Sudabeh Mortezai, 39, is a filmmaker with a mission. She would like to see more and more people talk about themselves on screen. Her theme is Iran and her genre, the documentary.
The award-winning Mortezai prefers documentaries to feature films as she finds real life people and original scenes more inspiring than their fictional counterparts for interpreting the modern world. "Fiction fuels the imagination but documentaries go beyond the imagination," she says.
'Children of the Prophet', an 86-minute documentary film, follows four groups of protagonists in Tehran during Muharram, a Shia Muslim ritual to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, grandson of Prophet Muhammad. The idea was to find out from contemporary Iranians how the tragedy that took place more than a millennium ago is able to inspire such strong emotions in this day and age.
The film, which opened in Vienna (Austria) last May, continues to draw crowds, perhaps because Iran is so much in the news but so little is known about its people and culture. "We are flooded with information but obviously none of it is enough to satisfy the curiosity of global citizens looking for more in-depth reports about countries, like Iran, that are headline news every day," explains Mortezai.
Completed in 2006, 'Children of the Prophet' was first screened in The Netherlands last autumn as an official entry to the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA), where it won the First Appearance Award, including a cash prize of Euros 2,500. This is one of the five prizes awarded annually by IDFA, the largest documentary film festival in the world.
It continues to bother Mortezai the way Iran is demonised by the world and seen as a society that is both backward and cruel. "When people look at veiled Muslim women, it is immediately concluded that they are submissive, less intellectual and unaware of their rights. Nothing is further from the truth. Women in Iran are involved today in a fierce fight for their rights in a very patriarchal society, where privileged people refuse to give up a lifestyle enjoyed by them for centuries."
Moretzai agrees that it is not right to force women to wear the veil; but also points to the terrible social pressure on women in western societies to remain sexy, thin and 'beautiful'.
She is most annoyed when friends in Austria tell her that she is not like an Iranian woman. Implying, perhaps, that everything that is intelligent, creative and modern about her is because of her life in Europe. This is not true, she says, even as she enjoys living in a democratic society where equal rights are granted to women legally.
"But even in democratic European societies violence against women exists," Mortezai says, as she recalls growing up with a mother and grandmother, two of the most liberal and intelligent women to have crossed her path.
"My octogenarian grandmother continues to make men of different age groups dance to her tune, leading many of them to the fountain but not allowing them to drink," she says with a laugh.
During her research for 'Children of the Prophet', Mortezai found that the relationship between the two sexes is extremely complex in Iran and this is a theme she will explore in her next documentary.
Born in Germany, Mortezai spent the first 12 years of her life in Iran before moving to Vienna. She is a graduate in theatre studies from the University of Vienna. One of her first jobs was in the offices of the prestigious Viennale, the international film festival of Austria. Mortezai is remembered for having introduced audiences in Vienna to the marvellous films of Bahram Beizai, master Iranian film director, almost a decade ago.
It has taken her some time to make her own film and, when she was finally ready to do so, she chose to observe actuality rather than stage it and to listen to protagonists tell their own story rather than pressure actors to deliver dialogues. At the moment she is in no mood to dramatise fiction. She wants to get as close as possible to the truth and prefers to creatively work with the raw material instead of acting out the reality around her.
Documentaries, too, can be staged and Mortezai gives the example of Michael Moore who, she says, is 'manipulative'. "I admire what Moore does and his documentaries are very important but I do not make films the way he does. I like to wait and give people the opportunity to open up to me, to tell me what they want to and not what I want to hear." (Moore is an Academy Award-winning American director and producer of controversial 'Fahrenheit 9/11'.)
While Mortezai's family did not observe the Muharram rituals at home, she did watch it on television and invariably the conclusions of her European friends were that the public display of grief by Iranians, who beat their breast and cut themselves with knives during Muharram (as a form of mourning), is barbaric.
So, she travelled to Iran to find out for herself. After filming 'Children of the Prophet', she discovered that the ritual is indeed archaic, but not barbaric. "The image of Iran is based on highlighting the dramatic aspect of life in the country. This is totally out of context. The every-day life of ordinary Iranians is seldom explored," Mortezai rues.
Her film documents a few days in the life of a handsome male florist as he prepares to participate in the annual Muharram procession along with three other protagonists. This is the time of the year when people take a break from their daily chores and reach out to the community. They cry, cook, eat and philosophise about the meaning of life together, creating a field of tremendous solidarity and energy.
"The energy that the community as a whole generates can be frightening for those who do not belong. But a crowd of people during Muharram is as benign or as explosive as the excitement of spectators at a game of soccer or a rock concert. The gathering of people to mourn together and to laugh together is practised all over the world. It is not something Islamic or exclusive to Muslim societies. Then why demonise Muharram?"
Muharram is the name of the Islamic New Year. But during this month, Hussain, the grandson of the prophet was killed as he fearlessly battled for social justice. The Shia Muslims grow up on legends glorifying Hussain and the way he sacrificed his life for truth. The grieving on behalf of Shia Muslims today is symbolic of the loss of wisdom, decency and courage from the world and a reminder that greed and cruelty is unbecoming to human existence.
Once Muharram is over, the young man in 'Children of the Prophet' is seen returning to his flower shop to begin preparations for the next festival on the calendar - that happens to be St. Valentine's Day.