Divorce, Iranian Style
Tuesday 27 October 2015, by
In 2014, Sight & Sound asked 340 critics, programmers, and filmmakers to name the best documentaries ever made. This autumn, in partnership with Sight & Sound and Open City Docs, DocHouse is running a season of ‘Filmmakers’ Favourites’, inviting award-winning documentary filmmakers to present their choices from the poll. Director Brian Hill (Songbirds , The Confessions of Thomas Quick ) presents his choice, Kim Longinotto’s 1988 film Divorce Iranian Style which she made in collaboration with legal anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini.
The film centres on a family court in Tehran, providing general insights into Islamic law and courthouse culture and the proceedings of six cases in which wives wish to divorce their husbands. According to the voiceover, Islamic law permits wives to petition for divorce only if they can prove their husbands’ insanity, impotence or financial incapacity and while the six women express a range of motives for wishing to divorce, none of their reasons are considered legally valid. One woman has been forbidden from answering her home telephone for 30 years and is sick of her husband’s suspicions and rules, of his insistence on religious and marital duties. Another, Maryam, divorced her husband and remarried for love. However, she forfeited her right to custody upon remarrying, and requires the court to move her first husband on her behalf. We also see the struggles of 16-year old Ziba who is miserable in her marriage to a man 20 years her elder and desperate to complete her education. In order to assert their rights and mobilise the law the women employ a variety of strategies - Massy is softly-spoken, she smiles and teases the court attendants; then she is persuasive and relentless, refusing to leave; then loud and aggressive, denouncing her husband for his ‘sexual problems’. Ziba claims that her husband physically abuses her; when he protests, she shushes him and promises to withdraw the claim once the divorce is underway. Maryam tears the court order in anger.
The women-only film crew become co-conspirators, aware that Maryam has torn the order (a punishable offence) but when they are drawn into the dispute, they claim to have seen nothing. This coheres with Longinotto’s description of her documentary practice. In response to a question about her relationship with the subjects of her films, Longinotto explains: ‘I usually say we made the film together.’ The subjects become collaborators. Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini are keen to represent the agency of the women in Divorce Iranian Style – as wives under Islamic law, as subjects in a documentary film with a predominantly Western audience. As Mir-Hosseini writes: ‘We had to distinguish what we (and we hoped our target audiences) saw as “positive" from what many people we talked to saw as “negative”, with the potential of turning into yet another sensationalized foreign film on Iran.’ Divorce Iranian Style does not evade the inequalities of its female subjects, nor does it suggest that these women are simple, similarly victimised, or victims at all. Divorce, Iranian style, is complicated by culture, religious law, and legal bureaucracy, and the women manoeuvre these complexities with humour, wit, and perseverance.
The ‘Filmmakers’ Favourites’ season runs on Thursday afternoons (3.45pm) until early December at the Bertha DocHouse screen at the Curzon Bloomsbury. See DocHouse’s website for more information: