Divorce Iranian Style / Runaway Review
The circumstances and treatment of women living in Islamic countries under Sharia law has been the subject of a number of brilliant and inventive Iranian films – Abbas Kiarostami’s 10, Jafar Panahi’s The Circle and Offside, and even Marjane Satrapi’s animated take on it in Persepolis to name some of the most recent and prominent examples – but finding a way to actually meet and speak to real women and expect them to give an account of the difficulties they have had to endure is evidently difficult considering the restrictions they live under. Samira Makhmalbaf found an inventive way to do so in The Apple, reconstructing the story of two young girls chained and confined to their house all their lives through the use of the actual people involved and a lot of symbolism, but getting permission from the authorities to have accounts from women about their troubles shot in a documentary fashion is rather more difficult, particularly when it isn’t going to show Iran and Iranian men in a good light.
Gaining permission to record events and proceedings in a divorce court (Divorce Iranian Style, 1997) and in a women’s shelter (Runaway, 2001), the filmmakers Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini however have unprecedented access to two interesting arenas that show vividly and in detail the struggle between women and laws that don’t lean in their favour and the efforts of the authorities to reconcile them with that law. There are however two sides to every story and setting up in a Tehran divorce court, Divorce Iranian Style follows the cases of several women attempting to break free from troubled marriages, openly taking in views from both sides all the more to show how unfair and inequitable the system is.
Some of the cases and the information revealed in Longinotto’s film are genuinely shocking, such as the fact that a woman can seek a divorce from her husband only under three conditions. Not physical and mental abuse or mistreatment, not incompatibility, but only if her husband can be proved to be insane, having misrepresented himself before the marriage, or if he is not able to have children. The man however is free, if he wants to, to abandon his wife and take a second wife without even a formal divorce, and his first wife must accept this. In the unlikelihood of the law actually being able to grant them their divorce, the film shows women then using the courts almost as a marriage counselling service, the judge doing his best to convince their partners to be reconciled, mildly reprimanding errant men to remind them of their duty. On paper the law can be strict against them too – one man is threatened with 70 lashes for insulting his wife – but in practice, the courts do their utmost to prevent this eventuality, and based on the evidence of the film, they usually succeed.
While Longinotto’s film is ostensibly evenly handed in this manner, showing how the courts, even if their hands are tied by the law, strive to do the best by both partners in the dispute. In reality however it suggests and reveals deeper problems and subtly and forcefully gets to the heart of the underlying issues in the cases of the women it follows, and the question it raises is fundamental and applicable on so many levels. It may be women here, but when any section of the community is oppressed and denied equal rights, it will inevitably cause deep unrest and destabilise the foundations of that society. The women in Divorce Iranian Style, some of them married off at the onset of puberty at the age of nine in arranged marriages, denied basic human rights, are shown fighting tooth and nail for the merest semblance of freedom. The impact of this on Iranian society is clear and it can be seen in the eyes of the children in the court - Longinotto captures even this - showing how such familial struggles and turmoil only perpetuate the continued fostering of repressive laws, attitudes and violent behaviour, a trap that ultimately has an impact not only on one section of the community, but on all of it.
In perfect complement to Divorce Iranian Style, on which she assisted, Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s Runaway, being set in a shelter in Tehran for women who have fled abusive families, looks deeper at the consequences of a system that fails to adequately look after women’s needs, and takes it to an even more shocking level. More than just suffering physical violence and abuse, where women have few rights and are effectively treated as second-class citizens, their nature, emotions and means of expression repressed or taken away from them, it inevitably gives rise to psychological problems, lack of worth and self-esteem and depression. One young girl complains of having no rights and no choice in any aspect of her life – everything is deferred to others – “no high heels, no short coat, no tight trousers, no short scarf”. It may sound trivial, but its symptomatic of oppression and denial of rights on the most basic human level over almost every aspect of their lives, from the food they eat, to who they speak to, to whether they receive an education or not and to whether they can even leave the house.
Like Longinotto’s earlier film, Runaway follows several individual cases, the human interest aspect of each of the women’s stories appealing to the viewer’s sense of justice and sympathy for their problems. Such stories, horrific though several of them are, could be heard from a visit to a shelter for battered women anywhere in the western world, but like Divorce Iranian Style, the underlying social problems that give rise to the specific problems as they relate to Iranian women also comes through very strongly. Here, it’s not just men that are violent, abusive and place restrictions on the freedoms of their wives and daughters, but other women, mothers - no doubt themselves victims of years of repression, deprivation, physical and mental abuse - who turn their own problems onto their own their daughters, driving them to run away from home and seek help, and they are often unwilling to take them back.
Also like Divorce Iranian Style, Ziba Mir-Hosseini’s film shows the limitations of what the fine women who run the shelter can do for these young girls. They give them a chance to speak about their problems, don’t judge them when they appear to not be telling the whole truth, knowing that they wouldn’t risk being out on the streets of Tehran alone with so many “wolves” about without good reason, giving them a sympathetic ear, support, company and understanding, but the main purpose of their job is to reconcile them with their families and husbands and reintegrate them back into society. It’s a brief moment of freedom they are given, but it can only be temporary and not a substitute for what they really need, which is for those families and for society to value them, love them and treat them as human beings.
Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway are released in the UK by Second Run. The two films are presented on a single dual-layer disc. The disc is in PAL format and is not region coded.
Since these are documentary films, shot on 16mm and not exactly under film studio conditions and lighting, the quality of the image obviously isn’t pristine, but even so there’s no excuses that need to be made for the transfers presented here, which are both excellent. Divorce Iranian Style is in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio and is clear and free of marks, only showing the type of colouration, softness and grain that would be expected from the source materials. There are no other notable problems, the stability of the transfer fine, running smoothly with no digital artefacts or compression issues. The more recent Runaway looks even better, transferred anamorphically at a ratio of 1.75:1, showing excellent colouration and better shadow detail, with good black levels that are never flatten out, despite the conditions. Grain is of course evident and there are some cross-colouration issues showing up in brighter backgrounds, but again there are no issues at all in how the original source materials are transferred.
Basic Dolby Digital 2.0 audio tracks would be the most you would expect for these documentary films and those presented here are fine, the dialogue clearly audible with no noise issues.
English subtitles are provided for both films in a clear white font and are optional. As there is some narration by Kim Longinotto on Divorce Iranian Style, mainly only to introduce each of the women pursuing divorce proceedings and give some background on their case. This film consequently also has optional Arabic subtitles.
Interview with Kim Longinotto (12:39)
In an interesting interview with the director, Longinotto explains that she decided to make the film to get a better understanding of an aspect of Iranian society than had been previously underrepresented, and explains the huge difficulties that had to be surmounted. She talks a bit about each of the women selected and how they represented a broad spectrum of cases. Behind it all the idea was to capture “stories that people can relate to”, and that is certainly achieved.
The DVD comes with the usual fine and informative booklet of essays. Mark Cousins examines each of the films, the background of the filmmakers and the social context that they are made in, while Ziba Mir-Hosseini gives an account of the numerous difficulties and the lengthy process she and Longinotto had to go through to gain funding and permission to make Divorce Iranian Style.
Kim Longinotto describes her documentary film work as a way of making “stories people can relate to” and although the two films included here are set in a culture with laws quite different from our own, the underlying nature of the difficulties related by the women at an Iranian divorce court and at a women’s shelter is universal. So much suffering and abuse is expressed, yet at the same time so much kindness, warmth and humanity. More than just being mere anecdotal or personal stories however, the accounts of the women testify to a deeper social problem, and it’s a tribute to the skill of the filmmakers that those issues are just as much to the fore in Divorce Iranian Style and Runaway. Credit must go to Second Run for their continued commitment to finding worthy, relevant and important films like this - both films released here on DVD for the first time - and for their usual excellent presentation.