A few months ago, Facets released Rakhshan Bani-Etemad’s Our Times (2002) on DVD. It’s a fascinating and revealing documentary–reportedly the first ever released in Iranian cinemas–about the 2001 Iranian presidential election that politicized record numbers of women and young people (70% of the country is under 30), who campaigned in the streets for the re-election of reformist president Mohammad Khatami.
The Iranian electoral process begins with open registration before many candidates are vetted and disqualified; campaigns run about a month. Bani-Etemad focuses on a group of teenagers (including her own daughter) who established a campaign headquarters for Khatami, and also on several female presidential candidates–of the 700-plus initial contenders, 48 of them were women.
Of this latter group, Bani-Etemad zeroes in on Arezoo Bayat, a twice-divorced 25-year-old-woman (both of her ex-husbands were drug addicts) who explains why she nominated herself: “I feel like I understand all the people because I have faced the same situations of poverty, drug addiction and unemployment. We need to raise a voice against injustice.” Arezoo has a nine-year-old daughter and an elderly, blind mother she cares for, but when her roommate decides to marry, she’s forced to find a new place for the family to live that’s affordable on her meager salary.
Bani-Etemad follows Arezoo with a handheld camera, documenting her exhausting journey around Tehran as Arezoo struggles to overcome cultural prejudice (single women tenants are frowned upon) and exorbitant fees as her deadline to vacate draws near. Arezoo comes across as a resilient and intelligent young woman who faces up to her life with distraught but determined idealism; her tale is by turns moving, frightening, and inspiring.
Khatami–a key figure in the Iranian new wave cinema due to his progressive tenure as Minister of Culture from ’82 to ’92–eventually won re-election, but his term ended last year. In his place, the hardline conservative Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was elected president (89 women counted among more than 1,000 candidates in 2005), and his impact on the industry is very much in the air. The Economist featured a story on the situation in their last issue, noting the effect of Iran’s shifting political winds:
“It would be premature to suggest that the religious conservatives who run the government have abandoned their ambition to cleanse the country’s film industry of the liberals who infected it, so they believe, during the presidency of Mr Ahmadinejad’s predecessor, Muhammad Khatami. The authorities probably allowed [Jafar] Panahi’s Offside its run at the Tehran film festival, which ended a few days before [the Berlin film festival] started, only in order to deny Mr. Panahi, who wins a lot of sympathy abroad when his films are banned at home, the opportunity to present himself as a wronged liberty-seeker. (Offside is unlikely to be certified for general release.) For all that, as Iran’s diplomatic position gets more parlous, and the world becomes inured to frowning Iranian officials parroting the official view, the advantage of giving exposure to personable patriots such as Messrs Panahi and [Mani] Haghighi becomes apparent.”
Bani-Etemad’s Our Times is a personal and informative time capsule of a crucial moment revealing the ongoing cultural tensions in Iran between conservatism and progress, and the film strikes an effective and precarious balance between hope and despair. It’s a portrait of Iranian life rarely seen in the West.