Abbas Kiarostami: Persian Rug Film and an Old-School Interview

Movie Poster House Tour: Taste of Cherry
Creative Commons License photo credit: fimoculousWhen discussing Iranian film, which you will have to do at some point in your life if you are an Iranian living abroad, there are really only a handful of names you need to know to sound fancy. For instance, to prove you’re up on film history, the classic Dariush Mehrjui is important to know. If you are in a crowd of non-Iranians, you don’t even need to have seen his seminal (use that word) film The Cow because it is so freaking hard to track down a copy that a lot of self-professed film buffs haven’t seen it, either. [Correction: Mariam notes The Cow is on Netflix, and so are other Mehrjui films. Thanks, Mariam!] And when it comes to feminist Iranian films, the most popular director is probably Tahmineh Milani, so you’ll want to pull a fast one with a mention of Rakhshan Bani-Etemad instead.

But the name at the top of the list for proving your Iranian film literacy is definitely Abbas Kiarostami. With his dark glasses and reputation for smart, moody movies, Kiarostami is one of those people who is so prolific that it is almost annoying: He writes! He makes films! He’s a photographer! He paints! And he’s a poet! It is exhausting and intimidating even to think about how much he has accomplished. But it’s also pretty awesome to share a cultural heritage with him.

Word is, AK is now filming his first picture outside of Iran, Roonevesht Barabar Asl Ast (or, “Certified Copy”) with French actress Juliette Binoche. But he also recently made a short film about Persian rugs that’s very pretty (hat-tip:

But if you are more about interviews and less into poetry or Persian rugs (and I don’t blame you), definitely check out this interview that looks like it was made in the 1980s. Kiarostami is sporting a mini-afro and awesome brown-tinted aviator shades, which makes it a worthwhile video in and of itself, but he also talks at some length about how he hates movies that are manipulative or upset their audiences – and says that films that make you fall asleep are the best:

For more on Mr. K, check out this interview by the blog Subtitles of Cinema, and this Q&A with Deborah Solomon in the New York Times, in which Kiarostami says he loves driving so much that he would have become a truck driver if he hadn’t become a filmmaker.

Unwanted Woman

Tahmineh Milani’s Unwanted Woman is “Zane Ziadi” in Persian, which could also be translated “Extra Woman” or “Spare Woman” or even (more loosely) “Too Many Women.” Any of these translations gets the message of the film across: there’s a woman in this film that is despised by her husband in favor of his new mistress, though as the film progresses it becomes clearer that the director is suggesting perhaps every Iranian woman has a history of “unwantedness.” That is, the film points to a systematic, socially-ingrained mental breaking of females at work in post-revolutionary Iran, one that makes them the victims – as opposed to agents – of their lives. Women’s voices are routinely silenced, to the detriment of both men and women. This may not be a new message, and it’s not one unique to Iranians, as it’s pretty clear by now that every system or government or religion that disrespects the humanity of its members by disallowing them their basic human freedoms is breaking their spirits. But it’s still happening in Iran and many other places, it’s a relevant message, and films are a good way not to forget it.

The first Tahmineh Milani film we mentioned briefly, Two Women, also has strong themes of sexual politics, the most prominent being women struggling to come out from under the thumbs of the men that rule them; it works because we see the contrasting lives of a woman allowed basic freedoms by her family, and one who is not. In Unwanted Woman, the wife elbows her way into her husband’s trip to the mountains with his mistress to protect him from police (it’s not entirely legal in Iran to travel one-on-one with non-relatives of the opposite sex), during which he constantly humiliates her, and later she overhears him saying to the mistress, “Just say the word and I’ll kick my wife to the curb, I’ll leave her for you.” But I think that more than being about female subjugation, both these films celebrate the strength of Iranian women in the midst of difficult circumstances and, more important, their strength in numbers.

In Two Women, the character Fereshteh, who begins the film as a star student and tutor and then is stalked, forced to quit her education, forced to marry, and then oppressed at home by her husband, finds refuge by reconnecting to her friend Roya, who was her university classmate at the start of the film. Roya finished school, become an architect, and married a man she loved. By the end, it’s clear that Roya feels the pain of Fereshteh’s life, perhaps knowing full well that it could have been her, and Roya becomes the catalyst, the promise of hope, for Fereshteh’s fresh start. In Unwanted Woman, Sima (who played Roya in Two Women), is the wife and Saba, the mistress. They begin the film naturally polarized but both come to see their similarites (through some crazy plot twists) and give each other the strength to leave Sima’s husband.

So there’s the bigger take-away: there’s power in community and the only real way to effect change is to band together. At least, it’s far more constructive than merely lamenting a system that doesn’t work without working actively towards solutions. So hats off to Tahmineh Milani, feminist Iranian problem-solver. Now if only we can find a way for life to imitate art.

Two Women

Two Women is a very popular Iranian film by writer and director Tahmineh Milani, released in 1999. In it, two women from different backgrounds become friends at Tehran University. Their lives diverge dramatically as one woman has her spirit battered by the men in her life. I don’t want to give away too much, but if you haven’t seen this, you really should. Its feminist statements are really strong, almost surprisingly so. The only unfortunate thing about this movie is the pretty bad English subtitle translation. Still, Niki Karimi’s performance is great and the film is really well-written. Milani was arrested for her 2001 film The Hidden Half, in which Karimi also stars, and she is reportedly working on her tenth film, entitled The Reckoning.