Interview with Hamed Zolfaghari, filmmaker of Women of the Sun: A Chronology of Seeing presented in the section Challenging Power, available from November 19-25
How was this project born? Why did you develop this workshop with the women of Shafi Abad?
From 2009 to 2016 I volunteered with different NGOs on environmental activities and local people's rights in Iran and abroad. By 2014 I had grown bored with this NGO work. It was valuable, but I had other plans for my filmmaking. I wanted to combine my experiences doing social and environmental activism with filmmaking as art. I should mention that in my mind, these two things were never separate (and they should not be). But I wanted to do something tangible, as a documentary filmmaker, to show how activism and filmmaking can work together.
Then a new Eco-museum project was started by an NGO managed by a young woman who had been working in this community (Shafi Abad village) for several years. She asked me to help with the project, and I asked her to allow me to open a session in the project about the empowerment of the community through use of the camera.
When I explained the methodology to the NGO, they agreed and supported me fully. We started to work with the men and women of the village in a participatory video group, but the men left on the first day of the workshop. The women stayed and took charge of the workshop because they understood that it was a real opportunity for change. They were very intelligent in the way they decided to implement their idea. They wanted to do something powerful for themselves and their community. After three months the eco-museum project was cancelled by the government, but we kept the participatory video group going. After that, our main focus was on their activities, and they followed the project as you see in the film.
Can you talk about your collaborative process with the women?
The idea behind participatory video in the village was to support the women in achieving their objectives by using filmmaking as a tool for empowerment, in several steps: contextualizing their current situation; rallying the group around a subject that interested them; writing a draft script that shaped everything and became a guide for their activities; pursuing their goals and making films and videos; getting more people involved by screening the films; and steering the discussion toward problems and asking the community to help solve them. In other words, you should make a film until the problem is solved and you achieve your objective in the circle of making the film, screening it and discussing it.
All of the processes in their group were participatory, and our social facilitation team was focused on understanding what they wanted to do, and how we could support them in doing it.
We see the women facing resistance from some of the villagers. Since you were participating in their emancipation process, did you also encounter some hostility?
I was part of the problem, because I was the only man involved in the filmmaking process and, occasionally, the workshops. I had to be very careful working with women in the village, because any small misunderstanding could lead to very harsh judgment against the women and me. So as a social facilitator and a documentary filmmaker I had this ability to control everything around me, and I never experienced any bad reactions directly from the people of the village. This is why you should be 100% prepared and efficient. I met most of the men of the village and spent some time talking about everything with them, and it was very helpful. If anything bad happened it would have meant that you’d never see the film, because after that there wouldn’t have been any activity. There’d be no film.
Many things happened to our group, such as obstacles from the government side, but after a while, especially after they screened the film in the village, people understood what we were doing and most of them accepted us.
I love the title of the film, which conveys the idea that we observe, almost in real-time, how the gaze is shifting: not only in terms of male/female but also in terms of filmmaker/subjects. Do you see this “shifting of the gaze” as a political act in itself? Why is it important for you to detail its chronology?
The heart of any social empowerment activity is the way people see themselves and everything around them. This is both the root of the problems, and the main tool for solving them. The most important thing is how you can change things. If it comes from within it can be sustainable and efficient, otherwise you’ll lose yourself in the middle of the process. The camera gives you an opportunity to rise above and observe yourself and your society. When you’re preparing to take action, it gives you additional symbolic valuel: behind the camera, you are a person who has a voice and power.
Everything happened with that focus. A group of women decided to do something to overcome their limitations, and they understood the only why was through inner change, which then makes outward change possible. The changes in their social roles and self-confidence are obvious as the film progresses. As we watch that in sequence, we also see that their footage comes to mean something different. For example, when you watch the first generations of the women’s group’s footage, you see that as a group they struggled and hesitated to open a path with the camera. But when the next generation of village activists emerges, you see they are kind of liberated in how they use the camera. They play and have fun and show more of themselves. They invented their own way of using the camera, and I learned a lot from them as a filmmaker.
Has the film been shown in Iran? Do you see it as a possible tool for other communities?
We were not able to screen the film in as many places as we expected in Iran, because of social distancing. We’re planning to screen the film in partnership with the association of Iranian NGOs working in different communities in Iran.
Also, after screenings in Canada, Germany and France, audience feedback, especially from women, revealed that this film can also be inspiring for urban communities in developed societies. With all the feminist action happening in this tough and unfair world, you shouldn’t give up. Many things have happened in this movement around the world, but there will be more to be done, more people to be liberated.
I’m very pleased that we are having our second festival screening in Canada. Hot Docs and now RIDM are progressive film festivals. It’s an opportunity for different Iranian women’s voices to be heard.
I want to add something about the global media and women in (particularly) the MENA countries. There is a problem with most documentary film festivals in that they misunderstand this issue. We know that there are many problems that women face in these countries. Conservative societies and idealogically driven and totalitarian governments thwart women's movements in these regions. Portraying women in such countries as victims does not help them, does not support them. Their real voices need to be heard, and it’s important to understand that if you label someone as a victim you’re clipping her wings, too. Most images seen in the global media and documentary film festivals portray the women of these countries as victims who can’t do anything with their lives. But in all of these societies, many women are making efforts to liberate their lives from all of these limitations, and society is going to change soon.