MFF Interview: A Conversation with Maryam Sepehri

Iranian filmmaker Maryam Sepehri (left) won an award at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival for “Habibeh,” a documentary about painter Habibeh Bedayat (right).

Iranian filmmaker Maryam Sepehri (left) won an award at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival for “Habibeh,” a documentary about painter Habibeh Bedayat (right).

In the dead of night she labors, trance-like, over a canvas. By the end of “Habibeh,” viewers will comprehend all of the thorny reasons why this fascinating woman—a painter, mother, teacher, and wife—can’t sleep and can’t put down her brushes.

At first Maryam Sepehri’s brief documentary appears to be a conventional Iranian story about gender oppression. The film’s subject is Habibeh Bedayat, a spirited woman who lives in Kerman, a populous city in the southeast of Iran. She declares, “I’ve always liked breaking barriers,” and proves it by defying doctors who told her to institutionalize her first-born son, Douman. But then the movie unexpectedly rotates into stories about maternal perseverance and sacrifice, adult romance, coping with loss and guilt, and, finally, the deliverance of the creative act. What emerges is a seamless, complex portrait of a specific woman and her wounded family.

Her sensitive direction earned Sepehri a special jury prize at the 2013 Milwaukee Film Festival. Sepehri, 43, was born in Gorgan, a mid-sized city in northern Iran not far from the Caspian Sea. At age 17, she moved with her family to Tehran and trained to become a doctor. Her voice, though, didn’t belong behind a surgical mask. Eventually Sepehri turned to photography, writing, and filmmaking. I spoke with her in October at her Milwaukee residence, just two days before she planned to return to Tehran.

You went to university to study medicine. How did you transition into filmmaking?

In Iran it was not easy for us to decide what we’re going to study because there was a very complicated entrance exam for going to universities. I was a very good student, and everybody in those days wanted to be an engineer or doctor. I worked for the government for four years, because I had to do that after finishing my medical school. But it’s very early for a 17-year-old person to decide what their future is going to be. After four or five years, I realized that every day I was crying when I was back home from the hospital. I couldn’t take it anymore, and one day I came home and told my family that I will never go back to that job—it’s done, I really hate that place.

Did your family support your decision?

Yeah, they did. I started to study the German language, because I wanted to emigrate to Germany. But for some reason I decided not to go there. I decided to go to a film school. I took classes for three years at a private film school. After that, I really became interested in photography, and then watching movies, and having a tiny experience in moviemaking. I went to another film school for two more years, and then went to a public university for editing, and after that, photography.

What was the starting point for “Habibeh”?

I have a mutual friend with Habibeh. One of my friend’s colleagues was one of Habibeh’s family members and it happened that they met each other. My friend told me that Habibeh’s painting and lifestyle were different, and that she might like to be in a documentary. She asked if I would be interested in talking with her someday, and I said, yes, why not. I had been trying to find a subject for another documentary. We decided to go to Kerman, to have a drink there. Kerman is very far from Tehran, a two-hour flight. We visited Habibeh, and I was shocked by the atmosphere, by the mood of her place, the number of paintings, and the way that she used color. The home had a very nasty smell. You cannot breathe in her house. It’s like a gas station or something even worse than that, because the solvent in the colors are industrial. We talked about a documentary on that first trip, and she was really excited.

Habibeh says, “My mother was an intellectual. Even though we lived in a religious city, she saw things clearly.” She seems to have modeled the same for her own daughter, Zoya.

Being intellectual is different in Iran than in some other places. Often it was not the family who wanted to control you, it was the public, it was the government trying to control you. It doesn’t matter how intellectual your family is or not.

Did your own upbringing help you connect to Habibeh’s story?

My own experience? No. I didn’t have a common experience with her. My family was totally different with the situation. I just find her story really interesting and really moving; it really shocked me.

Habibeh, a former kindergarten teacher, devoted her life to becoming her son’s tutor. Despite serious developmental delays, Douman was reading at the age of two. How much did your medical training influence your interest in this story of successful alternative therapy?

I really cannot judge about the medical situation that Douman had, because we’d have to talk to a specialist to see what was really wrong with him, and what percentage of his brain was damaged. I’m not specialized in that field. I have no idea. I’m sure that Habibeh has done a really great job for him, and in the way she struggled to let him stay at home, I think that she was perfect, that she was genius in that decision. She told me lots of complicated things that she had done for him, but I didn’t want to put all that stuff in the movie, because it was getting bigger and bigger. Maybe if she was not his mother, everything might be changed dramatically for him. She’s very strong, and very assertive.

The movie suggests that Habibeh’s commitment to Douman had divergent effects on her other two children. Her second son, Pouyan, says that he benefited from being raised in a household so concentrated on learning. But Habibeh worries that by focusing her energies on Douman, she may have spent years neglecting her daughter Zoya, perhaps contributing to Zoya’s suicide. I’m curious about whether the contradictory responses from Pouyan and Zoya could be linked to the cultural expectations of each gender.

In such families, they are educated and they try to not be judgmental about genders or prefer sons over daughters. Habibeh told me that Zoya would go horseback riding, and horseback riding is not a normal sport activity in Iran for women. It’s not. Or even kung fu classes. These are not normal things. Zoya was very smart. I don’t think it was a gender problem. Maybe she was sensitive; maybe the amount of energy and caring that Pouyan needed was different than what she needed. You mentioned that Pouyan tried to take advantage of this situation, but Zoya did the opposite. Maybe you’re right. Maybe it’s a matter of gender, but not from their family, because they are not that kind of people. Yes, we have lots of that kind of people in Iran, but as far as I know, they are not that type. Maybe for a girl at that age, she needed more care and more consideration.

After Zoya’s death, Habibeh has a breakdown. In her sorrow, she turns to painting and copper-carving, but also sewing, which struck me as an ironic choice. Sewing is a skill that is traditionally seen as “women’s work,” but Habibeh re-purposes it as an act of liberation. I think you did a similar thing earlier in the movie. When she is using an egg-beater in the kitchen, it could again be viewed as traditional women’s work, but you seem to use the image instead as a metaphor for how this woman likes to mix things up and defy gender stereotypes.

Exactly. She herself doesn’t like the kitchen part of the film. I really don’t want to change it, I’m ready to fight with her!

Why doesn’t she like that part?

The way I see that activity, she doesn’t understand what I mean. Even when she’s decorating the cake with the icing, she tried to write something. She wanted to do something, she wanted to have her own voice, whatever it is, in the kitchen. In every single thing, she tries to make something through it, to find expression.

The movie seems to draw a link between Habibeh’s dedication to both painting and tutoring Douman, as if each was a creative means of exerting control over her troubles.

Yes, exactly. She doesn’t want to be suppressed. She wanted to fight. She wanted to fight against nature. Especially after Zoya’s death, she tried to give herself a life back by painting, painting, painting. She has painted over 4,000 pieces.

Photograph by artist Maryam Sepehri, director of “Habibeh" (click to enlarge).
Photograph by artist Maryam Sepehri, director of “Habibeh” (click to enlarge).

She talks about how, when she’s painting, she gets lost in a daze that drowns out all the surrounding noise. Is that something that you can relate to?

In my experience? It sometimes happens. The day I took that photograph [points at a framed picture], I really didn’t understand what I was doing. I really didn’t understand, because I was there for another project that had nothing to do with nature. But when I saw the place, I thought, okay, today is my day. I saw this horse here [points at a swirl of sand and colors that evokes an abstract horse], and I couldn’t forget it. I stayed there for four hours, taking picture, picture, picture. And I totally forgot about my other project. It got really late and really dark! It doesn’t happen always, but for me it happens sometimes.

What were the difficulties you encountered while making the movie?

I had lots of difficulties. The location where I made the movie was not close to Tehran. Every time I had to take lots of people on an airplane and it was very expensive for me. And nothing was on my schedule. I had to be flexible to make the movie and finish it. Everything was difficult. But when [shooting] was done, it started becoming more difficult. At the start Habibeh and her husband Ali were very excited and very happy, and they didn’t say anything. But after the movie was finished, Ali started to call me every day, saying, don’t do this, don’t do that. “Habibeh doesn’t like her voice. She wants you to use voiceover.” And I said, come on, that’s not the way that I want to make the movie. Maybe it’s easy for me to read a story from start to finish, but it’s not my choice. I wanted her to talk about her life and her painting.

Did you change anything for them?

It’s better to say that from the first, I noticed that I cannot expect them to talk about something that they don’t like. So I said, okay, if I want to make this movie, I have to give way to them as well, it should be a negotiation. Let’s make the movie, and show a part of the truth about their life. I can just show something to viewers and they can decide about it. I don’t want to judge, because I don’t think they can bear it.

The theme of gender subjugation is characteristic of Iranian cinema. But “Habibeh” is less angry than, say, works by Dariush Mehrjui, Jafar Panahi, or even Tahmineh Milani. The tone is primarily empathetic—your interest in Habibeh’s inner life is multi-faceted, not just a vehicle for social criticism.

I really like the way you see the movie. Structuring the movie was very complicated. I found it very rich in the aspect that there are lots of things to say about [the family]. You have the relationship between Ali and Habibeh, you have the relationship between children, you have the way that Douman was born. Everything was there, and I had to decide on which material to put together as a structure for the movie. I always think that I can sacrifice some part. I cannot be close to some part that is forbidden [by the family]. For example, Zoya’s suicide. I was not going to go more into that. That was enough for me. But I really don’t want to sacrifice how it made Habibeh who she is now. I thought that the most important thing was Douman, because he was the trigger. He was something that was very challenging for her. She doesn’t want to accept that she has an abnormal child. She wanted to fight. Pouyan, however, was not as important to me. I didn’t think I could cover every single thing in the family. Iranians are really complicated, and in every family you have lots of difficult and complicated situations. Habibeh is just an example. Those three items—Douman, Zoya, and the Iranian family—are all influences on Habibeh’s painting. When she started, she was not going to be a painter. She just wanted to make herself happy.

The different threads seem interrelated.  Each thread deepens our emotional comprehension of the others.

I decided to use linear editing, because the story of a life is very complicated. I don’t know whether it was good or not, but at first I decided to have non-linear editing, everything just like Habibeh’s brain, everything scattered. But afterwards I noticed that it was not the way to mix everything, because it made everybody confused and tired.

Near the beginning you show a close-up of a ticking clock, and then later return to that image.  What did you have in mind there?

The clock shows two in the morning, because that is the time that Habibeh starts painting, every morning. The night that Zoya’s suicide happened, it was exactly at that time. I thought it was not a bad thing to repeat it. But when I see the movie now, I think it is the only thing I may still change. Because maybe that clock is not as dramatic as I hoped.

Ali, the husband, seems to encourage Habibeh to find solace in religion, saying, “Is it God’s will that your work would blossom as a result of Zoya’s death?” In a way, he’s suggesting that both religious devotion and artistic creation fulfill the same purpose—providing perspective, consolation, and an avenue to release grief.  Does that parallel your own ideas about faith?

First, I have to say that Ali is not a religious man. It’s a way to let go of some of that pressure, because it’s unbearable to lose a child. He’s not religious, as far as I know, and Habibeh is not. But they believe in a kind of mysticism, something celestial, something metaphysical. I think they don’t know exactly what it is, like lots of people. I myself am the same. I don’t know what, but there is something that you want to use as a shelter when you are desperate.

Are there particular Iranian filmmakers who have inspired you?

Lots of good directors in Iran, like Kiarostami, who I loved, and Jafar Panahi, who I really loved, and lots of documentary filmmakers. I really liked the way some directors started making documentaries before the revolution. I’m inspired by them for sure.

Did you see Panahi’s “Closed Curtain”?  It was my favorite film at this year’s Milwaukee Film Festival.

Very good! An American person sat behind me and he didn’t understand the movie. He was furious after the movie ended and asked me if I got anything from that movie. For sure, an ordinary person’s reaction might be very different from someone involved in Persian cinema.

How did you come to partner with producer Anita Alkhas, who is a professor at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee?

Last year I was here and I made friends with Anita. We talked about the movie, and talked about a situation that I had. I had already started filming, and she helped me to clean up the movie, helped with subtitling, and also helped money-wise. So she decided to become a producer instead of just helping. I had no money at that time and I couldn’t even edit the movie.

How much time do you spend in the United States?

I’ve been here five or six times, but every time for only two or three months. But this time, I’m working on my citizenship and have been here for seven months. I have my green card, and if I’m going to have that, I have to stay for a time. I need the citizenship, I need something to make sure that I can sometimes be outside the country. I don’t want to live here forever, but I would like to have the experience of living here, if my family agreed. My husband is kind of scared of being out of Iran. For me it’s different, because I love experiences like film festivals.

What’s next?

I really hope to make a documentary that is part in Iran, part in the United States. It’s a big project. I already know the subject, but the project is impossible right now. I don’t have a producer, and I’m totally broke after “Habibeh.” If I can’t do that, I’ll try to go to the footage of my old documentaries, and try to go back to the locations and see what is going on there after ten years. I’m also excited to go back home. I miss everybody. I will be there for five or six months and then I have to come back to the United States, because I want to keep my green card. Give the photograph of the horse to your daughter, and when I come back I’ll sign it for her.