Rakhshan Bani Etemad
Born on April 3, 1954 in Tehran, Iran
"I think that more than anything else, my films are bringing issues that need to be looked at, and that's my understanding and definition of cinema. For me it is not the end, but the means."
-from interview with Milos Stehlik
Widely recognized as one of Iran’s premier female filmmakers, Rakhshan Bani Etemad actually began her career in documentary television. After completing a B.A. in film studies from the Dramatic Arts University in Tehran, she began working for the Iranian television network. Her stay at the network culminated with Bani Etemad directing several documentary features for television.
Her early entries into the feature film world were met by harsh criticism but Bani Etemad persevered and soon found critical and popular success with her 1991 film "Nargess." The crime drama earned Bani Etemad the Best Director award from the Fajr Film Festival. This marked the first time in Fajr's history that a woman took home the prize for Best Director. Bani Etemad has gone on to win numerous awards for her films, including a Bronze Leopard Award for "The Blue-Veiled" at the Locarno Film Festival.
Bani Etemad has enjoyed consistent popularity with Iranian audiences as well as with domestic and international critics. Her films, while predominately featuring strong female leads are not to be confused with having feminist undertones. Bani Etemad is more interested in the universal struggle of the lower rungs of society, regardless of gender.
- 2006 - Mainline
- 2005 - Gilaneh
- 2002 - Our Times
- 2001 - Under the Skin of the City
- 1999 - Baran and the Native
- 1998 - The May Lady
- 1995 - The Last Visit with Iran Daftari
- 1994 - The Blue-Veiled
- 1993 - Spring to Spring
- 1993 - To Whom do you Show these Films, Anyway?
- 1992 - The 1992 Report
- 1991 - Nargess
- 1989 - Foreign Currency
- 1988 - Canary Yellow
- 1987 - Centralization
- 1987 - Off Limits
- 1986 - The War Economic Planning
- 1985 - Occupations of Migrant Peasants in the City
- 1984 - The Culture of Consumption
- Documentary-like approach to fictional film
- Characters that address the camera directly
- Films that deal with social issues specific to Iran yet still maintain broad appeal internationally
- The examination of Iran's lower classes and their struggle
- The plight of single women and single mothers in Iranian society
- Films that focus on difficult and strenuous family relationships
- Comparison of the different roles that a person plays while at work and with family
This interview was conducted by Milos Stehlik of Facets Multi-Media upon the release of Bani Etemad's Documentary "Our Times."
Milos Stehlik: Can you describe the political mood that Our Times was trying to depict?
Rakhshan Bani Etemad: I just wanted to reflect the spirit of the time, which was a lot of hope as well as despair, because nobody was sure if Khatami wanted to be a candidate, or if he would go for the presidency or not. Also, there are other candidates who were not known to the people, and nobody could be sure who would eventually run or even live through the final election. Some people thought they should cast blank votes, and just that. So there were a lot of mixed feelings and confusing feelings about the whole election.
Stehlik: And the idea for the film came from your own daughter. Is that how you became involved in it, because of your daughter?
Bani Etemad: I've been interested in the subject for a long time. I wanted to make a film about the election, and I was in the same situation as everyone else, meaning that I was really confused about the whole process... Though they wanted to be candidates, the women (who ran against Khatami) all knew that none of them had a chance to get elected. But just by the sheer fact of wanting to put themselves on the list, they were saying something; they were making a statement about their situation in their society, and about the problems and the legal issues for women.
Stehlik: The film concludes with a very extended story of one quite remarkable woman, Arezoo Bayat, who has a remarkable story. She is living with her blind mother and she decides to be a candidate; how did you find her?
Bani Etemad: Arezoo reflected the common plight of all of these women, and what the women really liked about her was that she (embodied) all of their problems, meaning that her situation and her life - her problems - were more severe than the rest. Yet, she had a very strong belief - and such strong confidence in herself - to say something about the lack of power of women in the society. That attracted me, that despite all the problems she had in her life, she wanted to do something and to say something. To me, that was very attractive.
Stehlik: And, as you show in the film, her crisis is that she has to move out of her apartment with her mother and her daughter at that time: what actually happened?
Bani Etemad: Actually, somewhere along the line, we lost our patience, and we couldn't stand that she would go wandering one street after another, one agency after another, and she could not find a place within her budget, and it was so difficult for us to follow her around, that at some point we intervened and we gave her some money to find a house. If we didn't do that, she might have had to go miles away from the city to a very remote suburb to find a place within her budget.
Stehlik: But another one of her problems is that she is a single woman, and she doesn't have a husband in order to rent the apartment.
Bani Etemad: Yes, she had both problems - the economic problem as well as the cultural problem - meaning that she did not have enough money to get a decent place, but not having a husband or any man also made it very difficult to be qualified to rent a place.
Stehlik: Something that always seems to be a present factor in your feature films, the fiction films you have made, is this kind of disenfranchised position of women in Iranian society. Is this a common theme that interests you?
Bani Etemad: I really didn't intend to go after this type of character, but it seems that you're right, that I'm really attracted and drawn to this type of character, meaning women from a lower class and lower income who are really struggling to get by and make their living... I guess I'm still going after these women who are really struggling, but who have a very resilient character. They are very strong, and, to me, that is very attractive.
Stehlik: For example, in "The May Lady," the main character faces the very difficult situation that she has a grown-up son and she's a single mother. Is this a common problem? What are the problems that women face as single mothers, or as single women in Iran?
Bani Etemad: These single women, whether they were widowed, divorced, never married, face a very difficult cultural problem in Iran. It's still a big issue.
Stehlik: How difficult was it for you to become a filmmaker, as a woman in Iran, which is still, like filmmaking in most countries, a very male-dominated field?
Bani Etemad: I started working in this field thirty years ago, so it has been a long time, and it was an accepted fact that I was working in this field both for myself and for the people around me. Of course, coming from a middle class family, my mother would have preferred for me to become a schoolteacher instead.
Stehlik: The filmmaker who is the character in "The May Lady" is making a documentary in which she is asking children and other people who the ideal mother is in Iran, and secondly, what profession they would like to choose. Most of the children choose doctor or lawyer, except for one boy who wants to be a pilot. Is this characteristic in Iran, something that brings back the memory of your parents' wishes?
Bani Etemad: The sequence in "The May Lady" was actually based on a documentary that I filmed earlier where I asked a group of poor children what they wanted to become, and they came up with all of these jobs, including acting and film, and they had no idea what it takes to become a doctor, lawyer, engineer, or an actor. They didn't realize that they wouldn't be able to receive the education, that they would never go to college. Nevertheless, they would just say what they wanted to become as if there was no problem. If I were to ask the same question of their parents, they might have been more realistic given the difference of adjustment. But when I was asking them, it was very moving for me, behind the camera, to see these children talking about their hopes and dreams.
Stehlik: Even though many of your films deal with the issues of women, you've refused the label that's often been applied to you by Western film festivals as being a "feminist filmmaker," because you say that you refuse to be categorized like this. Can you tell us why?
Bani Etemad: The reason I never wanted to be labeled a "feminist" is that in Iranian culture, the term has many different interpretations, and as long as there is such a strange understanding of this term in Iran, I don't want to be labeled a feminist. I think the whole movement for the liberation of Iranian women should come to a unified definition that is appropriate and meaningful within our cultural context. Then I could call myself a feminist. But with the current understanding of this term in Iran, I don't want to be called that.
Stehlik: All of the women in your films are very strong. Do you, in some way, see women as the hope for Iran?
Bani Etemad: Exactly. I really see women as a hope for the future of Iran, because despite the legal and cultural barrier for women, and despite economic hardship for the lower class or lower income women, they have a very strong character, which to me is the admirable quality about women in Iran, so that's why I see them in such a light.
Stehlik: Many of your films deal with social problems, yet you make films that reach broad audiences. What do you hope your films will do for Iran, and for the rest of the world?
Bani Etemad: I found my audience in Iran, and I like the way they read my films, as regarded in the way I bring up social issues in my films, and the way that I ask the audience to think about those issues. I have seen the results. And, I think that it is also happening outside Iran. I think that more than anything else, my films are bringing issues that need to be looked at, and that's my understanding and definition of cinema. For me it is not the end, but the means.
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