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Maryam Shahriar Comes Out of the Sun

Filmfestivals.com
follows up talented Iranian newcomers Samira Makhmalbaf and Marziyeh
Meshkini
with Maryam Shahriar, the director of Daughters
of the Sun
, the harrowing and challenging tale of a young woman shorn
of her feminity and sent as a boy to a squalid carpet workshop, where a young
woman falls in love with her. Daughters of the Sun won Best First Feature
at Montreal
2000
and the NETPAQ Award at Rotterdam
2001
and will be released in the US through Facets
Multimedia Chicago
. Filmfestivals.com caught up with Maryam Shahriar at
the 2001 Creteil
Women's Film Festival
.

Were you born
into a family of cinema like Samira Makhmalbaf?

No. My parents
are almost illiterate.

So how did you
become interested in cinema?

I think my love
for cinema grew very early. I loved art. I was very much interested in cabaret;
as a little girl, I used to sing and dance in parties. And I wanted to be a
dancer, but around 8 or 9, I began to have this interest for being an actress,
looking at the beautiful American film noir which were almost everyday
showing on Iranian TV. My heroines were all femme fatale from Sunset
Boulevard, you know. I used to take a pencil, go into my room, look at myself
in the mirror and pretend that I'm leaving John or David, and then cry. I even
pretended that I was speaking English! Often, my mother opened the door and
she was like: 'What the hell are you doing to yourself, why are you talking?'
I panicked, because I felt she was invading my own world. So I would close the
door on her and shake. I think that's where my interest for cinema began.

The first film
I saw, I think I was 5 years-old, it was an Indian film with Raj Kapoor, a legendary
actor in India whom my mother loved. That was my first introduction to the big
screen. Watching the film, I was constantly looking at my mother, because she
was crying. Indian films are very melodramatic. I was panicking, I couldn't
understand why my mother was crying and blowing her nose. When we came out,
I asked her: 'Mum, why where you crying?' And she just gave me a slap and said:
'Shut up, you don't understand these things!'

Then I went to
the States during the Iran-Irak war. I didn't want to go to the States, actually.
I wanted to go to Italy and study architecture. Then something brought me to
America and I began studying all sorts of things, until one day my sister said:
'You've been in college for two years and you still don't know what you want
to do, what do you really want to do?' Then I said: 'You're not gonna tell my
parents?' And she said: 'Of course not!' And I said: 'Well, I want to study
cinema!' And she said: 'What are you waiting for? Go for it!' And I said: 'Well,
I don't know how they're going to respond!" And she said! "Who gives
a damn, they're 3000 miles away from you!" But I wasn't really decided
at that time yet, I was full of fear, maybe because I loved it so much that
I was afraid not to be good at it and to discover this. One day, I saw 8
1/2
by Federico Fellini, and I turned off the TV and said: "I know
exactly what I want to do!' So I went and did it.

You said that
when you came back to Iran, you didn't want to make a feature. So how did Daughters
of the Sun
actually get started?

I came back to
Iran because my mother was very ill. It was really a miserable situation. One
night, I called Kiarostami and I told him that I felt miserable, that I thought
about killing myself. And he said: 'Don't ever do that! I know you're stronger
than that. Just write something.' And I said: 'I can't write. There's no way
that I can think about anything else than my real situation.' But he said: 'Oh,
try, do your best!' And I did! It was very strange, I had an image that night.
It was a story of a little boy with a kite. The day after, I began to write,
I had a story. Then I went to the Directors' Guild and applied for my membership
and someone told me that I could go to an Iranian set to see how they worked
in Iran.

So I went to the
set of the film 'Two Women'. There, I spoke accidentally to the producer
of the film, I told him my story and he liked it and said he was interested.
But then, because of my membership admission to the directors' guild, we had
to wait, and I lost a season for that film, which was to be shot in summer.
So we decided to do something else, and he told me: 'In order not to lose your
membership, write something else'. And I said I couldn't. But then, I don't
know, something strange happened to me again, I saw an image of a woman's head
being shaved, and from there I began. That was all I had, this image. And then
I started talking to my friend and this story came along. The minute I called
the producer to tell him the new story, he said: 'It's fantastic.' So we took
it on from there.

I believe you
said this image of the hair being shaved was related to your own childhood...

Yes, my hair was
blond, very thin, and my mother thought that if my head was shaved, I would
get thicker hair coming out. But this is a very common thought. Probably, yes,
the image comes from there. When I think about my childhood, I never think it
touched me so much, I never felt a difference, I went out after my head was
shaved and I played soccer with the boys. And they laughed at me, pointed at
me, but I told them I was going to kill them and kick their asses if they laughed
at me, and that they got to let me play! And they did!

So I never made
a big deal out of it in my childhood. But somehow, it had always been sitting
in the back of my mind. But you know, I always thought of it as a very beautiful
metaphor. To lose your identity, the struggle, and I think even for religious
reasons, feminity comes from hair, it's very crucial to women to have their
hair. So later, as an adult, I didn't look at it as a personal experience, I
thought about it as a metaphor to say what I wanted to say with the film.

Though your
film is very metaphorical, it deals with a certain reality, like the rug worker's
slavery, the 1997 earthquake...

I think even though
a film is depicted from a dream or a vision of reality, it can never be a part
of the reality. You're touched by a reality around you, and then you have a
vision of this reality. And then you make your own story out of it. I think
the social consequences of Iran will always have a part in my films. I am what
my society is. And I cannot be completely apart from what's happening around
me. The earthquake, the rug worker's slavery...

I'm crazy about
rugs, old cars and houses. These are the three material things that I love in
life. And somehow, I thought we have never appreciated how these rugs came to
be made. And of course, as a child, I spent some summers with my family in a
very religious city weaving rugs with these girls. But I was playing. So of
course, when you're an adult, you realize how important these experiences are.
As a child I never realized how tough life was, how hard weaving was for these
girls. But later on, probably, it just struck me as a really miserable fate.
They had no other choice than go to that very dark basement and weave silk-rugs.

Your film deals
with the taboo of gender-binding. Surprisingly, you said it was fairly easy
to have the script accepted...

Because of Khatami,
the political situation in Iran has changed a great deal. There are people who
understand what art is about, even if they come from the government! And
if you have a little bit of a sense of logic, it's very hard to say no. We're
talking about people who spend most of their lives on movie sets, even though
they are working in the government. Ideologically, they may be very religious,
but they know what a good film is! I'm not saying my film is a good film, but
they could definitely say that this film is trying to say something that is
unusual and unique to Iranian cinema. But in Iran, after Khatami, it's easy
for almost anything to be made. Because the second process is to get the permission
to release the film. If I go out and make a film about a transvestite, I could
do that, but the problem is, would I be able to get the permission to release
the film? So they are not really worried about me making the film, because afterwards
they are gonna take a look and decide whether this film deserves to be released
or not. The story was good, it was controversial, they agreed, but it was nothing
against Islam, I did not say anything against the government either.

Yet, they told
me to censor the film, and I censored it, I cut whatever they asked me to. Then
they saw the film again, but still they were not giving me the permission to
release it. And I said: 'If you had ideological problems with the film, why
did you give me the permisson to make it? We spent all this money...' The biggest
part of the budget comes from the government loan. And I said: 'This loan belongs
to the people. So if you didn't want me to make that film, why did you waste
the government's money?' Now the film is made, and I did not change even a single
word from the script, it's exactly the way I had written it. But, you know,
they said: 'The film has too dark an image of Iranian society.' Their main problem
was the contents, what the story carried, not the individuals, the characters.

At that time, the
film was wanted desperately by the Montreal Festival, which had seen it. I had
one screening at midnight and, miracles happen, those people came and saw the
film. It was a miserable situation, I had chopped the film off to solve the
censorship problem. It wasn't polished at all, there were no subtitles, but
they saw it and decided immediately that they wanted it for the festival. And
it helped a great deal, because they kept pushing the government to send them
the film. And eventually, about one week before Montreal started, they decided
to give me the permission to release the film out of the country, only for film
festivals. And I had to go through so much again to convince them. When the
film went to all those festivals, I think they no longer had the same fear they
originally had.

They should
have grown used to it by now. There are many Iranian films that go to festivals
and get prizes...

The reality of
it is that they don't really have a problem, it's just that they want to make
it very tough for the director, to think about the next film. They give you
so much hassle that you do auto-censorship when you're writing the next film.
This is the key for them. They want me to make commercial films, for example.
Basically they're trying to dictate to me the kind of film I have to make, especially
as a woman. I don't think they very much enjoy having women as thinkers, tough
women willing to fight for what they believe in. But I'm not speaking about
the government, I'm talking about the culture. You have many blocks, and the
government is not the only one. Your producer is, your distributor is, your
sales agent is, and they're all interconnected.

Part
2


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Chatelin Bruno
(Filmfestivals.com)

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