Divorce Iranian Style (1998)

This remarkable and fascinating documentary offers us candid access into an Iranian divorce court. But it also gives us incredible insight into the often-hidden inner workings of this truly patriarchal society and the spirit of the women who push against it.

Co-directors Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini required an unusual perseverance in order to finally get permission to make their observational documentary, petitioning countless officials and organisations over a two-year period who were fearful of yet another western documentary portraying Iran in a poor light. As Mir-Hosseini explained in an Indiewire interview, “my argument was that if we let the reality show, if we do a film which is based on what is happening…then it is not going to be negative propaganda, because marriage and divorce is something which is universal. We wanted to make a film that people in the West could relate to, as well as people in Iran.”.

The film’s title ironically echoes that of Pietro Germi’s Oscar-winning 1961 comedy-drama Divorce Italian Style, and it’s true the stories it tells are in many ways universally human, as well as unique to a very specific and foreign society. Even though not everyone was supportive – they had to smuggle the footage out of Iran – the two women were granted a remarkably intimate and free access to the courthouse and to the couples applying and appealing their divorce cases.

Three tales

The film is almost entirely shot in the shabby, cramped court room, with occasional excursions to the homes of the people involved. The opening voiceover calmly explains that the judge made the filmmakers feel welcome to this noisy, informal and at times chaotic place. We meet the judge, the court clerk and her young daughter, and the man who maintains the case files in the cluttered office next door.

But central to the narrative are three women, all seeking divorce for different reasons.

Ziba, who was 14 when she married her 34-year-old husband

We spend most time with Ziba, a sixteen-year-old girl who married two years previously to a man twenty years her senior. It’s a marriage that was almost certainly doomed from the start, not because of the age difference but because of the cultural gulf between the two. Both recognise that the marriage has failed, but are arguing about the terms and financial compensation. As well as the court hearings, we witness impassioned arbitrations in the family home, a fascinating facet of this foreign system which encourages disputes to be settled in private rather than in the court of law. Ziba is a remarkably wilful, intelligent and modern young woman, and after the divorce she would go on to study at university to live a very different life.

Jamileh is treated badly by her husband who is disregarding and unattendant and almost certainly having an affair. Out of the three, she alone doesn’t actually want a divorce, she confides to the camera that she deeply loves her husband but by beginning proceedings she hopes he can be shocked into changing his ways. There’s a marvellous moment when she can’t stifle her delight when she gets her errant husband to write a promise to respect her in the presence of the judge. She has an enjoyably wily and mischievous character that she doesn’t hide from the camera or the judge.

Maryam’s tale is the most heartbreaking, a fruitless battle for custody of her two young children, her tearful appeals to the judge are in vain as the immovable law is clear: an ex-husband has automatic rights of child custody if his ex-wife remarries. We see her desperate anguish and despair. What’s fascinating is the judge’s tact and sensitivity as he tries to diffuse the situation to prevent each party’s passioned and angry despair leading to more problems.

Maryam, whose painful appeal for custody of her child was doomed to failure

Smash the power

The three women are hardly victims, however; they are passionate and surprisingly outspoken. They use their wit, guile, humour, tears and perseverance to achieve their aims. This is not fly-on-the-wall cinema, either. Sometimes the women (it’s always the women) draw the camera into the action, either with glances or spoken asides that almost act as an inner commentary that complements or contradicts the proceedings.

Apparently when asked about the documentary in a magazine interview, Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami couldn’t believe that a woman in Iran would be emboldened to talk so freely in front of a camera, and (wrongly) suspected the camera was somehow hidden, a strange assertion as the film makers always have a distinct presence.

Longinotto felt to the contrary that the women were so forthright because this was a very rare forum where they were being heard. In a recent Q&A for Bertha Dochouse, she felt the shooting was infused with a solidarity of “us against the system. not against men but against the system”.

It’s a modest, low-budget production, and perhaps that informality afforded a level of trust that a bigger budget TV production could never have done. The court soon became so accustomed to the filmmakers’ presence that the judge never even asked to see the final footage.

A patriarchal society

This is more than just a tale of unfortunate yet spirited individuals. Their stories shine a light on the frustrations and restrictions of a legal system where men and woman have very different roles and rights, and where the consequences of divorce are felt much more acutely by the women.

We’re also told that in Iran that the system looks unfavourably on women seeking divorce, with both society and the law weighted against them. Young Ziba will always be stigmatised as a divorcee and as no longer a virgin, the bad decision to marry aged fourteen will follow her for the rest of her life. And Maryam’s case shows the prejudice against a woman who dares to remarry, automatically losing her custody rights to her child by previous marriage.

The clerk, who has worked in the divorce court for 22 years, advises Maryam of her situation

This is a patriarchal society where men and women are segregated, even symbolically with separate entrances to the divorce court. We watch the judge, in a fleeting glimpse outside the court room, as he visits the mosque for prayers sitting at the front immediately in front of the mihrab, the best seat of the house so to speak. Then the camera wanders to the back where we see the women worshipers segregated behind a curtain, once again contrasting the roles of men and women. As Longinotto observed in the Bertha Dochouse Q&A, this extreme separation means that women and men are pushed into gender roles far more than in our western society. And interestingly, in the courtroom the powers seem reversed; accustomed to having their own way without question, the men seem almost powerless and infantilised, when challenged by their wives in this public forum.

The judge himself comes across as balanced, not harsh although still very conservative. It’s a strange role, which has to balance the contradictions of a formal legal system of procedure and rules and a more individual Sharia system of duty and expectation. He’s not a hard-liner (Longinotto said many were) and he approaches his role with a conciliatory tact. His approach is amusingly parodied in a cute diversion when the court clerk’s young girl Paniz performs to the camera play-acting the role of judge that she has witnessed from infancy.

Zeba, daughter of the court clerk, treats us to a lively role-play of the judge

Filmmaking

Shot on handheld 16mm, Longinotto’s camerawork is immediate and instinctive, focussing on the characters and situations rather than striving for grand themes or images. We are immediately immersed in this world, and the camera is an active witness.

The shoot lasted eight or nine weeks, although once they had settled on their main characters they thereafter only filmed these three cases. This makes the chronological structure very straightforward; the main structural decisions appear to have been only how to intersperse the three tales.

The editing is very fluid, almost imperceptible and doesn’t distract from the immediacy, and Longinotto’s voiceover – a device that that can often feel distancing – succeeds in drawing us nearer, explaining unfamiliar conventions about dowries or ‘gifts’, rights and (lack of) freedoms, and the legal context.

This is top documentary making, candidly revealing an unfamiliar situation and the voices of women who are often unheard. It’s observational yet present. It refuses to moralise, but its humanity makes us immediately sympathise with the women it depicts. And it brings remarkable clarity to an unfamiliar, chaotic and complex subject matter.

Divorce Iranian Style is available to watch on YouTube.

2 thoughts on “Divorce Iranian Style (1998)”

  1. Hi…. Do you happen to know where the act breaks are in Uncut Gems?
    I read your blog, and it seems like you figured out… I would love to hear your thoughts on the actual structure, whatever you can pinpoint.

    Liked by 1 person

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