Iranian cinema returns to Edinburgh as tribute to female directors

Iran has one of the most unique national cinemas of the world, from the early silent era to the New Wave of the sixties to contemporary filmmaking. The very presence of Iranian movies at major film festivals—Berlin, Cannes, and Venice—has undergone a meteoric rise, as exemplified by Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (1997), Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation (2011) and Jafar Panahi’s Taxi (2015). Exactly a year ago, Farhadi’s The Salesman won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

While Iran’s male directors overwhelmingly represent global screenings, there are a significant number of influential female directors who, despite rigorous censorship, continue to create new cinematic language and endure. Curated by Dr Nacim Pak-Shiraz, Head of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, this year’s biennial Edinburgh Iranian Festival celebrated its stand-alone film season at the Filmhouse. Running from 17 February until 1 March, the ‘Women Constructing Men’ series featured eight films produced by five of Iran’s contemporary female directors.

Beginning with the works of young filmmaker Ida Panahandeh, the audience experienced love and loss as two former lovers are reunited after a fatal accident in Israfil (2017). Panahandeh’s Nahid (2015) addressed the social challenges faced by a single mother who wants to settle down with her new boyfriend. The 2015 feature introduced the Iranian concept of temporary marriage, or ‘sigheh’, an Islamic law allowing a man and woman to legally couple without an official change of marital status. “Despite stereotypes of women being oppressed and victimized in Iran, I wanted to show that women still manage and are, in fact, symbols of being great”, the director said during the Q&A following Nahid.

Shock, heartbreak and fear unfolded during Tahmineh Milani’s Untaken Paths (2017). The legendary feminist filmmaker is no stranger to portraying the marital struggles of women in her melodramas. Her 14th feature illustrated the life of a young woman in love, who marries against the wishes of her traditional family. The girl’s infatuation soon turns into regret when her seemingly kind fiancé transforms into an ill-tempered wife beater. “I myself know that this is one of the most important films about domestic violence in the history of Iran”, Milani proudly stated during her Q&A session, raising the issue of domestic violence as one that is global.

Continuing the social drama genre, Roqiyeh Tavakoli’s Mothering (2017) told the story of two sisters, one of whom leaves her lover and the other who has been abandoned. Themes of loneliness, love, and youthfulness emerge again—experiences Tavakoli herself has had for years living among the women of Iran. Mothering, of course, had a very different cinematic style compared to the succeeding screening of Poets of Life (2017). Narrating the life of a heroine while reading poetry, Shirin Baghnavard’s artistic documentary presented the struggles faced by a rice farmer, environmentalist, and social activist extraordinaire.

Ending with Rakhshãn Banietemad’s Under the Skin of the City (2000), Gilaneh (2005), and Tales (2014), a range of issues were depicted from war-torn Iran in 1988 all the way to the contemporary republic. Famous for addressing the cultural pressures that shape Iranian women’s lives, Banietemad’s work plays a key social role in merging politics and family. With in-depth analyses of Iran’s brain drain, by-products of the war, patriarchal abuse, forced imprisonment, and prostitution, the poignant trio was not only heart-rending but also very educational.

Overall, the thought-provoking motion picture series forced reflection on concerns surrounding women not only in Iran but around the globe. Once again, the festival celebrated a successful film season, with full houses during most screenings. “We are not a typical Iranian Festival aimed at Iranians. We hope to present and showcase Iranian culture, heritage, and art to non-Iranians and to create that bridge between cultures. The global issues, such as the ones in Untaken Paths, could be happening anywhere, really” festival founder Sara Kheradmand said to The Student.

With over 5,000 Iranians currently living in Scotland, it is unsurprising that a significant number of Iranians join the festival’s international guests. Given Edinburgh’s notable tradition for cultural festivals, the capital is without doubt a natural home for this gala. Previous celebrations included the music concert performed by Iranian soprano Darya Dadvar and the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Hassan Meshkinfam’s art exhibition at the Sutton Gallery, and the reading of poet Rab Wilson from his Scots rendering of Omar Khayyam’s Rubã’iyát.

For readers interested in learning more about Iran’s cinema and culture, there are plenty of opportunities available nearby. The Edinburgh University Persian Society regularly organises events related to Iranian film, music, culture, and dance. Moreover, the School of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies offers Persian Studies at undergraduate and postgraduate level. Adult language lessons are taught at The Persian School at Liberton High School. The cuisine, as depicted in the movies, can be appreciated at the newly opened Persian restaurant Toranj in New Town.

Image: Sara Konradi / Photo Editor

For more information regarding the Edinburgh Iranian Festival, contact or visit

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The Student Newspaper 2016