A Closer Look: The similarities between “The Woman’s Film” and “Divorce, Iranian Style”

The Woman's Film - Trailer - TWN - YouTube
Amazon.com: Watch Divorce Iranian Style | Prime Video

The Woman’s Film and Divorce, Iranian Style, although filmed more than twenty years apart and dealing with two radically different cultures, share a surprising similarity due to their documentary style and format.  Both films effectively use the direct address and talking head style to empower the women in the films to tell their stories of oppression.

          The Woman’s Film from the San Francisco Newsreel was released in 1971, a time when the Women’s Movement in the United States was exploding.  The film focuses on ordinary women from all different ethnicities talking about the problems they face being made to believe that their only value is in a domestic setting, caring for their husbands and children.  A major tool of the Feminist movement was “consciousness raising groups”, where women would gather together and discuss their complaints and ideas for change.  The film showcases the different groups of women in these settings.  The women, for the most part, are shown in a “talking head” format as they would voice their opinions and share their experiences with the rest of the group.  One scene in particular that is surprising is when we see the woman who opens the film, a young, white mother, sitting in her living room telling the filmmakers of her regret over her marriage situation.  While we only see her face as a “talking head” it appears that she is alone with the filmmakers telling them her story.  Not until minutes later, in a brilliant move, do the filmmakers show a wider shot of the living room and reveal that she is surrounded by other women and it is a “consciousness raising group.” 

          The group settings also have the effect of “cinema-verite”, which was a major style of documentary that was utilized in the 1960’s-70’s.  The camera and filmmakers feel like a fly on the wall as we watch women communicate and focus on each other rather than speaking to the filmmakers.  At other moments we do see the women as individuals addressing the filmmakers and sharing their own personal stories.  Sadly, all of the women share a similar story to the women of Divorce, Iranian Style.  The latter film, however, makes it clear that while women in the West face a passive-aggressive oppression, the women in the Iran face a legalized form of oppression in the form of arranged marriages that they are bound to honor no matter how difficult the situation may be.

          As we saw in The Women’s Film, Divorce, Iranian Style mixes the use of “cinema-verite” and talking heads/direct address.  Kim Longinotto, director of Divorce, Iranian Style, was granted access to be a “fly on the wall” in the chamber of an Iranian divorce court.  The film alternates between live action in the courtroom, to personal interviews with the women in the hallways of the courthouse, to interviews with the women in their own homes.  The courtroom scenes are classic “cinema-verite” as we watch couples argue and plead their cases to the judge.  It is mostly the women doing the arguing as they are the one’s who have to prove that they want a divorce.  At times some of the women address the camera directly as they become too frustrated with the legal proceedings that are unfolding.  One case that involves a young girl named “Ziba” who is asking to be divorced from her husband because he is abusive.  Ziba was forced to marry her husband when she was only 15 years old.  As the tension of the argument heats up, the assistant director of the film, Ziba Mir-Hosseini, argues with young Ziba’s husband and scolds him for “marrying a 15 year old.”

          Later in the film is when we see a direct connection to the style of The Women’s Film.  “Maryam” is a young woman who is asking for a divorce because she wants to get remarried.  The filmmakers catch up with Maryam and allow her to tell her story to the cameras outside of the courtroom.  It is a very familiar scene as we see Maryam, dressed comfortably, sitting on her couch and talking to the filmmakers.  This scene is very reminiscent of the married women in The Women’s Film who all calmly explain the problems they face while being controlled by their husbands.  Longinotto also takes a few shots of Maryam’s home, like her kitchen, with Maryam washing dishes just like the housewives filmed by the San Francisco Newsreel.  Later when Maryam is back in court and she is facing the possibility of imprisonment for tearing up her husband’s legal form, she enlists the help of the filmmakers by directly asking them to be a witness for her.  The judge then turns to the camera and asks Longinotto and Mir-Hosseini if they saw Maryam tear up the form.  Both filmmakers say that they did not see her tear it up and this causes the judge to give a pardon to Maryam and allow her to file a new report for custody of her child.  Although we previously saw Maryam telling the camera that she did tear up the form, this was an instance where the filmmakers participated in their film and assisted the woman who is being oppressed.

          These two films are both monumental in the sense that they point the spotlight at the problems that women face in everyday life.  In both the Eastern and Western cultures, women are pressured to get married, have children, and give up their lives in order to care for their families.  While The Women’s Film helped change this attitude toward women in the United States, Divorce, Iranian Style reminds us that there are certain cultures and countries that still have a long way to go in recognizing women as equals to men.

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