shows how, even if the particular local tradition often hinders women, the universal problems common to women all over the globe exist as well.

The film is composed of two streams. The visual one flows from general to particular, from the panoramic shots to faces in close-up. It starts with the world from afar, from a general perspective. We see the context, the island, the rocky cliffs above the ocean, the markets and city streets, places where the film protagonists live and work, where they were forced to retreat, to hide from absurd accusations of corruption and prostitution just because they were trying to do their work – the artist, the teacher, the journalist, the musician, the athlete, the actress. And then slowly move closer and enter their intimate, personal situation.

The other stream, the narrative one, flows in the opposite direction – from the very particular situation in Iran to a general, global situation in which all women of this world have found themselves. Thus the film protagonists represent Iranian women and women from all over the world. They have left their country but can not leave their body – the female body that most of the world’s cultures tend to repress. And their suffering will not be over until this repression itself is over. Golshifteh Farahani says this more vividly, «When you are born female, you are a battleground where everyone wants to march and parade on.» This film is not only a cry for more freedom for the women from Iran but also for more freedom for the women of the world.

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Melita Zajc
Melita Zajc
Our regular contributor. Zajc is a media anthropologist and philosopher.

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