Zanan-e Emrooz (Today’s Women) magazine in its 5th issue in October carried a first-person narrative by Iranian filmmaker Marjan Riahi about her visit to Mexico City. What follows is the translation of the account in its entirety:
Everything started with an email, going ‘Congratulations! Your movie, The Iranian Ninja, has been admitted to the competition section of Guanajuato International Film Festival’. It is an email welcomed by every filmmaker around the world, from the most professional to the very amateurish who is blown away at the sight of it. It instills a sense of confidence and recognition in filmmakers. Anyone who claims that the admission email fails to impress them is either displaying false modesty or telling an outright lie!
Of all small and large global film festivals, when your 30-minute documentary is admitted to one – unknown in Iran – the important matter is not just presence in a festival whose selected films will gain direct entry to the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) or whose chosen film will appear on the preliminary list of the Academy Awards. Rather, what is of great significance is that you will be the first Iranian to explore a festival which has never played host to an Iranian and is held in a country which used to be home to Mayas.
How did the journey begin?
Before I set out for Guanajuato, I had to make a trip to South Korea to head the jury at the Asian film section of the Puchon International Fantastic Film Festival. Since there was a short interval between the two festivals, after 18 hours on the plane I finally arrived in Tehran from Puchon, but I had to leave Tehran again for Mexico City in eight hours, a journey which would last as long as 24 hours considering the layover in Frankfurt. In fact, after 50-hour missing out on sleep, I got to the other half of the world. When I got out of the plane in Mexico City, my blood pressure stood at 70 mmHg. Not feeling well, I stood in a long line to have my passport controlled. A very polite airport official approached me to check my passport. After scanning it, the official asked me to go to Booth 9.
Having stood for half an hour in the line for Booth 9, it was finally my turn and the officer in charge of checking visas said something in Spanish waving his hand to let me know to follow him. We went through a narrow corridor and left behind some rooms and finally got to a room where a few girls were sitting and crying. I asked them what had happened and one of them said “They deport Iranians”.
At last, it was my turn. In a white room, I was questioned in Spanish by two officers in black suits. I was sitting on a chair in the middle of the room to answer their questions.
– Why did you come here?
I produced the invitation sent by festival officials.
– That’s not a compelling reason. Are you going to go to America?
– I would if my film was submitted [to an American film festival] and the festival picked up the bill for my travel costs, but now I am here to take part in the Mexican festival.
– It’s everyone’s dream to move to America.
– But I have more important ambitions. I feel comfortable in my country and I have no intention of migrating. As a matter of fact, I love my country.
– You seem to be too boastful of yourself and your country!
– Yes, I am. Do you have a problem with it?!
– Welcome to Mexico!
After three hours of interrogation, I was warmly greeted by a group sent by the festival. They apologized profusely to me for the behavior of the visa officer, promising that we would shortly get to San Miguel and have a rest. They also made another apology for not being able to accompany me and sending me there alone in a van. The last apology was for the fact that the driver could not speak English!
When we were on the potholed road to San Miguel in utter darkness and complete silence, I thought about not taking a trip to the north of Iran for ages because of my dislike for overland journeys, not knowing that one day, I would be forced to travel in a van, which was more like a roller coaster, for five hours after missing out 53 hours on sleep to get to a city where the festival was scheduled to be held!
Finally after 58 hours, I arrived in a city which was the hub of history and a piece of heaven! When the van was going through the passages of the city, I thought that amount of beauty could not be real. It could be the set of a film studio!
When a team on behalf of the festival came to greet me there and gladly asked me if I cared to take part in a gathering that evening, the half awake and utterly exhausted of me opted for a rest in a hotel. It was then that I was told there would be no hotel. They showed a 16-year-old girl to me, a volunteer who helped them with coordination of the festival. They told me that the girl’s grandmother was going to put me upduring my stay there. In fact, everyone invited to the festival was expected to be accommodated in the houses of locals.
When the door opened, I looked in awe at the taste in furnishings and the beauty of flowers and plants there! The grandma greeted me with the kindness typical of Latin Americans and I slept like a log on the nice bed in her house until morning.
I woke up in heaven the next morning. When the grandma was preparing omelet and coffee with freshly-baked bread for me, I was thinking to myself that it was worth the long-haul trip from Puchon to Guanajuato, telling myself that even if I had to stay in this beautiful kitchen for the rest of my trip and eat home-made bread and omelet, I would be one of the happiest women in the world!
The grandma did not speak English and only knew a few words. However, the bond formed between us was so strong that we interacted for hours without understanding each other’s languages. She roasted pumpkin seeds for me and I offered her Sohan [a traditional Iranian saffron brittle toffee]. Her daughter, who was a baker, sent us sweets and freshly-baked bread as gifts.
At night, when I had difficulty sleeping, she insisted that I drink herbal tea. She was worried about the dark circles around my eyes and about her stubborn granddaughter who did unpaid work for the festival rather than helping her mother with running the bakery.
One night she asked, “Given that you are a filmmaker and spend your time from dusk to dawnin front of the computer screen, are you rich?” Before I uttered a word, she called out to her granddaughter who turned up in the kitchen in astonishment. The grandma pointed to me and said, “Look at her! Look well, she works allnight and has developed dark circles around her eyes, yet she does not make much money! Do you want to end up like her? Is that what you want?!”
And now the festival
Well, as the first Iranian who took part in Guanajuato International Film Festival, I must say it was a magnificent festival with good international status. This year, the festival was intended to pay tribute to Polish filmmakers, and to that end prominent figures of the Polish silver screen were invited to screen their films.
Next year, the festival will have its focus on Turkish cinema. One of the unusual features of the festival was that every filmmaker had to pay a daily visit to the festival’s palace to find out about the timetable of each day; there was no schedule in print.
There was a long distance between where I was staying and the festival’s palace which I travelled back and forth by either taxi or bus. More interesting was the addresses of the places; festival programs were usually held in an institute or a university every night. We were often told to go to that street or to that building and we would see the festival’s organizers at the entrance!
There was no exact postal address and everything was left up to your luck about whether or not you would find the direction to the place. Except for the festival’s executive team, there were over 100 volunteers working for the event. Among other things, the pitching workshopand the presence of the most famous film production studios on the sidelines of the festival stood out about the festival. During the event, it was easy to meet independent and non-independent film producers from across the world.
The films for the competition section of the festival had been chosen meticulously and most importantly, the festival had its focus on animal rights. It was so unlucky ofa filmmaker like me to be there with a film whose theme revolved around women!
Over the first few days, I found out that the movie theaters for documentaries were not as busy as those screeningdrama. However, because I had already predicted such a problem and taken a lot of leaflets featuring the exact timing of the screening and photos of The Iranian Ninjas with myself, I did not sit on my hands and started handing them out to those interested indrama. I invited them to come and see my film. That earned my film fame within a few hours and aroused the jealousy of other filmmakers participating in the competition section. It was also recognized as the most-watched documentary of the festival.
At itspremiere, it was screened to a full house, drawing the astonishment of the organizers. At a Q and A session, the first question was whether my culture and my government allowed a woman to travel by herself. In answer, I said neither my culture nor my government has a problem with it. However, the Mexican government seems to have a problem with female filmmakers who want to enter Mexico. On my arrival, airport officials kept interrogating me for three hours! My comment was greeted with a thunderous ovation by women and when I left the podium, a member of the Mexican Female Filmmakers Society invited me for coffee.
The screening tour of the film
The Mexican Female Filmmakers Society is a non-governmental organization. Its 130 female members, from make-up artists to directors and producers, help each other, gratis, making a film. Influential women from the Mexican film industry make up the board of directors of the society. They mostly run a cinematic department or a film school with a lot of students. Most importantly, they are very supportive.
The board liked ‘The Iranian Ninja’ very much and believed that they could identify with the women in my film. Over coffee, I was asked to have my film screened at some important Mexican universities of cinematic arts. From Centro de Capacitacion Cinematografica whose founder was Luis Buñuel and Busi Cortés, the first woman who made a dramatic film at that university and is now teaching there, toUniversity of Guadalajara. The showing of the film was followed by a few-hour-long conference. On the whole, with the help of such supportive women, the screening tour of The Iranian Ninja across Mexico was arranged and the only female Mexican festival, run by the society, nominated the film for screening.
In one of the meetings, it was mentioned that because of lack of sponsors for female festivals they cannot organize any competition. Surprised by the comment I said, “All well-known brands have branches in Mexico, given that no restrictions are imposed either by the government or your customs, why don’t you ask L’Oréal, or Victoria’s Secret for that matter, to sponsor your festival?”
The response by the chairwoman of the festival board knocked some sense into me: “We do not want to be like those women who are after cosmetic brands and extravagant outfits. We cannot let them advertise their products in our festival and lead women toward artificial Barbie-like beauty. Instead, we want to inspire women to have confidence and be proud of their natural beauty and the way they are dressed.”
In Mexico, it looks as if Mexican women are in charge not only at home but also in society! If you ask a foreigner who is married to a Mexican man about what her married life is like, her first response will be: “You can’t even imagine going on a trip, to a restaurant or anywhere else without his mother even for a day!” Throughout the whole city, you can see young couples accompany an old lady with profound respect and gracefulness. In shopping centers, long lines, which are pretty common in Mexico and a typical feature of the country – in fact as a Mexican you have to spend a considerable amount of your time in lines at bus stops, banks, public rest rooms and checkouts of shopping centers – one can see a large number of women who keep the company of their mothers-in-law in long lines.
Also, in academic circles and film festivals, women play an important role. For instance, the secretary of Guanajuato International Film Festival was a woman and its planning directors and the executive team were mostly young girls who were fluent in a few languages. Having a good command of a few languages in a country like Mexico, where 90 percent of people do not bother to learn or speak English even in academic circles is of great importance.
I stayed in Mexico for a month and had my film screened in different cities and met many people. However, getting familiar with the Mexican Female Filmmakers Society was the highlight of my trip. I met Amazonian women who took great pride in being women and in their natural beauty, women who helped each other like sisters, members of a society whose absence is strongly felt in Iran.