Hijab-clad Ninjas. “Temporary” wives. A matriarch in the guise of a man, running the show like a boss. This is Iran as you’ve never seen it before.
For more than 20 years the UCLA Film & Television Archive, directed by head of public programs (and master of perfectly pronouncing difficult foreign names) Shannon Kelley, has teamed up with the leading organization of Iranian cultural exchange, the Farhang Foundation for the Celebration of Iranian Cinema.
Among the noteworthy new features, shorts and documentaries — some of which are having their U.S. or West Coast premieres — is an exceptional collection of not just stellar Iranian actresses in leading roles but also women directors and writers who’ve gone above and beyond to reveal the everyday social, domestic and professional battles women experience in Iran.
“Powerful stories about women’s lives and all the many ways in which they persevere and survive in today’s Iran seem to be a very prevalent theme in this year’s selection,” says Alireza Ardekani, executive director at Farhang Foundation. “In addition, it is such a thrill to see so many talented female artists working both behind and in front of the camera. I think this is something that would be a surprise to those who are not familiar with Iranian cinema.”
The three-week celebration kicked off with Soheila Golestani’s debut feature film, Two, which she wrote and directed. Based (very loosely) on American writer Bernard Malamud’s short story The Maid’s Shoes, the film follows the enigmatic relationship between a recently widowed maid and her crotchety employer.
“The first thing that was interesting for me was the parallels between the American story and the reality I live and see in Iran,” said Golestani, who came from Iran to watch her film’s debut in Los Angeles, home to the largest number of Iranian expatriates outside of the Islamic republic.
And there are other powerful and revealing stories. Time to Love stars the iconic Leila Hatami as a divorce lawyer defending her female clients against the common brutality of the legal system. Actress Roya Teimoorian plays the titular role in Hadji Sha, about the head of an all-female household who is forced to disguise herself as a man to help her family and aid her niece in trouble. Teimoorian as well as director Zamani Esmati will attend the showing and participate in a Q&A afterward on May 20. Closing the festival is Avalanche starring “the Meryl Streep of Iran,” Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, as a weary nurse trying to keep it together while caring for an absent doctor’s mother.
If you’re in the mood for a short-and-sweet, butt-kicking documentary, check out Iranian Ninja directed by Marjan Riahi. In this 30-minute film, she captures the lives of a group of Iranian women who are among thousands seeking power and strength in the martial art of Ninjutsu. Brace yourself for Dolls Don’t Know, another empowering piece, in which women who were married at a very young age describe the journeys they’ve been fated to against their will or better judgment.
Though censorship in the arts still prevails in Iran, this rise in women’s narratives made by women is a major sign of progress. For Iranian actresses and female directors and writers whose outlet is already limited, having their stories showcased in front of a large American audience is a major accomplishment both in the artistic and political sense.
Events such as this represent a noble effort to break down cultural barriers by sharing the splendor of the Iranian heritage and creating a chance for people to connect and learn.
And if there’s anything to be gleaned from this year’s Celebration of Iranian Cinema, it's that Iranian women are a talented, fierce and resilient bunch — and they may or may not be actual ninjas, so tread carefully.
Celebration of Iranian Cinema, Billy Wilder Theater, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. cinema.ucla.edu/events/2016/iranian-cinema.