Maryam Ebrahimi is an Iranian filmmaker and film producer engaged along with the award-winning film maker Nima Sarvestani in the making films and documentaries on very sensitive issues affecting people’s lives against the background of countries in war and turmoil.
You and Nima Sarvestani made a film trilogy on women condition in . The first, I Was Worth 50 Sheep, the second No Burqas Behind Bars and the closing Prison Sisters. Personally, I was particularly affected by No Burqas Behind Bars depicting female inmates living their daily lives in Afghani women’s prisons, quite afraid of being released. How much is it real-life?
Much indeed, because women in prisons are normally left alone, totally abandoned and very often rejected by their relatives as they flee from their husbands. Not infrequently they risk public execution. Prisons are safe places for them to live in and grow their children. They come in but they don’t want to leave it as outside the prison life for them is not secure, they prefer to stay inside prison but not free. And you have to think they are often extremely poor. Afghanistan with its appalling reality for women is the worst place to be a woman.
Filmmaker Nima Sarvestani got into deep of daily life of women in Afghani prisons. How did you both of you come upon these stories?
We became more and more curious about that we got to know, women of being killed by husbands or men relatives or risking to be executed, publicly stoned. We heard about stories of that kind, a story of village people, not far from Kabul, that executed a girl as she came back to her home after being released.
Was this the case of Sarah and Najibeh the main characters?
It is not only the story of Sarah, the main character of No Burqas Behind Bars and Prison Sisters. Women in prison develop a kind of solidarity, an intimacy to each other. I loved this solidarity, I found it beautiful.
I image you had lots of difficulties in entering these prisons, looking so close inside and filming.
It was extremely difficult. I started first to do researches before going to Afghanistan we took eight months to get all the permissions required to enter women prisons. You know, everywhere in the world it is difficult to enter in prisons especially women prisons. Firstly, we had to build trust, to convince them that this work wanted to improve the situation of women in Afghanistan. We got all the permissions we needed before going to Afghanistan but once there after three weeks the director of the prison told we were not allowed to stay inside more than ten minutes. “Come on”, I said, I am filmmaker, I am not a journalist, I have to stay longer and document. It was unnerving, every day long discussions, every day challenging, fighting and after two weeks he told we had to leave the prison although we had all the permissions. “You are going to cause troubles” he said. I came back to Sweden, I thought it would be impossible to go further and make a documentary in three weeks. After three months a friend in Kabul called me telling the director of the prison had been changed. “Come and try” he said. It costed a lot of course but we did it. The second one, the new director, the man you see in the film, was more open, he understood what we were trying to do. Then we started to film. It was very challenging despite we had all the permissions.
“We have 300 men inmates and 40 or 50 women but it is much more difficult with women. They often fight, cause turmoil.” That is what a prison guard recounts in the film. Is that really so?
Yes, it is. The smartiest the women are the less they feel prisoners. Most of them are analphabetic but they want stubbornly to fight for their rights, the rights they have as women, as human beings. Many of them think we have nothing to loose. In front of the camera they were surprinsingly comfortable.
How did you come upon Sara and her story?
We had many hours materials, more than one hundred, for only 77 minutes. Hours and hours to select and choose. We have filmed a lot of women, more than ten. Finally we picked up the ones whose story were more dramatic, telling something more. When Sara was released from the prison, she was totally alone. Her family did not welcome her anymore. His uncle family locked Sara inside a room and planed to kill her to save their honor. She was rescued and ended up in a safe house for women. A year later, Sara was invited to Sweden to participate for the premiere of “ No Burqas Behind bars”. Najibeh the other film character was moved from Takhar to Kabul’s prison and continued her punishment for fleeing from her husband. A year later, she was also free from prison and like Sara, she was left to a safe house in Kabul. There, she disappeared the Media spread the news that she was executed by her husband in her village in front of the eyes of dozens men.
What about the end of Prison Sisters? I know you was personally engaged involved somehow in Sara’s story.
If you mean that Sara moved to us and lived with us in Sweden, the only thing I can tell we maybe didn’t feel from the beginning how difficult was for her integrating in Sweden. When she got the freedom she had always dreamt about, she entered in another prison inside herself. She could not look at people’s eyes, she was uncomfortable everything was unusual, alien for her. Language, loneliness. It was easier for her to come back to the culture she came from, to the Afghani culture, to her husband. But we don’t know what can happen in the future, it can be temporary.
Haven’t you heard from her since?
No, I haven’t.
Do you think something has changed in Afghanistan and in the attitude of Afghani women with so many West-supported NGOs engaged in the country?
Very slowly. The problem is not only education for women. To me, first and foremost the problem is teaching men respect for women and reject violence. It has changed a lot since the Taliban but the question is that the country has been involved in war for more than thirty years. Psychologically all the society is sick. Men live in a country where there is no job, no money, in some parts of the country even no food. Men are under extreme and hard pressure. They are not well educated or at all. All this affects on women situation. Girls of ten years do not go to school. We cannot involve Afghani people in wars all through the country and then try to get them in education projects.
The Afghani trilogy is over. What about your next project?
It is not in Afghanistan we are in post-production for premiere in IDFA Amsterdam. It is a film about war propaganda during Iran-Iraq war. It is the story of a photographer working in Iran for the propaganda system.
Myriam you come from Iran. Some years ago you produced Those Who Said No. it is an impressive picture of mass atrocieties during the 80s Khomeini revolution.
We wanted to tell the stories of thousands of political prisoners secretly tortured and killed in those years. The perpetrators were never prosecuted, and many of them hold high-ranking government positions. In 2012, in The Hague an international people’s court was created to investigate the executions. Survivors and members of victims’ families – including the filmmaker Nami Sarvestani– give their testimony. The Iran Tribunal was broadcast live.
How did the film worked to come to terms with the past?
It was very useful film for the archive, for the future and next generations. The stories told in the trial where unknown to so many Iranian people. It was a secret, the regime tried systematically to hide what happened to the Iranian prisoners for many years. The new generation in Iranian society is a very young one. They have no idea of what happened in the 80s mass executions. Nima’s brother was executed. Those Who Said No was his way not simply to make a film but to tell untold story to the young. It was showed in the Iranian television, not in official tv of course but in a satellite tv channel based in London.