Rakhshan Banietemad am Set von Ghesse-ha (Tales, 2014)

The Films of Rakhshan Banietemad

January 27 to February, 2022
"She's foreign, she's a woman and she's still alive. Can a Rakhshan Bani-Etemad season at the BFI draw the crowds?" – UK press during the BFI's 2008 Rakhshan Bani-Etemad retrospective
Rakhshan Banietemad (b. 1954) is usually dismissed as "one of the premiere international female directors" or the "First Lady of Iranian Cinema." A recent retrospective at a prestigious US venue introduced her as the "embodiment" of a certain progressive trend in Iranian cinema: the country's "surprising number of women directors." All of the above might be true, but only if we first accept a series of ideological prejudices and neglect a simpler set of facts: Rakhshan Banietemad is one of cinema's premiere explorers of social issues and one of its most subversive artists.
Banietemad studied film and, shortly after the 1979 Iranian Revolution, started her professional career shortly working for Iranian state TV. Life after revolutions is supposed to be idyllic, so the fact that her first documentaries focus on what she perceived as the social and economic injustices of the time says a lot about the young filmmaker's courage. After three early commercial features that approach social issues from a satirical angle, Banietemad found a strong personal voice with her bleak, hard-biting social melodrama Nargess (1991), an instant classic both in Iran and internationally and the first part of the director's informal City Trilogy, which she much later continued with The May Lady (1998) and Under the Skin of the City (2000). Since Nargess, Banietemad's features have cast a piercing gaze at the anomalies of post-revolutionary Iranian society, usually focusing on the precarious role of women and their struggles in a decidedly patriarchal environment.
It is hard to think about some filmmaking cultures without certain dominate characteristics coming to mind. Iranian cinema has a distinct filmmaking culture that made a huge splash internationally in the mid-1990s, presenting the world with a certain "style" that all of the key figures, "discovered" at the time, seemed to share. Key elements of this style include long takes (which draw attention to themselves), non-professional actors (who all excel as playing themselves), breathtaking rural environments (often used metaphorically), the blending of fiction and documentary (to reach for "higher" truths), unshakable humanism as a dominant worldview (pushed to sublime extremes), and universal stories (that teach us how to live a good life).
In her feature films, Banietemad never really fits these categories. She sets her stories in harsh urban environments and deals with very practical problems in very pragmatic ways. Her streets always have names and always define the characters that inhabit them. Her approach, grounded in gritty social realism, is shamelessly emotional, but never sentimental. She openly talks about things that her male counterparts never mention: war, class division, domestic violence, drug addiction, petty crime, religion, and oppression of women. When her films want to provoke, they call things by their name. When they want to be poetic, they openly recite poetry. Perhaps above all, Banietemad is in love with her characters regardless of their flaws or, perhaps, precisely because of them. Her characters continue their lives after the end credits roll, appearing in some corner of her next film. When asked about her style, she famously replied: "I think cinema is cinema. For me, there is a definition for cinema upon which I try to portray my beliefs and thoughts. It is always the subject matter and the theme of the film that determine the structure and technique as well as the cast."
Over the past fifteen years, documentary filmmaking has again become Banietemad's primary mode of expression. Once again, these films focus on what she perceives as major social anomalies. Sometimes sublime, other times simply necessary, these documentaries feel the pulse of an extremely complex society and deal with issues as varied – and as major – as political reform, public unrest, elections, education, and the environment. Banietemad shows us a face of contemporary Iranian society that many would prefer to keep veiled. (Jurij Meden & Tara Najd Ahmadi)

After talking to the director, we learned that there are no available 35mm prints of her 35mm films. Digital versions of these works by Rakhshan Banietemad will therefore be shown.

Unfortunately Rakhshan Banietemad has to cancel her visit due to health reasons.