I met filmmaker Ida Panahandeh at the Cannes Festival in a year when Iran is opening wide to the international market with a brand-new pavilion at the Village International and a few months after a Jafar Panahi win at the last Berlinale for “Taxi.” 2015 could be a good year for Iranian cinema. This year’s Fajr Festival was split up, so that the international section took place a few weeks after Iranians’ films were shown, although I’m not sure if that particular event is a part of the opening up or not.
Panahandeh looked modest in appearance and wore barely any make-up, leading me to wonder if she’s usually like this or is it a “I’m being watched so I’m keeping it on the down low” kind of thing. She is probably a low profile-type individual, preferring all the attention were directed at her work as a filmmaker, likely.
The Nahid of the title is played reliably well by Sareh Bayat, one of Iran’s actresses better-known internationally ever since appearing in Asghar Farhadi’s film A SEPARATION (2011). The number of women actresses who can carry an entire film is is in the low single digits: Leila Hatami, Baran Kosari and Bayat. Her Nahid gets angered, frustrated and anguished at the various indignities that her situation as a divorcee serves her up, NAHID providing yet another peek into Iran’s social attitudes towards women, marriage and family.
The woman struck a deal. She can keep her boy, as long as she remains celibate. But here’s the kicker: there’s a man she has a liaison with, that which threatens to ruin the fragile equilibrium of her life. “Sigheh,” or the arranged marriage which Nahid and her love interest (played by Pejman Bazeghi) chooses as an option to circumvent her agreement with her ex-husband is not, as could be inferred, the central theme of the film. This is something that Panahandeh emphasized during our conversation together. “The core of the film’s narrative is that it is a drama, about love.”
The filmmaker added, “although it is legal under Islamic law, sigheh is very strongly frowned upon in Iranian society.”
I asked the filmmaker about the financials of making the film and territories sold. Besides noting that French rights had been sold already, Panahandeh knew next to nothing about the business end of her film and deferred questions to the film’s producer who hasn’t responded to several email inquiries, so it’s a wash. In the U.S and France, where I interview filmmakers regularly, if asked a filmmaker on a small-budget film would immediately come up with funding sources and sales when asked. Is that simply a matter of Iranian reserve, or an heightened sense of division of labor?
The most memorable part of the interview came up when I asked Panahandeh about working with her contributors, co-screenwriter Arsalan Amiri, soundtrack composter Majid Pousti and director of photography Morteza Gheidi. Panahandeh gushed over the strengths of her collaborators’ work, saying this was the best possible team she could’ve assembled together for the film.
She had three possible actresses in mind for the role of Nahid, one of whom was Bayat. She wouldn’t tell me who the other ones were. Rakhshan Banietemad gave a strong show of confidence in favor of Bayat, which possibly helped the filmmaker in her making a final decision.
The film, which has gotten its exhibition permit, will be screened in Iran this summer, although it hasn’t been specified exactly when. “The Eid-e fetr period, after Ramadan, is the best time for a film to screen in Iran.”
When she came on stage for the premiere of the film a few days ago, I was struck by Panahandeh’s self-confidence. She spoke English nearly fluently and thanked her crew, fest’s Thierry Frémaux and Christian Jeune as well as her parents. She told me during our interview together that she was used to speaking in public and had been to many film festivals before.
Panahandeh already has a decade of filmmaking behind her, a number of prizes and awards and some festival mileage. One thing that did surprise the filmmaker, however, was seeing Cannes audiences crying after the screening of her film. She told me, “Iranians don’t show emotions in public so that was quite amazing to watch.” – Ali Naderzad