For the last 15 years, British documentarian Kim Longinotto’s work has focused on controversial issues concerning women from around world – from female circumcision in Kenya in The Day I Will Never Forget (2003) to cross-dressing in Japan in Shinjuku Boys (1995). Divorce Iranian Style was co-directed with ‘twice-divorced’ Iranian anthropologist Ziba Mir-Hosseini. Filmed inside an Iranian divorce court – after an 18-month wait to obtain permission – the film explores five cases and five fascinating and strong but very different women.
Rather than the exposé of ‘barbaric’ Iranian law the title seems to promise, we get a film that attempts to show the reality of how the legal system affects people’s lives. We meet Judge Deldar (which means ‘sweetheart’), a cleric and expert in Islamic law, who gradually becomes the film’s human centre. Delivering such hilarious statements (to Western ears) as ‘You must make yourself attractive so that he returns to your marriage’, he also displays endless patience in dealing with the near-hysterical Maryam who is fighting to keep her children. We see him sometimes torn but more often treading carefully between the written law and its practical implications.
Although the law seems hopelessly biased towards men we see how women use the few grounds for divorce they are allowed, such as insanity or impotence, to extricate themselves from unhappy marriages. Sixteen-year-old Ziba (not Mir-Hosseini) demands a sanity test for her husband although she also rails against his more prosaic faults – ‘everything stinks of cigarettes’ – at the same time openly bargaining with him to agree to a divorce by mutual consent – ‘for God’s sake, agree, then I’ll withdraw the complaint’, she whispers. However, in most cases it is the legal requirement that a man pays compensation to the wife he is divorcing that seems to be at the centre of all negotiations.
At times, the warring families seem like guests from Jerry Springer – perhaps this is evidence of how universal these issues are. But this is as far from reality TV as it is from the ‘documentarian-as-star’ films of Michael Moore and Morgan Spurlock. This, like all Longinotto’s films, harks back to an earlier, less compromised era of documentary filmmaking, to films such as the Maysles Brothers’ Salesman (1969) – which give a greater understanding of their subjects by allowing them to show their humanity.
In interviews, Albert Maysles is consistently adamant that he was recording something very close to objective reality in his films – the presence of the camera and film crew was quickly ignored by the subjects, he argues. It seems to be the case here too: the protagonists are certainly more interested in the legal proceedings, and if they are ‘performing’ in any way, it’s in an attempt to influence the judge. But there are also great moments when this appearance of objectivity breaks down. At one point Maryam, who is denying tearing up a court order, asks the ‘film women’ to corroborate her story. A voice, presumably Mir-Hosseini’s, bends the truth very slightly by only stating what she saw and not what she knows. Despite the objectivity of the camera the filmmakers are clear in their sympathies – at one point a voice from behind the camera says to a dismayed husband: ‘It serves you right for marrying a 14-year-old girl.’ A great natural moment occurs when, with court room empty, the secretary’s seven-year-old daughter Paniz takes the judge’s seat and starts admonishing an imaginary husband. The result is something possibly more honest than the Maysles’s ‘fly-on-the-wall’; it should perhaps simply be called ‘camera-in-the-room’.
With the minimal voice-over stating facts rather than passing judgements, the film is something of an antidote to the ‘fanatical angry culture’ prevalent in news films. But perhaps most importantly, it refuses to show Middle-Eastern women as subservient and powerless. The strength of character of all five women are unmatched by their male counterparts. Massi’s calm determination in the face of court bureaucracy (they lose her file) and her humiliated husband crying, ‘Sir, I can’t live like this’ is contrasted with Ziba’s mixture of emotional tears and whispered deal-making. Saddest of all is Maryam, who, in a desperate bid to keep her children, tries bargaining (‘can I just keep one’), crying and openly lying. For all this, Divorce Iranian Style is an honest, truthful and most importantly human film.