TIFF 2019 Interview: Mahnaz Mohammadi
“It is not the method or the medium, but rather the process that allows me to transcend beyond this pain that is caused by discrimination, social injustice and so on.”
Leila, a widow, works tirelessly to try to make ends meet and provide for her 12-year-old son, Amir. She is being pursued by a man who could be the answer to all of her financial struggles. The catch: he has a young daughter and tradition dictates that Amir could not share the family home with her. What is Leila to do?
It’s this back-against-the-wall situation that drives Son-Mother, a film that is simultaneously compassionate and cruel. Compassionate in that here is a woman who only wants for her son and herself to have a chance and cruel that her circumstances make it impossible. It’s so enraging and heartbreaking. The story is told in two chapters: first from Leila’s perspective and then from Amir’s perspective, and director Mahnaz Mohammadi’s sensitive directing beautifully captures its complexities.
The fact that this film exists at all is a marvel as well. Mohammadi has been targeted by the Iranian government, banned from making films, and was even in prison for two years. The authorities want to quiet Iranian voices and stories so that means we need to support them and lift them up.
“Tragedy is what defines a lot of people’s lives in the Middle East, each of us has experience or keeps experiencing tragic events. In Son-Mother, I deal with the question of what each of us is able to do in order to stay away from tragedy.” — Mahnaz Mohammadi
You can see the World Premiere of SON-MOTHER at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival, screening as part of Discovery on September 7th at 3:15PM, September 9th at 12:15PM and September 15th at 3:00PM.
Iranian director Mahnaz Mohammadi is well-known for her provocative documentaries on social issues as well as her tireless activism. In 2003 she wrote and directed her first short documentary, Women without Shadows. Her award-winning feature documentary Travelogue premiered in 2010 at the “A Day in Tehran” event in Paris, which became one of the reasons for Iranian authorities to ban Mohammadi from leaving the country and from producing any more films. In 2014 she was arrested and after two years was released, where she went on to work on her first feature film, Son-Mother, with Mohammad Rasoulof.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and how you got involved with filmmaking.
When I was 15 years old, I wrote for the kid’s station of the radio and I thought that I’d become a writer, perhaps. But then I finished my first documentary and never thought that I’d want to be a filmmaker. It is not the method or the medium, but rather the process that allows me to transcend beyond this pain that is caused by discrimination, social injustice and so on.
Tell us about Son-Mother. How did you get involved with the project?
Series of fortunate and serendipitous events led me to this project, really. After two years of having been released from prison and grappling with the pain and trauma, Mohammed Rasolouf encouraged me to work again. I started out with a documentary, Mr. Vali, and as I regained my sense of self again, I was drawn to his script that was initially called A Long Pause. It took about 5 years to meet the right producers and produce a movie that is truly a labor of love and passion.
This is your first fiction feature. How was it compared to making a documentary?
I see documentaries as the documentation of everyday narratives. It is the unfiltered truth of cinema, and I am simply using film to present this truth in a more objective and visual way.
The film is told in two parts, from two perspectives. Why was it important to tell the story this way?
I really want my audience to arrive at the answer as to why the movie is structured this way on their own. I trust that my audience would understand why it was necessary for the story to be told this way.
Can you tell us about some/all of the other amazing women who worked on this film?
I worked with incredible women on this project, from the cast and the crew behind the camera to the actors in front of it. The making of this film was a beautiful celebration of female solidarity and unity as we all evolved together. The entire process brought us together because we realized that this is the story of the same intersectional discrimination, the same pain, we have all experienced. It enabled not only just women but also men to gain a new sense of equality and empathy.
Tell us about why you are a feminist and why it’s important to your filmmaking.
To be me, feminism isn’t a brand or a badge worn by certain individuals only. Feminism is a branch of knowledge, much like mathematics or theatre or any other scholarly pursuits and acquiring this knowledge can only elevate our lives. My life would be incomplete without feminism, and so would the lives of others. It is only rational to embrace this knowledge and equality to have more fulfilling and rewarding lives.
Who are your favourite women working in the film industry?
The reality is that there are so many women working in the film industry who inspire me. I really can’t pick anyone specific.
What’s the best advice about filmmaking you’ve ever received?
Every advice, in a sense, is a good advice—it only depends on how you interpret it. A co-worker once told me with contempt, “Why are you directing? You have the look of ‘actress’.” This was the best advice I’d ever received because it only made me more determined to continue on my own path. My father always told us, “Don’t listen to them. If you can do something, do it; don’t let it get away,” so I have never shied away from being loyal to my personal goals.
What are you working on now/next?
I am currently working on my own script, a documentary focusing on human trafficking and the plight of immigrants. I hope to find the right producers.
Finally, recommend one #MUFFApproved film for our blog readers!
Ever since I watched Siddiq Barmak’s Osama, a film that shows how intersectional discrimination has led and will continue to lead to tragedy, I have not been able to forget the little girl in the film.