MELC celebrates veteran film director Rakhshan Bani-E'temad

Submitted by Rick Aguilar on

This autumn, Dr. Naghmeh Samini, affiliate professor at MELC, offered UW students a truly unique course: the Feminist Cinema of the Middle East. Having worked extensively as a screenwriter and playwright, Dr. Samini drew on her first-hand knowledge to curate an exciting selection of films and documentaries from Iran, Egypt, Turkey, Israel/Palestine, and Lebanon that represents diverse and nuanced ways of foregrounding and projecting women’s issues and perspectives on the screen. 

Thanks to Samini’s professional network, students have had the rare opportunity to virtually meet and connect with a number of Middle Eastern filmmakers. “It is imperative that students have the opportunity not only to watch and analyze films from the Middle East,” Samini says, “but also to interact with the individuals behind the camera who call the Middle East home.” The culmination of Samini’s efforts was a celebration of Rakhshan Bani-E‘temad, the premier Iranian film director, who had traveled to Seattle from Tehran per an invitation from MELC’s Persian and Iranian Studies Program.



“Teller of Truth: Women, Cinema, Freedom” was a week-long series of events planned by Dr. Samini and Dr. Aria Fani, held between October 31 and November 4. In an exciting new partnership with MELC, the Henry Art Gallery at the UW Seattle campus co-hosted the screening of two films by Bani-E‘temad. On October 31, an audience consisting of Dr. Samini’s students, UW faculty, and members of the Iranian public watched Our Times (2002), followed by an animated discussion of the documentary’s relevance two decades after its making. On November 2, around a hundred people watched the feature film Under the Skin of the City (2001) at the Henry, which was followed by a conversation between Samini and Bani-E'temad and a Q&A session with the public. The UW Daily was at the Henry to cover the event (read here).



Bani-E‘temad’s presence on campus generated much excitement. Dr. Mediha Sorma, a recent PhD from the Department of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, devoted an entire week to the cinema of Bani-E‘temad in her course “Revolutionary Genders in the Middle East.” Dr. Sorma’s students had the opportunity to engage Bani-E‘temad in a lively discussion in class, thanks to Parmida Ziaei who interpreted. Likewise, students at Dr. Samini’s class got to interact with Bani-E‘temad before the screening of her feature film. These class visits were the highlight of Bani-E‘temad’s time in Seattle, she told Dr. Samini, “It was truly exciting and educational to listen to your students talk about how the experiences of Iranian women spoke or failed to speak to their own experiences based on their time in Turkey, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East.”



On November 4, Dr. Samini and Rakhshan Bani-E‘temad co-taught a screenwriting workshop in Persian, titled “Cinematic Narratives Based on Personal Experience” at the UW Bothell. It was offered free of charge to members of Seattle’s Iranian and Afghan communities. Initially, the workshop was to admit ten participants in order to have sufficient time for personalized feedback. However, due to high demand, the workshop scrapped that plan and welcomed all thirty five participants who signed up! In the first hour and a half, Bani-E‘temad gave a broad overview of screenwriting, drawing on her long career for specific lessons. She emphasized the importance of research for a cinema focused on social issues. In the second period, Naghmeh and Rakhshan asked students to write a screenplay for a five-minute short film based on a personal experience. Nine participants volunteered to read their screenplay out loud and receive feedback. You can read a few sample screenplays here.



Throughout the workshop, Bani-E‘temad referenced the process of writing the screenplay for her 2006 feature film Mainline. After the workshop, participants got to watch Mainline, introduced by Bahar Saadat, PhD student in Near and Middle Eastern Studies. After the screening, Samini and Saadat joined Bani-E‘temad for a lively discussion with the audience. Reflecting on her experience that day, Saadat wrote: “Immersing myself in the workshop was an intimate voyage into the heart of storytelling. It wasn't merely an exploration of cinematic techniques but a profound encounter with the essence of human narratives, unlocking a deeper appreciation for the artistry that shapes our collective understanding of life.”



Organizing “Teller of Truth” was a deeply collaborative project. MELC had a number of partners in the Henry Art Gallery, the Simpson Center for the Humanities and the Departments of Gender, Women & Sexuality Studies, Comparative History of Ideas, and Cinema and Media Studies, and Peyvand NPO. So many UW students and individuals from the Seattle Iranian community volunteered to give rides from/to the airport, bring flowers to events, take photographs, interpret from Persian to English, and open their homes to gatherings with the celebrated film director. MELC profusely thanks all of them; the department’s strength lies in its strong connection with the community. 




All photographs by Soolmaz Dadgari of Solika Studio.

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