“Cinema is in dire need of a feminine perspective and viewpoint”

The Iranian filmmaker Narges Abyar, who made such films as When the Moon was Full (2019), Breath (2016), and Track 143 (2014) has no doubt that the world needs more talented female filmmakers.

Iran (IMNA) - Actually, there is a ‘dire need’ for them, she finds. Her latest film Pinto, which is specifically about women and their problems in a complex, traditional society, will soon be released, distributed by Outsider Pictures. She is also making a series based on the well-known Iranian novel, Savušun, written by Simin Daneshvar, the reputed Iranian female author, as well as currently working in China on a joint project about the Silk Road.

What can you tell us about the Silk Road project?

I am currently in China to cooperate on making an important cinematic project. The film is about the Silk Road, which in the past connected the East, West and South of Asia to each other and to North Africa and Eastern Europe. The Silk Road has been the biggest trade network in the world for 1,700 years and was considered one of the most important routes. In the meantime, the different cultures of the countries located along the Silk Road were linked with each other. The Silk Road is supposed to be revived recently and this is a significant event. I hope a good movie will be made on the new Silk Road. I also intend to hold workshops in China for those interested in cinema.

There is a perception in the western world that it is not always easy to navigate life in your country as a woman – and even more so as a director. How do you see this?

Women have always learned to adapt themselves to their surrounding world; in fact, it is the motherhood in women, which seeks peace and is after adapting itself to the surrounding world. I personally believe that if women took over the reins of social and macro-political management, the world would be a more peaceful place. In some regions of Iran where violence was more prevalent, mayors and governors employed women and the results showed a substantial reduction in violence in those regions.

I personally believe that women have faced injustices all around the world for many years and this can be perceived by the unequal number of women’s positions in social and macro-political management. Men were the ones who have always occupied managerial positions and have limited women’s authority in economic and cultural arenas. Although I witness this inequality in the world and cannot deny it, it also exists between men and women in my own country due to its culture and traditional infrastructure. Women often need multiple times more effort than men to prove themselves and attract the trust and attention of others, and in the end, they may even fail. My latest film, Pinto, addresses this issue.

You tell women’s stories. Is this important to you?

Yes, narrating the story of women is important to me, because I am a woman and have more knowledge of women. I have also tolerated the consequences of being a woman in a male-dominated society. I particularly believe that cinema is in dire need of a feminine perspective and viewpoint. Many films have been made on women by male directors in the world; however, they look at the issue of women or other issues from their own viewpoint. Cinema requires a feminine viewpoint, even in the most male-dominated issues like war (although I do not believe in any of these gendered borders). But when looking at issues using a feminine perspective, stories are more peaceful and tranquil and have more details.

Do you feel there is support in your country and also abroad for female filmmakers?

In recent years, more attention has been paid to female filmmakers in festivals and film investment companies. This applies to my country as well; more female filmmakers are working and making films compared to the past. However, there still exists a lack of trust in women with regard to filmmaking and female filmmakers must sometimes work ten times more than male filmmakers to prove their ability in the profession.

What are the main challenges for you as a female director?

The answer to this question is somewhat given in my other responses. The problem mostly lies in the fact that a woman, as a filmmaker, must go through a wearing process to persuade others to accept her opinions. I have of course experienced fewer problems of the same nature in my recent films and there was a great deal of trust between me, the film crew, sponsors and the people.

You wrote the script and directed When the Moon was Full from 2019, based on a true story about a woman who unknowingly marries a Jihadist. Why did you want to tell this story?

The world has been suffering from religious extremism for years. A lot of wars have taken place and religious radicalism in any of its modes has caused oppression to human beings and lead to their suffering. It has been so long that the people in the Middle East have been injured by religious extremism. I think this is an important issue and decided to make a film about it. In fact, it was important to me to show how extremist religious thoughts would destroy a human being’s only possession – love – and how a man, who loves his family, would turn into a slaughter machine. I wanted to show how religious extremism can cause the creation of destructive beliefs and illusions in humans. Given that the story of the film happened in my own country, I believe that the audience could better communicate with it. Women were the most important characters of the story and this issue helped me make the film with more knowledge and dominance.

Did you have any experiences or encounters – directly or indirectly – with Jihadists or did you do research to portray them realistically?

I was not closely acquainted or in touch with Jihadi groups. I have conducted research for nine months, read a lot of books, and watched many documentary films about them. I have traveled several times to the region where the story took place and conducted a lot of field research. I traveled to Pakistan because the Jundallah group was often active there.

The film starts out as a very romantic film. “My solemn gaze roved over your innocent face,” it says in a framed poem that Abdol-Hamid (Hootan Shakiba) brought to Faezeh (Elnaz Shakerdoost) and he is determined to woo her over. Did you deliberately want to seduce the audience into believing they were going to watch a romance?

Faezeh and Abdolhamid get to know each other in the same way as it occurs in the film. They see each other for the first time in a fight in front of Abdolhamid’s shop and fall in love. Abdolhamid proposes to Faezeh after one year and their life begins romantically.

Abdol- Hamid is very seductive – but he is seduced too – by Jihadists. Did you research how these men become terrorists?

From the very beginning, Abdolhamid has different views from his brother, Abdolmalek. Abdolhamid is not as strictly religious as his brother. He falls in love with a girl and marries her, while his brother, Abdolmalek, totally disagrees. Abdolhamid would like to live peacefully. He seeks peace in the family and disagrees with his brother’s activities, however, when he immigrates to Pakistan, he is gradually influenced by the power and charisma of his brother. He is provided with a big house and his brother promises to help him with immigration. Abdolhamid sees that his brother has some supporters and has a lot of facilities and wealth. The power of Abdolmalek impresses him, and he gradually cooperates with his brother in operations. When he loses his soldiers in one of these operations, he is triggered to get revenge. When his younger brother is killed in one operation, he is even more impressed. Finally, when he is offered to be Abdolmalek’s successor, he feels responsible for the goals of their Jihadi group. What happens in Jihadist groups is that most of the people who work there will be gradually influenced by the words and deeds of their leader and they are said to be brainwashed.

This is very much a story about the woman, who in a way becomes the victim of terrorism. Hamid’s mother Ghamnaz (Fereshteh Sadre Orafaee) warns Faezeh that this union might not be in her best interest. “My son is no good for you”. Did you deliberately want to make the focus on her and tell a woman’s story?

I could dedicate my story solely to the Jundallah group and narrate the story from the viewpoint of Abdolmalek or Abdolhamid; however, I found this theme neither interesting nor novel. It was important to me to go inside Abdolhamid’s family and see the story from the viewpoint of three women (Faezeh, Ghamnaz and Esmat). Faezeh is a woman who resists terrorism and accepts its consequences. She is the kind of person who stays in Pakistan for her children and risks her life. The second woman (Ghamnaz) is the one who despite living and growing up in a traditional and religious atmosphere, knows that his sons are terrorists and are following a destructive path. She can do nothing special except scaring away her bride. The third woman (Esmat) is the one who brought up her children without a dad (before her second marriage) and her daughter is now swamped with difficulties. In fact, dealing with these three women was of importance to me. According to my research, Ghamnaz was against the terrorist deeds of her sons in reality and she tries to prevent the killing of her bride.

“Women’s words are worthless, whether a mom or a wife,” Ghamnaz says and adds: “Al-Qaeda believes a woman is less than dirt.” Were those words hard for you to write in the script?

In this film, Ghamnaz reveals some important realities, the most important of which is that there is poverty and deprivation in the region she and her sons live which is located near the border of the Sistan and Baluchestan province. Many of the youth are unemployed. Poverty and unemployment in this region cause men to be drawn to drug trafficking or joining Jihadi groups. The number of men who join terrorist groups in this region is indeed not so many, but poverty and deprivation exacerbate this situation. In response to Faezeh who asks why Ghamnaz does not do anything against Abdolmalek and stops him, Ghamnaz says that according to the ideology of Al-Qaeda, a woman has the least value, and my words are of no value. This issue is a harsh reality among radical religious groups, and I intended to focus on it in the film.

Breath is a film about an 8-year-old girl Bahar (Sareh Nour Mousavi), who is mischievous and wishes she were a boy, as she wants to become a doctor to help her father who has asthma. Is she based on someone you know?

The film Breath is based on a novel of the same name. I have written the novel myself. I have written more than thirty fiction books and novels. The film is about pure imaginations of childhood and belongs to the dreams and imaginations of the people of my generation, who were involved in the Islamic Revolution and war. Part of the film is related to my own experiences and part of it to the experiences of the people around me. In fact, Breath is about the reverence of childhood innocence and the fact about how fatal war can be. A little girl who, through her dreams, can adapt herself to her surrounding world, who can tolerate poverty and beatings of her grandmother, can only be destroyed by war. In fact, it was her imagination and books that made the world a beautiful and bearable place for her.

Bahar is a girl who experiences the war between Iraq and Iran from afar and creates an imaginary world. How is her world different from if she were a boy?

Bahar is a girl who can adapt herself to a world, which is agonizing from the elder’s point of view because her dreams turn the world into a lovely place for her. But she has heard this many times from her grandmother, who has a traditional way of thinking, that if she were a boy, it would be better both for her and the family. This point of view was so favored in Iran forty years ago and every family in Iran was more pleased to have a son rather than a daughter. In fact, having a son made the family proud and powerful. Unfortunately, this view is still dominant in rural communities of Iran. This way of thinking causes girls to be constantly frustrated regarding themselves and lack self-confidence. In my opinion, the imaginative world of Bahar would not be that interesting if she were a boy. We see the world completely from her point of view, i.e., as a girl, with a lot of details and in an innocent way. Boys usually see their surrounding world more holistically.

She is not too keen on reading the Quran – at least not when it is not with her grandfather – and wearing her hijab. I believe you received criticism for that in Iran. Why?

I actually showed that instructing religious principles using force and violence could be detrimental. When Bahar is by her grandfather’s side (who is an example of a moderate Muslim), she finds reading the Quran enjoyable and pleasant. Yes, I have always been critical of the forceful way of teaching religious principles and I myself was hurt in this regard.

Track 143 (2014) is a screen adaptation of your own novel The Third Eye and tells the story of Olfat, a mother of a soldier. When did you decide that you would not only be a novelist but also a filmmaker and adapt your own books?

The screenplay of the film Track 143 was written based on a novel that I wrote after nine months of research and I was pretty familiar with its atmosphere. The best task for me was to address issues with which I am fully familiar. Therefore, I used the novel I wrote and adapted it into a screenplay, although it is always difficult for authors to use their own novel for the adaptation. This difficulty lies in the fact that omitting the details of the novel in order to turn it into a screenplay is a very hard task for the author. Overall, I believe that despite the influential novels written in Iran which were persistent in the history of Iran’s literature, rarely has an adaptation occurred. In my opinion, our cinema requires us to rely on Iranian literature.

The film is about a mother waiting for her son to return from the 8-year war with Iraq in the 1980s. It seems to be symbolic of the whole country of Iran waiting for their sons to return from war – or was this a very personal story you wanted to tell?

The story of Track 143 can be a symbol; it can be a symbol of all the mothers whose sons went to war and never returned. Mayakovsky in one of his poems says: “I am sad like a mother who sees the last soldier returning from the battle is not her son”. Symbolic elements are present in all of my films. The carpet, the ladder and the mine in Track 134 have a symbolic function. The symbolic elements in my other films are as follows: the boat in Bahar’s hands in Breath, the mirrors and the magnifier in When the Moon was Full, and in my latest film named Pinto, which has not yet been screened in public.

I talk about the women in a complex, traditional society, who are so much under pressure that they deny themselves. I also used mice and other elements symbolically in this film. In my opinion, what we refer to as a symbol must be of the same nature as the film itself, otherwise, it would lose its function as a symbol. Therefore, only an experienced film interpreter can call it a symbol, not an ordinary audience.

You have focused on the war in some of your films. How did you experience the war and what wounds did it leave on you personally?

When I was a teenager, there was a war in Iran. My father was a truck driver who drove to war zones and carried food to the soldiers. When my brother was only 16 years old, he went to war as a militant. Although both my father and brother finally came back alive, my family constantly endured the consequences of the war. Among family and friends, no single day went without the news of a young man being killed.

We were also dealing with civil war those days, which worsened the situation. We had nightmares of airstrikes at night. I would never forget the terror I experienced hearing the sound of the air-raid siren. Our people had been involved in the war for eight years, a war which we did not initiate and was the longest war in the last hundred years in the world. Our people were actually the victims of the war. I have tried to show the violent and abominable aspect of war because I was injured by it and there is also another side to war. People wrestle with death in a war, life suddenly turns into a deep concept and people look at the meaning of life from new perspectives, which rarely happens in a normal situation. In fact, war makes us understand the value of life better, live in the moment and enjoy it.


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