The subject matter of this intimate documentary belies its breezy title, a title imposed, of course, by the commissioning editors with an eye towards its marketing potential. Made by Kim Longinotto and Ziba Mir-Hosseini, it shows the casual brutality inflicted upon women in a country that views independent females with suspicion and, perhaps, even fear.
Mir Hosseini is uniquely qualified to present this aspect of Iranian culture to the west. Iranian by birth and twice divorced in that country, shes also a western-trained anthropologist who has lived in London for twenty years, writing respected volumes about gender issues in both Iran and Morocco. The inequities of the system rankle her, but the culture from which that system springs is not alien to her. Her understanding of its subtle workings and the history of it before and after the Islamic revolution allow her to present its problems without damning it as a whole.
What we learn first is that men in Iran have the absolute right to divorce their wives. Women, however, must prove impotence, insanity, or deception at the time of the marriage. Furthermore, because of the enormous stigma attached to divorce, the courts assumption is that all parties want the marriage to be preserved. The judge, a cleric working from Islamic law, serves as much as a therapist and a clergyman as legal arbiter. The cases Mir-Hosseini follows show how that assumption does and does not work in the real world.
For Jamila, whose husband has been disrespecting her and their children, a summons is a way for her to air her grievances to an impartial third party. It works. The judge admonishes her husband, reducing him to tears. Jamila beams with satisfaction. The other cases examine what happens when women seek more than the law recognizes as their right. In one, a woman accused of adultery for speaking on the phone to her uncle is instructed to make herself more attractive to her husband in the privacy of their home. In another, a woman married as a child to a man chosen by her parents, faces losing the custody of her daughters because she will not accept her lot and has divorced and married again for love. The tears she sheds on camera as she describes the absolute hoplessness of her situation are painful to watch. They also bring an aching immediacy to her situation, and by extension that of other women like her — that by choosing to see herself as an equal to the men in her life in a society that cannot accommodate such , she has damned herself to a life that will never be whole, will never be without those tears.
Mir-Hosseinis access is remarkable. Not only does she film the court proceedings, she is allowed to film the sometimes lengthy family negotiations that the court orders. The subjects are so comfortable with her that they even include her in the legal discussions. Mir-Hossieni does not always keep her opinions to herself, much to the delight of this female audience member.
The heart of DIVORCE IRANIAN STYLE is Pahdma, the seven-year-old daughter of the courts clerk, Mrs. Maher. In one sweet and heartbreaking scene, she takes gavel in hand and playacts at being a judge, severely reprimanding an imaginary husband for mistreating his wife. With a child’s clear eye, she recognizes injustice when she sees it and, later, claims that she will never marry. Mir-Hosseini sees her as the symbol of her generation, a generation that will not accept what has been handed them, but will work to change the system from within. Here’s hoping.