Review: ‘Without My Daughter’

Though the basic information is fascinating, its protracted and methodical presentation is less so, in "Without My Daughter," a docu chronicling the husband's side of the alleged spousal abuse story. A must for media studies programs, film raises pertinent cross-cultural issues and will be a dynamite conversation-starter wherever it's shown, preferably in tandem with the Brian Gilbert-helmed movie.

Though the basic information is fascinating, its protracted and methodical presentation is less so, in “Without My Daughter,” a docu chronicling the husband’s side of the alleged spousal abuse story made famous by Betty Mahmoody’s bestseller, “Not Without My Daughter,” and the 1991 Sally Field-Alfred Molina starrer of the same name. A must for media studies programs, film raises pertinent cross-cultural issues and will be a dynamite conversation-starter wherever it’s shown, preferably in tandem with the Brian Gilbert-helmed movie.

In her book, American Betty claimed she was held in Iran for 18 months against her will by her abusive, fundamentalist spouse, Iranian-born, U.S.-educated anesthesiologist Sayed Bozorg Mahmoody (“Moody”). She escaped by crossing the mountains into Turkey and returned to the U.S. with their child, Mahtob, then aged 6.

Moody has not seen or heard from Mahtob in the 16 years since. Both Moody and eyewitnesses who knew the family well in Tehran contend that Betty’s book — written with “Midnight Express” as-told-to scribe William Hoffer — is full of lies and “treasons,” and even float the idea that Betty embellished her account to get rich.

Docu crew follows Moody in Tehran, taping his recollections of the day he came home to find his wife had “kidnapped” their daughter. (Filmers later ask one of Mahtob’s classmates at Michigan State U, where she’s a senior, to get her dad’s version to her.)

Moody was nearly 40 when he and Betty wed in Houston in 1977. He claims Betty proposed to him, converted to Islam and took a lively interest in Persian culture. Thrilled at his daughter’s birth in 1979, he looked at the full moon and named her Mahtob (“moonlight”). They moved to Tehran in August 1984.

Several striking bits of evidence challenge the portrait of both Iran and Moody in Betty’s book. Her story is based on the assertion that the family went on a two-week visit to Iran, and she was sequestered, with no hope except a daring escape. However, Moody shows that Betty had bought a size 12 dress for Mahtob — ridiculously large for a 4-year-old — before they left for Iran, suggesting they would be there long enough for Mahtob to grow into it.

Alice Sharif, an American in Tehran who’s married to an Iranian, and whose daughter Samira played with Mahtob, says the American women in her circle were outraged by the flagrant lies in Betty’s book — such as the alleged Iranian habit of bathing only once a year. She adds there was never a hint of Betty being beaten (as she claimed in her book), and she seriously doubts whether Betty and Mahtob could have crossed the mountains in winter without special gear. Moody didn’t learn he was divorced and forbidden to contact his daughter until it was a legal fait accompli. Here, too, his evidence seems damning: Court papers list Moody as “address unknown,” yet the divorce decree was mailed to “the same address I’ve always had, where I received it,” says Moody, who has saved the postmarked envelope.

It’s definitely worth waiting for the late-on scene in which Michigan judge Patrick Reed Joslyn, who officiated at the divorce and child custody hearings, holds forth in a classic, unguarded moment that documakers must dream of. “I was in the military,” says the judge. “If I were in charge of the country, there’d be a lot of dead Iranians.” He adds, “Maybe it’s fashioned by our own media, because we do have a lot of Jews running the media. Are we still rolling?” he asks the film crew.

The aging Moody, who at one point if shown answering alternately amused and outraged Iranian students’ questions after a college screening of “Not Without My Daughter,” is still thwarted at every turn in his efforts to make contact with Mahtob. In the docu, he gets as far as Helsinki, in neutral Finland, hoping for a visa to return to the U.S. for a visit. Film’s open-ended conclusion is slightly confused but touching nonetheless.

Without My Daughter

Finland

Production

A Dream Catcher Prods./Tarinatalo-Storyhouse Finland production, in association with YLE, Arte, TV4 Sweden, Danmarks Radio. (International sales: Dream Catcher, Helsinki.) Produced by Alexis Kouros, Kari Tervo. Co-executive producers, Anne Baumann, Jacques Laurent, Eila Werning, Riitta Pihlajamaki, Kristin Ulseth, Petri Rossi, Kari Paljakka, Thomas Willtorp, Flemming Grenz. Directed by Alexis Kouros, Kari Tervo. Screenplay, Kouros.

Crew

Camera (color), Jari Pollari; editor, Riitta Poikselka; music, Tuomas Kantelinen; sound (Dolby), Toni Partti. Reviewed at Gothenburg Film Festival (Nordic Light), Sweden, Jan. 28, 2003. (Also in Amsterdam Documentary Festival.) Running time: 93 MIN.

With

Sayed Bozorg Mahmoody, Alice Sharif, Samira Sharif, William Vincent, Patrick Reed Joslyn.
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