Interview with Marziyeh Meshkiny (Director of The Day I Became a Woman)
Film International: As a woman filmmaker did you face any particular problem?
Marziyeh Meshkiny: Men and even women, tend to have less faith in woman. They believe filmmaking should be reserved only for half of the humanity, that is, the men. Everywhere in the world men are making much more movies than women. Women directors make up less than 10 percent of men directors, and among film festival directors perhaps only one percent are women. In Iran there are now 500 men filmmakers and only ten women directors which make up about two percent of the total of number of directors. Thus women face certain problems as film directors, just as we have never had a woman president in the country. This is the outcome of our male-dominated culture and of the fact that even women have more faith in men. During the shooting, I had to prove my abilities twice as much as a man does before my authority was accepted by the cast and crew.
FI: How do you think the Iranian cinema manages to be so successful in spite of its difficulties?
M.M: I think it is mainly because the Iranian art cinema is different from the current world cinema which is dominated by Hollywood productions or films merely imitating Hollywood films.
FI: Did you receive any kind of subsidy or support from the state bodies?
M.M: No, The Day I Became a Woman, received no state support and was produced by Makhmalbaf Film House. We got part of the budget as a bank loan which we hope to pay back from box office receipts.
FI: How did you become interested in filmmaking?
M.M: I love filmmaking. There are many women in Iran who would be interested in making films if they were given the chance. I was one of the lucky few who was offered the opportunity. I had practical and theoretical training at Makhmalbaf Film School for four years. I was Samira’s assistant on both her films, and I also worked as assistant director on Mohsen’s films The Silence and The Door. I made this three-episode film as of my practical training course. It is in fact my graduation project.
FI: How did this film school start?
M.M: When Samira decided to quit school and study filmmaking, Mohsen set up this film school to give her daughter training under his own supervision; he had no faith in the existing film colleges in the country. Later, I and several other people took advantage of the opportunity and joined the school. The training program was both difficult and exhilarating. There were days when we spent 8 to 16 hours at the school. We had every type of classes: foreign language, film analysis and history, music, poetry, painting, practical works in film editing, sound recording, and drawing up shooting schedules, even swimming and driving.
FI: What are your views on Samira?
M.M: She works a lot, Samira is an intelligent, talented and dynamic girl.
FI: How much of her success do you think she owes to her father?
M.M: He taught her filmmaking for four years and he took her along on shooting locations since she was a child. You could say that he was a perfect mentor to her. But he never interferes when she is directing. Samira says her father taught her filmmaking so well that she could now teach him if he ever forget filmmaking.
FI: In what ways is she different from yourself?
M.M: That is an unnecessary comparison. I try to be myself, and Samira is what she is.
FI: What were your duties as assistant director on The Apple and The Blackboards?
M.M: I helped with the planning, directing background performers and occasionally I worked on the set design.
FI: How’s your relation with Mohsen Makhmalbaf?
M.M: He was my teacher for four years; I was his assistant on two films -- The Silence and The Door -- and we’ve been married for six years now.
FI: As a woman filmmaker, what are your problems with your husband?
M.M: Our problem is, we are so in love with each other.
FI: Would you have become a filmmaker if your husband was not a director?
M.M: There are about ten woman film directors in Iran and none of them is married to a filmmaker. I could have been one of them. To become a filmmaker a woman does not have to be married to a film director. But it would have probably taken me much more time to get acquainted with filmmaking problems if I hadn’t been married to a filmmaker. Maybe I would have taken up some other form of artistic expression such as painting or even carpet weaving, the traditional art of the Iranians. On the other hand, it is true that many women filmmakers in the world are married to directors; the question betrays a lack of faith in women.
FI: Did Mohsen make you get involved in filmmaking or was it your own wish?
M.M: We made Mohsen teach us filmmaking. I should also add that he can’t stand a woman whose life is confined to house-keeping.
FI: Why is your film focused on women?
M.M: As a woman, naturally I am more affected by problems that face women. Also, I believe we should help gain equal rights for woman through cultural activities.
FI: Who wrote the film script?
M.M: Mohsen wrote the general outline of the script; I added dialogues and details of the scene. Parts of the script were worked out during the shooting.
FI: Do you think the Iranian girls really face such problems at the age of nine?
M.M: In traditional communities they do, but not in the cities. Legally girls are considered adults after the age of nine, and they are treated as adults in courts if they are guilty of any offense. Whereas with boys it is quite different.
FI: Is that an Islamic precept?
M.M: Some religious scholars are opposed to it. They consider girl’s adulthood starts with biological puberty. But apparently their view has not produced any change in the girl’s legal status yet.
FI: Why is the grandmother in episode one against the girl’s going out of the house?
M.M: Because male domination has been interiorized in women, and sometimes they collaborate in the injustice inflicted on women, and they are even more insistent than men.
FI: Why is the mother’s reaction different from that of the grandmother? They both seem to belong to the same traditional community?
M.M: The film focuses on three generations of women, the old, the middle-aged and the young generations. The young people of today demand freedom; they generally follow the dictates of their heart and their instincts. They have not had enough experience and they have not yet learned to use the lessons of past experiences in decision making. Then we have a sort of intermediate generation, represented by middle-aged people. They are excited by the idea of freedom and at the same time they worry about past traditions and customs. They lead unsettled lives in between the other two generations. The old generation belongs to the past and the traditions; it has no relation with the future. For them everything is settled beforehand by tradition. The war of tradition against modernism is enacted by three generations living in the same home.
FI: There are two old women in the film. There is the old woman who does not leave the house and won’t let her granddaughter go out either. And then there is the old woman of the third episode who flies the plane to buy modern articles. What is the cause of the difference between the two of them?
M.M: The old woman of the first episode comes from a rural background, while the other has been brought up in the city. But for both of them being exposed is a problem. The second old woman, who buys modern articles, says a glass teapot is shameless. To her it represents a state of being exposed. She says the teapot is unacceptable because one can see through it. This represents the unconscious resistance built up through traditions. The old generation, or the generation of the day before yesterday, is trapped by tradition both in rural and in urban areas, and it tries to impose its world view on the other two generations represented by the middle-aged and the young people. The old generation does not mind using the products of modern technology but the usage has to conform to the traditional outlook. In other words, the old generation uses modern products but rejects modern world view.
I believe people, especially ordinary people, are deeply attached to the world view of their times; they can not throw it away so easily. This provides a unique perspective on the delayed process of democracy in Iran. Young people have to allow the old generation to go through with its life and then respectfully pass away, before they can bring about the changes that fit in with their world view. The democratic versus non-democratic war in the country is in fact the war between mothers and daughters or fathers and sons.
FI: Do the scarves and barrels in the film symbolize anything?
M.M: Iran is an oil producing country, and in Iran, especially in the southern parts of the country where most of the underground oil reserves are, oil barrels can be found everywhere. Usually the barrels end up as toys for children, and the types of games children play with barrels represent a variety of symbols. In my film the barrels represent Iran’s riches, while the scarf is a symbol of the Iranian woman. If they are both used correctly we will experience a release. Naturally other people can have their own particular interpretations of these symbols.
FI: Why is the boy sent to jail?
M.M: I worked with both professionals and non-professional actors. In the first and third episode everyone is non-professional. But in the second episode there are three professional players: the cleric, the husband and the principal heroine. She is a stage actress and my film was her first experience in cinema.
FI: Which group is easier to work with?
M.M: Sometimes I felt that a single take would do, but at times I would get as many as ten takes. It all depends on what you are trying to achieve; sometimes I had to repeat a scene because of technical problems, and at times I felt that actors did not have the right feeling.
FI: How did you work with the actors?
M.M: With professional actors I offered detailed explanations. I felt they should know the details that could help them prepare for concentrated performance. With non-professionals, I adopted a different approach. I would prepare the scene as if we were going to have a game. This happened in the scene where they eat pickles and candies. I tried to make them feel this was a sort of contest and that the winner would be the person who ate pickles and candies with the greatest relish.
Interview: The Day I Became a Woman