The last time I watched the country of Iran being portrayed in a movie, was in the animated feature Persepolis, which transported us back to that important time in history that brought about massive, sweeping changes to its society. Of late, the country has constantly been demonized, and it's often an opportunity to see for oneself the country, or if it's not possible, then I guess the next best alternative is through the eyes of a filmmaker on location.
Zaihirat Banu Codelli and her all female crew took 2 weeks to shoot on location in Tehran, where in another football related documentary in this year's SIFF (the other being Homeless FC), they chronicle the important moment of the Asian Cup qualifiers game between Iran and India. The catch is, it's the Iranian women's football team, one that has been assembled in recent years, and now playing their first international match despite objections from both their countrymen and from the sports regulatory body, which had to allow for exceptions because the Iranian women had to play with their hijabs on.
But again, it's not all only about football, as Zaihirat managed to get the team to open up to her and talk about their feelings, dreams and aspirations, as well as to sneak in to their homes and check out their latest fashion sense, which is anything but traditional and adhering to custom! These glimpses of the players' life bring the documentary to a very personal level, as it suddenly strikes that deep down inside, they're just like you and me. You do get the usual interviews with the players and the backroom staff, but also, what added a lot of value to the documentary, was the assembly of points that allowed for a look, by an outsider, at the much talked about restrictions in place. And you'd start to ponder and wonder if you have been taking for granted, to be living in a tolerant society which recognizes equality of the sexes. Even with established rules set in stone, there are always loopholes to be exploited, and somehow I cannot help but to chuckle at the uselessness of it all, where it becomes a widely(?) practiced trick for gender-bending in order to smuggle young girls to men-admitted only sports events.
We see very clear cultural and traditional distinctions between the roles of men and women, and what I found to be amusing yet with a tinge of sadness at its backwardness in thinking, was segregation. On a segregated bus where women and men cannot mix, while you see the men's side of it being very spacious because of their fewer numbers, the women have to cram it at the back of the bus, even though there are available seats in the front, but no, it's out of bounds. But one thing about adversity, is that it provides opportunity, and those with tenacity, whatever the odds are, are bound to succeed eventually.
And it is this tenacity that permeates through the football team too. Despite increasing odds stacking up against them and a myriad of issues such as the lack of experience in playing overseas, or playing with men watching, they grit their teeth, and plod on. Not much is known about the team in their own country because of the lack of publicity photographs and video - they play close to anonymity, until of course, Zaihirat and her team pulled off a very neat stunt in having to smuggle out extremely rare footage, which is included in the documentary, which makes it a much watch.
Veil of Dreams is a very slickly produced documentary with good production values. Bookended by the football games with India in a two-leg qualifying round, I thought that this film provided yet another rare lift, and peek into the country of Iran and its people, through the world's most popular game.
There was a Q&A session after the screening with director Zaihirat Banu Codelli As usual, I have paraphrased (for the better I hope) for clarity and readability, though my apologies as this is probably not the better of my coverage, no thanks to the chatterboxes sitting behind me, whom I thought should be respectful and kept silent, or leave if they're not interested. For those who are spoiler wary, please read something else. You have been warned.
Q: You mentioned you smuggled 1 out of 3 tapes out. How did you do so?
A: We were courting the team for a year beore the shoot, and talking to their international relations people. We were told we can't shoot footage of the game because the Indian team was not wearing the hijab (headscarves). So we decided to try our luck, and shot whatever we can. The first 3 days, we were shooting a lot of travelling shots! On the day of the game we managed to go into the stadium one minute before it started, and appeared to be part of the FIFA team, which were allowed only 3 cameras. Whatever we shot had to be declared and returned to the Federation, so during the shoot we kept changing tapes so that each had a little of the beginning, middle and the end. Using sneaky filmmakers' instincts, after the game I had joined the team in celebrations, and from there, passed the best tape to my producer. You wouldn't want to know where we hid it! The eyes of the guardians were on me, the director, and they were "taking care" of me during the whole match!
Q: Aren't you afraid now that this movie is out?
A: I've been in the industry for 12 years, and this is one of the scariest weeks in my life
Zaihirat then recounted they were stopped during the shoot and brought into an official office with a bed inside, and also had some 6 hours worth of footage being erased in front of them.
Q: In retrospect, is Iran that fearsome?
A: As a tourist, you will enjoy the country because it has a lot of rich history. As a filmmaker, because of the sensitive topic, yes we were afraid. However, the Iranian people are some of the loveliest people I've ever seen. We got invited to dinner by some of them, and had interesting home-made wines. Don't ask me where they got them though!
Q: The girls of the football team are stars, so how do they deal with the pressure? [Stefan: Since this was asked by a foreigner, I took it that he was curious that how the team dealt with stress since they have, by right, no access to things like pubs, drinks, drugs, the usual trappings of star footballers where the tabloids tend to drum up their vices]
A: It's a very interesting culture, while it is strict, it is also very open and allows for the maintenance of personal space. Of course you have to be careful. They do have mixed parties in closed environments. This is a very fragile team as it could go either way.
Q: Why the idea of going to Iran and filming this team?
A: I've actually met a New Zealander producer who touched on this subject, and since I'm a big fan of women stories, and have never been to the Middle East before...
Q: Was there any moment during the production where you wanted to pack up and come back?
A: No, as we were very driven, even though the first 3 days had passed, and we didn't have anything. We were inspired by the women footballers, watching them solve one problem at a time, step by step. We drew a lot of energy from the girls - if they had faced so many difficulties and overcame them, why can't we?
Q: You mentioned you spent about a year to get permission. What sort of resistance did you face, and what made them agree to grant you access?
A: There's a lot of generalization of their society, and they were worried that outsiders came in to expose all the negative parts of it. We had mutual understanding achieved, and it helped that we come from the same religious background and that formed a basic level.
Q: Have the girls seen the film?
A: No they have not. The Federation has seen the film. When I edited the film, I put the girls' interests at heart. Call it self-censorship, but it goes beyond that. I do not want to get them into any trouble.
There will be 1 more screening of Veil of Dreams at this year's SIFF on 13 April Sunday 4:15pm at Sinema Old School. Tickets are still available!
Book your tickets now by clicking here:
13 Apr Screening
The SIFF Singapore Filmmakers Interview Series
Kan Lume, Writer-Director of Dreams From The Third World
HAN Yew Kwang, Writer-Director of 18 Grams of Love
ENG Yee Peng, Director of Diminishing Memories II
Sherman ONG, Screenwriter-Director of Hashi
James LEONG and Lynn LEE, Directors of Homeless FC
Lionel CHOK, Producer of To Speak
Harman HUSSIN, Director of Road to Mecca