Fresh out of film school Iranian-born photographer Faramarz Beheshti returned to his homeland in 2006 to investigate an unlikely subject: Women's rugby. The sport, which had just begun to catch on among Iranian women, challenged the strict rules under which they lived and it did not take long before a newly-elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's regime began to crack down.
Out of that confluence, as with so much of the often censored modern Iranian art that has won awards and audiences outside the Islamic Republic over the last few years, a film was born.
In A Separation, the Iranian film that captured a Golden Globe award last week, religion is a thread running through the tapestry of two Tehran families' lives. Censure is the dominant feature of This is Not a Film, which was featured at last year's Cannes Film Festival after its director had been put in jail.
Mr. Beheshti's film, Salam Rugby, also offers a rare glimpse into modern Iranian society where women's rights are being constantly eroded. The rugby players in the film are rarely allowed to practise outdoors. They practise fully covered, wearing hijabs. Eventually their male coach gets fired after rumours start to swirl about his players 'loose morals' and the team ultimately gets disbanded. One of the women who figures prominently in the film is Faezeh Hashemi, daughter of former president Ayatollah Akbar Rafsanjani.
An advocate of women's sport, she served as head of the Islamic Federation of Women's Sport. She was eventually removed, and earlier this month, sentenced to six months in jail for spreading propaganda about the Islamic Republic. The punishment, for comments she made, accusing the regime of being run by "thugs and hooligans," will keep her behind bars during the upcoming parliamentary elections in March.
Mr. Beheshti spoke with The Globe about his film and Iran from his current home in New Zealand.
How did you come up with the idea to focus on, of all things, female rugby players in Iran?
I did a film course in 2005. When I finished it was in my mind to go to Iran make a drama. A week before I left I saw a picture on the Internet of a girl playing rugby in Iran and I told myself, what a fascinating idea to work on. It stuck. I went to Tehran and spent maybe five or six months trying to organize permissions for a drama but it was very difficult to get the right permissions. As I started to lose hope about making a drama I started to revamp the rugby idea. I knocked on the door at the Federation and that's how it all started.
When Ahmadinejad was first elected he promised women would have more rights to watch and participate in sport but throughout the course of the film you see that in fact the regime cracks down on those very things. Women are rarely allowed to exercise outside and when they are it's in the heat of summer or dead of winter. They were only allowed to play two games in seven years. What happened to his promise?
It comes down to straightforward lies. Ahmadinejad is so corrupt it's unbelievable. When he first came to power he made so many promises that have all been broken. Last month they announced women can no longer participate in sports that have any kind of physical contact. They banned girls from skiing, which is a very popular sport in Iran. So I would say he made a promise and went backwards. It's as simple as that.
As a male director, travelling with and filming all of these young women, it must have been incredibly difficult to get access. These women were not even allowed to have contact with a male coach or practise on the same field as men. How did you manage?
I had a friend within Iran's Rugby Federation. I was lucky enough to start the project before the crackdown on women's rugby was implemented. As I was making the movie they started a campaign city by city to create a situation where women could not play. It was systematic. There were allegations the girl players had loose morals. The bottom line was I was filming under the umbrella of the Rugby Federation, doubling as their official videographer, for almost two-and-a-half years. I had the help of a friend who is no longer there. I couldn't do everything I wanted. I couldn't interview girls in Tehran because the security there is so strict. Out in the provinces things were a bit more free. Still, everything was chaperoned by officials. There was also a mountain of paperwork.
One of my favourite characters is Hamed, who briefly serves as the women's coach, but is later removed because he is male. He had a deep sense of shame about the state of his country. He can't believe his government would assume he would look at his players as sexual prey. He can't believe Iran's ancient culture had come to this. How pervasive is that sense of shame in Iran?
In Iran if you are a foreigner you will never hear anyone complain. It's Iranian culture that you keep your dirty linen in-house. But nobody likes this regime. If you look at the history of my country 30 years ago, some of the rights that women had in 1964 were so progressive. When I was growing up, to see a woman in a hijab was a rarity. That's the Iran that has been left behind.
What was the reaction in Iran when your film was released? What happened to the women's rugby team?
My film was never screened in Iran and I doubt it ever will. The fact that these women are learning a new sport which seems strange or charming for us from the outside, for them it's just not a big deal. They pick up new activities all the time. Unfortunately the women's team no longer exists. Apparently rugby itself has been bundled into an organization that handles 20 unpopular sports. The girls' team was basically shut down. The boys team was doing quite well but unfortunately their activities have also been undermined. The Rugby Federation is disbanded. These women are incredibly spirited and lively, but you can see the damage done by 32 years of this archaic regime. There is a carpet of sadness over these girls lives. But you know, they are girls, like anyone else. Given the chance they will go out and train and compete. These women are not so different from other women. Ninety per cent of the girls I know would never wear hijab.