Expose yourself! Revealing the Flow of Life in Iran

Iranian filmmaker Shirin Barghnavard talks about her relationship to censorship and creativity, documentary and fiction, and the art of filmmaking.

with Shirin Barghnavard, Christoph Dreher, and Vinicius Jatobá — Sep 4, 2018

Shirin Barghnavard, Meysam Hasanlou,

Poets of Life, Behind the Scene, Mohammad Reza Jahanpanah, Shirin Barghnavard and Meysam Hasanlou. Photo: Abbas Kowsari

A documentary filmmaker is supposed to represent parts of reality. But what are the limits of documentary filmmaking in a country like Iran, where directors are confronted with censorship? Schlosspost, Berlin-based film director Christoph Dreher, and Brazilian writer Vinicius Jatobá spoke with Iranian filmmaker Shirin Barghnavard about the relationship of censorship and creativity and the art of documentary and fiction filmmaking. Based in Teheran, Barghnavard portrays personal and intimate spheres within a religious Islamic society, where the private and public spheres are still strictly separated. The personal lives of women are especially hidden, yet highly visible in Barghnavard’s films. »For development of a society I think exposure is very important,« she says.

Schlosspost: How did Iranian cinema change due to the politics over the past 30 years? What was the situation of cinema in Iran when you started to make films?

Shirin Barghnavard: The fundamental political change in Iran, and thus in Iranian cinema, is divided into the periods before and after 1979 Islamic Revolution. Forty years have passed since the revolution. Even during these years, there have been a lot of changes in Iranian cinema; so we cannot compare cinema now to the cinema of early post-revolution years.

The cinema before the revolution was mostly about blockbuster movies. There were a few artists and independent filmmakers like Ebrahim Golestan, Forugh Farrokhzad and Sohrab Shahid Sales, who were making low-budget but artistic and creative films. After the revolution, a lot of films were funded by government and the public TV stations with the aim of producing cultural and informative films. So a second wave of filmmakers arose. But the biggest change that happened in post-revolutionary cinema was the removal of private and intimate scenes of everyday life.

»Today, the Iranian cinema has returned almost to the position it had before the revolution in terms of content and approach, which means most of the films are about fun and entertainment.«

Gradually, with more intense censorship imposed by the system, this wave of filmmakers started using other ways to tell their stories. Narratives were framed by working very minimally, vaguely and artistically. The border between fiction and documentary films was also not very clear. Today, the Iranian cinema has returned almost to the position it had before the revolution in terms of content and approach, which means most of the films are about fun and entertainment. The investment for producing alternative films has been cut and the condition for independent filmmakers has become harder and more limited.

Shirin Barghnavard, studio visit, 2018

Shirin Barghnavard. Photo: Frederique le Brun

I started filmmaking 18 years ago when I was a film student. At that time, Iranian cinema was almost at the height of its global attention; filmmakers like Abbas Kiarostami, Rakhshan Bani Etemad, Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Bahman Ghobadi, and Jafar Panahi were making very low-budget creative films. I emigrated to Australia after graduation, and continued to study film directing. After six and a half years, when I returned to Iran, I saw significant changes in Iranian cinema. For example, a filmmaker like Asghar Farhadi, whose films had both artistic and entertaining aspects, was known globally. I also noticed more documentary films in Iran. The intimate, sincere, and less complicated atmosphere of documentary films gradually attracted me. Although my early films were short fiction and experimental, I chose documentary filmmaking to continue my career.

Schlosspost: Were these the films you grew up with as a child? It seems that this style influenced the way you narrate your stories.

»The poetic yet realistic way of filmmaking by post-revolutionary filmmakers, made many people in my generation, including me, interested in the cinema; I realized that cinema is a powerful and influential medium for society.«

SB: The poetic yet realistic way of filmmaking by post-revolutionary filmmakers, made many people in my generation, including me, interested in the cinema; I realized that cinema is a powerful and influential medium for society. Having a visual art background, I soon recognized that I wanted to tell stories through images on the screen. As it has had profound effects on me. I was influenced by different filmmakers of the previous generation both aesthetically and thematically. As I gained more experience in filmmaking, this influence gradually shaped new forms of storytelling in my works.

Christoph Dreher, Denise Helene Sumi, Vinicius Jatobá, Shirin Barghnavard, Round Table, studio visit, 2018

Round table, from left to right, Christoph Dreher, Denise Helene Sumi, Vinicius Jatobá, Shirin Barghnavard. Photo: Judith Engel

Schlosspost: Did you feel the need to add a female voice to the Iranian film scene? What challenges did you confront as a young female Iranian filmmaker?

SB: I think it happens naturally without feeling the need for it. It’s all about your concerns, what matters to you the most, and what your possibilities are. My concerns are more focused on issues related to women. I feel the challenges of women in my society and reflect them in my films.

»I feel the challenges of women in my society and reflect them in my films.«

As a documentary filmmaker, you have to build a lot of relationships with your characters. Given the traditional, more conservative, male-dominated societies of most Iranian cities, where the women’s role is something far from film directing, it takes even more time to build up trusting relationships. In the first documentary I made in southern Iran, it took us eight hours to shoot a scene including a group of old and young Arab men talking about their local issues. All those men were surprised that a woman would talk about private and intimate spaces. But Iran’s cinema industry is no exception, making it very challenging for a female filmmaker to prove herself. However, today, many Iranian female filmmakers have partially broken into this space.

Schlosspost: When did you start including your own voice to address these private and intimate issues in front of the camera?

SB: The film 21 Days and Me (2011), in which I talked about my female body in a very direct and controversial way, was a turning point. Not hesitating to talk about my personal life was groundbreaking and offensive to the authorities. Moreover, in a society that considers childbearing to be one of marriage’s main achievements, I made a film telling that men and women can discuss it and decide. As a result, I only got permission to screen the film for women in universities! Of course I did not accept this and showed it in many underground and private spaces in Teheran and several other cities in Iran.

Shirin Barghnavard,

21 Days and Me, Film poster, 2011

Vinicius Jatobá: In literature there is a trend to write autobiographical fiction in which the first-person narrator is the author itself. But in literature this narrative strategy can potentially hide more than expose: it makes the relations between fact and fiction very tense, as it’s the imagination of the reader that forms the images that the narrative describes: there is space for ambiguity. But in documentary, otherwise, when the filmmaker is also character and narrator of the narrative, there’s not as much space as in fiction; for what the spectator sees is your body, voice, and reactions. It’s less open to ambiguities. That considered, what are the advantages of choosing yourself as the emotional center of the narrative?


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SB: In documentary film, it’s dangerous and risky to turn your camera toward yourself instead of others. The filmmaker can easily be accused of being narcissistic, as for both films, 21 Days and Me and Profession: Documentarist (2014), in which I and six other female Iranian documentary filmmakers showed our personal and professional lives, viewers often asked us: “Why do we have to watch your lives as the directors of this film?”

But what makes me determined to accept this risk especially when I know how conservative my society is? Hiding has such deep roots in Iranian culture. People tend to hide as much as possible. When it comes to women, the situation gets even more sensitive since traditionally, a woman is the Namus (honor) of every male relative and no one is supposed to know anything about her private life. But I strongly believe that we have to talk about ourselves. For development of a society, self-exposure is very important. Through making self-reflective documentary films, I tried to encourage people, especially the women, to talk about themselves. It’s so important that my presence in the film is not merely viewed as a filmmaker, but to reflect specific societal thinking.

»Hiding has such deep roots in Iranian culture. People tend to hide as much as possible. When it comes to women, the situation gets even more sensitive since traditionally, a woman is the Namus (honor) of every male relative and no one is supposed to know anything about her private life. But I strongly believe that we have to talk about ourselves. For development of a society, self-exposure is very important.«

Shirin Barghnavard, studio visit,

Profession Documentarist, 2014. Photo: Mohammed Reza Jahanpanah

VJ: A writer is always selecting bits of reality to compose his or her fictions. I’m curious: how do you choose what’s on the frame? How does the act of selecting affects the documentary texture that you want to imprint on your narrative? Could this process – framing through the camera – make the real and factual story you are telling a fiction?

SB: A documentary film is about the interaction between motivation, concern, and attitude of a filmmaker with the reality of the characters and their surrounding situation in front of his or her camera. This varies from case to case. Depending on the subject matter and the filmmaker’s approach, sometimes he or she has the ability to make film through designed aesthetics, and sometimes it’s not possible. Most fiction films, however, have always made it possible for the filmmakers to select each frame of their films.

Shirin Barghnavard, Profession: Documentarist, Film poster, studio visit, 2018

Profession: Documentarist, Film poster, 2014. Design by Sahar Khairkhah

»Theoretically there is no difference between fiction and documentary.« – Christoph Dreher

It can be said that a documentary filmmaker also, with the kind of framing while filming, records only that part of reality that he or she chooses and wants to document. So, he or she also manipulates the reality somehow. All these nuances and specifications affect the quality of the real story he or she wants to define and can produce different results. That’s why we’re facing a wide and growing range of documentary film styles today.


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Christoph Dreher: Theoretically there is no difference between fiction and documentary. It is only about the director’s intention. So categorically, there is no contradiction between staging and documenting. In 21 Days and Me you had to stage yourself and of course you had to think about dramaturgy. You also could have staged it more dramatically as far as your character is concerned – for example not having your husband Reza in the focus of the decision not to have children – but you yourself as a woman deciding to never become a mother. But maybe it is more acceptable in Iranian society if the man says he does not want any children?

SB: In my opinion, the biggest difference between documentary and fiction film is the documentary filmmaker’s commitment toward the fact he or she is recording. I make a film about real people, so I am responsible for them. At the same time, a documentary film is beyond mere report of a fact and drama also plays a role here. There are many fiction films that are very close to the documentary but elements such as imagination, exaggeration, and manipulation of the reality are highly justifiable in them. As a documentary filmmaker, it’s important to me that I strike a balance between the reality I’m recording and the drama of my film.

As you said, in 21 Days and Me, I staged myself and thought about dramaturgy. I wrote a script for that film and most of the scenes were filmed based on the script. But I could never reverse what was really happening in order to stage my film more dramatically. The fact that my husband Reza didn’t want to have a child was a reality that existed, not that I made it up just because this is more acceptable in the Iranian society. In the documentary film, you deal with emotions and beliefs of the real people and you cannot play with them.

This is the commitment and responsibility that I am talking about. I always give myself the opportunity to be surprised by the characters in front of my camera and prepare myself for great changes in some of the scenes. This is the most attractive aspect of documentary filmmaking for me.

Shirin Barghnavard,

Poets of Life, Film poster, 2017. Design by Hamed Jaberha

CD: 21 Days and Me brings up the topic that women are traditionally meant to have children. If you would keep up with the rules, then it might be really difficult to be a filmmaker.

SB: In this film, I tried to portray the challenge that a woman faces with the issue of motherhood from the perspective of a woman, and not necessarily of a filmmaker. That’s why I didn’t talk about my profession in the film. As a result, many women could relate with it because they saw themselves in the film. If I were to emphasize my profession, filmmaking and its relation to the concept of motherhood in the Iranian society, another film would have been made and another kind of communication between the audience and the film was formed.

VJ: When you create under a political situation into which there is a strong censorship regulation it impacts not just the stories that are allowed to circulate but the same fabric of building a story: the artist self-censors his or her own work. To evade censorship some writers – I’m thinking about Stanislaw Lem here – channel their creativity into genres that are marginal, like science fiction. But documentary narratives can’t evade reality. How to solve this confrontational knot: a camera that can’t lie and a government that does not want the truth?

SB: Unfortunately, there is no practical solution for this. The result is that Iranian documentary filmmakers should constantly avoid working on subject matter that are red lines for the system. Like a fiction filmmaker, they also look for ways to circumvent censorship, which is certainly much harder and more restrictive and sometimes it’s bad and harmful to the films. We have heard a lot that censorship has led Iranian artists to be more creative in their works. But I don’t believe in that anymore. A large part of the social and historical events of this land has not been documented in films. This is one of the challenges I’m also facing today after several years of documentary filmmaking. In other words, sometimes I question the concept of documentary filmmaking in Iran and I lose my incentive to work.


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CD: International producers, production companies, and the international film festivals fear that directors have to leave Iran, because they lose the natural ambience they so strongly draw from. Some people think that’s what happened when Abbas Kiarostami did his first film outside of the Iran; that he lost something. I can understand if people want to stay.

VJ: Often people say that directors who are forced to leave their home countries lose their edge as filmmakers. But that’s also an issue of how movies are made because when a filmmaker is exiled he suddenly loses his crew: cinematographers, editors, art directors, set designers, actors, and actresses. Cinema is a very intimate industry full of personal relationships. When a director faces exile, he has to rebuild all this; relearn how to communicate with whole different crews. This can lead to a radical change in his narrative tone and voice.

»Films are created when there is no one looking. They are the invisible. What you can’t see is the incredible, and it’s the task of the cinema to do that.« – Jean Luc Godard in Room 666

SB: Certainly this happens. Artists take many ideas and inspiration from their own societies because they have a history with them. In terms of documentary film, it’s even more sensitive because the filmmaker is dealing with realities. To be able to record this reality, he or she needs to establish strong connections with people. This connection is first recognized through language and then through shared history with those people. The same linguistic connection and the common history between the filmmaker and his or her crew also exists. Filmmakers lose all these strong senses when they forced to leave their countries, which certainly affects the quality of their work. We’ve had filmmakers who preferred to stay in Iran and not make any films for many years. Nothing is more terrible than being an artist in your own country and have the status of an exile.

Nowadays, there is another challenge for filmmakers like me. The condition of making independent films in Iran is getting harder and more restrictive every day. On the other hand, most international film festivals as well as international funding bodies, TV channels, etc. expect an Iranian documentary filmmaker to put his or her life in danger for making films. It is mostly by having a journalistic view that those films are considered valuable and watchable! So I feel I’m limited both inside and outside of my country. Dealing with this is a challenging stage in my career.

Christoph Dreher is a Berlin-based film director and lecturer at Merz Akademie Hochschule für Gestaltung, Kunst und Medien in Stuttgart.

Vinicius Jatobá is a narrative, essay and theatre writer and Solitude fellow for Literatur 2017-2019.

The round table discussion was conducted by Judith Engel and Denise Helene Sumi.

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