I happened upon Rakhshan Bani-Etemad and Mohsen Abdolvahab’s film Gilaneh when it was part of the Walker Art Center’s annual Women With Vision film festival last year. What I had hoped for was a film that would teach me something about contemporary Iran; what I found was a film that refused to fit into any of the neat, reductionist buckets of “Middle Eastern-ness” as is so often represented in today’s post-9/11 mainstream American discourse. I may have subconsciously expected to see the story of an archetypal Middle Eastern woman struggling against an oppressive, male-dominated Muslim regime. But instead I was forcefully pulled deep into the emotional core of a woman bearing the burden of love and care for a family torn apart by nationalist ideology, war, and poverty. We watch Gilaneh (played poignantly by Fatemeh Motamed Arya, who was also in a 2005 film by Bahman Farmanara, Yek Boos-e Koochooloo, or “A Little Kiss”) stoically negotiate those she loves through the effects of chemical weapons, trauma, and pregnancy, all the while navigating the obstacles of unstable phone connections, a distant hospital, and the impatient customers of her roadside stand.

The first half of the film takes place during the peak of Iran’s war with Iraq and follows Gilaneh as she watches her son, Ismaeel, leave for war, and helps her panic-stricken pregnant daughter, Maygol, search for her deserting military husband. Even more arresting, though, is the second half, set 15 years later after her son has returned from the war suffering from the ghastly, debilitating effects of chemical weapons. Gilaneh, now older and curled over with arthritis, carries Ismaeel on her back to bring him into the afternoon sunlight – a gesture more blatantly heroic that any scene from a contemporary war film – before she stands in her kitchen and humbly, expertly, prepares a meal from her meager supplies.

Rakhshan Bani-Etemad creates such a personal relationship between Gilaneh and the audience that we forget about the walls of nationality, wealth, and religion that so often distance us. I shuddered when I realized that in the background news reports flickering on the television in the living room in which Ismaeel now lies recumbent, American troops had seamlessly replaced Iranian troops in the fight against the Iraqis. All at once it became clear that Gilaneh’s lonely fight to persevere had not as much to do with Iranian identity or religion, but rather represented the perpetual, overarching transnational power struggles that continue unrelentingly to tear mother from son and mother from daughter everywhere in the world.

“Gilaneh” should not be missed, and unfortunately Bani-Etemad’s films are generally difficult to hunt down in the US – a DVD version of Gilaneh has not yet been released in the States and film screenings are still rare. Her other, better-known films include Zir-e Poost-e Shahr (“Under the Skin of the City,” 2001) and Rusari Abi (“The Blue-Veiled,” 1995). Just last year, she and Mohsen Abdolvahab collaborated again on Mainline (“Khoon Bazi”), a film about drug addiction.

Our readers in England should know that an upcoming conference and festival entitled War in Iranian Cinema (organized jointly by the Iran Heritage Foundation and London’s Barbican Centre) will be featuring “Gilaneh” as part of what looks to be a provocative program. Book now for the screening on February 22, and stay tuned to Pars Arts for future opportunities to catch Bani-Etemad’s films on the big screen.

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[...] director is probably Tahmineh Milani, so you’ll want to pull a fast one with a mention of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad [...]


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