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IN MAY 2001 I found myself at the Cannes Film Festival on a six-member ecumenical jury. Every year the festival hosts other accredited juries besides the star-studded official one, and since 1974 an ecumenical jury made up of Catholics and Protestants has given awards to films in Cannes’s competitive selection. Dutifully we attended all the screenings, earnestly meeting at frequent intervals to discuss which films we thought should stay on our list or be struck off, conscientiously judging them by the criteria we inherited from the two sponsoring organizations, Interfilm and the International Catholic Organization for Cinema. After ten days of deliberating over more than twenty films, we announced that the award would go to Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar: a Christian jury honoring a Muslim filmmaker, who was so pleased with the award that he quickly added the Cannes logo to all his film’s promotional material as well as to the first frames of the film itself.

What was so special about Kandahar that it pipped other films at the post, most notably Éloge de l’Amour (by France’s own Godard) and Shrek (which received its world premiere at Cannes)? The ecumenical criteria are adamant that the winning film not only address issues of a spiritual nature, but that its cinematography must be of the highest quality: the ecumenical award is “to honor works of artistic quality which witness to the power of film to reveal the mysterious depths of human beings through what concerns them, their hurts and failings as well as their hopes.” There is no doubt that Kandahar addresses human struggles in a desperate situation, and it is a visually stunning film with excellent production quality; some called it a deliberate attempt by Makhmalbaf to create a film that would attract attention from western audiences, who up to that point had little exposure to films originating in Islamic countries.

The world agenda, too, was about to change that September. Suddenly Afghanistan would become the topic on everyone’s lips. George W. Bush asked for a private screening of Kandahar at the White House. The film took on a much greater significance.

By November 2005, when I was delivering a presentation on women, Islam, and cinema to the World Assembly of International Catholic Organization for Cinema in Rome, I knew far more about films from Islamic countries. Kandahar had introduced me to a whole new world of cinema, and for a western woman who had taught courses in theology and film at an Anglican college in northern England, it was an exciting new area of interest.

The more I have immersed myself in Islamic film the more I feel the need to urge other westerners to discover a cinematic strand that interrogates and even challenges our Hollywood-centric concepts of visual storytelling. What I find most fascinating is how filmmakers from this tradition often operate under constraints that force them to be extremely creative, often in order to subvert and defy religious fundamentalist authorities. Telling the stories of Muslim women is not as straightforwardly commercial (or some would say as frivolous) an exercise as the Hollywood chick flick.

The first complication is that we are talking about more than the way women are portrayed on film. For over twenty years, critic Gönül Dönmez-Colin has studied how women in countries where Islam is the dominant religion have been spectators of cinema as well as images and image-makers. In her book Women, Islam, and Cinema she not only provides a history of Islamic film and its representation of women but also profiles contemporary women filmmakers in countries such as Turkey, Kazakhstan, and Iran.

In the early days, films were assumed to be primarily entertainment for male audiences, according to Dönmez-Colin. Muslim women had to wait several years in countries such as Turkey and Iran before they were allowed into theaters; even then seating was segregated, and sometimes separate screenings were held for men and women. It was even longer before Muslim women were allowed to act in films, mostly in stereotypical roles that establish female characters only in relationship to male counterparts. In the 1930s, the trend was for stories of rural women characters, uneducated but honest, who were married off young and subject to a hard, often poverty-stricken life in the villages. At the other end of the social spectrum were urban stories about prostitutes whose bad behavior led to their downfall—until the feminist movement of the 1980s discredited these films’ facile morality among the younger generation, according to Dönmez-Colin. These types of melodrama were popular until the mid-eighties, the more sensational the better, with rape and sexual violence a draw for commercial audiences. In the 1970s, political and religious censorship were first felt in the film industry in several countries, notably Turkey and especially Iran. The Islamic revolution and compulsory veiling pushed women even further into the shadows, Dönmez-Colin writes, but eventually these restrictions motivated women to go behind the camera and make their voices heard.

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Although very few women were directing films in Muslim countries before the 1970s, the emergence of female filmmakers in post-revolutionary Iran has been remarkable because of the tight control by its Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. Not many have been able to break into mainstream filmmaking, but it is worth noting that a number of male Muslim directors have shown a sensitivity to and knowledge of the lives of women, and have created unforgettable stories. One of these is Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s Kandahar.

Set in 1999, the film follows Nafas, an Afghani journalist who now lives in Canada and is making her way back to the city of Kandahar to find and rescue her sister, who was injured by landmines and had to be left behind when the family fled the country, and is now desperately threatening to commit suicide at the turn of the millennium. The striking images Nafas sees as she crosses the Iranian border simultaneously delight and disturb: young girls are taught not to pick up dolls lying on the ground because they may be booby-trapped; tiny vans that transport families of refugees are hijacked and robbed along the tracks that pass for roads. The girls of the family that Nafas travels with paint their toenails bright colors, as colorful as the full-length burqas all the women wear. Moving at a leisurely pace, Makhmalbaf lets the images sink into our consciousness without the familiar Hollywood tricks of clever camera angles or stirring soundtracks.

After the family and Nafas, too, become the victims of robbers, she travels with a young boy who was expelled from a madrasa (a religious school). To support his family, he tries demanding outrageous sums of money from Nafas, a woman traveling alone, for his accompaniment in the face of danger.

During her journey Nafas seeks aid from several sources of authority, but none seems able to help. The Red Cross camp administers prosthetics to people injured by mines; airdropped from helicopters in the most visually astonishing scenes of the film, artificial limbs attached to parachutes float from the sky and land in the desert as hoards of people without limbs hobble and hop toward them. Nafas becomes ill and finds a doctor who is an American expat, disillusioned by both the continuing violence and his own inability to make a difference. He can only examine his female patients by peering through a hole in a blanket, and he attempts to combat his anomie by accompanying Nafas some distance along her journey. Her final guide is a man who dons a burqa as they take shelter among a colorfully dressed wedding party; the cinematography by Ebrahim Ghafouri is breathtaking in its beauty, but the irony is not lost: these garments with their fabulous array of colors are meant to control women’s sexuality. The first and last shots of Nafas are through the mesh of the burqa she wears, as if Makhmalbaf wants to bookend her compelling odyssey with her own restricted vision of it.

The story goes that when Mohsen Makhmalbaf was a child he refused to speak to his mother for days when he found out that she had been to the movies; ironically, he is now one of Iran’s most successful filmmakers. Makhmalbaf has always featured strong women characters in his films, and in real life he has provided opportunities for the women in his family to pursue their talents. In 1996 he established the Makhmalbaf Film House, a production house and film school, not just for himself but for his prodigious filmmaking family: his daughter Samira made The Apple (1997) when she was eighteen, and in 2003 she was awarded the Cannes ecumenical prize for At Five in the Afternoon, her film about a young woman who wants to become president of Afghanistan. His younger daughter Hana filmed Samira during the project, completing her own documentary, The Joy of Madness, despite nearly being kidnapped in Kabul. In 2000, his son Maysam made a documentary about Samira’s second film The Blackboards, and Marzieh Meshkini, Makhmalbaf’s second wife, directed The Day I Became a Woman.

Many student filmmakers have worked on projects at the Makhmalbaf Film House, and the cross-fertilization that characterizes much of Iranian cinema is strongly at work there. However, after more than twenty years, the house’s future is uncertain; after the Green Revolution of June 2009, Mohsen Makhmalbaf became a spokesman for the opposition and has moved to Paris to live in exile. His demanding eye for truth in telling stories about the lives of Muslim women now encompasses a struggle for justice that continues in the real world of Iranian politics.

Women in Iran experience increasingly difficult lives in a country that is cracking down on dissent through the use of punitive legal proceedings. They do not have equal rights and those who advocate for them are subject to discrimination and intimidation, if not outright arrest and incarceration. Members of the “mourning mothers” of Laleh Park, who meet weekly to walk in candlelit silent protest against the disappearance or imprisonment of their children, have been arrested and denied legal defense. In addition to government dismissal of women’s rights, wider patriarchal practices are also at work, such as stoning, honor killing, and domestic violence. In the summer of 2009 the world caught a glimpse of Iran’s political turmoil through YouTube and Twitter, but Iranian filmmakers have highlighted the challenges that long-suffering women have faced in that society for many years.

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Jafar Panahi is another filmmaker who has become entangled in the Iranian protest movement; at the time of this writing he was reportedly being held in an undisclosed location inside Iran for his opposition to the current regime. He made his filmmaking debut with The White Balloon (1995), and his later films The Circle (2000) and Offside (2006) both cast a critical eye on the patriarchal treatment of women in his home country. His films are banned in Iran, and Panahi funds them through mainly European sources, incurring accusations from Iranian authorities that his films are “spreading western propaganda” because they are produced independently of the Ministry of Culture bureaucracy.

Offside pits one religion against another: Islam against football (only in the US do we know it as soccer). Women are prohibited from attending football matches in Iran, and Panahi got the idea for the film when his daughter was refused entry to a game. He used a small crew to film much of the action at an Iran-Bahrain qualifying match for the 2005 World Cup in Tehran. In actual fact the film contains very little of the game itself; the action opens with various attempts by a young girl to enter the stadium in disguise, then moves with her as she is arrested and taken to a holding pen where several other young women are being kept while the game (watched by a hundred thousand men) is in progress. One woman has cut her hair short and somehow procured a military uniform, but made the mistake of sitting in an officer’s seat in the official box without officer-grade insignia on her shoulders. These young women are rabid fans: the torture of being in the stadium but not able to see the game is worse than the shame of being arrested. They constantly harangue the young military guards of their own age at least to give them a running commentary of the game. The majority of the camerawork is focused on dialogue between various characters and the soldier in charge. We learn that he is worried about his period of enlistment being lengthened if he does not keep his detainees in order, which would mean that his cattle and his mother back home would suffer even more from his extended absence.

There is much discussion amongst the detainees and the soldiers about why women are not allowed to see the game; Japanese women were able to attend an earlier qualifying match when Japan played Iran—but only because they could not understand if any Iranian men cursed and swore, it is explained. The ban exists, the women are told, to avoid the possibility of scandalizing Muslim women.

Inevitably, the extended contact between the guards and young female fans begins to soften their rigid treatment. But the soldiers are told that the women cannot be released, and the action moves away from the stadium as the women are taken in a van to the vice squad; en route, they beg to listen to the closing minutes of the match on the van’s radio. In a poignant moment, one says she vowed to attend the match in honor of her dear friend who died in the earlier Japan-Iran qualifying match at that very stadium. When victory for the Iranians is certain, the roads become clogged with jubilant citizens, handing out sweets and dancing and demanding that the occupants of the van join in the celebrations. It is here that we see evidence of the common humanity that religion—football as well as Islam—is supposed to engender. Through wry observations and touches of humor, Panahi succeeds in demonstrating the absurdity of gender restrictions in the face of an overarching human solidarity. His style is less enigmatic and visually striking than Makhmalbaf’s, but Offside is a moving testimony to the human spirit of hope and unity.

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While the two Iranian films discussed here have endings that, though ambiguous, are not without hope, the final film consigns its main character to an unequivocally dark fate. Siddiq Barmak’s Osama was released in 2003, but its title does not refer to the terrorist mastermind of September 11. It is the name given to a twelve-year-old girl who lives in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. The picture is said to be the first filmed entirely in Afghanistan since the post-9/11 American invasion and defeat of the Taliban. Leaving aside the question of our continued military action in that country, the film does not equivocate about the hellish life women faced under the Taliban: at the time of the film, girls cannot attend school, women cannot have careers. Osama and her mother cannot go out in public without a male escort, and when they do they must be covered with full-length burqas which cannot afford a glimpse of toes or ankles. Due to the devastating war with the Soviets, this family, like many others, is without a male head; so there is little prospect of survival unless and until—under pressure from her mother—Osama does the unthinkable and disguises herself as a boy. She is then able to work and bring home food for her mother and grandmother, but her every hour is fraught with danger lest she be found out. In one scene, she accompanies her employer to the mosque and desperately mimics his actions in order not to be noticed by Taliban spies. More than once, her wistful, childish fantasy of skipping rope is evoked as we watch Osama trying to cope with a nightmare world where grown-ups have taken away the childhood of a generation. Once all the young boys are rounded up and sent to religious school, Osama included, she is doomed to be discovered.

This film was made with Iranian technology and funding, and features nonprofessional actors in the lead roles. It is grittily realistic, with scenes that give glimpses of the madness Taliban ideology inflicts upon a society: The abrupt closing of the hospital where Osama’s mother surreptitiously works drives all patients who can hobble or be carted out on stretchers into the streets. A brave street protest by women who, like Osama’s mother, cannot provide for their families, is brutally broken up by soldiers even as the women shout “We are not political.” The show trials of westerners who have been captured and tried as spies are carried out as townspeople are massed in an arena, captive spectators for the expected executions. The suspense builds as we wonder how long Osama will be able to get away with her impersonation, and heightens as the boys in the madrasa are being taught how to perform ritual baths; even more striking is the sinking feeling when she is finally undone by her own biology. Discovered, she is saved from Taliban punishment by being handed over to a tyranny of an even more horrific nature. The film masterfully evokes a sense of oppression and despair as Osama is prepared for her “wedding night” by other women who, resigned to their lot, are enslaved in the same house.

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It would be difficult to find a more damning indictment of the oppression of women—and the unthinking use of religion to perpetuate it—than this trio of films. Though we may watch with unease or even anger, we have to confront the fact that the truth behind these stories is still being played out in our world today. The feeling that a well-made film depends upon real suffering for its richness and verisimilitude is not a comfortable one.

The main character in Kandahar is an educated woman who lives in the West, whose increasingly horrified reactions echo my own; the young girls of Offside live an affluent and educated lifestyle in modern-day Tehran, a cosmopolitan city larger than the one I live in. Osama’s slums, however, are the opposite: there is nothing in this medieval nightmare that a westerner can identify with. Here, Islam’s traditional respect for human rights has been not only ignored but subverted by the murderous Taliban regime. These films are not typical western escapist fare. Yet, given America’s present-day entanglements with Iran and Afghanistan, it is important that we take these images in; if nothing else, they can help us develop a clearer picture of these lands, people, and cultures.

The male filmmakers who created Kandahar, Offside, and Osama have not had to deal with the patriarchal obstacles thrown up in the way of Muslim women who aspire to the same opportunities. Despite these barriers, today’s Iranian and Afghan female filmmakers have begun to find ways to record their countries’ cultural, religious, and ideological histories as they are being made. Diana Sageb’s 2009 documentary Twenty-five Percent (25 Darsad) was named one of the year’s best films by the International Film Guide. It deals with the article of the newly minted Afghan constitution which calls for twenty-five percent of the parliament to be made up of women. Sageb follows female candidates as they campaign, capturing the tribulations of gender politics in a country learning to embrace democracy. Sageb is joined by an increasing number of other female Afghan documentary makers, whose subjects include child abduction and forced marriage. In 2008 two film festivals, one specifically about gender and society, took place in Kabul. For these women, film is not mere entertainment; it is proving integral to the shaping of a culture.

In our time, a vibrant and sustainable film culture is emerging throughout the Muslim world. Iran, Pakistan, and Indonesia produce the bulk of films from Islamic countries, but films have begun to come out of smaller countries such as Kuwait and Lebanon. The United Arab Emirates Film Festival recently screened sixty-five films, including short and feature-length documentaries as well as short and medium-length fiction films. In 2003 even Saudi Arabia saw its first female director, Haifaa Al-Mansour, release two short films—though her work has been screened in Turkey but not in her home country. In many Muslim countries, filmmakers who are not favorites of the cultural bureaucrats who control national film industries, whether male or female, often find their artistic freedom constrained if not altogether suppressed. More often than not, their work is seen in festivals in other parts of the world but not at home.

The haunting images of Kandahar, the confrontational dialogue of Offside, and the horror of Osama’s conclusion are indicative of the power of cinema to introduce us to new ideas, places, and people. In this age of the global village, technology gives us no option but to mingle with other cultures and societies. It also allows more and more would-be filmmakers to tell their stories through low-cost digital methods, and lets them film unobtrusively in sensitive situations and places where they would ordinarily be forbidden to work. Through the web, they can transmit their films throughout the world, even if their fellow citizens are not allowed to view them in theaters. Their style of storytelling is often driven by a sense of urgency about letting the world know what is happening to people they care for. Their production values (the craft of well-resourced veterans like Makhmalbaf notwithstanding) are not bolstered by the luxury of Hollywood expertise and its entertainment paradigm. In their approach to political and social issues, their style is often more metaphorical than realistic; their philosophical bent is humanist, offering a clear rejection of fundamentalist theocracy, often expressed non-confrontationally, through symbol. Censorship has no doubt created an experimental cinema of sorts in countries like Iran, where filmmakers push the limits and create a coded language that expresses radical resistance both to western expectations and institutional repression.

These days, thanks to Netflix and other internet channels, we in the US have much improved access to international film. Many American viewers still seem to resist films with subtitles, feeling that having to read text shatters a film’s illusion, but the imaginative leap is worth making. There can be something magical and mysterious about hearing languages other than our own. American film critic Ruby Rich once called subtitles a “token of peace,” because they allow us to enter a cinematic space where other cultures express their yearnings and hopes, and once we do, it is hard to pretend they don’t exist. The ecumenical jury at Cannes seeks films that explore the “mysterious depths” of human beings. In order to fully plumb these human depths, we’ll need to expand our way of seeing beyond accepting subtitles; we’ll need to learn to consider these new films by and about Islamic women not only independently, but as part of the ongoing story of world cinema that is unfolding in our lifetime.


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