Interview with Tahmineh Milani

Between Censorship and a Smash Hit

Her work has been a constant tightrope walk between tradition and emancipation, between freedom and censorship. The Iranian director Tahmineh Milani talks about women directors, their mission, and cinema

Do women directors in Iran face greater difficulties than their male colleagues?

Tahmineh Milani (photo: private)
Tahmineh Milani: "I try to show our society what is going on in women's heads, what are their hopes, what they want and love"

​​Tahmineh Milani: As a woman in Iran, it is not important if you are a film director, a doctor, a nurse, or a teacher. If you are a woman, you face the same problems in every profession – and the same problems as every other woman as well. It is altogether unimportant what professional career you have chosen. I had the same problems as an architect as I now have as a filmmaker. Our women directors film just as many scenes as their male colleagues. We work under the same censorship with the same ensuing problems. Our scripts are read and we require permission to shoot. These are really the same problems.

But isn't this a dangerous combination, being a woman and a critical director?

Milani: No, it isn't. Let me tell you a little story. Upon finishing my studies, I became an architect. I went to my building sites and had problems with the workers. This was perhaps 20 years ago and they didn't accept me as an architect. The same thing happened when I began to shoot my first film, "Children of Divorce." I was 26 or 27 years old and the team with which I worked ridiculed me the whole time. They made jokes and laughed.

But by the time I made my second film, everything was fine. This was probably because other women filmmakers had since appeared. Things went better for me than for those first women filmmakers, and it will be even easier for those who come after me. We want to show our films and we find a way. At present, I do not have any more problems, as people now accept me in my profession.

Why do your films touch a sensitive nerve?

Milani: There was a dark period in our history that remains a taboo topic to this day. The Iranian Revolution began some 27 years ago, and after one year, the government shut down all of the universities for four years. They wanted to bring the universities under control. At the time, they arrested some students – other students moved away.

These four years in our history are a taboo topic. No one speaks about them, except perhaps outside of Iran. In my film "The Hidden Half," I attempted to portray one incident. Yet, a number of scenes were restricted so that we couldn't show, for example, that the government had numerous students killed. The government was afraid. I had expected that the conservative newspapers would criticize me and my film. What I didn't count on was getting thrown in jail. I think, however, that they didn’t put me in jail on account of my film, but, first and foremost, wanted to send a message to other directors – "Be careful!"

How did your situation change afterwards?

Milani: It was truly horrible when I was imprisoned. They give you a number and take a picture of you for the prison. I was no longer Tahmineh Milani, but a number. This all had repercussions. Later, I was prevented from becoming a professor or lecturer at the university, as it would have been illegal for them to offer me a job. At the moment, I find myself in a difficult position. For instance, when I wanted to make my eighth film, "The Unwanted Woman," and needed to shoot scenes in three police stations, I was told, "No, we are not allowing you in these stations, because you once sat in prison."

In Iran, it is always important who is the boss, who is at the top, who is the president. Everything is based on this principle. I recall a situation when I went to the Ministry of Culture to ask for permission to shoot a film. The minister responsible said to his assistant, "Women have something to say. Let her make films." That was what he said.

What do you see as being the task of women filmmakers?

Milani: Personally, I don't see cinema itself as truly important. I am not crazy for film. I chose film as a medium, as an instrument with which I can explain my ideas and to describe what is going on in my head and heart. And I think that I have been pretty successful at it. I have made nine feature films and a short for UNICEF.

Eight films deal with Iranian women, the middle class, and social, economic, and other problems. I try to show our society what is going on in women's heads, what are their hopes, what they want and love. I attempt to describe my ideas to our society. And I am not like other directors. For example, I don't concern myself with foreign film festivals. I love my people and I love it when Iranians come and see my films. I am truly happy that I am so successful outside of Iran, but my main goal is to satisfy the Iranian public.

What kind of importance does cinema enjoy in your country?

Milani: Over the last twenty years, the importance of cinema has grown enormously in Iran. The younger generation, especially, attaches an unbelievable importance to film. They understand our style very well and demand from directors a high level of responsibility. Our films should convey a message. This gives us the courage to carry on. In Iran, people do not read books or newspapers much. Yet, they are crazy for films. This is why I thought that film would be the best way to speak to people and express my ideas.

The interview was conducted by Claudia Auer

© DW-WORLD.DE 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron

Tahmineh Milani is one of the most successful Iranian directors internationally. The trained architect, born in 1960 in Tabriz, Iran, discovered her passion for film in 1979 at a screenwriting workshop. Ten years later, she presented her first film – "Children of Divorce." She made her international breakthrough with "The Legend of Ah" (1990) and "Two Women" (1999). Her films have won awards in many countries, yet in Iran they are frequently censored. She was arrested for her political representation of events in the "The Hidden Half" (2001). A petition of internationally renowned directors such as Sean Penn and the intervention of then President Khatami helped in her release. In 2006, she introduced her latest film "Atash Bas" (Cease Fire). It broke all Iranian box office records for the last five years and ran for more than 80 days in Tehran's cinemas.

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