Growing up fast in Iran - "I'm Taraneh, 15" Review

By David Lipfert

It isn't easy anywhere to be a single mother, and Iranian culture adds a few unexpected twists to one teenager's story in "I'm Taraneh, 15," ultimately an affirmation of life.

Taraneh certainly has her share of problems, from bedridden granny to a father in prison. To boot she's attracted a seemingly restrained stalker in the form of a teenaged boy from the carpet shop next to the photo store where she works part time. Ali won't give up, so he manages to convince all concerned that this is the love of his life. An initial engagement/marriage ceremony confers on them the right to go out socially as husband and wife without being harassed by the morals police.

The agreement with the respective families was that they would not live together until Taraneh finished high school, but a thing or two must happen off screen. Ali deserts her to return to Germany just as she finds herself pregnant to face an angry father, a scheming mother-in-law and generalized rejection from bourgeois society. Flaky friends-actually runaway teens-aren't much help either.

After exploring the options of abortion (proposed by the mother-in-law, who is also head of the social services office) and giving the baby up for adoption, she makes a courageous choice to keep her baby. Director Rassul Sadr-Ameli emphasizes that Taraneh does this out of love for the child rather than a rejection of those around her or, worse, an expression of self-love. She is far too lucid for the latter and too positive for the former.

Last year "I'm Taraneh, 15" (Man, taraneh, panzdah sal daram) walked away with three awards including Best Actress at the Locarno festival. As the clear-headed teenager battling bourgeois norms, same-named Taraneh Alidousti turns out a winning performance. Generally restrained performances and an unfussy visual style more than compensate for small gaps in plot continuity. Although characters and situations appear in the film in a matter-of-fact way, they shouldn't necessarily be construed as representative of today's Iran. Translated into an American setting, it wouldn't be the typical experience here, either. Absent first-hand sociological information to offer a complete picture, films have to fill the gap.

Less dire than "The Circle" (Dayereh), "Taraneh" at least has had limited screening in Iran. Sadr-Ameli pushes the envelope with the theme, but he scrupulously observes all current rules for showing women. Children in "Taraneh" are far more respectful of their elders and relationships more loving than in a good deal of contemporary Iranian films. In particular the justice system is depicted in a positive light. And the mere existence of social services sets Iran apart from most of its neighbors. (The lead character's age is not coincidental, because Islam's Prophet Mohammad's daughter Fatimah married at that age.)

Legal matters are at the crux of the story. Taraneh naturally is seeking to prove Ali's paternity, which his wily mother seeks to avoid first by pressing her case and then by proposing that Taraneh marry one of their (presumably paid-off) employees instead. The justice system in Iran is similar to that in southern Europe and South America, where judges take an active role, hearing arguments from both sides of a civil suit and asking sufficient questions to get at the truth.

Taraneh fails in her attempt to plow through thick law tomes, but thanks to the judge she achieves her first victory - a mandated DNA paternity test, which of course comes out positive. Now that the mother-in-law has resigned herself to accepting the existence of a grandchild, she is shocked when Taraneh doesn't claim Ali's fatherhood at the government birth registry office. Chalk one up for the inner strength that represents true feminism.

Originally Published June 13, 2003

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