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Shahrzad, Iran's first female director, in Here the Seats are Vacantby Shiva Sanjari
Last week, I saw a remarkable documentary about a remarkable woman. "Here the Seats are Vacant" is about Shahrzad, Iran's first woman director but much more. She is a certain kind of woman, indescribable but recognisable.
As a young girl, she loved to sing and dance — "I would sing and dance loudly in the street," she says. Her father sold her to a cabaret in Teheran and she became famous as a dancer, and went on to successful career as an actor. Along with this she published some books of poems, short stories and a novel. She went on to make acclaimed films. The Islamic Revolution of 1979 came soon after and she found herself attacked, sent to prison and institutionalised in a mental health facility. Today, she spends her time moving from village to village, fearing attacks, living on a meager state pension, very alone, her work erased from public memory.
The grainy clips of her films are startling for their sexual frankness, that hedonistic air. These are not images we've ever seen from Iran. A beautifully graceful and sassy dancer, her freeness with her body is dizzying. But far more dizzying is the freeness of her spirit. At 72, she has the uniquely childlike quality of such women (I remember the late actor Nadira being quite like this when I interviewed her). There is a girlish fragility, an iridescent vulnerability, the easy vanity of one who knows she is rivetingly
attractive and a breathtaking intelligence.
In one scene, she lies on the floor, her shirt riding up and you see how unbothered she is about revealing her stomach, though now she is fat, how comfortable she is with her body. As she smokes and listens to a song, she starts moving her shoulders and asks, "Can you dance, like this, like this? " She sits up, making arabesques in the air with her hands and says, "These movements are our culture, they are like (Persian) miniature paintings." As she traces each movement, you begin to see the similarity in the lines of the dance and the lines of those paintings.
The artist's ability to trace the lines that connect one form to another form is something like the feminist ability to recognise the similarity of one unspoken truth with the shape of another silence. So, it seems almost natural that Shahrzad considers herself feminist. Of a turbulent romantic relationship, she says, "I liked being with him, having sex, reading poetry together…but there were too many tricks. He turned out to be married and he hadn't told me. That (lying) offended my sense of decency as a feminist."
Such people are poets of passion. When she speaks of revolutions and freedom movements around the world her voice swells with a sense of connection to passions and convictions of the body, mind and spirit. Such women are often unable to conform to any sense of schemas and boxes or moderation, in their work, their political views, their personal lives. Unable to be sensible and in a sense show respectability — whether conservative or liberal — for the lie that it is. Unable to belong in a sense, because they are so much themselves, their loneliness is perhaps inevitable, but also poetic and deeply political. They are a reminder that feminism is not just the things you do, but how you do things.
Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at www.parodevipictures.com