When Iranian filmmaker Lila Ghobady left her homeland in 2002, she knew she would never be allowed to return while the current regime is in power. Ghobady chose a life of exile in order to be a "storytelling voice of the oppressed" who remain in Iran. She uses film to communicate her perspective on the injustices faced by the citizens of the country. Ghobady's films reflect her own situation: that of an exiled female artist. Her first independent release, Forbidden Sun Dance, tells the story of Aram Bayat, an Iranian choreographer who was forced to leave Iran when dance was banned by the new regime after the 1979 Revolution. I spoke to Ghobady about filmmaking and Iranian underground cinema.
Your films focus on women artists who have been exiled from Iran. Why have you chosen this approach?
I have always been interested in telling the story of secular and leftist Iranian women involved with the 1979 Revolution in Iran, who had supported the people's fight against the Shah's rule, but were among the very first victims of the Islamic revolution. Most of the young women and men who had been involved in the revolution were killed, imprisoned, or forced to flee the country soon after the Islamic regime came to power. Those who survived and fled lost their connection with new generations of Iranians born in the next 30 years, so there has been a huge gap between my generation and the generation after me with the generation who was directly involved with the revolution. Censorship ensured there could be no connection or understanding between them. I believe this historical amnesia is an important part of our personal and political history, so it must be documented.
Aram Bayat's life story is representative of thousands of untold stories of a generation whose hopes and dreams were sacrificed for the dream of a democratic society, a dream shattered when religious leaders stole the revolution to create an Islamic state of oppression and terror.
Why is film an effective medium for this type of storytelling?
There is no doubt cinema is a strong medium. There is a magic in moving images that captures the audience's hearts and minds in a matter of few minutes. In my view, cinema at its best is an art form and a tool to express the experiences, joys, and pain common to all humans. At its most mediocre, cinema is an entertainment medium, which is of no interest to me.
Do you fear your films may bolster the fear or misunderstanding some Westerners have about Iran?
I believe this kind of film will expose realities rarely seen in mainstream media. What happens in country like Iran is beyond the control of ordinary Iranians. It's a story like that of dozens of autocratic dictatorships, including many Asian and African countries who receive support from Western allies for economic, strategic, or political reasons. Those who live there who are opposing anti-democratic regimes are jailed and tortured; they disappear, are murdered, or are forced into exile. The ongoing injustices help spawn fundamentalist Islamic ideology everywhere.
When and how did you discover your passion for filmmaking?
I was mesmerised by the silver screen as a little girl. Reality was hurtful, so I took refuge in cinematic fantasies, watching the peaceful, colourful, passionate images in films from the outside world through our video player – which was banned by the regime. It was my only escape from the dark reality my generation lived.
As a woman who was born and raised under an unjust, unequal, misogynist religious regime in my country, film seemed to me a natural medium to chronicle life inside the society in which I lived and struggled for basic rights. I began working with Iranian cinema magazines in 1991; that was how everything started. While working as a journalist in Iran, I met filmmaker Moslem Mansouri and became involved with him in underground filmmaking.
What is Iranian underground cinema?
The underground cinema portrays the unvarnished life of people who live in Iran. The underground cinema's role is not just to point out the existence of poverty and injustice in Iran – as the official cinema portrayals – but rather to target the roots and causes of poverty and injustice. It reveals the connection between the lives of street children and the bank accounts of government officials. It is the storytelling voice of the oppressed.
Moslem Mansouri established the underground filmmaking movement in Iran more than a decade ago. He was born in 1964 in Iran. In 1981, because of his political views, he was arrested and imprisoned for two years. After, he started to work as a journalist and published a book, Cinema and Literature. From 1994 to 1998, under the pretext of media work and outside the control of the Iranian regime, he secretly produced eight underground documentary films about the lives of the people under Iran's theocratic rule. I produced two of his internationally praised films – Epitaph (about sex trade workers) and Utopia (about female survivors of war) – and worked as an Associate Director on a few of his other films, including Trial, which won the best documentary prize at the Tribeca Film Festival in 2003.
After secretly shooting these films, we had to leave the country since it was not possible to distribute the underground films we had made, which we wanted to edit and distribute abroad to introduce the underground cinema of Iran to the world to show that an alternative cinema to the official government cinema exists. Living abroad, we could also help our friends working inside Iran to continue their work on underground cinema. Our friends in Iran have been working on films on issues such as self-immolation and teenage suicide – both of which occur at an unbelievably high rate in Iran today. They are also working on the topic of the role of government gangs who have started sex trade businesses to export sex workers to an international market. In addition, they are working secretly on films about labour and student protests in Iran.
The dark reality is that by creating censorship and phony turmoil, the Islamic Republic of Iran succeeds in deviating paths of artistic and social expression. It tries to dissipate the confrontational energies of the Iranian people and prevent them from organizing. For this, it creates phony social movements. When it cannot hide public poverty, prostitution, trade in children, and the overall devastation that has overtaken Iranian society, it presents itself as a critic that objects to its own doings. With a variety of tactics, it controls social protest by suggesting that transformation and change can come from within the government. It engages in thievery, and plays the role of the anti-thief. It is the executioner that plays the role of the defending attorney. It plunders public wealth and then creates charity boxes for the poor. The underground cinema exposes these tactics, especially in the art and cultural arena.
Have any of your films screened in Iran?
In order to make or distribute any film inside Iran you need to receive permission from the cultural ministry, which is basically a center for control and censorship of art. Since we made these films without permission, smuggled them outside the country, and distributed them around the world, they are not allowed to be used in any official screening or distribution in Iran. Even though our underground films are banned, they have been copied, distributed, and seen widely through underground market by people – and also through internet and foreign broadcasting. We have received an overwhelming positive response and support, mostly from young student-activists who oppose the existing regime and want to become involved and start making their own secret films without permission from the government.
Have you returned to Iran since immigrating to Canada seven years ago?
No. I came to Canada as a refugee to resist the current regime. As an independent female artist-activist who opposes the Islamic regime of Iran, I am not able to enter the country unless I recant what I have done against the regime while in exile and sign an apology before entering the country. This I will never do since I do not accept the authority of those now in power who have taken my motherland hostage for over 30 years and have never apologized for all the human rights violations and killing of thousands of innocent young women, students, and political prisoners since they stole the people's revolution in 1979.
What are you working on now?
Since I established an independent production company (Banou Films) in 2007 in Montreal, I have produced Forbidden Sun Dance independently with no financial support from either Canadian or Iranian organizations. I also recently finished working (as an associate director) on the documentary film The Final World, which is Moslem Mansouri's second documentary about the life of the legendary late Ahmad Shamlou, one of the most prominent and influential contemporary Iranian poets. In his poetry, Shamlou spoke consciously of human suffering, injustice, and love. Through his distinctive expression of language, he skilfully sided with the oppressed, and opposed cruel regimes and their inhumane institutions. The film is a national treasure, 55 unseen minutes of Mansouri's and Taghvaei's interviews with the poet and his long time partner, Ida, two years before he died.
Now, as an independent female artist with no financial support, I need to go back to my day job for a while to be able to finish my present documentary, which is also related to another woman artist's life in exile. The film has been shot partly in Europe and the U.S last spring, and I hope filming will continue this fall – if I can manage the financial part of it!