Collected Works: Film
Divorce Iranian Style
directed by Kim Longinotto & Ziba Mir-Hosseini
The divorce court is a small, shabby room with whitewashed walls. Secretaries sit behind piles of papers, each wearing a chador. A cleric is seated at an equally crowded desk, raised to indicate his importance as judge, a tasselled Iranian flag attached to its corner. We are immersed in the proceedings with little commentary, left to fend for ourselves. A tearful sixteen-year-old girl accuses her husband of insanity, determinedly navigating a bureaucratic legal system in the hope of ending their forced marriage.
Divorce Iranian Style follows a group of women fighting for maintenance payments, marriage gifts, and custody of their children. It exposes structures skewed to suit men, with an early scene detailing instances of gender inequality. Women are filmed entering the building from a separate entrance, are told to remove excess make-up, and cannot step foot in court unless they are deemed to be suitably dressed. Yet the documentary seeks to describe without judgement, approaching its subject with an open mind.
The film also captures occasional moments of humour in the court. A number of women look conspiratorially towards the camera, seeming to acknowledge the farcical nature of their situation. Paniz, the young daughter of the court stenographer, provides comic relief as she sits at the cleric’s desk, pretending to arbitrate. Wearing a beanie hat as a turban, she adopts the stern voice of authority to defend an imaginary woman. She states that she won’t marry, now that she knows ‘what husbands are like’.
But a tragic note lies beneath her radical plan. We are told that children can be legally married as soon as they hit puberty, often as early as nine. Paniz may be spirited, articulate, and assertive, but we fear that she will be bound by the same societal restrictions as women before her. When we leave the claustrophobic courtroom of Divorce Iranian Style for the final time, we do so emotionally invested in the fate of its many characters, struggling to separate ourselves from the bonds formed.
Words by Emma McKinlay
More to discover
You can watch an excerpt from Divorce Iranian Style here, or the full film (uploaded by Ziba Mir-Hosseini, one of the co-directors) here. Mir-Hosseini has also written about the making of the film for ISIM Newsletter. To find out more about Kim Longinotto's work, see Cynthia Fuch's review of the filmmaker's MoMA retrospective, written for PopMatters.
Question of the day
Grizzly Man, directed by Werner Herzog. An unsettling yet funny documentary that covers the almost unbelievable story of a man who spent years living with bears. (→)
– Lewis Coenen-Rowe, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)
Buena Vista Social Club, directed by Wim Wenders. Havana mesmerises in Wenders' documentary, which helped make its eponymous musicians legendary. (→)
– Emma McKinlay, Silent Frame Sub-Editor (via Patreon →)