Tahmineh Milani (photo: AP)

The Cheeky Girl

Tahmineh Milani was sent to prison for her latest film, The Hidden Half. Georg Scholl interviewed the Iranian filmmaker about censorship, American cinema, and rebellious women in Iran.

The Hidden Half was a success at film festivals in Cairo and Los Angeles and also won a number of international prizes, like the "Best Film of the Year" at Amnesty Film Festival in June 2002. How was the film received domestically?

photo: AP
Tahmineh Milani

​​Tahmineh Milani: My film was shown for hardly a month and only in a single cinema. Then it was banned for two months. State television under the direction of Ali Larijani (director-general of IRIB, the state-run broadcasting corporation, and successor to Mohammad Khatami in the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance after his resignation in 1992, ed.) refused to show it.

Those who had a chance to see my film found it good, as it provoked discussion and actually provided a basis for discussion to take place. However, one has to differentiate between the reaction of the public and that of the state. I expected that the conservative newspapers would criticize me and my film. What I didn't expect is that I would land in jail because of my film.

You obviously hit a sensitive nerve

Milani: I had feared that the cultural revolution was too delicate a subject and that my film might cause a stir. My case is a lesson for all other directors who venture into forbidden subjects. There is a true character in my film who was pursued by one of the gangs of thugs that were so prevalent twenty years ago. The government doesn't want to remember this period and also doesn't want the public asking any questions about it.

In one of your earlier films, What Else is New?, the choice of a young girl in the main role was a source of trouble. The film authorities wanted you to alter the screenplay and turn the cheeky girl into a boy. What was so bad with your heroine?

Milani: I allegedly encouraged women to be rebellious. This is the basic objection that the conservatives have against me. I think that they are truly afraid that their own wives might get the idea to say something impudent or act like the women in my films.

Do other independent filmmakers have to struggle against similar suppression?

Milani: Many directors share these difficulties. I am no exception. Despite this, there is no single group of independent filmmakers with a common political platform. We all say and do what we think for ourselves.

In 1991, you wrote the screenplay for the film Two Women. You could only shoot the film in 1999 – even though Mohammad Khatami had been elected President two years earlier. Were you disappointed in your hopes for a quick transformation?

Milani: Khatami keeps to his word. His appeals were crucial for my release from prison. Even though I don't share all of his political positions, I think that we have to be grateful to him for the degree of normality that has developed in our society without having had to suffer any bloodshed. Yet, Khatami doesn't hold power alone. This is why I had to wait years before I could film Two Women.

Many artists in the former Eastern Block were successful and respected because they made an art of criticizing their governments between the lines without the censors noticing. After the fall of the Iron Curtain, they haven't been very much in demand. Might Iranian filmmakers be awaiting a similar fate if conditions become more liberal? Will audiences then prefer to watch detective and action movies instead of your films?

Milani: There is a new generation that is very interested in films dealing with politics and the recent past. For those who would rather watch detective stories, there is already plenty of that available today. Iranian television show lots in that genre, especially American crime series

This contradicts the common perception of cultural isolation imposed by the Iranian government. This sort of isolation might be compatible with an idea that enjoys some popularity in Europe of protecting national film productions from foreign competition…

Milani: The policy of state television is the exact opposite! It shows American films in order to starve the cinemas. This is a strategy aimed at our films. For only a short time, it used to be official policy not to allow the showing of any Indian or American films. The cinemas profited from the move, but now the policy has changed and the movie theaters are going bankrupt. This is a decisive phase for our cinema. It is not clear who is going to win.

There are also constant complaints here in Germany about the dominance of American films. On the other hand, most German directors dream about someday working in Hollywood. Do you share this fascination for American cinema?

Milani: No, not really. I like a few directors – Oliver Stone, David Fincher and his film Seven, and I also like Dances with Wolves by Kevin Costner. Otherwise, I don't have much in common with Hollywood.

Interview by Georg Scholl for Zeitschrift für Kulturaustausch 1/02
Translation from German: John Bergeron

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