By Steve Holgate, Special Correspondent, America.govTwo Iranian filmmakers dazzle audiences at Sundance
Filmmaker Hamid Rahmanian offers a candid look at the problems of modern urban society in his documentary The Glass House
Caroline Libresco, programmer for the festival, told America.gov that Iranian films have enjoyed success at Sundance over the past several years. "There is a vibrant movie community in Iran," she said, "and there's a real appreciation in cinephile audiences for Iranian films." She added that these films "provide a window to a world that Americans don't really know."
This year, two powerful documentaries by Iranian filmmakers enjoyed critical and popular success, playing to packed houses at Sundance screenings.
Generating a lot of attention was The Glass House, directed by Hamid Rahmanian. The film follows the struggles of four young Iranian women. Suffering from sexual and family violence, drug abuse and neglect, these women have found a safe haven and a place to learn life-transforming skills at Omid e Mehr, a one-of-a-kind rehabilitation center in Tehran.
Though the film follows the women's lives with unblinking frankness, Rahmanian and producer Melissa Hibbard say the film is about empowerment and hope, and is not meant as a critique of Iran's political situation. Says the young director, who splits his time between Iran and the United States: "Our girls' problems are not the issues of Iran, but of modern urban societies. These issues exist everywhere. We were able to remove the label 'Iran topic' from the film and tell a universal story."
Variety, the leading weekly of the U.S. entertainment business, praised the film's "superb cinema verité style," adding that it "deftly portrays a spirit of hopefulness." Sundance audiences obviously agreed, filling auditoriums whenever it was shown.
The night after The Glass House premiered, the festival screened The Queen and I by noted Iranian filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani. Though this was its American début, the film already opened at Europe's Göteborg International Film Festival and proved a success across the continent.
In her documentary The Queen and I, Iranian filmmaker Nahid Persson Sarvestani interviews the widow of Iran's deposed shah
As a teenager, Sarvestani participated in the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which brought down the shah. She later became a filmmaker, producing and directing acclaimed documentaries. But her 2004 film Prostitution Behind the Veil landed her in trouble with Iran's regime. She was placed under house arrest and interrogated by authorities for two months.
Sarvestani now lives in Sweden. She told America.gov that, to win her release, she had to "sign a document promising I would never make a film about Iran again." Sarvestani added: "That's when I became curious about what had happened to our former queen, who, like myself, was living in exile." She eventually contacted the shah's widow, Farah Pahlavi. Pahlavi had refused previous interview requests by others but said yes to Sarvestani because she had seen one of her films.
"I had a lot of reservations about how I was going to confront a person who lived in a vastly different world than I did," said Sarvestani. "But when I met her, I realized that she was nothing like what I had imagined. ... We had many things in common. We were both women who had gone through a challenging life in exile and had always tried to rise above [our circumstances]. We were both open to examining and re-evaluating our past, both politically and intellectually."
Throughout the film, the former queen's husky, weary voice is in strong contrast to her still-immaculate appearance. Pahlavi's polished persona also contrasts with Sarvestani's casual apparel and informal approach, bringing fresh power to what, for many, is an old story.
Yet the unlikely meetings between the former queen and the former revolutionary did not go smoothly. After the first interviews had been filmed, Pahlavi learned that Sarvestani had been among those responsible for bringing down her husband and sending her into exile. She told Sarvestani she was quitting the project. But after Sarvestani showed her an initial cut of the interviews, Pahlavi's suspicions of the filmmaker's motives receded, and she agreed to continue her involvement.
Over the 18 months of filming, the two became friends. Sarvestani confessed at one point that she was not sure she could bring herself to ask Pahlavi hard questions about human rights under the shah. "At the end, there are obviously still differences," Sarvestani said. "I think it's important to Farah Pahlavi to maintain her position as the former queen and ... that [prevents] her from living like an ordinary person."
Sarvestani was pleased to be among a handful of filmmakers whose works were selected by Sundance. "It's fantastic," she told a Swedish publication. "Sundance is so big." She expressed hope that an American distributor would pick up her film. As she told America.gov, "I think American audiences will be intrigued to find a compelling and different view of Iran's recent history from what they are accustomed to."
As their reception at Sundance demonstrated, both Sarvestani and Rahmanian were justified in their belief that documentaries by Iranian filmmakers appeal to cinephiles. Now they must see if that appeal convinces film distributors that there is a wider American audience to tap.
About America.gov: U.S. State Department's Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) engages international audiences on issues of foreign policy, society and values to help create an environment receptive to U.S. national interests.
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