Sina Ataeian Dena’s History of Violence


Sina Ataeian Dena’s debut feature Paradise realizes an ambitious premise. Slated as the first in a trilogy of films dissecting violence in modern Iranian society, Paradise concretely establishes the psychology of its protagonist, an unmarried 25-year-old teacher living in Tehran named Hanieh, in a few snippets of dialogue set against a black screen. Before we even see her, we know her. Interviewed by a school principal assessing Hanieh’s skills to teach order and moral values to her young pupils, we learn Hanieh’s doesn’t wear a hijab in her personal life, and is uncharacteristically lax in her approach to upholding so-called expectations. Later we learn she smokes, shaves her head, and stifled by the bureaucracy that surrounds her, pushes to receive a transfer to a school closer to her home.

Dena shot the film without permission (in Iran, narrative features must receive advance approval by the government), constructing a mise-en-scène of clean lines and drab tones, throwing Hanieh and her dark hijab into sharp relief, as she commutes daily from the home she shares with her sister and her brother-in-law in Tehran to the city’s suburbs, where she oversees a classroom of energetic young girls in snow white veils. Dena positions her as a curious product of rebellion and acquiescence: as much as she maintains her own identity in her personal life and in individual run-ins with casual societal sexism, once she enters the school, she becomes yet another agent of policing young women’s habits and behaviors, and shaping them for the future.

Produced by Yousef Panahi (younger brother of famed director Jafar), who also has a cameo in the film, Paradise screened in competition at this year’s Marrakech International Film Festival, which concludes tomorrow. We spoke to the Iranian writer-director, who is now based in Berlin, at the festival earlier this week.

COLLEEN KELSEY: You plan to do a trilogy about violence in Iranian society. Did you have the idea to do the trilogy before or after you made Paradise?

SINA ATAEIAN DENA: No, I had it from, like, 10 years ago. I wrote the first draft of this script and then two others, because these three themes all argue the same concept. Violence as phenomena, but of course, three different aspects and three different cinematic languages [of it]. There is a character there that just passes, for example, and in the other episode, he’s the main character. But the point is that each of the three films has a cross-junction. So we had to prepare everything before; we had to somehow do pre-production for three films at the same time. Now we are in the middle of shooting the second episode.

KELSEY: Paradise is the first chapter in the trilogy. Why did you feel that that concept was the best one to start the story?

DENA: I tried to start with the other episode, but I met Dorna [Dibaj], the main actress, at the dentist. I asked her if she was interested in playing in a film. She had no experience with film; she studied fine art. Then she stopped her university for a year and started to go to a primary school in a suburb of Tehran, just to get the feeling, what it is like to be a middle class girl going to a poor neighborhood. And this enthusiasm in her made me feel like, “Okay, we have to emphasize this project at the moment.” I also think this is a characteristic of working in Iran, because you cannot really concentrate on one project, because you never know if it [will] happen. So you have to follow some different projects, parallel, and then you see what happens.

KELSEY: This is a feminist film and from a female point of view. When did you decide on a female protagonist?

DENA: I studied film in Tehran, but for getting a bachelor’s, it took me eight years because I was always looking for a parking place with my car, turning the block. There was a primary girls’ school next to our school. So, for eight years I was listening to what the principal says on the speaker, and I was only hearing the sound. But I was also visualizing it for myself and this had a big influence. Then I wanted to talk about this idea that if you see yourself [as a] victim of a system, eventually you become a part of this system.

In Iran, women see themselves more [as] victims. This is dangerous because it provides a very big opportunity to reproduce it. It’s not necessarily conscious, but when you reproduce violence, it’s like a ghost that is in the air. You feed this ghost subconsciously, and one day it becomes a big thing. And you just say, “No, I’m just a simple teacher, I don’t share the guilt. I’m not responsible.” But, if you look at it very objectively, everyone is responsible when something happens. We cannot say if, I don’t know, a rape or kidnapping, or terror, or crime happens, it’s just this person who commits it. It’s the last piece of the puzzle, but it’s a big puzzle. It’s a big network. Everyone shares the responsibility. This was the idea. I think to have a female protagonist in this setup, in Iranian society, [in] middle class society, this provided a very good structure and opportunity to tell the story. It was not like I wanted to do a feminist film, more it was I wanted to do something human, on a larger scale. I tried. This was my intention.

KELSEY: Well, the dynamic is so interesting, because of the gap between how Hanieh behaves in her own life, with a rebellious, modern attitude, versus when she’s in the school, enforcing these behavioral codes, training young girls for when they become women. You would think that if she wasn’t in that position of authority she would want to have nothing to do with telling girls not to wear nail polish or how to behave.

DENA: And she puts nail polish on her sister.

KELSEY: Right.

DENA: Yeah. It’s like this double life that you have in Iran. It’s like you have a two-faced life and both are reality. Both exist, both you can touch; you can feel it with your body. One is the official culture and one is the “real” or “normal” culture. People have to deal with both, and both exist, and both have completely two different mechanisms. This is a little bit like a schizophrenic condition: When you have to deal with two different logics at the same time. I wanted to show that it can be dangerous. It can be dangerous that you have this double life and double behavior because you somehow accept what you don’t believe. This is what is happening—and this is a universal phenomenon. It is not only Iran. It’s everywhere. Maybe in some societies less or in some more, but it’s a characteristic of human beings.

KELSEY: I also wanted to talk about your use of actors who didn’t know that they were participating in, exactly. Did that affect the narrative at all?

DENA: They didn’t know that it was a fiction feature film, because for a fiction feature film you need a special permission. For a short film or documentary, you need just a normal permission from [the] police. Of course, if you take part in the project that is not a fiction feature that is without permission, it can be problem for the actors and the crew. So, I didn’t tell people that it could be a fiction feature film.

KELSEY: So, you positioned it as a documentary?

DENA: I said it’s a “semi- long” film, which is different. I apologized because I felt like I had to tell this story, and it’s not possible if I don’t compromise a little bit. But, when we went to different locations, we had a documentary permission. This was also very challenging because we had borrowed different documentary permissions.

But, the biggest challenge was that, when we were shooting, we had to rehearse a lot indoors. We had to prepare everything and when we were shooting, I had to take care of two performances at the same time: One was what is happening in front of camera, and the other one was how did we look as a documentary film crew. So this was the most challenging. You cannot talk about, for example, the mise-en-scène. Everything must be fixed. You have a very limited time to shoot what you want to shoot. We only shot 16 days during three years. So, we were really precise. There was no single picture that we shot and it’s not in the film. Everything was scripted and conceptualized, and we had a very exact storyboard because I come from an animation background, and in animation you don’t produce extra frames, because it’s expensive.

KELSEY: The process of making a film is almost a political act in itself in Iran. Whether you’re getting permission or subverting permission, etc. Do you think that every movie made about Iranian society is somewhat implicitly political?

DENA: For me, it’s not like I want to be a political activist or a politician. But, nowadays, if you make a film, the fact that you make a film is political. So, it’s a little bit out of my control. My brain works like this: “I want to talk about this topic.” When I want to tell a story, I don’t think, “This is political, is it? What is it?” I just want to tell this, and it’s the most honest or [the] most pure feeling or thoughts that I have in that moment. When it comes out there are different associations, different understandings, and then people label it, “This is political.” But, what I want to say is that, since many, many filmmakers in Iran nowadays want to do independent stuff, it’s also more difficult to stop us. We are many.