Irreconcilable Differences: "Divorce Iranian Style"
by Nick Poppy
For most Westerners, Iran is a great blank on a map, its ancient society
inscrutable, its revolutionary government hostile and its people
literally shrouded. Since the Shah's capitulation in the late 1970's,
images from the Islamic state rarely play outside the Muslim world, and
when they do, they often leave us with fear and unease. Think Salman
Rushdie, American hostages, the cult of personality that was the
Ayatollah Khomeini. But there are signs, too, that Iran is starting to
open itself up to foreign eyes, or allowing at least access to a keyhole
to peep through.
Since early 1997, a more liberal government, headed by President
Mohammad Khatami, has been amenable to dialogue with the West. One
emblem of this new Iranian glasnost is the emergence of a cinema by and
about Iran, of most recent note, the 16mm verite documentary "Divorce
Iranian Style," now playing at New York's Film Forum for a two-week run.
Funded by Britain's Channel 4 and produced by veteran British
documentarian Kim Longinotto and Iranian expatriate anthropologist Ziba
Mir-Hosseini, "Divorce Iranian Style" presents the proceedings of a
Tehran divorce court -- a private world within a private country.
Shot almost entirely in a cramped courtroom, "Divorce Iranian Style"
presents a series of women pleading their cases before a judge. They are
trying to extract permission for divorce, a right automatically given to
men but available to women only through the court system. The women in
the film, each unhappy with marriage in her own way, must resort to all
sorts of tactics to obtain their divorces -- negotiating, pleading,
shouting, sharing embarrassing details, stretching the truth and telling
One 16-year-old bride claims her husband beat her, though her body is
bruiseless; another publicizes her husband's impotence for all to hear.
Some characters succeed in obtaining a divorce or settlement, others
fail; but all of them impress a notion of Iranian womanhood that runs
counter to what many Westerners might think. Don't let their veils fool
you; these are outspoken women -- working within Islamic law while
skillfully navigating a patriarchal system to get what they want. It is
a struggle mirrored in the making of "Divorce Iranian Style."
What is perhaps most impressive about "Divorce Iranian Style" is that it
was made at all. After deciding to collaborate on the project, it took
Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini almost two years to obtain the necessary
permits and visas to shoot in an Iranian court. The filmmakers'
negotiations with authorities came to resemble those of the women they
sought to document.
"It wasn't easy," Mir-Hosseini remembers. "The first time we went to
Iran, in March of 1996, our application was rejected. And the basic
reason it was rejected was that there was no precedent for a film like
ours. They wanted to say whom we were going to interview, what were our
characters, and give them an exact script of our plan. And we didn't
have [those things], because we wanted just to find a court and just
follow cases. And our project was rejected." The two learned they stood
a better chance by presenting their case to the Ministry of Culture, and
so they traveled to Tehran in February of 1997. "Kim and I went there
and talked to many, many people, and we lobbied many organizations,
women's groups, everybody that you can imagine."
They met with considerable resistance. Mir-Hosseini explains, "People in
Iran are very aware of the bad image that they have in the West. And
they don't want to deliver something else to be added to it. And
everybody was uneasy about [our project], because they say that no film
about divorce is going to be positive." Like their would-be divorcee
characters, the filmmakers armed themselves with convincing rhetoric.
"My argument was that if we let the reality show, if we do a film which
is based on what is happening...then it is not going to be negative
propaganda, because marriage and divorce is something which is
universal. We wanted to make a film that people in the West could relate
to, as well as people in Iran."
Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini argued that there hadn't been any films
about ordinary people in Iran, and that their work and others would
serve as cultural ambassadors of the new Iran. Mir-Hosseini told
officials, "You should allow many films. No [one] film can show the
reality of Iranian society, but when there are many films, then people
can get an image." Finally, they used the argument, "which was a
negative one," Ziba concedes, that "there are so many bad films about
Iran, so many bad documentaries or negative ones, imagine if ours is
going to be negative, one in addition to another, it's not going to
change Iran's image. But at least let us make a film which is
Their efforts paid off. Sort of. Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini gained the
consent of the ministry, and were told that the appropriate papers would
be sent to them in the UK. They returned to England and waited. Months
passed, and the official permission never arrived. It took a change of
government, and the installation of Khatami, to get the project on its
feet. Ziba traveled to Iran in October 1997, and spoke to ministry
officials again. Two weeks later, a visa for Kim was issued. She flew to
Iran and the two started filming in November.
Mir-Hosseini credits the changing climate in Iran, observing, "There are
groups and factions that have matured after the revolution, and have
come to the realization that Iran has changed a lot, both the political
philosophy and also the people. And there are people in some of the
ministries, especially Ministry of Culture, who are very secure with
their own identities, so they don't relate to the West from this
position of antagonism. They relate to the West and the outside world
from a very rational position."
Conditions for Iranian filmmakers who traffic with Western funding and
distribution have improved considerably, though they are far from ideal.
The fate of "Divorce Iranian Style" is a testament to this shifting
position. The film has played in theaters and festivals both
internationally and here in the States, but has had mixed success in its
country of origin. Mir-Hosseini reports, "There have been two very good
reviews about the film in Iran. And also we had a request from the main
festival in Iran to enter the film. . ., but unfortunately it was not
accepted, because it dealt with very intimate issues and there was a
need to get permission of the people in Iran. We had written permission,
but I think that the time was not right to show the film."
For the filmmakers, it is important that people in Iran see the film.
Mir-Hosseini admits, "I am a woman, and I am a feminist, so I have an
agenda. I want the law to be changed, and I can see this very much as
part of the debate that is going on in Iran, on the change of law and
the position of women." She remains hopeful for the film's future, and
has been working to obtain Iranian screenings. "I doubt it will ever be
on television in Iran, because television has a totally different
policy. It's very limited, and it doesn't really deal with reality. It's
all propaganda. But cinema is totally different. It's our dream that it
will be shown in a local cinema in Iran."
[Nick Poppy is a producer and writer living in Brooklyn.]