Iran Surveils Her Every Move. Yet This Tehran-based Director Agreed to Talk to an Israeli Paper

Director Mahnaz Mohammadi makes films that expose the oppression of Iranian women. She won't let arrests and bans stop her from making more films or screening them in Israel

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Iranian filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi.
Iranian filmmaker Mahnaz Mohammadi. 'To me, the Haifa Film Festival is just another film festival, and it makes no difference to me in which country it’s taking place.'
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman
Nirit Anderman

The Iranian authorities have been persecuting Mahnaz Mohammadi for 14 years. She fights for women’s rights, makes films that expose the oppression of Iranian women, presents her films at international festivals, and isn’t afraid to tell the world what outrages her in Iran.

But every few years the authorities lose patience and decide that Mohammadi has gone too far. Sometimes this leads to a brief arrest, or often a long stint in prison, and also daily surveillance that has included raids on her home, the confiscation of equipment, bans on shooting films and the impounding of her passport for years to prevent her from leaving the country.

So it was certainly surprising to receive a message that Mohammadi was willing to be interviewed by an Israeli newspaper. The Haifa International Film Festival last month showed her most recent film, “Son-Mother,” and Mohammadi agreed to be interviewed ahead of the screening.

Usually, Iranian artists who speak with the Israeli media have left for abroad. Though the interview with Mohammadi took place when she was in Berlin on the way to a showing of her film in Prague, she’s still based in Tehran, the city where she was born and raised, and where she makes her films.

A scene from Mohammadi's film 'Son-Mother.'Credit: Europe Media Nest/Filminiran

As requested by Mohammadi, an interpreter joined our Zoom interview. Before we began, she explained that she prefers to speak in Farsi so that nothing gets lost in translation – “and to avoid giving the fundamentalists a chance to throw me in jail.”

But, ultimately, we mostly spoke in English. The interpreter, Umaid Rokani, intervened occasionally when he felt that something needed clarification, or when Mohammadi switched to Farsi.

“Since my film came out in 2019, it has been shown at a number of festivals and won several prizes, but because of COVID I wasn’t able to travel and accompany it around the world. So whenever I was asked to give an interview before the screening, I agreed,” Mohammadi said at the start of the interview when asked why she wasn’t afraid to be interviewed by an Israeli.

“To me, the Haifa Film Festival is just another film festival, and it makes no difference to me in which country it’s taking place. What matters to me is the audience, because after all, that’s who we make movies for, and if I say I’m willing to show the film at one festival but not another, that’s not a demand that comes from me but from religion and politics. I decided to manage the affairs related to my films according to the same ethics by which I conduct my life, and that’s why I decided to be interviewed by your newspaper.”

Her first film, “Women Without Shadows” (2003), was a short documentary on the lives of homeless women living in a shelter in Iran. The film earned glowing reviews and won several prizes, and Mohammadi went on to make documentaries in which she followed the daily lives and struggles of people in Iran, mainly women.

At the same time, she became active in the fight for women’s rights in Iran, and in 2007 was detained for weeks after taking part in a protest over the trial of other female activists. Two years later she was arrested again (along with director Jafar Panahi) after taking part in protests when Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was reelected president. (The protesters claimed that the election results were fraudulent, and the ensuing riots led to many arrests.)

Also gaining international attention was her full-length documentary “Travelogue,” filmed on a train from Tehran to Ankara; some of the passengers talk about why they left Iran. The film, which premiered at the “A Day in Tehran” event in Paris in 2010, riled the Iranian regime and contributed to its decision to bar Mohammadi from leaving the country and from making more films. She was later also prohibited from showing her films in Iran.

But none of that stopped her. In 2011, she played the leading role in French-Iranian director Reza Serkanian’s movie “Ephemeral Marriage” and was invited to the premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. But since she was barred from leaving Iran, Mohammadi sent a short letter that filmmaker Costa-Gavras read aloud at a festival event on Panahi, who was in prison at the time.

Mahnaz Mohammadi. 'You have to understand that this is something that doesn’t only happen in Iran.'Credit: Soroosh Milanizadeh

I am a woman and a filmmaker, two reasons sufficient to be treated like a criminal in this country,” the letter said. “I am currently directing a new documentary about women in my country. Women’s struggle over their identity is an important part of their daily life … and ‘freedom’ is a word whose absence is certainly felt in their lives.”

Mohammadi has paid a heavy price for her fearless activism. When asked what it’s like when the danger of arrest or imprisonment is constantly hovering over her, when every movie she makes or political activity she engages in could land her back behind bars, she said that until a decade ago she didn’t think about this at all.

“Up to that point I wasn’t preoccupied at all with thoughts about prison, because I was so accustomed to the idea that we [women] are punished for everything we do – and that this is done through our families or friends, or through school. I’ve always had this awareness that we're constantly being punished,” she says.

“For me, the change occurred in 2011, when I went to the Revolutionary Guards’ prison. I’d been in prison before, but only for short periods, and I’d always thought, ‘Okay, I do what I do, and if once in a while I have to be punished for it one way or another, then fine. If that’s what’s required for me to be able to express my thoughts and ideas, I can accept that.’

“But then in 2011 came the most terrible prison experience I’d ever had. Because then, I don’t know how … or maybe I do know but I’m hesitant to say it here,” she smiles. “In this prison I was held for two months in a tiny cell, just one and half meters by 2 meters, and I can tell you that I basically died in this cell. I died as a result of the torture I endured,” she says, as her smile freezes and then vanishes.

Leila (Raha Khodayari), the main character in Mahnaz Mohammadi's 2019 film "Son-Mother."Credit: Europe Media Nest/Filminiran

“In this prison they murdered my soul, and the person who came out of there – that was no longer me. That was someone else. This experience changed my life, and after that I lost fear. I stopped being afraid of a lot of things, because I thought to myself, I’ve died, and I’ve been reborn without the fear. Because I felt like I had nothing to lose anymore.

“The great challenge of my life since then has been to deal with this new figure, this new woman who came out of prison, and make her keep on going and acting to achieve what I want in my life.”

Mohammadi was released on bail in part due to international pressure; France’s directors’ guild published a petition for her release. But the judicial process continued, and in 2013 she was convicted of harming state security and sentenced to five years in prison. Among the accusations was collaboration with foreign media outlets such as the BBC and Al Jazeera.

Mohammadi vehemently denied it, but in vain. In 2014 she was sent to prison again. A long list of famous filmmakers including Costa-Gavras, Gilles Jacob and Bertrand Blier signed a petition demanding her release, and after two years in prison she was freed.

Political and brave

“Son-Mother” – shown at the Haifa festival and available online through October 24 – is her first feature film. The prize-winning movie has been screened at festivals in Toronto, Zurich, Rome and elsewhere.

And it proves that, after being released from prison, Mohammadi is still committed to her struggle for women’s rights. She still dares to embed social critique in her films and still makes art that’s both political and brave.

But none of this mars the cinematic art. In telling a heartrending story, “Son-Mother” uses a sophisticated script structure and a realist visual approach that’s both delicate and tough.

Greek-French film director Costa-Gavras in 2020.Credit: Thomas Samson / AFP

Leila, the protagonist, is a widow raising her two boys alone – one a toddler and the other 12, Amir. She works long shifts in a metal factory to support her small family but is harassed by the other workers, while her boss keeps threatening to fire her. And she constantly has to dodge the factory driver’s attempts to woo her.

But as the noose tightens she reasons that the driver’s marriage proposal is the only solution. He’s determined to provide a better life for her and could rescue her from the status of a helpless widow easily trampled on. But accepting his proposal will also shatter her family because he has a daughter Amir’s age, and tradition dictates that Amir may not live in the same house with her.

So Leila must make a choice that will inevitably have ruinous consequences for her. Under pressure from the religion, tradition and the conservative patriarchal society that surrounds her, she falls apart before our eyes. The second half of the film centers around Amir and illustrates the price children pay when their mothers are crushed by society’s mores.

“If you’re living as a woman in a traditional and religious society, at some point you understand that your body does not belong to you, and that every decision in your life is made according to what society demands of you, according to what religion demands of you. And when you can't make decisions yourself, this hurts you,” Mohammadi says, explaining why she became a fighter for women’s rights in her country.

“When you’re a little girl, everything is equal, you’re just like the boys. But a few years later, when you’re trying to figure out who you are as a person and a woman, suddenly all kinds of restrictions are placed on you. And at a certain point I began to realize that I was feeling great shame about myself, about my body and my life as a woman in this society. I realized that I wanted to make my own decisions.”

Iranian film director Jafar Panahi.Credit: Jan Bauer / AP

Can you give some examples of the restrictions imposed on you as a woman?

“It’s simple. When you’re 7 or 10, you can play outside with the boys, but then suddenly you’re told that you must cover your hair, that you must cover your body, and this is only because your body, which of course is something completely natural, becomes sexualized by other people. So the religion requires me to be ashamed of my body.

“Before that, I would ride my bike in the streets, but then I was suddenly told: ‘Stop, that sort of thing is not for you. The boys can keep on doing this but you must return home.’ To me, that’s enough to make you stop and think, ‘Why are things this way? Why, just because of my gender, because of something that is totally natural, am I being denied the ability to decide things for myself?’”

Do you consider filmmaking a political tool that lets you combat this reality, to try to change it?

“The goal of my art is never political. It’s the politics in Iran that makes me and my body become an issue. When I make my movies, I have to make them through the filters and barriers that the politics in Iran dictate, and I have to forge a path for myself through these barriers, and that’s how my movies become a reflection of the politics.

“But you have to understand that this is something that doesn’t only happen in Iran. It happens everywhere in the world. If you’re a woman talking about this subject, the male point of view starts to judge you before even listening to what you’re saying. In my films, I don’t touch on politics at all, but everything I do immediately becomes political because the regime looks at it through political and religious glasses. They scrutinize everything you do to see if it’s for or against them.”

In your letter that Costa-Gavras read at the Cannes Film Festival a decade ago, you wrote: “I am a woman and a filmmaker, two reasons sufficient to be treated like a criminal in this country,” Iran. Can you expand on that?

“When I was growing up there, I discovered that being a woman is enough to make you guilty. So much shame was imposed on my body and consciousness that I felt guilty my whole life. It’s like I was born to be a person who feels guilty for everything he does. I never felt like a free person.

“I basically feel like I was in jail my whole life. At one point, my passport was confiscated for 10 years, and as soon as they take your passport, it doesn’t matter whether you’re in or out of prison – you immediately become guilty.

“And how can we achieve our goals at all when we don’t have the freedom to do so? Everything that I do immediately becomes political, but I don’t care about politics, I care first and foremost about who we are and what we women can do to escape this shame, which is a heavy load that we’re forced to carry on our backs throughout our lives.

Leila's son Amir in Mahnaz Mohammadi's 2019 film 'Son-Mother.'Credit: Europe Media Nest/Filminiran

“So, I as a woman never felt free, and eventually I decided that I had to talk about it, I had to open up this topic, I had to explain what this feeling is like. And today I still feel the same way, exactly like what it says in that sentence that Costa-Gavras read.”

You started making movies in 2003. Has there been a change in the state of women’s rights in Iran?

“Yes, a big change. The women’s rights movement is one of the most important movements in Iran, even though they have never stopped denouncing us and attacking us, and over the years many of us have been sent to prison. Some of the women have left the country, but some of us still live and work in Iran.

“And despite the oppression, women are still fighting for their rights, and I’m so proud of them. It might not be the classic women’s liberation movement, but it’s a struggle that’s being waged in other ways; for example, with the requirement to wear a head covering, the hijab. Some women, not all, don’t like this obligation, so they fight it, in the way that this covering is supposed to be worn.

“And look at the number of women who are making documentaries. Most documentary filmmakers in Iran today are women, and they’re making the most interesting and successful films.”

Why did you choose to tell this particular story in your first feature film?

“Every story that I tell comes form my experience, and Leila’s isolation is what I experienced myself. Even though she’s part of the society, she’s isolated, and it seems that no one really cares about her. Everyone only wants something from her. Every decision she makes is influenced by demands that are dictated to her and come from the tradition, the religion, the society, even from her colleagues. Everyone demands something from her.

“And in this sense, she is completely absent from her decision-making process. And if you’re absent from yourself, how can you raise children? How can you live? And what happens to your children?

“In the first part of the movie, the mother fights for her son, but in the second part she no longer exists in his life. It was important to me to show this society how we act against ourselves. My target audience in this film isn’t the government or the regime. The goal is to hold up a mirror to the society, to the citizens, to show how we have become an instrument in our own oppression.

“In the movie, you see that Leila’s coworkers won’t let her be herself, that her cousin intervenes in the decisions she makes about her life. We have to change this situation. We women shouldn’t have anyone above us dictating to us what to do.”

Leila and her son Amir (Mahan Nasiri) in Mahnaz Mohammadi's 2019 film 'Son-Mother.'Credit: Europe Media Nest/Filminiran
Leila's son Amir in Mahnaz Mohammadi's 2019 film 'Son-Mother.'Credit: Europe Media Nest/Filminiran

Tainted words

Mohammadi says she devoted the second half of “Son-Mother” to the son to illustrate the heavy price he pays for the advice given to his mother. “I’m so tried of talking about our problems in an implied way. I think the time has come to speak openly and clearly,” she says.

“You know, in 15 to 20 years of interrogations, I had to answer questions about Israel. I was asked again and again about my connection to Israel, and it continued when I was in prison.

“But actually this is the first time in my life that I’ve sat down to talk with someone from Israel! The life we’re living is a tragedy. We’re creating this tragedy with our own hands. Enough with that! We need to start talking about things and make this stop.”

You said earlier that the torture you endured in prison made you lose your fear. Has this feeling influenced your films?

“Yes, it removed some masks. You know, when you go to school and they give you this scarf to cover your head,” Mohammadi says, lifting the scarf on her shoulders to cover her hair, “I feel that it’s not just covering my hair but my brain too. I feel like all of my thoughts now have to go through this thing.

“And over the course of my life, I’ve discovered how much this head covering distances me from myself. I always felt that I had to get free of it in order to think properly. But after prison, that box was already broken for me, I had nothing left to lose, because when you lose yourself, nothing else in your life matters anymore.”

Does that mean that now when you’re making movies you feel free? You feel liberated from restrictions?

“The restrictions have been there since I was a little girl, but sometimes when I write, a sadness comes over me because suddenly I understand that one of the words I’m seeing before me isn’t mine. And then I wonder, ‘Why did I write it if this word isn’t mine?’ And then I understood that this too is a type of censorship.

“And to me that’s the most painful thing because it’s not something that others are doing, but something that’s happening inside me. When I first discovered that about myself, it was such a painful discovery. I told myself: All the barriers that exist around me aren’t important right now. First of all, I must learn to overcome this internal barrier.”

Do you remember what that word was?

“There were a lot of those words,” she laughs. “Some of them were violent words of the system that are directed against women, so I was horrified because of course I don’t believe in that, but somehow those words came out of me.”

Can you give an example of such a word?

Mohammadi smiles and pauses for a moment. “You know why I’m not giving you an example? I can promise that after my next film I’ll be able to tell you.”

But why, what’s the problem?

“Maybe it’s because I don’t want to give the people with a closed mind an opportunity …. I told you, this is the first time I’m being interviewed by an Israeli, but I was already duly tortured for my alleged contact with Israelis, even though I had never met an Israeli. So if I say something now about this word … let’s just leave it for next time, okay?”

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