A stingingly insightful and important docu on life within Iranian society, “Daughters of Malakeh” is an intimate domestic portrait, and at the same time a revolutionary one: Although they never presume as much, helmers Jet Homoet and Sharog Heshmat Manesh have captured social upheaval in microcosm. Festival play should be robust, but the film will have a difficult time without major support. Enlightened cable outlets should pounce.
At the ripe old age of 45, helmer Manesh’s sister, Maryam, suddenly announces she’s getting married — to Akbar, who seems a bit older than she is. That this is an unusual situation for the family does make it peculiar to Iran. Moreover, Maryam’s sense of independence creates conflict: She has her own home and a job; earlier in her life, an engagement fell apart because her fiance was too much of a traditionalist for her taste. Maryam’s determination to get married according to her rules, rather than ironclad traditions, create no end of stress in a situation that’s already tense. Maryam isn’t “Bridezilla,” but as any family knows, weddings cause anxiety.
“Daughters of Malakeh” possesses the kind of intimacy that could be accomplished probably only by a family member: Manesh himself is in many of the scenes, and Homoet is clearly well known within the household. The viewer is immersed in the daily life of the Manesh clan, which includes another unmarried sister, Ghazal, who is even more single-minded than Maryam and, one suspects, destined for protracted spinsterhood. But one can also see in these women a gradual eroding of the misogynist bylaws by which marriages, among other things, are conducted in Iran. One of Maryam’s conditions is that in lieu of a sizable dowry, the prenup should say she has the right to divorce her husband, should the marriage not work out. But under Iranian law, only husbands can divorce wives, and the state supersedes any other legal agreement. Will this bride still walk down the aisle?
More importantly, can such an atrophied legal system survive in an increasingly Westernized world? Or in a country so subtly matriarchal as Iran’s? The imams may be male, but the day-to-day life of the country, a la “Daughters of Malakeh,” at least, is ruled by the hand that rocks the cradle. Manesh’s mother is certainly in control of the engagement preparations; Manesh’s father, meanwhile, sits by idly, and somewhat comically. During one terrific sequence, Maryam is followed to work in the morning as she makes the kind of commuter trek familiar the world over. Except when she gets to the subway, a “women’s only” car pulls into the station, and the women promptly claw their way aboard, like any similar mob of men. It’s one of the film’s better editorial moments.
The warmth and comedy of “Daughters of Malakeh” are effective, but what really resonates is the defiance of this diminutive bride-to-be in the face of ignorance and inequality, and at least loosening a brick in the wall of oppression; in this small way, the docu is incendiary.
Homoet’s camerawork is exceptional amid a mixed production package.