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 claimed 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 to have been 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 Moody’s alleged clutches by crossing the mountains into Turkey and returning to the U.S. with their child, Mahtob, then aged six. 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 and slanted her account with the express purpose of getting rich.
Docu crew follows Moody in Tehran, taping his recollections of the day he came home to find his wife had “kidnapped” his daughter, and the painful aftermath of Betty’s actions. 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.
There’s no way of knowing whether Betty and Moody’s marriage was sweet or sour before they arrived in Tehran in August 1984. However, Moody claims Betty proposed to him, converted to Islam and took a lively interest in Persian culture. He was nearly 40 when they wed in Houston in 1977. Thrilled at his daughter’s birth in 1979, he looked at the full moon and named her Mahtob (“moonlight”).
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, only to be sequestered and stripped of her rights, with no hope except a daring escape. However, Moody shows that Betty had bought a size-12 dress for Mahtob – ridiculously large for a four-year-old – before they left for Iran, suggesting they would be there long enough for Mahtob to grow into it. Moody also says Betty knew full well they were moving to Iran for a while, so he could use his medical skills to help fellow countrymen injured in the war with Iraq.
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. Sharif & Co. contend such fabrications were tailored to feed anti-Iranian sentiment in the U.S. 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. Sharif’s husband says they could have left the country “the normal way.”
Moody lost all his property in the U.S., where he’d lived for nearly 20 years, and 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 fairly sober, though not humorless, Moody is shown answering Iranian students’ questions after a college screening of “Not Without My Daughter.” He has them mostly in stitches, and occasionally outraged.
Various U.S. interviewees explain it’s the American way to make sure their country has an enemy to demonize. If Betty fibbed, fabulated or over-dramatized, her book hit the marketplace at the right time and made her rich – so who can argue with success of that magnitude?
Meanwhile, the aging Moody 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.