Demystifying Iran

maryamPost-election turmoil in Iran has brought the country closer to the top of America’s foreign policy concerns. More importantly, though, it has piqued the interests of the American public. Green is the new black, Moussavi and Khamenei have become household names, and tweeting about Iranian politics has never been more popular.

But what is Iran like beyond its politics and the Western media hype? Iranian-born filmmaker Maryam Habibian tackles this question in her most recent documentary, The Mist. The film delves into the lives of young artists, poets, playwrights, and intellectuals in Iran whose creative energy flourishes alongside fundamentalist traditions. It explores the balance they reach between artistic expression and the limitations of a conservative political regime. Habibian shows her viewers another side to Iran, one that has been largely overlooked by conventional media. She is committed to showing her audience that a society cannot be defined solely by its political system and that when it comes to Iran, we are not facing a clash of civilizations.

Her film was recently screened in New York City as part of the NewFilmmakers Summer Festival.

NOOR IQBAL: What motivated you to make this film?

MARYAM HABIBIAN: The Mist is not autobiographical, but it definitely traces my own identity and experience coming back to Iran. I returned to Iran in 2004 and 2005 to begin shooting the film. As an Iranian expatriate, I had a different kind of access to the country than an American would. I had a way into the culture that people from the outside didn’t have. Also, I went in with a different attitude, looking for things that an American-born filmmaker might not even know existed.

I was curious to know what my life would have been like if I had stayed in Iran. I could have gotten a job as a professor at one of the universities, or worked in the theater there. How would I spend my time, what would my friends be like? How would my students there be different from the ones I have in the U.S.? I specifically sought out those kinds of people and hung out with them and asked them what it is they cared about. So it is quite a different cross section of the society from what foreign filmmakers might show. It’s a movie about real people, ordinary people. I guess from the point of view of the Western media, ordinary people aren’t considered particularly newsworthy. But maybe now current events in Iran will have changed that somewhat.

I think the media and the politicians often choose to overlook things that don’t fit into their preconceived view of the world. It’s easier to see everything as black and white, when really there are many shades of gray. This movie has a lot of grays.

NOOR IQBAL: What was the process like for you?

MARYAM HABIBIAN: I was very interested in finding out the current state of art and theater in Iran, since theater is what I studied in college. I started by going to Puran Farrokhzad’s house. She is the sister of the late Forugh Farrokhzad, one of Iran’s most famous female poets. At the time, my intention was to make a film only about female poets in Iran. These women were quite influential in the process of making the film. They told me, “the world has to actually understand us. We are not being translated because Farsi is limited.” Another one said to me: “Art and literature are universal, they don’t recognize borders or flags. Especially foreign artists—we feel it is our responsibility to understand them and we hope they reciprocate. But one of the problems of our language, Farsi, is the isolation. We really need good translators so that we can be heard. Our thoughts after all are universal and modern.” It was these initial conversations that really got me started with the film.

I was also interested in looking at the state of theater and it just so happened that I was able to attend a rehearsal at the last minute. I got an opportunity to speak with some of the actors and ask them about their opinions of the U.S. and their thoughts on theater in general. They also said the same thing as the poets. One of them told me, “the American media should really understand that we are also human beings, we go to coffee shops and drink coffee, we read books, we discuss. We are not just about politics, we are human beings. We need to be understood.” So that was a cry I heard from several of them and that really became the goal for my film, to show them, to let them be heard.

NOOR IQBAL: Why has this artistic culture been so overlooked? Is it hard to be an artist in Iran?

MARYAM HABIBIAN: No it’s not hard. As one of the characters in the movie said, the best way to understand a culture is through its art. Historically, poetry, art, and drama have played a very important role in the life of Iran and indeed today. Iran has a very vibrant cultural and intellectual tradition and I think the average Iranian is much more committed to the arts, especially poetry. Most Iranians know one or two poems by heart, or even more. It’s much more a part of people’s daily lives than is the case in the United States. So the characters in this film are a very educated, sophisticated group of people. Yes, they live in a fundamentalist society — of course women in Iran have to wear the hejab — but at the same time they are very progressive, very modern in other ways. People in the West will be surprised by this.

NOOR IQBAL: Do you think the West has misjudged Iranian society by looking at it solely through a political lens?

MARYAM HABIBIAN: Yes, because nowhere in any of the news media do they talk about literature and art, and that to me is the major part of a society. Even as a kid, growing up in Iran, I remember the “passion plays” I watched — they were religious, but they were a form of art. Whether secular or religious, poetry and theater have been in the lives of Iranians and that is completely ignored in the West. In fact, it is interesting that most people who have seen my film say, “oh, we actually didn’t know that women had any rights or women could drive, or women could work or be educated.”

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Still from The Mist.

NOOR IQBAL: Can you talk more about the contradiction between this vibrant youth culture and the conservative political and religious environment in which it has developed?

MARYAM HABIBIAN: Well, there are many forms of contradiction and tension. On the one hand, art and religion have been closely intertwined. The passion plays I mentioned were all religious. At the same time — the time of the Shah — there were western dramas going on, and still are actually. In my film, the students were telling me that they have produced plays by Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller, and many, many more western playwrights; American and non-American alike. However, they twist them and convert them to comply with Iranian culture. As one of them said, “We Iranianize it.” Essentially, they focus on the main theme rather than on smaller details that are more culture specific.

To get back to your question, though, young artists are really trying to stay out of politics. Sure, every art deals with politics in some way, but they have directly stayed away from dealing with the current political situation. So what they do is write plays that are more surreal, that deal with universal problems like war and suffering. They write symbolically.

For example, one of the people I interviewed had written a play about a man with psychological problems from his experiences in the Iran-Iraq war. And one of the characters in it was an authoritarian political leader. I asked what this character’s name was and he told me there was no name. So they use symbolism to reflect reality. They stick to universal claims about war and government rather than pinpoint particular Iranian leaders. And yes, the Iran-Iraq war is a political theme, but it happened in the past, and the issues are being dealt with in a more abstract way.

They have also stayed away from sexual themes. Cultural restrictions have forced artists to become much more creative. For example, scenes that require physical contact between men and women are shown using a silhouette. What is interesting is that people, especially young people, have not completely given up on art because there are restrictions. Within the restrictions and within the oppression they have become extremely creative.

NOOR IQBAL: I want to continue with this idea of Iranian culture that you were talking about. Is this something that people resent? Do they feel constrained by it or do they accept it?

Well, this is an interesting question because it is really a little bit of both. Iranian culture itself is such a mixture of European, American and an overarching Persian influence. You can see it everywhere. Young people show their Western-ness by smoking cigarettes and in their fashion as well. The girls will be covered up but they wear tight tunics and they have highlighted hair you can see through their scarves. This mixture has always been around. It was like that even when I was growing up. It is an interesting and strange dynamic. And that is why in every artwork there is an element of the traditional as well as the western.

NOOR IQBAL: Iranian films have had great success in the West. How have these relatively liberal films coexisted within a relatively conservative political system? Has the accommodation that these filmmakers have made been paradigmatic across the arts?

MARYAM HABIBIAN: Well you know, art and literature play a much different role in a more restricted society. Artists develop ways of communicating that avoid censorship but manage to address the issues that the public is most interested in. You see this in Iranian cinema, which has become one of the major national cinemas in the world. And this didn’t just come into existence with the present regime. Persian artists have been dealing with these kinds of restrictions for a long time, and there is even a case to be made that the tension between restraint and self-expression leads to great art. The topics they have chosen are more universal subject matters as opposed to sex and violence that exists in a lot of Hollywood movies. Iranian cinema touches upon nuances that don’t exist in American cinema, and that’s why people around the world are fascinated. For example, I teach Youth International Cinema in Manhattan and my students were totally amazed that the movie Baran showed the dynamics of love without sex. In most films they watch, love translates into physical interaction, but this is not and cannot be the case in Iranian cinema. I guess it is this tension that fascinates people.

NOOR IQBAL: How did your first audiences react to the film?

MARYAM HABIBIAN: They thought it was great. My audience was mostly American and they were amazed. They didn’t know these things about Iran, that women can be writers, thinkers, poets, that they were liberals. As I had hoped, people were being informed about Iran in a new way.

Even the Iranians who have been away for many years were amazed. They did not realize the extent to which youth artistic culture has flourished in Iran. They were shocked to see it so vibrant, so open. The media has misled people.

NOOR IQBAL: What is the significance of the title?

MARYAM HABIBIAN: Well, The Mist is obviously a huge metaphor but it comes from a real place in Iran. While filming, I traveled with a group of students to a place north of Iran called The Mist. There, we were able to talk informally. The girls took off their hejabs because they wanted to be free up in the mountains. We talked about everything…except for sex and politics and I was impressed with their open-mindedness.

It was dark and foggy as we traveled up the mountain. You could not see anything, but then it would clear up and there was a beautiful view for a few moments. This is what I wanted to show. To the outside world, Iran is covered in a fog but underneath it is vibrant and beautiful.

Noor Iqbal, a student at Harvard University, is an intern with Foreign Policy In Focus.