Making Divorce Iranian Style
by Ziba Mir-Hosseini
The idea of making a film about the working of Shari‘a law in a Tehran family court was born in early 1996 when a friend introduced me to Kim Longinotto. I had seen and liked Kim’s film ‘Hidden Faces’ (1991), on women in Egypt. Kim had for some time wanted to make a film in Iran: she was intrigued by the contrast between the images produced by current-affairs television, and those in the work of Iranian fiction film-makers. The former portrayed Iran as a country of fanatics, the latter conveyed a much gentler, more poetic sense of the culture and people.
We wrote a proposal for a documentary film to be shot in a court in Tehran, and in March 1996 we submitted an application for a permit to film through the Iranian Embassy in London. We phrased the proposal carefully, knowing the sensitivity of the theme. We stated that our aim was to make a film that would reach a wide audience and challenge prevailing stereotypes about women and Islam. Marriage, divorce and the fate of children, we argued, provide a perfect theme for such a film.
In December we heard that Channel 4 TV was prepared to fund us to make a feature-length film for its prestigious True Stories documentary slot. We were enormously encouraged.
In mid-January 1997 we decided to go Tehran to follow up our application - to argue our case in person with the Ministry of Islamic Guidance. For my part, I wanted Kim to see Iran for herself, to get a feel of the place and culture. In our discussions, we had to show how a film about marital disputes, shot in the family courts, could present a ‘positive’ image. One answer was to present viewers with complex social reality and allow them to make up their own minds; if we could show ordinary women, at home and in court, holding their own ground, maintaining the family from within. This would challenge some hostile Western stereotypes.
We wanted to work in a single court, to capture something of the life of the court itself. We also knew that our project depended much on the goodwill of the judge and the court staff, so it was important for us to work in a court where they welcomed us, understood our project and were willing to be part of it.
Finally we settled for the Imam Khomeini Judicial Complex, located in central Tehran. Two courts dealt with family disputes, both headed by clerical judges. We were introduced to both judges; both said we could film in their courts.
At first we filmed in both courts, but soon we confined ourselves to Judge Deldar’s, which we found more interesting. As Judge Mahdavi dealt only with divorce by mutual consent, that is, cases where both parties had already worked out an agreement, there was little room for negotiation: the dynamics of the cases heard were rather uniform, and the couples rarely revealed the real reasons behind the breakdown of marriage. Judge Deldar, on the other hand, dealt with all kinds of marital disputes, thus we found a much wider range of stories and a more spontaneous environment. Besides, the court staff were also fascinating characters in their own right, especially Mrs Maher, the court secretary, who had worked in the same branch for over 20 years. She was an extremely capable woman who understood our project, and her daughter Paniz was a real gift. Both soon became integral to the film. After a week, we too became part of the court life.
An extended version of this essay appears in the booklet that accompanies the DVD release.
UK, 1997 / 2001
Length / Divorce Iranian Style: 76 minutes
Length / Runaway: 85 minutes
Special features: 12 minutes
Sound: Original stereo (restored)
Original aspect ratio / Divorce Iranian Style: 1.33:1 full frame
Original aspect ratio / Runaway:
1.78:1, Anamorphic 16:9
Subtitles: English, Arabic
PAL DVD9 Region 0
Release Date: 26th January 2009
Second Run DVD 037