Negotiating borders, gender, and identity: a transnational feminist study of an Iranian documentary

Najmeh Moradiyan-Rizi


A glance at the history and the politics of cinematic image production in Iran reveals the situatedness of this visual practice within a multicultural context through which a contested national identity comes to exist. For instance, the first documentary images of Iranian cinema, showing Mozaffar al-Dm Shah Qajar, the king of Iran (r. 1313-1324/1896-1907), in Ostend, Belgium in 1900, were captured by the European camera of Mirza Ebrahim Khan Akkasbashi, the court photographer. These images thus mark the first representations of Iranians on the screen within a transnational context that also nod to the increasing diversity of Iranian society itself in the Qajar era. After the turn of the 20th century, Iran, a semi-large empire under the rule of the Qajar king, was home to diverse communities, such as “Armenian, Azerbaijani, Georgian, and Russian,” many religions, such as Islam, Zoroastrianism, Christianity, and Judaism, and many ethnicities, such as Lor, Turk, Kurd, Baluch, and Arab. However, while since the advent of cinema in Iran both spatial and cinematic sites have pointed to a social and artistic “cosmopolitan” experience,1 nonetheless this experience is in part shaped through discourses on nationalism that necessitate the progress of the nation and the construction of its national identity.

In particular, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, the religious and anti-imperialist discourses have required Iranian cinema not only to purify its vision and practice from the Western “corruption” of pre-revolutionary Iranian cinema,2 but also to promote a unified notion of Islamic community (Ummah) regardless of Iran’s ethnic, religious, and cultural diversities.3 Yet the post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, as this chapter emphasizes, has creatively challenged this homogenous perception of “Iranian nation.”

Furthermore, the reception of post-revolutionary Iranian films at international film festivals under the banner of “Iranian national cinema” not only hints toward the idea of nation as a fixed, concrete entity, but also perpetuates the notion of national cinema as a recognizable set of cinematic tropes and meanings.4 Challenging this stable notion of national cinema, Andrew Higson asserts, “The process of nationalist myth-making is not simply an

Negotiating borders, gender, and identity 149 insidious (or celebratory) work of ideological production, but is also at the same time a means of setting one body of images and values against another, which will very often threaten to overwhelm the first.. .. Histories of national cinema can only therefore really be understood as histories of crisis and conflict, of resistance and negotiation.”5 It is through the consideration of these conflicts and resistances that this chapter aims to situate its transnational feminist argument underlining the dynamic interaction and contestation of both the global and national through cinematic (and media) images. This chapter, therefore, uses cinematic medium to foreground the body of an Afghan woman within the context of Iranian society through a transnational feminist study of acclaimed documentary Sonita (2015), directed by Iranian woman documentarian Rokhsareh Ghaem-Maghami. In doing so, it acknowledges the significance of challenging both the reductive discourses of Western media regarding the notion of “Muslim women” that conflate substantial differences in the lives of these women in various Muslim-majority countries and the coherence and fixity of “Iranian nation.” Post-revolutionary Iranian films have investigated and challenged the stable and homogenous notion of Iranian nation. Minoo Moallem writes, “In its obligation to create the nation visually, Iranian cinema has also participated in the undoing of the nation by challenging the idea of Islamic ummat [sic] as unified and homogenous, disturbing the revolutionary harmony of the nation of mostaz’afan [the oppressed] in its war against the estekbar-e jahani (world powers).”6 In the same line of observation, Michelle Langford distinguishes “a multilayered politics of language and location,”7 used by post-revolutionary Iranian filmmakers, as a way to represent “the cultural diversity of their nation” and “to challenge and usurp the long-held myth of a homogenous Iranian identity.”8 In this regard, the figures of Afghan refugees and immigrants have been a recurrent theme in post-revolutionary Iranian cinema, depicted in both fiction and documentary films, such as Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s The Cyclist (Bicycleran, 1987) and The Afghan Alphabet (Alefbay-e Afghan, 2002), Abbas Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (Ta’nt-e guilass, 1997), Majid Majidi’s Baran (2001), Abolfazl Jalili’s Del-baran (2001), Mehrdad Farid’s Afghan Children (2002), and Bahman Kiarostami’s Exodus (2019).

However, a few filmic practices have tackled the issues of Afghan refugees in Iran from a transnational gender perspective and in a dialogical relation between Afghan and Iranian women.9 What then can a transnational feminist film studies approach offer to cross-cultural women’s alliances while at the same time acknowledging the sociopolitical and gender specificities of each country? Anneeth Kaur Hundle, Loana Szeman, and Joanna Pares Hoare explain, “Transnational feminisms extend postcolonial feminist criticism to focus on the situations of women in multiple geographic contexts in feminist theories and activist practice, through the decentering of both national and imperialist/neocolonial power structures.”10 Inspired by this observation, this chapter employs a transnational feminist film studies lens to analyze the documentary Sonita by focusing on two major goals. First, to examine multiple layers of gendered negotiation presented in the documentary without implying homogenous oppressions and resistances regarding both Afghan and Iranian women. Second, to showcase the connectivity and intersectionality of these women’s modes of resistances in regard to both Afghan and Iranian contexts as they challenge “national and imperial-ist/neocolonial power structures.” As Chandra Talpade Mohanty asserts, “It is only by understanding the contradictions inherent in women’s location within various structures that effective political [and feminist] action and challenges can be devised.”11 This chapter thus analyzes crucial concepts of mobility, border crossing, displacement, and national identity in Sonita through the prism of transnational feminist film studies to show that transcultural and globalized flows of images and bodies do not occur within equal and symmetrical settings, but they are highly gendered and racialized.

Immigration, identity, and the places in between

The documentary Sonita centers on an undocumented Afghan female refugee, named Sonita, who lives in Tehran with her sister and her niece. A viewer learns early in the film that two brothers of Sonita also live in Iran. The settlement of Afghans in Iran is not something new and as Far-iba Adelkhah and Zuzanna Olszewska write, “Citizens of Afghanistan had been visiting Iran as migrant workers, pilgrims or merchants long before the period of conflict that began in 1978,”12 inducting a Marxist government through a coup d’état. However, a consistent set of national and political upheavals since 1978 including the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the Afghan Civil War (1992-1996), the ruling of Taliban, and the US-led “War on Terror” mobilized a large number of Afghans from Afghanistan to Iran, a country with linguistic and religious proximities, and other neighboring countries.13 Sonita and some of her family members moved to Iran during the Taliban regime.

While the Iranian government has provided some facilities to ease the Afghans’ life in Iran, such as “work permits, access to education, health care and reasonably stable residency permits,”14 nonetheless the accessibility and availability of social welfare have remained highly restrictive for Afghan refugees, especially those illegal and undocumented ones such as Sonita, who due to her undocumented residential status cannot have access to official education system. This paradoxical approach, welcoming yet marginalizing, in the rhetoric and practice of Iranian society has made Afghan refugees, in the words of Zuzanna Olszewska, “an absent presence: living alongside Iranians, yet strangely invisible.”15 Sonita attends a non-profit organization, called the Society for Protection of Working and Street Children, and uses various classes and resources offered by this center. Yet the socio-economic disparity that she, her sister, and her niece face becomes apparent early in the film. They live in a rented house, soon to be evicted, in one of the

Negotiating borders, gender, and identity 151 lower-class districts of Tehran. When Sonita is urged by her sister to go out and look for a place, the particularities of her marginality come to the fore. At a real-estate office, a man asks Sonita whether she is an Afghan and what residential status she has. Upon learning about her undocumented status, the man asserts, “You need at least a residential card or an Iranian guarantor. Otherwise, we cannot provide you with housing.” This scene reflects the socio-economic and legal hierarchies of Iranian society underlining the challenges Afghans face in navigating these hierarchical spaces.

Sonita wants to become a rapper and to use music as a way of artistic and sociocultural expression through which she aims both to question women’s issues in Afghanistan, especially in regard to the tradition of child marriage, and to investigate the liminality of her national identity as an Afghan refugee in Iran. Inspired by the stories of Afghan girls at the nonprofit center, some of whom are going to be “sold” as young brides, and later by her own personal struggle regarding the bride sale, Sonita decides to mobilize Afghan women and their families against this tradition through her music. However, the possibility of her goal seems contested as since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, women are not allowed solo singing in the public.16 Here, the channeling of a specific sociocultural problem pertinent to Afghanistan through musical expression, finds its challenging momentum in the gender politics of the host country. While Sonita tirelessly continues to meet with various musicians and producers, the gendered limitations and economic imperatives of producing music in Iran relegate her passion to an imaginary space.

Sonita maintains a scrapbook regarding her dreams. In fact, the film begins by highlighting this in-between mode of living: Sonita, while trimming the edges of a picture that shows a large crowd of excited audiences in a concert hall, says, “I want the concert I’m performing in to have as many as people; I want them to be excited like this.” She then sticks her own photo on the image of Rihanna, the popular American singer, and asserts, “And this is me!” In creating this imaginary future against the backdrop of a traumatic past and a difficult present, Sonita’s cultural identity, in Stuart Hall’s words, becomes “a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being.’ It belongs to the future as much as to the past.”17

Furthermore, this state of cultural and personal identities mingles with the issue of national identity in such a way that engenders a liminal subject position. For instance, there is a crucial scene in which Ms. Poori, the director of the non-profit organization, asks some Afghan girls including Sonita, to create two passports: one derived from their real life and another from their wishful imagination. In this scene, Sonita selects the imaginary name of Sonita Jackson and calls Michael Jackson and Rihanna her parents thus recognizing Americanness as her national identity. Ms. Poori upon examining Sonita’s imaginary passport surprisingly asks, “Born in the U.S.! Why? Because with a U.S. passport you could go anywhere?” To which Sonita positively responds. These conversations underline the significance of the politics of location in a globalized era that regardless of the interconnected flow of information and capital remains highly unequal restricting the mobility of human bodies align the axes of race, gender, ethnicity, religion, and nationality. It can also be argued that Sonita’s desire for having U.S. nationality derives from her past difficult experiences in Afghanistan and her current unstable and marginal situation in Iran which push Sonita’s hopes and dreams toward imagining life in another place/country.

This complex and double-sided nature of Sonita’s negotiation with her homeland and her current host country inevitably draws the filmmaker’s involvement in her life. Ghaem-Maghami not only supports Sonita’s music passion regardless of the limitations imposed on women in Iran in this regard, but she also pays $2000 to Sonita’s mother in exchange for Sonita to be allowed to stay in Iran instead of going to Afghanistan and getting married. At the beginning of the film, Ghaem-Maghami mostly follows an observational stand to register Sonita’s life. However, the struggles of Sonita urge Ghaem-Maghami to change her directorial role from an observer behind the camera to a participant in front of the camera affecting not only the course of the film but also Sonita’s life.18 Thus, a crucial female alliance forms between the filmmaker and the main character that significantly resists different workings of patriarchy in Iran and Afghanistan. Here, one might argue for the ethics of the filmmaker’s involvement in the subject’s life within the context of a documentary filmic discourse; what Bill Nichols, drawing from Vivian Sobchack’s discussion of ethical space in documentary, calls “the interventional gaze: the camera abandons the precondition of distance, transforming the detachment of a gaze into the involvement of a look.”19 Nichols primarily explains the concept of the interventional gaze in relation to moments of possible physical harm or even death in which “intervention is usually on behalf of someone else more immediately endangered than the cameraperson him- or herself.”20 In the case of Sonita, while there is an immediate possibility of Sonita being taken back to Afghanistan by her mother causing the film to end abruptly without its main subject and possibly engendering a precarious situation for Sonita herself, Ghaem-Maghami’s involvement should be mainly read based on a cross-cultural and humanitarian female solidarity that is initiated by Sonita’s call for help:

SONITA: Would you buy me?

GHAEM-MAGHAMI: What do you mean?

SONITA: If any Afghan man can buy me, you could do it too. I am for sale anyway. If you can find someone who would pay for me; give me the money, then I will pay them back as soon as I make enough money with music.

GHAEM-MAGHAMI: Sonita, dear, I must record the truth. It’s not right for me to interfere like this in your life.

The concerns over the ethics of participatory action and the possible risks and responsibilities associated with it are explicitly expressed by both the

Negotiating borders, gender, and identity 153 filmmaker and her crew in different occasions through the course of the film. In fact, while at first an ethical dilemma looms over the filmmaker’s response to this complex condition, Sonita’s urgent call for help changes the situation for Ghaem-Maghami creating a sense of ethical responsibility and female solidarity and alliance based on which Ghaem-Maghami intervenes in Sonita’s life.

Digital navigation, border crossing, and the paradoxes of movements in a transnational era

Sonita with the help of Ghaem-Maghami produces her music video, Brides for Sale, in which she critiques the tradition of child bride in Afghanistan. As the video is produced privately, with available equipment, and without any official permission, social media become the best and most efficient outlets for its distribution. Sonita and Ghaem-Maghami upload the video on YouTube, which becomes an instant online hit. Elizabeth Ezra and Terry Rowden consider this mode of production and dissemination through digital technology “the rise of a culture of access,” which:

functions as a delegitimating shadow of the official film [and music] cultures of most nation-states as they have been determined by the processes of screening, censorship, rating, and critique. Digital technology . . . has functioned to disrupt and decentralize the forces that have, heretofore, maintained strict control over the representational politics of the cinematic [and musical] public sphere.21

Decentering the controlled national regulations, Sonita is thus able to reach a large number of audiences through social media. By the success of Sonita’s music video within online platforms, an American woman working for a US-based NGO, contacts Ghaem-Maghami and Sonita via Skype to inform them that she has shown Brides for Sale to the faculty of Wasatch Academy in the state of Utah, and they have awarded a full-time scholarship to Sonita for studying music in the U.S. Without a doubt, the possibilities offered by new media and digital technologies in regard to production, dissemination, and reception of Sonita’s work are truly empowering for her; however, the mere celebratory reading of these technologies seems naive. Ella Shohat, regarding the implications of digital technology, especially in relation to the issues of national affiliation and the politics of location, challenges “the contemporary futurist euphoria of cyberdiscourse” by stating:

The digitized world, within this perspective, will facilitate neighborhoods and cities free of geographic limits on streetwalkers, border-crossers, and transcontinental flaneurs. The migrating homesteader, or “armchair traveler,” sits in front of the computer screen but makes gigantic leaps from cybersite to cybersite. But is it really possible to historically detach the facility of movement in cyberspace from the imperial culture of travel? . . . Does cybertravel continue to authorize the pleasures of predatory glimpses of otherized cultures, mapping the globe as a disciplinary space of knowledge?22

Sonita indeed shows that the “facility of movement in cyberspace” by navigating the Web and reaching a transnational audience highly differs from, and even contradicts, the mobility of the human bodies across geographical borders. This issue particularly shows itself in the fact that Sonita must go back to Afghanistan to obtain her birth certificate, passport, and Visa to travel to the U.S. This is a risky trip for Sonita because as an undocumented Afghan refugee in Iran if she does not manage to get the required papers and travel to the U.S., she has to remain in Afghanistan and cannot return to Iran. Moreover, the imperial context of the “glimpses of otherized cultures” within digital platforms underlines a Western-centric articulation of hybridity and global connections which shows itself in the U.S.-based NGO’s efforts and contact facilitating the college offer that Sonita receives. In this regard, Ella Shohat recognizes a benevolent, yet problematic, method regarding the studies, discourses, and practices of global feminism which she calls “the sponge/additive approach”:

In this approach, paradigms that are generated from a U.S. perspective are extended onto “others” whose lives and practices become absorbed into a homogenizing, overarching feminist master narrative. This kind of facile additive operation merely piles up newly incorporated groups of women from various regions and ethnicities - all of whom are presumed to form a separate and coherent entity easily demarcated as “difference.”23

Shohat’s meticulous observation shows itself in the rhetoric of the NGO worker, who emphasizes that she and her organization have helped “other” young people (like Sonita) from different countries, such as Liberia, Uganda, and Afghanistan. In fact, regardless of this well-intentioned context and practice, there still remains the risk of overlooking the particularities of these individuals’ situations and experiences in relation to the specificities of their locations thus engendering a homogenous discourse of global sisterhood.

Nonetheless, Sonita is eager to embrace the unique offer of a Western education for a better future, which she has all the rights to claim, and thus decides to go to Afghanistan in order to acquire the required papers for her U.S. travel. The crossing of Iran-Afghanistan border and the reunion with the homeland turn into a crucial moment of self-reflection which resonates in Sonita’s rap song that accompanies this border crossing. The complex westward and eastward journeys across geographical borders further mingle with psychic and imaginative journeys, presented through Sonita’s songs and her scrapbook, and engender a liminal state through which Sonita enacts a poetics and politics of identity performance. The multiplicity of Sonita’s exilic experiences, the

Negotiating borders, gender, and identity 155 centrality of geographical and symbolic journeys in Sonita’s identity formation, the particular values and implications associated with these journeys, the significance of external and internal borders, and the moments of homelessness, home seeking, and homecoming all strongly situate Sonita as a documentary in the context of accented cinema, proposed by Hamid Naficy in his book, An Accented Cinema: Exilic and Diasporic Filmmaking (2001). Yet Sonita also expands the categorization of this cinema beyond the authorial and autobiographical practices of the dislocated filmmakers residing in exile or diaspora discussed by Naficy.24 The following and final section of this chapter explores some of the major features of Sonita as an accented film.

Sonita: an accented documentary

Hamid Naficy’s framework of accented cinema exclusively focuses on those artisanal cinematic practices and modes of production that are performed by the exilic and diasporic filmmakers and thus are derived and formed based on their authorial and autobiographical experiences of displacement. Naficy in this regard asserts that the accented cinema is “both a cinema of exile and a cinema in exile.”25 Sonita explicitly showcases a cinema of exile by centering on its exilic character, Sonita, and also by offering an accented, interstitial mode of representation and production. Yet the film is biographical rather than autobiographical. In fact, while Sonita’s narrative spans over three countries - Iran, Afghanistan, and the United States - and the film was financially supported through a set of transnational resources including “grants from Germany, Switzerland, USA and the Netherlands [as well as the involvement of] TV channels from Japan, France, Germany, Switzerland, Korea and Taiwan,”26 the film is not about the director’s life in another country. The crucial requirement of self-reflexivity in regard to an accented film thus resonates in Sonita through other means of representation and production. In addition to multiple roles Ghaem-Maghami performs in the production of her film, including co-producer and director, the self-reflexivity of the filmmaker shows itself in the changing of Ghaem-Maghami’s position from an observer behind the camera to a participant/performer in the film’s narrative and Sonita’s life. This embodiment of Ghaem-Maghami and her emotional, humanitarian, and cross-cultural commitment to Sonita’s situation merge with the embodiment of Sonita as a displaced and exilic figure forming an accented, gendered mode of representation and a transnational and cross-cultural act of solidarity and alliance.

Sonita also explicitly incorporates written, telephonic, electronic, and digital media epistles. As Naficy writes, “Exile and epistolarity are constitutively linked because both are driven by distance, separation, absence, and loss and by the desire to bridge the multiple gaps.”27 In various scenes, Sonita is shown writing her songs, some of which come to be heard through the performance of orality in the course of the film. The use of telephone and cell-phone in the film highlights the materiality of communication as Sonita talks on the phone with her mother in Afghanistan. The new media technology, such as laptop, Internet, and Skype, also brings a new dimension to the multiplicity and spatiotemporal connectivity as it allows Sonita (and Ghaem-Maghami) to connect with audiences across the world and later with the American woman working for the U.S-based NGO. The multilinguality presented in the film also offers another accented feature in Sonita. Iranian Farsi/Persian, Afghan Dari, and English constantly interact with each other presenting a dynamic linguistic context. There is a particular scene in which Sonita, while packing her suitcase, practices English with the help of Ghaem-Maghami in preparation for her upcoming U.S. journey. In this scene, not only the three languages mentioned earlier explicitly interact with each other, but also the linguistic barriers show themselves. For instance, Sonita says, “I am a rapper. I am a piano.” She is then corrected by Ghaem-Maghami who emphasizes, “I play piano.” The language-related mistake made by Sonita metaphorically points to the linguistic ruptures and possible communication difficulties experienced by exilic, diasporic, and migrant individuals. The linguistic scope may also be expanded to include the sociocultural barriers and struggles that these individuals come to experience in their new places.

Furthermore, the accented cinematic features resonate themselves in Sonita in terms of its modes of production and reception. Sonita occupies an interstitial place in regard to both mainstream Western cinema and Iranian national cinema. It was financed by transnational sources and organizations, and used the collaboration of various individuals from different countries. The success of Sonita at major international film festivals, such as Amsterdam International Documentary Film Festival (IDFA), Munich International Documentary Film Festival, Sheffield International Documentary Festival, and Sundance Film Festival, as some of the main venues for showcasing artistically and thematically crucial documentaries, brought about a significant amount of publicity and advertisement for the film. However, this festival success, particularly within a Western context, raises the important issue of what the politics of international film festivals are in terms of recognizing certain films from Muslim-majority countries. In regard to the workings of Western film festivals Negar Mottahedeh argues:

In the context of extreme power differentials, the selection of films in French, Italian, British, and North American festivals, while formally grounded in the argument of “aesthetic brilliance,” is as much shaped by the products’ relation to known avant-garde and modernist film traditions as by the racist combinatoire'^ potential for commercial profit. . . . Put bluntly, the fundamental factors that inform the film festival encounter and the shaping of knowledge in that experience are profitability and festival politics.28

While without a doubt the films’ racial and ethnic contexts and their subject matter play an influential role in the festivals’ politics, in regard to the

Negotiating borders, gender, and identity 157 films’ reception by critics and audiences, there is no coherent and concrete formula that shows whether the workings of film festivals’ circuit lead to the perpetuation of racial, ethnic, and religious stereotypes, or instead break away sociocultural borders and bring about cross-cultural understanding and transnational alliances. In regard to the documentary Sonita, both of these possibilities can be seen. For instance, Ghaem-Maghami in an interview with Eboni Boykin of Indiewire laments the misconception of some (Western) audiences and critics in regard to women filmmaking practices in Iran by asserting, “Harsh censorship makes it difficult for all Iranian filmmakers, but being a woman does not make it more difficult. There is some misunderstanding and [mistaking Iran for Saudi Arabia.”29 Here, Ghaem-Maghami critiques the homogenization of Muslim-majority countries based on a set of constructed notions within a Western context. Yet the possibility of this critique and discourse, as a significant call for a better cultural understanding, which is provided by the festival venues and journalistic and media platforms covering them, needs to be recognized as well. In fact, Ghaem-Maghami’s Sonita in its production and reception offers a transnational context through which the issues of nationality and gender are highlighted creating a ground for the discussion and consideration of sociocultural specificity. As Ella Shohat writes:

Feminists of color have, from the outset, been engaged in analysis and activism around the intersection of nation, race, and gender. Therefore, while still resisting the ongoing (neo)colonized situation of their “nation” or “race,” post-Third Worldist feminist cultural [and cinematic] practices also break away from the narrative of the “nation” as a unified entity to articulate a contextualized history for women in specific geographies of identity. Such feminist projects, in other words, are often posited in relation to ethnic, racial, regional, and national locations.30

Ghaem-Maghami’s Sonita is indeed such a feminist practice that challenges the homogenization of Muslim-majority countries and Iranian society by shedding light on the difficulties and struggles of an Afghan female refugee in Iran. In doing so, Sonita acknowledges the situatedness and particularities of women’s resistances and negotiations in regard to Afghan and Iranian women, yet at the same time offers a dialogical and relational mode of documentary practice that creates cross-cultural and transnational women’s solidarity and alliance.


  • 1 Rekabtalaei 2019, 5 and 7.
  • 2 Ayatollah Khomeini “in his first post-exile speech [in Behesht-e Zahra Cemetery of Tehran] announced: ‘We are not opposed to cinema, to radio, or to television. . . . The cinema is a modern invention that ought to be used for the sake of educating the people, but as you know, it was used instead to corrupt our youth. It is the misuse of cinema that we are opposed to, a misuse caused by the treacherous policies of our rulers’ ” (cited by Naficy 2012, 7-8).

Contemporary Iran has a significant multiplicity of ethnic groups such as Arabs, Kurds, Azaris, Turkmen, Baluchis, Lors, and Gilakis as well as religious diversity such as Shi’i and Sunni Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians. Iran also hosts a considerable number of immigrant and refugee populations including Afghans, Pakistanis, and Iraqis among others.

Hamid Naficy asserts that, in its conventional sense, the categorization of films under the rubric of ‘National Cinema’ “benefited from both certain contextual formations - film industry practices, market forces, government support, reception and censorship practices - and certain textual and authorial formations -thematic, generic and stylistic conventions and innovations. However, the specificities of this definition were often elided and it was applied inaccurately to all the films of a nation” (Naficy 2008, 97).

Higson 1989, 37.

Moallem 2005, 130 (original emphasis).

Langford 2007, 151.

ibid., 156.

While some scholarly works have discussed Samira Makhmalbaf’s At Five in the Afternoon (Panj-e asr, 2003) through a feminist and gender perspective, this article is particularly concerned with the cinematic portrayal of Afghan refugees in Iran. See Patricia White’s chapter one in Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms (Duke University Press, 2015) on “Samira Makhmalbaf’s Sororal Cinema,” and Haim Bresheeth’s “Two Theses on the Afghan Woman: Samira and Hana Makhmalbaf Filming Agheleh Farahmand” (Third Text 24.1,2010).

Hundle, Szeman, and Hoare 2019, 3.

Mohanty 1991, 66 (original emphasis).

Adelkhah and Olszewska 2007, 140.

The linguistic proximity between Iran and Afghanistan shows itself in the varieties of Persian spoken by the people of two countries: Farsi/Persian is the official language of Iran, while Dari is a “dialect of Persian that is spoken in contemporary Afghanistan and that is one of the official languages of that country” (Olszewska 2015, XI). In terms of religion, in addition to religious minorities, Afghanistan has both Shi’i and Sunni Muslims. Given that the majority of Muslim population in Iran is Shi’ah, the statistics of Afghan population in Iran showed that “as of late 2005, Shia [s/c] Hazaras at 47 percent constituted the single largest ethnic group among Afghans in Iran . . .” (cited by Adelkhah and Olszewska 2007, 143).

Langford 2007, 152.

Olszewska 2015, 22.

In fact, Iranian women’s solo singing activities are restricted to homosocial spaces and women-onlv gatherings.

Hall 1990, 225.

The observational mode here, however, occurs within a conscious context which differs from a fly-on-the-wall approach. The camera asserts its observational presence and the subjects acknowledge the camera’s observational act by at times talking to the camera and addressing the filmmaker. Nichols 1991, 85.


Ezra and Rowden 2006, 6.

Shohat 1999, 215-216 (original emphasis).

Negotiating borders, gender, and identity 159

  • 23 Shohat 2001, 1270.
  • 24 In this regard, Naficy himself aims to “problematize both authorship and autobiography by positioning that the filmmakers’ relationship to their films and to the authoring agency within them is not solely one of parentage but also one of performance” (Naficy 2001,4). However, within this nuanced reading of authorship and autobiography, the emphasis still mostly remains on the accented filmmakers themselves and their accented (exilic, diasporic, or ethnic) experiences and reflections.
  • 25 Naficy 2001, 8 (original emphasis).
  • 26 Boykin 2016.
  • 27 Naficy 2001, 101.
  • 28 Mottahedeh 2004, 1411-1412 (original emphasis).
  • 29 Boykin 2016.
  • 30 Shohat 2006, 292.


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Hall, Stuart. 1990. “Cultural Identity and Diaspora.” In Identity: Community, Culture, Difference, edited by Jonathan Rutherford, 222-237. London: Lawrence & Wishart.

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Olszewska, Zuzanna. 2015. The Pearl of Dari: Poetry and Personhood among Young Afghans in Iran. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press.

Rekabtalaei, Golbarg. 2019. Iranian Cosmopolitanism: A Cinematic History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Shohat, Ella. 1999. “By the Bitstream of Babylon: Cyberfrontiers and Diasporic Vistas.” In Home, Exile, Homeland: Film, Media, and the Politics of Place, edited by Hamid Naficy, 213-232. New York: Routledge.

Shohat, Ella. 2001. “Area Studies, Transnationalism, and the Feminist Production of Knowledge.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 26, no. 4: 1269-1272.

Shohat, Ella. 2006. Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

White, Patricia. 2015. Women’s Cinema, World Cinema: Projecting Contemporary Feminisms. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

12 Film as a scene of “Rupture”

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