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FILM

"Women's Prison," a drama from Iranian director Manijeh Hekmat

Song of Sparrows

World's unknown films come into focus under Global Lens
Jonathan Curiel, Chronicle Staff Writer
Thursday, January 29, 2004

Its mission is to spotlight narrative films from developing countries, so the Global Lens series that begins Friday in San Rafael is a chance to see movies that may never be released commercially or even in video stores. That doesn't mean these films are somehow second tier.

"Women's Prison," a drama from Iranian director Manijeh Hekmat, was well received at Italy's Venice Film Festival and at the San Francisco International Film Festival. "Shadow Kill," a new work about a hangman from veteran Indian director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, has also been honored at international festivals.
Packaged as a series with eight other movies (representing filmmakers from Brazil, Cuba, Tajikistan, Tunisia, Algeria, the Palestinian territories and the Philippines), the films are a window into countries -- and stories - - that often fall beneath the radar of most Americans.

"Never before has there been as great a need throughout the world for an understanding and tolerance of different cultures," Noah Cowan said last year when he announced the creation of the Global Film Initiative, the New York nonprofit that's behind the Global Lens series.

After beginning at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the series has been touring across the country. At the Rafael Film Center, it runs until Feb. 14, with each film screening at least twice. Though the movies explore serious issues, many of the films are comic, including "Angel on the Right," a dark comedy from Tajikistan about a tough ex-convict who returns home and is surprised by his family and townspeople. Two films from Brazil -- "Mango Yellow" (which is peopled with odd characters in a coastal town) and "Margarette's Feast" (a film without dialogue about a newly unemployed man determined to give a birthday party for his wife) -- also use light touches.

None of the films are documentaries, and that's one of the main points of the series: To give moviegoers a chance to witness lives that don't easily fit into a news format. This mandate is clearly embodied in "Women's Prison," a riveting work that tells the story of Iran's revolution through the eyes of those who were kept behind bars for 20 years. The film was banned in Iran -- and made international headlines -- after Iranian hardliners burned down at least one theater where it was shown.

In a phone interview from Tehran, Hekmat says she's happy her movie was chosen for the Global Lens series, which is showing the director's cut. Before it was banned, Iranian censors forced Hekmat to take out important scenes from the film, including one where the female prison warden -- after years of enforcing tough conditions on her inmates -- puts on lipstick in a moment of introspection and reflection. This edited version was still a box office hit in Iran before Iranian censors then prohibited the movie's screenings and took away Hekmat's license to make feature films.

"I don't believe in any other country that the situation for directors is anything like the situation in Iran," Hekmat says, her words interpreted from Farsi to English by a translator. "People like me are under tremendous pressure. I got sick physically (from the battle) to make the film and get it released. I got this shaking where I'd shake even to move a cup. I'm only 40 but I feel like I'm 60 or 70 because of all the pressure."

Hekmat still has moments of joy, as when she went to Venice, Italy, with her film in September 2002. Photographers at the Venice Film Festival captured her smiling exuberantly as she posed with two actresses from her movie, Pegah Ahangarani, who is Hekmat's daughter, and Roya Nonahali. One of Iran's most prominent female filmmakers, Hekmat says she is so unhappy with conditions in her country that she's considering leaving Iran, saying, "I'm expecting in the next few months another wave of immigrants -- mostly artists and intellectuals -- to leave the country. Unless people in the world pay more attention to human rights violations in Iran, this wave of immigrants will happen."

Hekmat can still make documentaries in Iran, and two of her documentaries are going to be shown at New York's Tribeca Film Festival in May, but a tragedy of "Women's Prison" is that it's Hekmat's directorial debut after years of making films as a producer and assistant director. This should be a time for Hekmat to celebrate, not contemplate uprooting herself from her homeland.

Hekmat's story -- the story behind one film in the Global Lens series - - is a reminder of how difficult it can be for non-Americans to make movies. Besides its film series, the Global Film Initiative is giving grants of as much as $40,000 to filmmakers around the world under terms that could lead to the films' U.S. distribution.

"The broader goal is to get a wider distribution of the films," says Jytte Jensen, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art who helped choose the movies that made it into the Global Lens series.

The other films in this year's series are: "Wretched Lives," which juxtaposes lives of poor Filipinos with political change in the Philippines; "Ticket to Jerusalem," whose major character is a West Bank man who runs a mobile cinema from his truck; "Rachida," about a young Algerian teacher who endures violence; "Khorma," whose main characters earn money by announcing births, deaths and marriages in a Tunisian village; and "Nothing," a comedy about a postal worker which satirizes conditions in Cuba.

"The films (in the series) are very different from one another," says Jensen, who describes "Women's Prison" as "enormously well made."

"That's part of what we're trying to accomplish," he says. "We want to show all kinds of different cinematic styles and approaches. What's special for the films is that they are all made in countries that do not, for the most part, have a large film history, and where the money situation is such that it's very hard to produce films."

The Global Lens series runs Friday through Feb. 14 at the Rafael Film Center, 1118 Fourth St., San Rafael. For tickets and information call (415) 454-1222 or go to www.cafilm.org. For more about the Global Film Initiative, go to www.globalfilm.org.
E-mail Jonathan Curiel at jcuriel@sfchronicle.com.