by Piper Neulander
It took Saudi Arabian director, Haifaa al-Mansour, six weeks to physically film her first feature film, Wadjda, in Saudi Arabia (Bloom). During this process, she was often confined to her car, where she walkie-talkied the set on the street to make her comments as a director (Bloom). Coming from a country that banned women from riding bikes until 2013, the lengths it took a woman to film are hardly surprising( Hemery). In a rare and wonderful turn of events, Wadjda received critical acclaim and al-Mansour’s painstaking work paid off.
Had al-Mansour chosen to film outside of Saudi Arabia, in France or the United States instead, for example, she would not have needed to film within her car. Five years might have been five months of filming. But al-Mansour chose not to participate in what Hamid Naficy calls the “cinema of exile” in his book, An Accented Cinema. This concept refers to films made by people who choose or are forced to leave their country of origin and go on to make films abroad. Naficy outlines the repercussions of this choice. Stay at home, face likely censorship, jailing, or torture. Go abroad, and get lost in the “cacophony” of the global cinema market (11).
And thus, many directors face this choice, not only in Saudi Arabia, but in my country of focus, Iran. There are renowned directors who have fought the harsh censorship and watchful eye of the Iranian government. Abbas Kiarostami, Asghar Farhadi, and Jafar Panahi are synonymous with contemporary Iranian cinema. These directors, all men, circumvent censorship by featuring children as allegory (Young), using props to function as headscarves (The Salesman). and even submitting fake scripts to get filming permission (Nalbantoglu 65), respectively. Panahi’s film, Offside, secretly filmed during an Iranian soccer game and was subsequently banned in Iran. However, the film was smuggled to an international audience(Nalbantoglu 65-66). These directors do not live consequence free for their decision to film and produce films within Iran. However, they produce work from the privilege of choice.
Female Iranian directors who work and produce their films within Iran are essentially nonexistent. Forced instead to work within the “cacophony,” these directors are rare even when producing films abroad. Thus, they work under the cinema of exile. Not officially Iranian because they produce abroad, these films lack distinct origin or nationality. Naficy further separates the cinema of exile into more specific subgroups. “Cinema of
Denial” describes films that are made abroad but set in the country of origin, in this case Iran. Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night meets this requirement. Here is an example of a film that marketed itself as Iranian, but has an Iranian-American director and was filmed entirely in California (Juzwiak). Thus, there is a complication. Is it Iranian or American? Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis fits the description of “Cinema of Transition”, one that details a character travelling (Naficy 77). Persepolis was produced in France and in part takes place in France. However, it is the story of an Iranian woman escaping the chaos of the 1979 revolution. Thus, the complication arises again to which country can claim the movie.
If production locale is the rule to define a movie’s nationality, then Offside, a movie banned within Iran, is Iranian. While A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night and Persepolis are both foreign. Because a man had the privilege to direct Offside, there is no need to question its right to represent Iran. Women, who face harsher restrictions and barriers to producing films within Iran, are forced to work externally. Men’s films are Iranian. Women’s are not.
There is one exception to this rule, Samira Makhmalbaf, whose films do come out of Iran. However, she is still not fully functioning as an independent female Iranian director. For one, much of her filming actually takes place in Afghanistan (Bresheeth 25). More importantly, as daughter of famous male director Mohsen Makhmalbaf she piggybacks off his male privilege. This is meant in no way to discredit the success of her work, but Samira Makhmalbaf is able to produce as a distinctly female Iranian director because of the success of her father.
It is glaringly obvious then that the definition of nationality is wrong. Under this distinction, Iranian women make films that are not Iranian, or they make nothing. It is a blind and sexist adherence to the status quo to exclude women from directing truly Iranian movies. In saying these movies are not actually Iranian one silences and ignores the contributions of Iranian women to the art of cinema. The false presumption is made that Iranian women have no agency or ability to make movies. In fact, they not only make movies, but they make compelling films worthy of study and serious intellectual consideration.
There are a variety of compelling reasons to define these movies as Iranian. First, are the aesthetic or scholarly reasons to include female films under the Iranian umbrella. Persepolis and A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night are both beautiful and moving stories. The two are examples of creative filmmaking and bring about the female perspective. This perspective is an important balance against male portrayal of women. Studying these films allows a greater insight to how Iranian women define themselves, and view their own experiences. Scholarly consideration of these movies under the Iranian lens broadens the definitions of what an Iranian film can be, and what it can demonstrate.
But beyond this, defining these female films as Iranian is not just to enjoy the scholarly or aesthetic benefits of these films. Critical recognition is heavily Western-centric and male dominated already, with Cannes and the Oscars being in Western countries. All female Iranian directors who work abroad should be considered Iranian, not just the ones that Westerners praise. Greater visibility of Iranian women does not dilute the quality of their work. Instead, it alters the cinematic axis of what is good. It does not matter whether Iranian women make critically acclaimed movies, they should be recognized as directors anyways. Female. Iranian. Visible.
- A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. Directed by Ana Lily Amirpour, Say Ahh Productions, 20 April, 2015.
- A Separation. Directed by Asghar Farhadi, Asghar Farhadi Productions, 16 March, 2011.
- Bloom, Julie. “Where a Bicycle Is Sweetly Subversive.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 19 Oct. 2018.
- Bresheeth, Haim. “Two Theses on the Afghan Woman: Samira and Hana Makhmalbaf Filming Agheleh Farahmand.” [“Part of a special issue: Cinema in Muslim Societies”]. Third Text, vol. 24, no. 1, Jan. 2010, pp. 25-38.
- Hemery, Sophie. “How Cycling Is Keeping the Fight for Women’s Rights Moving in Saudi Arabia.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Sept. 2017.
- Juzwiak, Rich. “The Iranian Vampire Tale Of A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night.” Gawker, 21 Nov. 2014.
- Naficy, Hamid. An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking. Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Nalbantoglu, Karsu. “Creating Art Not War in a World Where Art Is War: An Iranian Filmmaker’s Strive for Justice.” Film Matters, vol. 6, no. 3, Winter2015, pp. 64-67.
- Offside. Directed by Jafar Panahi. Jafar Panahi Film Productions, 2006.
- Persepolis. Directed by Marjane Satrapi and Vincent Paronnaud, 2.4.7. Films, 2007.
- Rothman, Lily. “The Remarkable Story Behind the First Movie Shot Entirely in Saudi Arabia.” Time, 22 Apr. 2013.
- The Salesman. Directed by Asghar Farhadi, ARTE France and Farhadi Productions, 31 August, 2016.
- Young, Deborah. “Critic’s Notebook: Abbas Kiarostami, the Iranian Artist Who Led the Way for Young Filmmakers.” The Hollywood Reporter, 5 July 2016,