The filmmaker and women’s rights activist, who has been jailed many times and banned from travelling abroad, is the winner of the Spirit of Cinema award at the International Film Festival of Kerala.

Mahnaz's black and white photo in which she holds a black shawl across her head, looks up and smiles openly
Flix IFFK Friday, December 09, 2022 - 20:18

In a letter that was sent to the Cannes Film Festival, where a movie she acted in was premiering, Iranian filmmaker and women’s rights activist Mahnaz Mohammadi wrote, “I am a woman and a filmmaker, two reasons sufficient to be treated like a criminal in this country.” The letter was read aloud because she could not make it there, owing to a travel ban imposed on her for her film work. This December, she was supposed to come to Thiruvananthapuram for the International Film Festival of Kerala (IFFK), but she could not, again because of the travel ban. As a symbolic gesture, however, she sent a lock of her hair to the IFFK through Greek filmmaker Athina Rachel Sangari. 

Mahnaz is the winner of the Spirit of Cinema award, which the IFFK launched in the last edition to honour filmmakers whose passion for the art was ‘unflinchingly carried forward in spite of the adversities faced by them’. And she has faced many, many adversities. Her first film, a documentary called Women Without Shadows on women living in a shelter, came out in 2003. But it was her second film, called Travelogue, where she interviewed people who were leaving the country on a train, that brought her the first travel ban. By then Mahnaz had already faced her first arrest in 2007, when she protested for other women’s rights activists who were undergoing trial. In 2011, she acted in a film, Ethereal Marriage, where she played a widow in a relationship with her brother-in-law. It was for this film’s premiere that she was invited to Cannes, and her letter got read by another filmmaker, Costa-Gavras. That same year, she was arrested again, and kept in prison for two-and-a-half months.

After several documentaries, Mahnaz made her first fictional feature in 2019, titled Son-Mother. It tells the story of a widow raising two children, and receiving marriage proposals from a bus driver that she begins to consider. Three years after that, Mahnaz is once again making her voice heard, protesting along with the thousands of Iranian women against the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini, three days after she was taken in by the morality police for allegedly not following the dress code for women in the country. The months-long protests led Iran to reportedly abolish the morality police.

In an interview to TNM, Mahnaz talks about her journey from being discriminated against as a female child to becoming the woman who keeps fighting for human rights, despite everything she has been through.

After reading about you, the first thing I wondered is how you were driven to be this person — who questioned the inequalities in gender, who began fighting for what she thought was right, and who did not mind going to jail for it. How and when in your life did this journey begin for you?

The first year I entered school, I was happy to go to school with a red ribbon in my hair and white collar. But the revolution of 1979 happened in the same year. In the New Year, they forced us to wear dark black shawls covering our hair and shoulders. I was always being blamed for forgetting to wear it. I am still living with those reprimands. In the same year, our teacher Mrs Abbasi, who was kind, did not force us to wear dark black shawls at class. Many times, we have watched her putting her shawl in her bag, far away from school. She didn't last long as a teacher. She was rumoured to have been fired.

Do you think this is not enough for a girl who felt the wind in her hair and whose only hobby was running in the wind? 

At what point did you decide to make films, to talk about the subjects you cared about?

I used to write for children and teenage magazines and radio, but when I met certain women, I was very influenced by them. I also had many questions, and hence I made documentaries to find the answers.

What led to Women without Shadows?

Though incarcerated under weird circumstances, they (the women in shelter homes) managed to elicit feelings of love and hope. I remember how after watching that film, my brother wrote a note to me saying “the director has depicted her life”. I still have that note.

Do you feel films have a way of reaching out to more people, the ideas that you want to express?

Yes, I believe in the power of film.

You said in one interview that you did not think much of your early arrests but the one in 2011, in a small prison, shattered you. What happened, and how did it affect you and your work?

It was a torture centre. The most important impact it had was that it proved to me this regime does not follow any moral principles. It lies, tortures, and executes. Today, as I am writing to you, a 23-year-old man named Mohsen Shekhari was executed for protesting in a closed court without access to legal advice. There are many others awaiting execution.

That prison taught me how suffering is created. It is essential not to be a part of them.

You acted in a film. Ephemeral Marriage also touched on the state of women's lives in Iran. Is that what made you say yes to acting?

I am not an actor. Reza Sarkanian (the director) came to Iran to make this film. But almost all the actors he chose said no to him, because they were worried about the government's reaction. At the same time, I was helping him research parts of the script. Reza then asked me [if I could act]. At first it was difficult to accept, but I knew what a strenuous path he had to tread to get the permission. I just wanted this film to be made. 

But that film was also banned in Iran and was never allowed to be screened.

What is the one thing that makes you keep fighting, despite the repeated arrests, bans and confiscations of your property?

Living a lie is disgusting. A totalitarian regime forces you to live according to their wishes, which are often miles away from your principles.

Still from Son-Mother / Courtesy - IMDB

Son-mother is your first venture into fiction. Why fiction, after all these years?

 All stories are rooted in reality. My preference is to make documentaries, but there are stories that you will never be allowed to make. Everything is according to ‘their’ will, so I have to choose another way.

Mahsa Amini is one of the latest victims of this oppression. You are fighting for her too. Do you have hope that things will change for women one day? Not just in Iran, but everywhere?

Right now, many things have changed despite the resistance by the regime, due to the will of the people who are no longer willing to go back. Certainly, change is essential in Iran and similarly everywhere else in the world. Inequality exists anywhere.

Also read: IFFK highlights: Silent films with live piano, 32 female directors, LGBTQIA+ narratives

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