Here’s a statistic. Relative to their populations, Iran has the same percentage of femme helmers as America. What’s more, the biggest hit of 2006, “Ceasefire,” a romantic comedy about warring newlyweds who seek therapy, was helmed by a woman.
It might surprise some to discover that while women helmers in America and Europe routinely complain about the lack of opportunities in their domestic industries, in Iran they are a vital part of the local film biz.
“It was actually women filmmakers in America who told me that statistic. They were very surprised,” says Katayoon Shahabi of Sheherazad Media Intl. “After the revolution, families were encouraged to send their daughters to university. Now 65% of students are women. A lot of them are looking to work in cinema because it’s so popular.”
Tahmineh Milani’s story is particularly remarkable. Born in 1960 in Tabriz, she initially studied architecture at university, despite a lifelong interest in cinema, to keep her parents happy. After working as a set designer and assistant, she eventually made her feature debut in 1989 with “Children of Divorce,” in the process picking up the best first film gong at Iran’s prestigious Fajr film fest. By 1999, she had become the country’s most successful female helmer ever with the release of “Two Women.”
She was imprisoned, however, and nearly sentenced to death after authorities reacted furiously to her 2001 film “The Hidden Half.” Pic told story of a wife who tells her husband she worked with leftist activists during the 1979 revolution. Milani’s depiction of the Islamic Revolution led to Tehran’s Revolutionary Court accusing her of “supporting those waging war against God” and “misusing the arts in support of counterrevolutionary and armed opposition groups.”
Her weeklong arrest led to an international outcry, and a petition signed by Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Sean Penn, among others, called for her release.
Since then, Milani has established herself as one of the country’s most bankable helmers and increasingly a role model for young Iranian women.
“They really follow me. In this country families really care about morality. Sometimes they’ll say about me that I’m a good mother before they talk about my movies,” says Milani. “It’s become normal now to have women in the film industry. We’re very professional.”
Milani is harnessing her jail experiences into new project “Payback.” Dark tale follows four women in prison who seek revenge on society for letting them down.
“It’s a serious movie, a little bit bitter. The characters are based on people I met while I was in prison. They’re real,” says Milani. “I got permission to make it, but it was difficult. In Iran, we never know what will happen tomorrow, especially with the culture.”
Milani is far from the only femme helmer making a name for herself. The likes of Niki Karimi (“One Night,” “A Few Days Later”), who starred in Milani’s “The Hidden Half,” and Makhmalbaf sisters Samira and Hana have all won awards at international film fests. Karimi is on the jury for the Berlinale’s first feature award.
And it’s not only auteur helmers who are finding success. The likes of Pouran Derakhshandeh and Rakhshan Bani-Etemad, whose “Mainline” is in competition at this year’s Fajr, have established themselves as top names in Iran’s commercial, mainstream industry.
The secret to the distaff success, it seems, is perseverance and plain old talent.
“Problems exist for both sexes, but because this is a male-dominated society there is more pressure on women,” says Karimi. “I had so many difficulties making my film (“One Night”), from getting permission and with the authorities insisting on reading my script. Initially they rejected it, but after it was accepted at festivals around the world, they let me show it in Iran.”