In her new documentary “Radiograph of a Family,” which has its world premiere at IDFA, Iran’s Firouzeh Khosrovani turns to her own family for answers about the country’s divided society. Calling her fifth film “a project of a lifetime,” the director starts by recalling how her mother literally married a photograph of her father in Tehran in the 1960s before joining him in Switzerland, where he was studying radiology.
“It was such an absurd thing that the groom wasn’t even at his own wedding,” Khosrovani tells Variety. “My mother went to live with a stranger in Switzerland, where she felt so out of place, later becoming this devout religious person. I use it as a metaphor—my father was just an image in my mother’s mind.”
Composed of archive footage, old letters and 140 photos from the family album, the film shows the relationship of a secular progressive and a traditional Muslim, and its ever-changing dynamic. After Khosrovani’s birth, the couple returned to Tehran—with the Iranian Revolution allowing her mother to fully embrace her views. “In the first half of the film, my father is the ruler. Then it’s my mother’s turn,” she says. “The Islamic State could empower women—those who adhered to this ideology. Revolution gave them power, recognition, it gave them an identity. They would be more present in public spaces, because they viewed them as safe.” By using her parents as an example, Khosrovani says she was able “to show this switch of power as it has really happened in Iranian history.”
“This divide we experienced under the same roof was the same for everyone else,” she says, “torn between traditionalism and secularism.”
Khosrovani’s father died 13 years ago, but her mother survived him, and the director sought her input.
“I wrote some of the dialogues based on my own memories, or on what I heard, but sometimes I would ask her about her feelings. In Switzerland, my father forced her to take off her hijab against her will. She talked about it as some kind of aggression, further proof of his Westernization. Since my father was such a nice man, she didn’t blame him, but the world around him – in Geneva, in the early 1960s, there weren’t any Muslim women in hijab. He actually told her that by wearing it she would be committing a bigger sin, because men would look at her more.”
“My mother wanted to instil her beliefs in me,” she continues, “and I used to pray as a child. But when I grew up, I chose my father’s values instead. I am more of my father’s daughter, I think it’s quite obvious. I have lived abroad for many years now, so I look at my parents’ story from the inside, but also from the outside. It was interesting to see that many of my European friends could name similar examples—such divides could happen in any union between two people. Ideological revolution could penetrate any house.”
Opting for a symmetrical structure, with the revolution right in the middle as the main turning point, Khosrovani decided to fictionalize certain events. “I didn’t want to talk about an individual matter but a collective matter,” she says. “I deal with two characters more than my mother and father—two representatives of two different ideologies and two different lifestyles. The simplest way would be to start with my birth, but then we would lose a huge chunk of the story. Instead of talking about the past, I wanted to show things happening in the present.”
The film ends with the director’s mother, a nod to Abbas Kiarostami’s style of combining documentary with fiction. We also see her mother’s old radiograph, taken after a skiing accident, which gives the film its title. “This radiograph showing the twists of the spine is the metaphor of the film,” she says. “If my mother is the revolution, this spine is the system itself—there is a fracture. The revolutionaries are getting old, and so is the revolution.”
Admitting that after putting all her energy into “Radiograph of a Family,” Khosrovani says she still feels “a bit confused” about her next move. “I think I won’t make documentaries any more—I am heading towards non-fiction or at least fictionalized films,” she says, voicing a desire to talk about the emotional cost of emigration next. “When you leave your country, what do you leave behind? Do you think about your parents and their solitude? In Iran, so many people talk to their children via Skype or social media.”