Women Under The Influence is community committed to celebrating the fascinating and often underexposed world of female directed by film: you might be familiar with Ana Lily Amirpour and Desiree Akhavan who are flying the flag on the international stage right now but Iranian directors have been lauded for their contributions to the flourishing film industry (and beyond) since the 1960s. We look at six pioneering women born in Iran whose lives are as remarkable as their movies.
Already a divorced mother at the age of 19, she began publishing poetry in 1954. Unsurprisingly a divorced young woman writing poetry with a bold female voice attracted a fair amount of negative attention in 1960s Iran, but she steadfastly remained true to her work and her independent life style. Like an Iranian Sylvia Plath, women felt (and continue to feel) deeply connected to her work. Although she only directed one film, The House Is Black (1962) – a documentary about life in a leper colony, Farrokhzad is credited with kick starting the Iranian New Wave. Her unique combination of unflinching cinéma vérité, lyrical cinematography and poetry paved the way for a new kind of filmmaking. Sadly she died in a car crash at the age of 32 leaving behind her an impressive and brave body of work.
Known as the “First Lady of Iranian Cinema” Bani-Etemad’s not only has a formidable filmmaking career but also merges work, politics and family. Her trailblazing career rose to prominence in the 80s with pointed satirical documentaries before moving to a more personal, narrative style, focusing on outsiders and the disenfranchised. These melodramas are a striking example of popular cinema being used to explore long familiar social issues. In the past few years Bani-Etemad has been motivated to return to documentary, taking the pulse of a young population (particularly women) seizing freedom whilst chafing with the lingering obstacles of religious tradition.
An internationally renowned feminist filmmaker whose work examines social realities from strong female perspectives Tahmineh Milani was imprisoned for “anti-revolutionary” sentiments in 2001. In a country with so many restrictions filmmaking can be a treacherous business. Due to the pressure of the international film community including big hitters Coppola and Scorsese she was eventually released and is currently in production on her 15th feature.
Taking the international community by storm Makhmalbaf became the youngest director to compete at Cannes aged 17 with The Apple. (1998). Her father was a celebrated force in the Iranian New Wave and her mother Marzieh Meshkini is a much loved filmmaker in her own right so The Apple didn’t fall far from the tree. At 21 she went on to win the Jury prizes at Cannes for her second film Blackboards (2001) and two years later she won again with At Five In The Afternoon (2003), which was the first feature made after Taliban rule. Her particular directing style uses local untrained actors for an almost anthropological realism, but framed in highly poetic situations.
As an exile living in New York, Shirin Neshat has become an icon of contemporary Iran over the past 20 years. Her dual perspective has given Western art its most compelling response to the ideological war between Islam and the secular world that has come to dominate our decade: it was Neshat who introduced the notion of Islamic-feminist work to the West, hinting at the resilience and determination of Iranian women that exists beneath the hijab. Cindy Sherman was the first person to buy her work, then in 1999 Neshat won the International Award at the Venice Biennale for her video pieces Turbulent (1998) and Rapture (1999). Her award winning directorial debut Women Without Men (2009) uses magic realism to tell the stories of four women living through the 1953 CIA-backed coup which supplanted Iran's democratic government with a monarchy.
The adaptation of her autobiographical graphic novel Persepolis (2007) has got to be the most gripping account of the vagaries of modern Iranian politics and revolution. It tells the story of a feisty girl growing up under the constant weight of political conflict. Her middle class family are thrilled with the prospect of a Marxist revolution but as Islamic Fundamentalist take control the mood turns to disillusionment and fear. Like any teenagers her friends want to act out but the stakes are high. Eventually Marjane is sent away to avoid ending up in jail or worse. The film is an exceptional coming of age story and political chronicle all at once. It won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was Oscar nominated for best animated feature. Satrapi is currently at work on her fifth feature.