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Melodrama as counter cinema: the case of three film by three Iranian Female directors

Activity: Talk or presentation typesInvited talk


Looking at the history of cinema, women have always played an integral part in the film industry, despite the fact they have been left out of the canonical study of film history for years. There have been great initiatives in recent years to rewrite film history and we can see great changes already in our teaching curriculum. However, the same parity in the study of the ‘world cinemas’ is still at its infancy and Iranian cinema is not an exception. Despite Iranian cinema being studied extensively when it comes to its female directors, notably the works of its pioneering female directors: Rakhshan Banietemad, Tahmineh Milani and Pouran Derakhshandeh, they are discussed mostly in socio-political and cultural studies texts or in text with feminist strategies attempting to decipher the reasons behind the increasing women’s participation in the film industry in a patriarchal society otherwise known for discrimination and oppression of its citizens. There are plenty of works including my own book Colourful Presence (2015) that attempt to investigate the contradictions and paradoxes that led to the fast-growing numbers of women filmmakers.

In this paper I wish to go back to these directors’ early films and offer close textual analysis of these three films: Little Bird of Happiness (Derakhshandeh, 1988), The Legend of a Sigh (Milani, 1991) and Nargess (Banietemad, 1992) which goes beyond the usual discussion they are studied under. This paper will argue for these film’s integral role for the birth of Iranian ‘women’s cinema as counter cinema’ that unlike Claire Johnson’s definition, do not go against the mainstream but weave into it instead. In fact, one could argue one of the reasons these films have not received the same international recognition as the films by Iranian male directors is due to using mainstream modes of storytelling, as well as considering the political agenda of the film festivals at the time. I will argue while these early female centric melodramas are perfect texts for understanding the women’s role in the patriarchal society of Iran, they have also paved the way for many more female and male directors’ women’s films to reach new heights. While dealing with the harsh social realities of their subjects, these films also offer a level of entertainment and they typically cast well-known actors in addition to depicting tangible themes that speak to the public.

External organisation (Research grants)

NameCarlos III University of Madrid