"Divorce Iranian Style" Review

By Jeffrey M. Anderson Combustible Celluloid

I can't think of a better title for a film if you want to chase Americans away from the movie theaters (especially in the brain-softening summer months), but "Divorce Iranian Style," the winner of the Golden Gate Award for Best Documentary Feature at this year's SF Film Festival, is an exceptional and--make no mistake--vastly entertaining movie.

Historical films notwithstanding, the best documentaries are the ones that place you right there while the action is happening, like "Gates of Heaven" (1978), "Hoop Dreams" (1994), and "Crumb" (1995). "Divorce Iranian Style" is one of those kind of movies. It takes place mostly in a Tehran courtroom in which several different women are applying for divorce. In Iran though, the laws are positively primeval, giving men nearly all the power. The most common scenario is that women must give up their "wedding gifts" in exchange for divorce. The wedding gift is a sum of money promised to the bride. Most women need this money to live on, but most who file for divorce never see it.

One woman has divorced her first husband with whom she has had two children and has remarried. Under the law, she is not allowed to keep her children when she remarries if the husband wants them. She is the focus of the largest portion of the movie during which she begs, pleads, cries, screams, and does anything in her motherly power to try to keep even one of her children. She becomes involved in an off-camera scuffle with her ex-husband outside the courtroom, but she comes back in and tries to talk her way out of being arrested. Our hearts go out to this complex woman, but we also see an unflattering side. Another case involves a strong-willed 16-year-old girl who opposes her arranged marriage to a 38-year-old man and wants a divorce so that she can continue her studies.

Other moments also resonate. Outside the courtroom women are posted at a table to determine whether or not the women going in have on too much makeup and are properly covered up. The judge, who is a fascinating character as well, sits in the courtroom all day, calmly listens to all these women, and hardly ever budges. Sometimes he seems to be using common sense, and at other times he sticks to the law. Once he even tells an elderly women that she could "make herself more attractive" for her jealous, abusive husband. But the best scene has the young daughter of the court clerk climb up on the bench and do an impression of the judge chastising an imaginary man for abusing his wife. When asked if she'll ever marry, she responds, "never--now that I know what husbands are like."

The movie is co-directed by the British Kim Longinotto and the Iranian Ziba Mir-Hosseini. Thankfully, though there is some narration (by Joanna Rosenthall), the movie doesn't condescend to describe everything to us as well as showing it. Seeing "Divorce Iranian Style," which is banned in Iran, only enhanced my view of this heavily oppressed country, its barbaric clinging to a male-dominated past, and the brave people who try to rise above it.

Originally Published May 28, 1999

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