Iranian film The Hidden Half, directed by Tahmineh Milani

…when I make a movie my aim is to challenge society. Some people don’t like this and disagree but the most important thing is to talk and be able to publicly debate these issues. This will help people to think more deeply about issues that they face. http://www.wsws.org/articles/2006/sep2006/mila-s29.shtml

In The Hidden Half, director Tahmineh Milani performs the above quote—she advocates talking and publicly debating important issues for individuals as well as society so that people can think more deeply about concerns they face.  The Hidden Half of the title references not only the grouping of women in Iranian society, hidden by the chador and custom and law, but also a hidden part of the life of the main character, Fereshteh, who lives for nearly 20 years with a husband who does not know she was a communist activist, and perhaps it is also a reference to the hidden populations who are against an Islamic regime ruling Iran which does not allow all-inclusive representation from all parties of the country.

In this instance, wife Fereshteh must confess her past to her husband, a judge, Mr. Samimi, who is on his way to another town to listen to the plea of a political prisoner condemned to death; she hopes that by confessing her own past, combined with her 17 years of marriage history with Mr. Samimi, he can come to understand the complexities of the past and perhaps hear with a new ear the story of the condemned woman in prison, perhaps to save her from the death penalty through his own edification about the previous era and the people involved.  Fereshteh divulges her history through a journal that she writes and puts in her husband’s suitcase for him to read while in Shiraz, hopefully before he hears the condemned woman’s story.  His reading of the journal occasions the film’s flashback to Fereshteh’s youthful life in Tehran as a student in the post-revolutionary period of the late 1970s early 1980s.  We not only learn that Fereshteh was a Communist activist, but had fallen in love with another man, Roozbeh Javid, an intellectual magazine editor, and through her adventures learned a lot about herself, life, and political reality.  She learns that she is as much concerned about love as she is with activism, that she wants safety and security rather than be martyr for communism, and that in reality her activities as a communist activist will deprive her of her desires, dreams, liberty and perhaps life.

First, Fereshteh was from a poor family in an unnamed village who only by good fortune, hard work and suffering was able to move to Tehran to attend university in hopes of making something of herself and ameliorating her and her family’s situation.  However, her background and personal inclination lead her to subscribe to and join a communist party group, of women, who write newsletters/pamphlets and read revolutionary literature from the likes of Che and others, in hopes to sway the developments of post-Shah Iran when various communist and socialist factions jostled with Islamic factions to take control of the country. An excellent article that focuses on the Tudeh Party but touches on all the leftist movements and their relations in post-Shah Iran can be found at http://www.iranchamber.com/history/tudeh/tudeh_party01.php.  One trajectory of the film chronicles Fereshteh and her group’s movements as activists, their fear of Islamic fundamentalist reactionaries who pursued and beat them up regularly, and equally dangerous government forces such as the police, which arrested, imprisoned and even condemned certain militants to death.

Fereshteh’s group would meet in a café, to talk over literature they had read, actions they would engage in, publications they would write, their relationship to the leadership, etc.  One day at this meeting, Fereshteh catches the eye of a suave older man expounding on love just as she was talking about the issue of love in revolutionary times—they are attracted to each other but only meet later.  It turns out that the man, Roozbeh Javid, is a magazine editor, very well-known and well off.  Their first real encounter occurs at a commemoration ceremony for a demised Iranian filmmaker, when Roozbeh calls Fereshteh a “little lady” and she retorts something along the lines that she’s not a little lady at all and not swayed by his prestige.  Then she’s devastated that they don’t meet for a long time until one night, passing out flyers, she and colleagues are attacked by a gang of religious fundamentalists who chase after them, want to beat up Fereshteh, until she escapes and hides in the office of the magazine editor. This occasions their second meeting, when they begin to really get to know each other, when we begin to hear more clearly her interest in the revolutionary communist movement, and learn of his interest in her in particular and his “take” on activists in general.  We thus learn, through several dialogues then and over the time of their meetings in the future, that there are several currents of resistance to the Islamic regime and the Shah as well, that one should do more than read communist literature from other countries but perhaps delve into Iranian history for precedents to libratory options.  Roozbeh calls Fereshteh’s poetry “sloganeering” which is what the party needs, but is not real poetry as he defines it.  He invites her to a party, then takes her for drives in his Range Rover, and eventually she runs to him for salvation when her comrades are arrested by police.  He suggests she get a passport and escape to England until things calm down; especially that night as he drives her home police search for her.  He sends her off to her village to get her birth certificate so she can get a passport for England, and though she hesitates to leave, she has second thoughts about how much she is willing to sacrifice for the revolution, and she has fallen in love with Roozbeh.

She expects on her return to be met by Roozbeh but instead meets his assistant who tells her that he is married with a son older than Fereshteh, and that she should think about terminating their relationship.  Fereshteh is not sure she really believes the assistant, but goes the next day to meet the wife, and then subsequently learns from the wife that Fereshteh looks just like Roozbeh’s first love, a revolutionary student from 20-30 years earlier who had disappeared in a riot, which thus led to the marriage between Roozbeh and his current wife, who also says that the plan was far more than for Fereshteh to hide out in England—Roozbeh planned to join her there and never return to Iran.  Fereshteh then feels doubly betrayed—first because she would never willingly have a relationship with a married man, and secondly because perhaps Roozbeh is not really in love with her at all but with the mirage of her similarity to the earlier disappeared young revolutionary woman.  Though she rejects the wife’s offer to put her up in a safe apartment, and goes on to find a job with a handicapped woman who needs a live-in assistant, she does encounter Roozbeh in the street as she is on her way to disappear.  However, she does not give him a chance to explain himself.   She is convinced that she is doing the right thing by disappearing within Iran, without Roozbeh; this lack of communication resonates throughout the movie.

The Islamic government closes the universities in Iran for four years, a true anecdote, the period of time that Fereshteh stays with the handicapped woman, and during which time she meets the woman’s son who has been studying abroad—no one knows anything of Fereshteh’s past except that she was a university student.  Eventually Fereshteh wants to return to the University, but is harassed at every turn by an Islamic militant that has a grudge against her for her former communist activities.  However, aided by the handicapped woman’s son, Mr. Samimi, to return to university at last, Fereshteh gets her degree, then marries the son, never revealing her communist party involvement, her relationship to Roozbeh, her fear of arrest or imprisonment, but in fact being the perfect wife in all respects.  Until, full circle, she learns that Mr. Samimi is going to hear the case of a former militant condemned to death, and she is forced by her own conscience to reveal her past in hopes that it might lead her husband to be lenient towards the imprisoned woman whose past might be so similar to her own.  In fact, it is not just her own conscience awakened on its own, but by her chance encounter with Roozbeh at a funeral at that same time, at which he chastises her for not allowing him ever to have a chance to explain himself, to speak all that he had to say.  In remedy of this, she speaks all she has to say to her husband, and requests that he let the prisoner speak all she has to say, so that true communication can occur between people.

As example, the administrator blog writer of Iranian Cinema at http://www.iran-cinema.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=83&Itemid=92 has several very interesting points to make about the film.  The first is “limited self-expression in Iran” in which the writer clarifies:  “Milani believes that one of Iran’s biggest problems is that its people “…are unable to express our true personality…For both men and women, their lives inside their homes where it is private is one way and outside of their homes where they have to observe social regulations it is another way… Our women also have two faces inside their homes: the image of what their spouses or their spouses’ families want them to have, and what is inside them.”  The Hidden Half is Milani’s way of expressing this idea. In the home, Mr. Samimi continually repeats that he wife is so sweet and kind, and nothing like the woman he is about to judge. Yet in Fereshteh’s letter, she repeats that over time, she has gotten to know him so well, yet he knows little about her. She says that she never felt the need to tell him about her past until she heard the way he was speaking about the political prisoner, because the two were in reality so similar.  Milani emphasizes the women must have two faces by showing that Fereshteh never felt it necessary to tell her husband about her past, and that he never thought her as anything other than innocent.

I would add that the film reveals this in several ways.  One is that of course in Iranian cinema even a love relationship cannot be revealed by means other than dialogue, and correct, innocent dialogue at that, as men and women outside the bonds of marriage cannot be shown touching on the screen and no film would pass the censors if it went beyond the strict mores of contemporary political guidelines.  Thus, even Fereshteh’s love affair with Roozbeh is only visible through the fact that they dialogue at all, that she visits his office, rides in his car, attends a party with him, etc.  All are seemingly innocent acts that resonate strongly in the repressed expressive regime of today (or 2001 that is).

Other forms of limited self-expression would be Fereshteh’s fear to reveal herself to her husband for fear that he would divorce her for her past, although she feels she knows him well enough to stave off that fear in favor of advocating for the condemned woman.  Only by expressing her past can she hope that the judge, through his personal experience with her as a good woman rather than a “communist”, open his eyes to the personal plight of the woman prisoner who is a human being above all.  Just as she came to understand in the process of being persecuted for her beliefs that perhaps she had other overriding dimensions within herself, and learning that she judged Roozbeh quickly and harshly without allowing him to speak his multidimensionality, she wants her husband to see the condemned woman as a human being of multi-dimensions.

Though this film is 10 years old now, it still resonates with its message of personal, social and political repression as we currently witness Jafar Panahi, another impressive filmmaker in Iran, arrested and imprisoned in 2010, ostensibly for his work that criticized the regime.  Expression, whether the personal/political as for Fereshteh, the personal and cinematic/political of the filmmaker, since the director of this work was herself arrested and imprisoned for a week when the film was released, and threatened with the death penalty for this film’s discussion of the opposition movement, still are important in the realm of cinema in Iran.

Another theme introduced by the blog http://www.iran-cinema.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=83&Itemid=92 is “the right to romantic love” in which the administrator writes:  “In the letter to her husband, Fereshteh admits that she was in love with another man and was not ashamed of it. Furthermore, she asserts that her love with this other man was acceptable, despite the fact that he was so much older than her that his son was older than her. In meetings with her communist organization, Fereshteh often asks what the place of love is in the revolution. While the organization responds that love must be put on hold for the cause, Fereshteh does not agree and continues to pursue Mr. Javid. Fereshteh is very open about her love for Mr. Javid, saying that at one point she wanted to commit suicide for leaving him. She also admits that she did not love her husband right away, but had grown to love him very much over time.

Fereshteh was not ashamed of loving an older man, especially in a society in which young girls are often promised in marriage to much older men because they have status or wealth or other elements that elevate them in the eyes of the girl’s family.  In fact, it would not be unusual for Roozbeh to divorce to marry Fereshteh.  However, her morals prohibit her from having an affair with a married man, which is of course also against religious law in Iran, for which she could be arrested, which the film does not delve into.  So to make it impossible for Roozbeh to divorce and marry her, the plot must involve a “look-alike” from the past so that Fereshteh doubts whether it is really herself Roozbeh’s in love with or someone in his imagination.

Fereshteh not only marries the man who helps her go back to school, she marries a lawyer/judge who is middle-class, safe, and diametrically opposed to what she had believed in before.  It is as if she has done an about-face, turning her back on her communist ideals quite suddenly out of fear, so far as to marry someone who would eventually even be the judge of her peers.  We know little of this new Fereshteh except that her husband considers her a good wife and mother.  Does she work outside the home?  Does she do social work?  Is she in any way involved with her former ideals of a more just society?  Or has she abdicated all relationship with “youthful” ideals in favor of “mature” ideals of stability, security, family?

Finally, the third theme introduced by http://www.iran-cinema.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=83&Itemid=92 concerns “Anti-revolutionary thoughts and women’s roles in the revolution” wherein the author posts:  “The Hidden Half also served as a way for Milani to express her political views. In fact, Milani was charged with spreading anti-revolutionary propaganda through entertainment for releasing this film. The main story line is surrounding the revolution in 1979. In the movie, all of Fereshteh and her comrades’ efforts are in support of the communist party and the anti-revolution. Fereshteh’s section of the organization is a completely female sector, and they all are completely dedicated to their cause. All but one of her group members was sentenced to death or jail time. Milani’s use of women to support the revolution shows the positive effect she feels women can have on society. Milani also shows a woman’s right to protest and to support her beliefs with the use of these strong female characters.

In fact, the film shows two important components—anti-Islamic government forces at work at all, which is a rarity, and women in the communist party, which is a real rarity.  She tackles two arenas that haven’t been much addressed at all, much less in contemporary Iranian cinema.  Of course the State has made it illegal or scary to address the communist forces at work in society at the time of the Islamic revolution, even though those forces were as equally powerful as the Islamic forces.  Many people were disappeared, arrested, condemned to death, imprisoned for long periods, etc. for being members or activists in the various communist and socialist parties active during the Shah’s time as well as after the Islamic takeover of government.  The film does well to show that oppression stemmed not just from the government but also from individual “gangs” of government supporters that roamed various neighborhoods to police them.  In fact, as the film shows, universities were hotbeds of strife, which is why there were constant battles there and the universities were eventually closed for years.  Milani reveals quite a lot about the various factions at work simultaneously trying to shape the “new” Iran, not forgetting what Fereshteh calls the bourgeois middle class like the magazine editor she falls for in spite of his class position.  That the editor wishes to escape to England with Fereshteh says as much about many upper-middle class Iranians who feared the Islamic regime as it does about the love relationship between the two individuals.

Even if a film dared to talk about communist sympathies strong in Iran at the time of the revolution, very little discourse concerned women in the party, particularly all-women cells such as that which Fereshteh belonged to.  One weakness perhaps of the film for a die-hard communist might be that Fereshteh, when faced with harassment, possible arrest and imprisonment, suddenly decides she is not that committed and she hides out with a job in a handicapped woman’s house and eventually even marries a man who becomes a judge of people she once had been like.  Unlike her comrades who were willing to be arrested and were committed, she became scared and that eroded her communist ideals—she was willing to give up communist for bourgeois ideals.  But perhaps, given the political situation in Iran, no other Fereshteh could be shown in a film—one could hardly make a film about a communist martyr!  What we must console ourselves with is her strength of character to eventually come out into the open about her past beliefs in hopes of saving another person, after she had spent so much time focused on saving herself.

Still and again, the treatment within the film, although slightly problematic, might be the best one can hope for under the circumstances of a regime that gives approval for a film then arrests the filmmaker anyway and only releases her after international outcry; then 9 years later arrests another prominent filmmaker on the same charges.  Severe censorship makes filmmakers search for alternative means to get their messages on the screen—that there is a film about the communist party activities in late 70’s Iran at all is quite impressive, especially one that focuses on women’s roles in that struggle, even if the main protagonist loses her way for 20 years.

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About sandrellita

I'm a film studies professor, fiber artist, potter and jeweler but my first love is cinema, thus this blog on cinema and culture.
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One Response to Iranian film The Hidden Half, directed by Tahmineh Milani

  1. Rolland says:

    Huge enthusiast with this page, a lot of your blog posts have truly helped me out. Awaiting updates!

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