Rakhshān Bani-Etemad (Persian: رخشان بنیاعتماد, born April 3, 1954 in Tehran, Iran) is an internationally and critically acclaimed Iranian film director and screenwriter. She is widely considered as premier female director, and her films have been praised at international festivals as well as being remarkably popular with Iranian critics and audiences. Her title as “First Lady of Iranian Cinema” is not only a reference to her prominence as a filmmaker, but it also connotes her social role of merging politics and family in her work.
Early life and education
Rakhshan Bani-Etemad was born into a middle-class family. While her parents wanted her to pursue a career in teaching, Bani-Etemad demonstrated an interest in film from a young age. As a teenager, she had decided to study film. She received her Bachelor of Arts degree in film studies from the Dramatic Arts University in Tehran.
Shortly after completing her degree, Bani-Etemad began working for the Iranian television network IRIB (Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting), where she began directing television documentary features. Her features are steeped in the social and economic problems of Iran.
Bani-Etemad did not receive immediate praise upon entering the film industry. Her early feature films were met by harsh criticism. However, she finally earned critical and popular success in 1991 with her film Nargess. She received the Best Director Award from the Fajr Film Festival, marking the first time in the history of the festival that a woman was awarded the Best Director prize. Since then, she has received numerous awards for her films, including a Bronze Leopard Award for her film The Blue-Veiled at the 1995 Locarno Film Festival.
Since she began making films in 1978, she has come to exemplify her own unique style. Bani-Etemad’s films are considered socially and politically conscious social documentaries. She aims to reflect the realities of Iranian people’s daily life experiences. Her documentaries are centered on issues of poverty, criminality, divorce, polygamy, social norms, cultural taboos, women’s oppression, and cultural expectations.
Her 2001 film Under the Skin of the City was entered into the 23rd Moscow International Film Festival where it won the Special Golden St.George. The following year she was a member of the jury at the 24th Moscow International Film Festival.
With her 2002 film Our Times, Bani-Etemad became the first female filmmaker to explicitly confront the Iran-Iraq war, placing her in an important role in Iranian film history. She has been known to challenge censorship codes to the very edge.
Bani-Etemad has reflected an interest and an attraction to strong female characters dealing with social issues. In her more recent films, she features female characters from lower classes and incomes who are struggling to make a living. Bani-E'temad highlights the strength and resilience of Iranian women as the hope for the future of the country. According to the filmmaker, despite the legal and cultural barriers and the economic hardships for lower income women, their strong nature is the admirable quality about women in Iran. In addition, her films focus on the complex relationships between mothers and their children. This stems from her own experience as a mother in Iran, but also from the Iranian woman's inability to tackle her life without considering her maternal role—a reality that is deeply engrained in Iranian patriarchal structure.
Despite the predominance of strong female protagonists in her work, Bani-Etemad is not to be confused with feminist filmmaking. In fact, Bani-Etemad has explicitly rejected the label often applied to her by Western film festivals as a “feminist filmmaker.” She is more concerned in the universal struggle of society’s lower rungs, regardless of gender. In addition, she does not associate with the label due to the implications of the word “feminist,” which in Iran has a more negative connotation than in America. According to Bani-E'temad, as long as the understanding of the term remains in Iran, she will disassociate with the label.
Unlike most other Iranian filmmakers who share a common style, such as using long takes and non-professional actors, Bani-Etemad has her own distinct style. Her approach to the subject matter of her films is more emotional and theatrical. She has admit to letting the subject matter and theme of her films determine the structure, technique, and casting.
Bani-Etemad is recognized for combining the tropes of fiction and documentary film into her unique style. It is hard for the filmmaker to separate the two, and she finds that documentary elements often come into play as she is doing the research and shooting of her films. Her unique style emerged from her passion for representing the reality of Iranian society as accurately as possible. In order to achieve authenticity and reflect reality, Bani-E'temad personally spends time living in the conditions of people she is reflecting in her own characters. She relies on experience rather than research to provide a realistic portrayal. With her knowledge of the contemporary social issues she tackles, the filmmaker lives with families similar to her own characters prior to production in order to understand their conditions. For her 2005 film Gilaneh, Bani-E'temad spent a year and a half living in the village of Espili, observing the day-to-day lives of a war-torn population still suffering the repercussions of war, fifteen years after the Iran-Iraq war. In the process of dramatizing reality, she applies documentary conventions to reflect reality intimately.
In conjunction with her documentary approach to fictional film, Bani-Etemad’s signature style consists of films that deal with social issues specific to Iran yet still maintain broad international appeal. She is recognized for reflecting the struggles of Iran’s lower classes, the plight of single women and single mothers in Iran, and complicated family relationships. She often examines the duality of human nature in familial and work spaces. To accommodate documentary conventions, her characters directly address the camera.
Her upcoming film Tales has been selected to compete for the Golden Lion at the 71st Venice International Film Festival.
With a collection of films that combine absolute honesty with extraordinary subtlety, Bani-Etemad offers an analysis of the current cultural pressures shaping Iranian women's lives. She is widely recognized among Iranian audiences and critics as one of Iran's most prominent filmmakers, and has also enjoyed international popularity. She was awarded an Honorary Degree from SOAS in 2008.
She is the wife of Iranian film producer Jahangir Kosari. Her daughter is Iranian actress Baran Kosari, who has worked with her mother throughout most of her films. Baran began acting from a young age, and she is now a professional actress. She has appeared in her mother's films, as well as the films of other Iranian filmmakers.
She has donated her international prize for the movie Ghesseh-ha to build a shelter for homeless women. Previously she has also donated some of her awards to help disadvantaged women.
Filmography (as a director)
- Kharej az Mahdudeh (1986 - a.k.a. Off-Limits)
- Zard-e Ghanari (1988 - a.k.a. Canary Yellow)
- Pul-e Khareji (1989 - a.k.a. Foreign Currency)
- Nargess (1992)
- Rusari Abi (1995 - a.k.a. The Blue-Veiled)
- Banoo-ye Ordibehesht (1998 - The May Lady)
- Baran-O-Bumi (1999 - a.k.a. Baran and the Native - short)
- Zir-e Pust-e Shahr (2001 - a.k.a. Under the Skin of the City)
- Ruzegar-e ma (2002 - a.k.a. Our Times - documentary)
- Gilane (2004)
- Khoon Bazi (2006 - a.k.a. Mainline)
- We Are Half of Iran's Population (2009)
- Ghesseh-ha (2014 - a.k.a. Tales)
- Ay-Adam-Ha (2015)
Honors and Awards
- Bronze Leopard, 48th Locarno Film Festival (for The Blue-Veiled)
- The Prince Claus Award, 1998
- Best Achievement in Directing, Asia Pacific Screen Awards (for Mainline, with Mohsen Abdolvahab)
- Honorary doctorate, SOAS, University of London (2008)
- Best Screenplay Award, 71st Venice International Film Festival (for Tales, with Farid Mostafavi)