Interview: Rakhshan Bani-E’temad
Called the “First Lady of Iranian Cinema,” Rakhshan Bani-E’temad may not be as well-known outside her country, but for three decades, she has sketched some of the most striking portraits of life in Iran—seen, for the most part, through the eyes of the least privileged. Constantly blending the powers of documentary and fiction, Bani-E’temad’s oeuvre is brave in its study of human resistance under ever-challenging social conditions, from the critically acclaimed Nargess (92)—a story about innocence consumed by cruel love—to Under the Skin of the City (01), a riveting drama that tells of the disintegration of a working-class family in contemporary Tehran.
As a filmmaker, the Tehran-based Bani-E’temad has herself been continually tested by the powers that be. Refusing to submit to strict censorship criteria imposed on Iranian cinema, Bani-E’temad took a break from fiction filmmaking in 2006 and instead pursued her social and political investigation through the documentary form, her most notable one in that period being We Are Half of Iran’s Population (09). Now she has “returned” with Tales, a panorama of the lower depths of Tehran, where economic hardship, abuse, corruption, and drug addiction coexist, in her movingly candid portrayal of social decline. Organized into a series of short films—a strategy initially adopted to avoid censorship—the film beads together the fates of several characters (nine of them from Bani-E’temad’s previous films) who fight to preserve their dignity in a world where, it seems, there is very little left.
After its much-praised debut at the Venice Film Festival—where it won the Best Screenplay award—Tales went on to Toronto and other international festivals, and this weekend screens at the Film Society of Lincoln Center as part of Film Comment Selects on February 20 and 22. In an interview this week with Film Comment, Bani-E’temad discussed her approach to filmmaking with a clarity and directness reminiscent of her films, spanning social inquiry and autobiographical quest.
The protagonists of your previous films, including Abbas and Touba from Under the Skin of the City and the titular protagonist of Nargess, return in Tales to offer glimpses of their fates. What was the thought or sentiment behind extending and merging their stories?
The characters in my movies, from the very first one up to now, although they are fictional characters, are based on people that I have lived with and that I have come across during my research for movies. They have always been on my mind, and whenever I stop and think about them, I think about what they would be doing now, at this age, at this time. So they’ve never left my thoughts. Even though they were, you know, movie characters, they’re like living people for me, and people whom I know and whom I have touched. I’ve always been thinking about what stage of their life they would be at right now and what they would be up to.
Was this also an opportunity for you, as an artist with 30 years of experience, to make a kind of synthesis of your work? To be able to investigate how all of your films come together and what they ultimately mean?
In fact, as I get older, I’m more and more keen to experiment. And the Tales were for me a new experiment, which really fit well with the feeling I had during the time when I started making the Tales. I had not been making movies for a few years, and I was missing it. And this format gave me the opportunity to have a new experience in filmmaking.
It seems like the protagonist of Tales is Tehran itself. The city is home to these characters, and yet it feels like a destructive force that sucks them in and consumes them. It is like a microcosm of the larger “system” they’re being played by.
Naturally, when we look at these characters, they are in different social conditions. And we don’t look at them in isolation, we also look at the impact of the society on them. And Tehran being a metropolitan city, obviously it has many different characteristics and many social conditions which have different impacts on different people. I just want to emphasize that no film can be a complete reflection of any society. And Tales is not a mirror reflection of the whole Iranian society. What it reflects is the issues that I’m concerned with and that are interesting to me, such as issues of workers, women, drug addicts, people suffering from economic hardship, et cetera.
Can you talk about the satirical scene with the obnoxious bureaucrat, and its significance to you?
We have a bureaucratic system which obviously is not modernized and has serious flaws in it. And one of the flaws that I concentrate on in this film is communication with the person who is responsible and answerable to people, which is the Hassan Majooni character—the bureaucrat. I’m not saying that the whole bureaucratic system in Iran is like this, but this kind of behavior does exist and I wanted to focus on it. Our society is becoming modernized but on this journey to modernity, there are problems and there are signs of flaws. And as a filmmaker, I wanted to highlight some of these and bring them to the attention of the audience and the people.
The minibus scene in which a group of unpaid workers pour their hearts out to the documentarian’s camera is one of the most memorable in the film. It is a handheld-shot, 10-minute single take, which involves more than 30 actors. The fluidity of the camera, which constantly bounces from character to character as they speak, and the authenticity of the performances truly give it a documentary quality. How did you approach the filming of that scene?
Generally, I don’t like to have anybody filming behind-the-scenes action when I’m making a film—you know, what actually goes on during the filming. But this particular scene is one where I wish I had somebody doing the behind-the-scenes filming so that you could see what happened and how I filmed it. [Laughs] We did not have any room for even adding one small extra camera in that scene, so that’s why there is no behind-the-scenes.
This scene involved professional actors, amateur actors, and non-actors, and in addition to those: myself, the cameraman, assistant cameraman, sound recorder, assistant sound recorder… Everybody was packed into this minibus which was already full, and our voices could be heard. And this required rehearsal after rehearsal. We rehearsed this for a full month, and we rehearsed it even again on the day of filming. And on the day of the filming, we managed to successfully do it on the seventh take, and the seventh take was near sunset, where we would have lost the light. So we were lucky that on the seventh take, we managed to do it successfully.
Ms. Touba, whom the workers have chosen as their spokesperson, delivers a haunting speech. “Honorable authorities,” she begins, “whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you’re doing, please come and see for yourselves our miserable life.” But at the end she adds: “Who are you showing these movies anyway? And even if someone watches them, so what?” I think this is a key line for many of your films.
The sentence which Touba says in the film, the first time I heard this exact sentence was 24 years ago. I was making a documentary and a character called Mehri asked me: “Who do you show these films to anyway?” This sentence had so much meaning that it stuck with me. I used it time and time again in many films that I made since then. I think the reason I use it is as a reminder to authorities to know what people are feeling and be aware of their sentiments.
This sentence also suggests that your characters are aware of the futility of their struggle, and yet they keep fighting…
I believe very strongly in resistance and fighting for my rights. And because of this, my characters in the movies have the same characteristics. They always fight for their rights and they believe in resistance. And I think this is the essence of social change. My characters are never victims, they’re all fighters, and they all believe in resistance.
Another scene that I found especially poignant is the one in which Nargess is visited by her abusive husband at the clinic. I’m from Turkey and can very much relate to her case, especially now that violence against women has become an ever more pressing issue in our country—as in the recent murder of Ozgecan Aslan. Can you talk a bit about Nargess and the other female characters in the film and how they reflect your ongoing interest in women’s place in Iranian society?
Sadly, though we are in the 21st century and we’ve reached the peaks of technological advancement, violence, especially against women, seems to be still acceptable in our society. There is violence against women all over the world. In some countries, in some societies, there is more than in others but it is still prevalent. And as it is one of my main concerns, I think that it’s something that I always try to show and it’s something that needs to be discussed. There has to be more awareness of the subject all over the world.
Reading some of the American reviews for Tales, I often encountered the word “melodramatic” to describe the Nargess scene. Why do you think Western audiences tend to label such scenes as melodramatic? It’s a term they might use to describe an “overdramatized” or sensationalized situation—though a scene like this is very common in our countries… Is it because they have trouble relating?
Definitely, I agree. I think that the cultural and social conditions in their countries may make them think of these scenes as melodramatic—though I don’t see melodrama as a negative point in films. But because they cannot understand our culture and our social conditions, maybe they feel that there is too much emotion in these scenes, and this is why they label them as melodramatic. At the same time, when we look at some of the films made by those societies, maybe we think that there is insufficient emotion and there is too much coldness between characters, and we expect them to show more emotion. So it works both ways.
Tales is your first fiction film since Mainline  and has been sitting on the shelf since 2011. Can you talk a bit about that period of censorship and your decision to make documentaries rather than fictions?
I have always been interested in making documentary films. It’s one of my main loves in cinema. And the period when I was not making any fictional films, and I was making documentary films, doesn’t mean that I was out of work or not active in movies. I was actually very active. Sometimes even when I’m making documentaries, I’m thinking I’ll turn them into a fictional film later. And I wasn’t censoring myself, I was just not happy with the management and the people who were running the film industry in Iran, especially at the management level, the people who were responsible. And therefore, it was a kind of sanction that I placed on them—that, for these years, I will not make any movies until I am in a position to be happy about the environment and I find it suitable to my taste to make movies again.
The documentary filmmaker in Tales says at the end of the film: “No film ever stays in a drawer. Someday it will be seen.” Throughout the film, we watch him being shut out of the places where he wants to film. And yet he can still speak optimistically. Do you see this character as a kind of alter ego for yourself and your latest filmmaking experiences?
Yes, definitely. It’s naturally a reflection of me and other filmmakers like me that, whatever the conditions, we go on making films and we believe that these films, someday, will be shown. They will not be kept in a drawer forever.
Was Tales released in Iran? How was it received?
Tales was shown at last year’s Fajr Film Festival in Tehran, and we are waiting for it to have a public release. Really my main concern is for the film to be shown in Iran so that the Iranian audience can go and watch the film, because it was made for them.
Last year I went to all of the screenings of Tales at the festival, all over the town, from the poorest districts to uptown. And the reaction of the audience was incredible. It far exceeded my expectation. Some of the cinemas, when they saw how many people wanted to watch the film, they would stay up until 2 a.m. to put extra screenings to satisfy the huge demand.
Your cinema is often compared to that of Ken Loach in the U.K. or the Dardenne Brothers in Belgium, who, like you, come from a documentary background. Do you feel close to their sensibilities? I ask partly because their cinema, like yours, is very much grounded in their countries of origin but still manages to acquire a universal scope.
I believe that these filmmakers—and there are other filmmakers similar to them—move from the surface of the society and go and look deep into the society, deep into the characters’ unique characteristics, and then the feelings and characteristics of those people touch people all over the world. They find that they can relate to them. You know, if you go deep into the society, you will find things which are common among all societies and all countries. And these filmmakers have managed to do such things.