Still from Here the Seats Are Vacant, 2017, directed by Shiva Sanjari. Courtesy of the artist.
In rooms of governance across the world, a country’s progress is measured by the question, “How do you treat your women?” The newly Taliban-controlled government in Afghanistan, under the pressure of Western nations, promises to uphold women’s rights, but only according to their religious laws. The United States Supreme Court allowed the passing of the most restrictive anti-abortion laws in history, making abortion even in the face of incest, rape, or medical emergency nearly impossible in Texas. And recent elections in Iran promise the continuance of compulsory covering for women and other restrictive religion-based laws. Women’s bodies are a measuring stick, a bargaining chip, for the sovereignty and funding of nation-states, while women’s sovereignty and their ability to define their own wellness or even gender is challenged. Shiva Sanjari’s documentaries give us examples of Iranian women brazenly and brightly coloring within and outside the margins of their own lives and society, agential examples of women who consciously and subconsciously read the global and local stakes of their freedom, and then do exactly as they please, which doubles as doing what they must.
Jessica Lanay The film Here the Seats Are Vacant is about the first Iranian woman film director—she is also a dancer, singer, poet, and scholar—Shahrzad. Red Lipstick follows the daily life of Masoumeh in her beauty salon in Shoosh, a neighborhood in Tehran. Why did you choose these two stories of self-actualization for your documentaries?
Shiva Sanjari We are living in a country that still has a very patriarchal culture. In this type of society, to be a woman and also decide to be yourself and create your own life is like swimming against the flow. It’s hard, and it has consequences. I don’t mean that in Iran we don’t have independent women— we have a lot of independent women—but in these two cases, their lives are different. Fifty years ago, Shahrzad was working in a film industry that was wholly controlled by men. When she started, she was a dancer or had very small acting roles. She was the first woman with that type of background to become a director—no education, no well-to-do family. Still today, it’s also hard. After the 1979 revolution, it was hard for her to survive because that type of film industry stopped in Iran, and that society of women, I can say, vanished.
Masoumeh comes from the new generation. Society changed a little bit, but we can still see the roots of that older society. For Masoumeh in Red Lipstick, it is also hard to strain against this current. In Soosh, there are quite poor people; and no matter where you are in the world, when you are poor, you never have your full rights. And in that type of family, the daughter is usually pressured to get married soon; but Masoumeh wants to find her love, and love is what she wants in her life. It’s hard in her situation, but she’s fighting for it.
Poster for Here the Seats Are Vacant, 2017, directed by Shiva Sanjari. Courtesy of the artist.
JL We’ve spoken briefly about the restrictive environment in which you create. Fiction may provide a safer cover under which to tell a certain kind of story, but you choose documentary. The way that you work is very low interference; you’re very much trying to hide your presence behind the camera as much as possible. Why did you choose documentary over other film formats?
SS I’m also a person who doesn’t like to swim with the flow. I don’t like having a script given to me and going point to point; it’s not exciting enough. For me, making a documentary is starting a journey to go and find my person, my character, who is going to be a participant in the film. When I find them, I must get close to them; I want to capture them as they really are. I live with them, sometimes for a long time, and I try to have the smallest possible impact on their life and the set so that they can be themselves. I love the way that in the documentary suddenly some magic happens in front of my camera that I couldn’t guess, suddenly someone showing part of the personality that I wasn’t ever expecting. They forget the camera, they talk, and it’s beautiful. I don’t like to put words in someone’s mouth to act for me. I like the surprises; I capture what, when, where I am, which light—everything. For me, it’s more valuable. It’s very alive.
JL I am attached to Red Lipstick because I also grew up in beauty shops, being Black and from the West. And I’ve heard very similar stories: about a husband’s libido, a wife’s sexual desires, what’s in fashion now. There are very intimate and sexually agential conversations happening on the set of the beauty parlor. How do you get the women to open up to you?
SSI went to approximately eighty-four salons in Tehran before I found this one. The women there are very intimate with each other: they talk. When they come to the salon, they come to share things with each other. It looks like a type of therapy for them; and when they leave, they are happier. It’s a place where you can feel the absence of men; it’s a haven for these women.
I was going there a lot before I was shooting. I had my eyebrows done, and I sat with them. It took three months until we could become more friendly. I talked to the fortune teller that came in; in three months she told me my fortune twice. We sat, we talked, we had tea, and slowly I became, I think, part of the salon.
I should mention that in my film crew there are only two other people: a camera woman and a sound woman. My crew is all women.
Poster for Red Lipstick, 2019, directed by Shiva Sanjari. Courtesy of the artist.
JL Thinking of comparison, where I come from in the Global and American South, beauty shops are necessary. You can’t leave your neighborhood unless you’ve first gone to the beauty shop because there’s a lot of pressure to look a certain way, especially in a society that can be restrictive to Black women’s culture. What kind of space do the beauty shops in Tehran provide for women?
SS I totally understand. In Iran after the revolution, the hijab became mandatory; women now have to fully cover their hair and bodies. Now the face is exaggerated; they’re using colored contact lenses, even just coloring the part of their hair that comes out of their scarf. And if you compare this look to that of my mother’s generation before the revolution, you can see that women used to look quite themselves; they had makeup, but it was very light.
We also have globalization now, different images coming from different countries. Western beauty has infiltrated our culture. If you have, for example, blonde hair or light eyes, as is rare in Iran, you can see that the men like this type of beauty, and this affects the women. It’s greatly affected the meaning of beauty in our country. Even the people in my film who have very little money are willing to pay for different treatments and to get this light hair done or this nail. They want to be accepted in society as a beautiful person, and they are under pressure.
JL In both Here the Seats Are Vacant and Red Lipstick the protagonists practice refusal very gracefully. What does refusal mean to you as a director?
SS For me, it’s valuable because they are fighting for what they want. So many women still accept things they don’t want. They are not ready to fight and refuse things, or sometimes even they don’t know what they want; they don’t have time to understand what they really want and what life can give to them. But these people that I chose and became close to, they know exactly what they want, and they pay for it a lot in their life. It’s not easy to be a young woman like Masoumeh, coming from a type of family that is very traditional, very conservative. They would have preferred her to get married and had children much earlier. She’s very late according to their timing. She’s thirty-six, and usually in that neighborhood they are getting married at sixteen, seventeen, eighteen years old. And she’s not even studying. Sometimes in Iran, even in that class of people, if the woman is studying, becoming a doctor or having some job like that, it’s more acceptable than owning a beauty salon. It’s not acceptable, but because she’s earning money and taking care of her father, they’re quiet. She found a way to be powerful.
Still from Red Lipstick, 2019, directed by Shiva Sanjari. Courtesy of the artist.
JLWe see women talking about their partner preferences in the films. They’re talking about their desires and their fantasies, but it’s complicated, as we’ve already established. Can you talk more about that agency when it comes to things like partner choice and personal desires?
SS The salon is where they are coming to talk about their dreams. The reality is very harsh. To them, being a good guy is basic: he isn’t addicted to drugs and can make money. They don’t even want that much. But you can’t find that easily because of the bad economy in Iran. It’s not easy to make money; that’s a fact. To have a house, to move into a new house to be with them, with one person working as a man, it’s almost impossible. People prefer to stay with their own family because they still have a nice place to live. Of course, it’s not perfect, but it’s better than moving to a situation where it’s hard to live with some other person. So you can see the marriage rate is going down very much. This salon looks like a dream land. You come and you talk, but the reality is really harsh outside.
JL How do the personal dreams, the personal desires, collide with religious and social expectations?
SS The older women in the film accepted the rules of society, like Iran Hanu, who is blind in the film. She married, and then because she was blind and older than the husband, the husband’s family forced her to get divorced. She accepted that and never got married again. That’s what society wants from you usually, and you should be a good mother and take care of your children. But in the new generation we have a fight between social expectations: religious expectations and young people’s desires. Now, young people look like Masoumeh. They come to know themselves more; they know their abilities. I feel the new generation stands up to so many of these expectations. It means we have a challenge in society, and I feel it’s good, because this is the way that a society grows up. This is the way that the young people can find their own voice.
Shiva Sanjari’s Red Lipstick (2019) will be screening at Seattle Erotic Cinema Society Festival (SECS Fest) September 10–12.