Feminism and Iranian Cinema: An Interview with Narges Abyar (Web Exclusive)
by Ana Diamond

Beginning in the 1990s and continuing to the present day, the work of Iranian filmmakers has won international recognition from critics, cinephiles, and many moviegoers. Following the Islamic Revolution in 1979 and the subsequent eight-year-long war with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, Iranian cinema found its voice in the depths of the country’s despair, in a state of literal invasion and assault. Iran’s newly established theocratic leaders decided to reshape the cinema’s values in a quest to define the country’s new Islamic identity. Among other measures, this was done by prohibiting gruesome violence as entertainment, banning un-Islamic actions on-screen (such as visible drug or alcohol use), and censoring all physical contact between female and male performers. What’s more, any public screenings of Western films in Iran’s cinemas were banned.

During this period, Iranian cinema, to everyone’s surprise, enjoyed an innovative period of rejuvenation and developed its own genres, which can be divided into three categories: children’s films, in which the child actors contend with the sorrows of society and often channel the realities of the adults; Sacred Defense films, which are glorified war films that celebrate the sacrifices of the Iran–Iraq War; and auteur films, often associated with Iranian New Wave filmmakers such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Bahram Beyzaie, Abbas Kiarostami, Majid Majidi, and, more recently, Asghar Farhadi. These filmmakers offered a revealing view of a country that had been isolated from the rest of the world for many years, particularly during the Eighties decade that followed the Islamic Revolution, and the recent years of international exclusion as a consequence of the U.S.-imposed economic sanctions.

The newest name in this group of remarkable filmmakers, who have transformed Iranian cinema overseas into a significant art house commodity, is that of a woman. Narges Abyar, best known previously for her children’s books, began work in the film industry in 2008, at first with a documentary short, out of genuine curiosity. She was fascinated by film’s vast scope of influence and reach. She wasn’t in it, however, for fun: she wanted to make an impact. Fast-forward five years and Abyar’s Breath (2016) was Iran’s official submission for Best Foreign Film in 2018 at both the 75th Golden Globe Awards and the 90th Academy Awards. This made Abyar the first-ever female filmmaker to have been selected by Iran to represent the country at the Academy Awards. Although her film did not make the final five nominees list for either awards ceremony, her name joined the likes of Majid Majidi and Asghar Farhadi in representing her country, and for that alone she made history.

Abyar’s work has also become a cause célèbre in recent Iranian cinema. Her films represent a departure from the sort of highly self-aware and sophisticated art house realism established by many of her predecessors, since she has decided to explore a more mainstream appeal within the war film genre. Unlike other highly regarded Iranian female filmmakers such as Rakhshan Banietemad and Tahmineh Milani, Abyar is not interested in presenting a political story about women’s issues or the kind of oppression they experience in daily life. Because the war film genre is generally identified as a male stronghold, and is often interpreted as a highly political genre in Iran, Abyar created quite a stir when she disrupted the genre’s conventions by featuring female characters that not only rejected the gender norms expected of them but were also skeptical of the war unfolding around them.

Portraying real human-stories in fictional settings in Track 143: Abyar's characters are often inspired by the people she's met, seen or read about in real life.  

Without turning the war film into a full-blown women’s drama, Abyar’s Track 143 (2014) is a screen adaptation of her novel, The Third Eye, and tells the story of Olfat, a mother living in rural Iran who purposefully waits to once again see her son, a soldier missing in action during the Iran–Iraq War. While Track 143 was generally well-received by Iran’s public and important religious figures, her succeeding film, Breath, angered many of Iran’s conservatives, some scrutinizing the film as both antiwar and anti-Islamic—the type of significant backlash that can put you and your career at great risk in Iran. The subsequent Oscar nomination for the film did not help Abyar refute these allegations, but it impelled her to at least speak openly about her cause.

In Breath, Abyar invites us to step into the world of an eight-year-old girl named Bahar (Sareh Nour Mousavi) whose fantastic imagination is set against the backdrop of a violent war that Iraq began to wage against Iran in 1980. Bahar intrigues spectators with her wild imagination and innate optimism, but essentially it is her serendipitous and mischievous rebellion against the social norms to which she, as a young girl reaching the Islamic age of womanhood, is expected to conform. In several scenes in Breath, Bahar keeps insisting that she wishes she was a boy so she wouldn’t need to waste time brushing her hair, and instead could concentrate on studying and becoming a physician to help her father with his respiratory problems. Although she is neither portrayed as a triumphant young heroine nor as a damsel in distress, Bahar is a fierce force that defines her dispirited family as much as the society around her is gradually defining her.

 I interviewed Narges Abyar for Cineaste in early 2018 after we met in Tehran at the French-Iranian Female Filmmakers’ Film Festival organized by the Iranian Artists Forum in collaboration with the French Embassy in Iran. In a charming mix of tentative confidence and frank sincerity, Abyar discussed in detail her feelings on touching—but not breaking—the glass ceiling, her disappointment and difficulties with the industry’s bias toward female filmmakers, her refusal to be officially referred to as a feminist filmmaker, and last, but not least, why President Trump should not threaten to launch a war against Iran.

This interview has been translated from Persian, and edited and condensed for clarity.—Ana Diamond

Narges Abyar on the set of her third film, Breath

Cineaste: Given your success as an author, was there a particular reason why you chose to become a filmmaker?

Narges Abyar: I think it was when I first saw Bahman Ghobadi’s Turtles Can Fly [2004] that I fully understood the sort of an impact a film can have on a person’s perception. I had never seen a film like that before, and I thought to myself, “If only I could achieve something like that.” I wanted to succeed in the industry for the purpose of connecting with people like that, the way I had been connected with, and doing so with people all across the globe.

Cineaste: Do you think you have achieved that position now?

Abyar: It was a lot of work, but yes.

Cineaste: Let’s focus on your latest and most acclaimed work, Breath. Tell me a little about the background to that production.

Abyar: I came up with the story approximately ten years ago, based on real-life stories I had heard, and it was developed stone by stone, piece by piece, chapter to chapter. It took me a long time. I wasn’t after anything spectacular or mesmerizing; I wanted to portray a real world from the eyes of a war-affected child. It’s a story about the power of a young child’s imagination during a highly violent period of dread—an imagination that cannot be taken away from her under any circumstances except during a devastating war. Filming it was a very emotional process for me.

Cineaste: You yourself grew up during the Iran–Iraq War. Are there any autobiographical aspects to your film?

Abyar pictured with the women and children of the historic town of Yazd, a city she recognizes as her hometown.

Abyar: I signaled my own experiences, but they are not based on my childhood. The war we had with Iraq was the longest conflict in the history of the modern world, lasting more than the two World Wars combined. It doesn’t get much attention or remembrance, even though it involved many global military powers, including the United States. It wasn’t just another civil war or internal unrest; it was a major armed conflict involving many countries and religious sects.

I was in my teens during that time, but the story is more about the people I’ve met, seen, or read about in real life. For example, Bahar’s story reflects those of 3,000 Iranian children killed in the war—all kids with wild imaginations, dream jobs, and parents rooting for them.

Cineaste: When you talk of innocent children in the midst of a war, one can’t help but to think of Syria and Yemen. Did you want to make any references to concurrent conflicts?

Abyar: Don’t get me started. Usually when the news announces the number of casualties, they tend to say that such-and-such number of women and children were killed, but that’s a wrong way of putting it. You can’t put women and children into the same box: women can think just as clearly and rationally as men, but children can’t. They can feel scared and they can feel threatened, but they don’t know the reality of death. They are innocent, naive, and so vulnerable.

A genuine, endearing and a completely heartbreaking performance by the first-time child actor Sareh Nour Mousavi, who plays the main character Bahar in Breath. 

Cineaste: Was Breath always meant to be a story of a child, or did you use Bahar as a figurative character to imply something deeper?

Abyar: No, not really. Breath was from its very early stages meant to be a film about a playful young girl who turns her troubles into a series of whimsical acts. It’s a tale of innocence lost, but people tend to overanalyze it. The main plot is not about a girl who refuses to wear her hijab, or a girl that’s droopy during her Quran classes. I mean, it could have been, but it wasn’t.

Cineaste: So, this means that many, including those in Iran, misinterpreted it?

Abyar: In Islam, a young girl must cover her hair once she turns nine. Given Bahar’s age during the filming, we technically crossed this line, but I wanted to show the reality of a young girl growing up during that war-defined decade. Even during the scene in which we portrayed the aggressive Quran teacher, I wanted to show that the teachers were very short-tempered back then when someone couldn’t pronounce the Quranic verses correctly.

The scene wasn’t an exaggeration; we still have teachers like that. Now, it’s my kids they teach, and somehow they are expected to know the holy text by heart, even though we don’t speak Arabic and we hardly understand the language. Reading something so precious requires dedication, precision, and affection, and I showed this in the film when Bahar’s grandfather was teaching her the Quran in the sequences that followed.

Cineaste: But you received some heavy criticism for those scenes.

Abyar: The question often was, why did I choose to portray Quran teachers like that? I simply wanted to emphasize that you can’t teach something so holy without respecting the persons you are teaching it to. But it wasn’t understood exactly like that: some people’s take on me as a director changed completely; some ended up considering the entire film as an anti-Islamic statement and demanded that the scene be entirely eliminated. Others questioned my capabilities as a director solely because of that scene. It was rough.

Cineaste: What did you do, then?

Abyar: We ended up making the scene shorter, but I wanted to keep it in the overall narrative structure.

Olfat, played by Merila Zare'i's, represented the fate of the families that are still waiting to hear from their loved and lost ones in the war in  Track 143.  

Olfat, played by Merila Zare'i's, represented the fate of the families that are still waiting to hear from their loved and lost ones in the war in Track 143.  

Cineaste: Comparing Breath and Track 143, why do you think the reception of the films differed so drastically?

Abyar: I can’t really say. Both films are about women during war, only at different ages with different kinds of events unfolding around them. Nevertheless, Breath ended up being considered as strictly antiwar and Track 143 praised for its patriotism. In any case, I have never supported any wars, because it always comes with a price that noncombatants pay in a state of merciless carnage. I am critical of war, but it’s not about being “antiwar” or a pacifist, it’s more about informing the public that, if we are not alert to our actions, history usually repeats itself.

In the final and symbolic scene of Track 143, Olfat, played by Merila Zare'i, collects the bones of his martyred son after fifteen-years of waiting for him to return home from the eight-year-long Iran-Iraq war. 

Cineaste: Aside from the criticism you’ve received from the state, you’ve also been accused of disappointing the film community that would have wanted to see more active and dynamic personality traits in your female characters.

Abyar: I’m here to make a film that I can say I am proud of, that I can call my work. My intention, when making a film, isn’t to conform to any feminist expectations, just the way it wasn’t my intention to have it submitted for the Oscars. It happened, and it was a privilege, but it wasn’t in my plans.

Cineaste: Speaking of feminism, is it something you align with as a filmmaker?

Abyar: I can’t say I’m here to defend anyone or any group. I don’t portray these female characters in order to fit into the framework of a feminist filmmaker because, truthfully, I wouldn’t consider myself as one. I have been recently hearing more people call me a feminist because I’ve been making films about women and their struggles, but I don’t think that’s a priority.

Cineaste: Back in the day, it was controversial to be a feminist. In today’s world, it’s controversial if you aren’t.

Abyar: I think there are obvious differences between women and men that will always be seen in parallel, but also paradoxical, terms. But of course in terms of opportunities available, women are still highly restricted.

Cineaste: Isn’t that what feminism is about? To make those opportunities equal?

Abyar: It’s a feminist ideology that I don’t believe in. I mean, look at North America. Look at the events that have taken place in Hollywood in recent months. Look at what happened to Hillary Clinton during the presidential race last year. Is that the feminism they so highly speak of?

Cineaste: Let’s talk about how you overcame Iran’s gender hurdles.

Abyar: I’ve had plenty of prejudices that hindered my growth as a female filmmaker, but that’s because I wanted people to see me as a filmmaker—not as a female filmmaker. It’s as if, when we speak of being a “female filmmaker,” I need to justify my decisions more.

Cineaste: What particular difficulties have you faced?

Abyar: Film, essentially, is a form of art. But it’s also a large financial investment. In order to get people to invest in your film, you first need to get them to put their trust in you. I think the most difficult part of making a film as a woman is to get the right amount of funding from the people you want to work with.

Cineaste: Having overcome these difficulties, what was your initial reaction when you heard that you could potentially be a nominee for an Academy Award? 

Abyar: I was very happy, no doubt about that. It’s a pride you feel not only for yourself, but also for the people you are there to represent. I kept telling my friends, this is perhaps the first and the last chance I get to enter the Oscars.

Cineaste: Didn’t you also invite President Donald Trump to see your film at the Academy Awards in order to better understand Iranian culture?

Abyar: I did an interview with a journalist from the Reuters News Agency, but that particular quote has been taken completely out of context.* We were talking about how Breath can show politicians the route to peace via united cultures, and not via creating walls and bans. I said that if President Trump was to see Breath, he would understand what war looks like from the perspective of the innocent, and why he shouldn’t threaten to launch a war with Iran. I didn’t exactly invite him to see the film, though.

Cineaste: To wrap up our conversation, can you tell us what you are working on now?

Abyar: It’s a love story filmed between Iran and Pakistan—and before you ask, this time I’m not making a war film!

Ana Diamond is a Film & Media Studies student at King’s College London. Growing up across three continents in a nomadic trilingual household, she is an aspiring scholar in the field of public diplomacy and cinematic soft power.

* “Oscar-nominated Iranian director challenges Trump to watch her film,” by Parisa Hafezi, October 30, 2017. (Source)

Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 4