“SON-MOTHER” (2019, Iran) directed by Mahnaz Mohammadi

review by Cynthia Webb ( December, 2020)

The first feature film for the director, Mahnaz Mohammadi of Iran is a work of great emtional power and realism and it is also educational for those who live outside Iran.

“Son-Mother” (2019) is screening in the Sydney Film Festival, December, 2020. (If you are in Australia you can stream it online from their website until 20th Dec 2020). This is an important film, which not only introduces audiences to a gifted film director, but also informs us about the kind of excruciating situations that women in The Islamic Republic of Iran can find themselves in. It is also beautifully directed, acted, edited, and I could find no fault with it.

Today’s Iran is a man’s world, which Mahnaz (a young woman director who was previously awarded in international festivals for her documentary films) is showing us. In the Islamic Republic of Iran, the traditional ways are definitely favouring men, and women are suffering many indignities that women of the so-called West couldn’t begin to imagine.

Mahnaz has twice been imprisoned by the regime for her statements in her films, which were perceived to be anti the regime’s treatment of women. She is a brave and beautiful woman who described to me in person, her times in prison. The first time, speaking of 2 months in solitary confinement, she admitted that it was very, very hard for her. However, the second time, she stated it was not so bad because “all my friends were in there too,” – referring to other female activists.

Here in the 2019 film “Son-Mother” we watch a film in two segments. The IMDb site tells us that the screenplay is by Mohammad Rassoulof, who is one of Iran’s most respected directors, who has also been a longtime critic of the regime in his homeland, via his filmmaking.

Mahnaz’ film tells us about the excruciating difficulties of a young widow, Leila, the “mother” of the title. After becoming a widow, the fact that her beloved son Amin even exists is a stumbling block for her future options.

The second segment shows us how these excruciating problems for her, affect her son Amin, who is aged around 12 or 13 years old.

Leila is being courted by a nice man named Kazem. However, he is a widower with a daughter of around the same age as Amin. It is deemed to be not proper for these two young people to be in the same household together… “What will people say?” Kazem wants to marry Leila, but his conditions are painfully difficult for her. His condition is that she send her son away for about three years, until such time as his daughter is engaged or already married off. He is a kind man with the best of intentions, and Leila realises this, but her motherly heart of course is appalled by this condition of his offer, because she loves her son and wants to keep him with her.

In this very relevant and perceptive screenplay, the young mother of two, Leila has to wrestle with this problem. She is a widow, and her son Amin, is about age 13 and she also has a baby daughter who is around one year old.

At her place of work in a factory, she is also experiencing many difficulties. Being a widow is one big problem in Iran, as people see widows as dangerous, reckless, even immoral. Also, she has been late to work quite a few times , because of her responsibilities to her children. She suffers abuse from colleagues. All this, and more besides, is revealed by scenes of her being called to the personnel manager at the factory where she works.

This moving scenario takes the Western audience into situations we could never imagine, and we are sympathetic to both Leila and her suitor Kazem, and even towards the Personnel Manager at her place of employment.

However, the most unfair and painful load rests on the young shoulders of her son, the boy Amin. He sees and hears everything. He is brave and self-sacrificing as he agrees to the so-called “solution” that is offered to his desperate mother, who soon becomes unemployed due to the prejudice of her work colleagues. A woman named Bibi offers to assist. She has been coming to Leila on behalf of Kazem, conveying his ardent messages of persuasion in support of the marriage. She works in a boarding school for deaf/mute boys and claims to have known Kazem since his childhood, but I wonder if she is a professional “match-maker” on the side.

This screenplay, because it is so personal, arouses the empathy of the viewer is to the utmost degree.

The true value of “Son-Mother” is to communicate to the audiences outside Iran, just what kind of world the people must struggle in.The widow Leila is struggling, but there is pain for her suitor Kazem too, that he musteven put such a condition to her. The Iranians themselves know only too well, how things are in their ancient and proud land, now ruled by an unpopular government. Elections do not serve to remove them.

“Son-Mother” contains quite a few powerful metaphorical images which you will find for yourself: However, some I will mention: – A shot of Leila walking in a crowded Tehran street, and she is surrounded by a sea of men, – she’s the lone woman in the shot. It’s a man’s world.

There is a beautiful scene of Leila behind a window covered with a curtain – she’s just a shadow, walking back and forth, holding and humming a song to her younger child. This is the condition of so many women in today’s Iran – just a shadow, powerless.

There are more, of these visual metaphors and you will find them and feel them. I don’t want to spoil your viewing experience if you are lucky enough to get a chance to see this important film, please do.

There is some uncommonly effective editing…. holding a couple of frames for much longer than we are accustomed to. Do not look away! I think maybe you cannot anyway, because our attention is locked on to these protagonists.

The most crucial revelation of all, I must speak of: It is coming through loud and clear in the second section of the film, entitled “SON”. This dear boy Amin, is all eyes and ears, and he knows everything as his own life changes and he is in a new life situation. Having understood and silently agreed to go along with it – he finds himself in a boarding school for deaf and mute boys. There he is talented at playing the part – it’s necessary. His wide all-seeing eyes never falter and he is strong, in not communicating but instead playing the role of a deaf-mute for as long as necessary, to help his mother and baby sister.

He observes everything..especially the blatant lies being told by his mother and her helper Bibi. With considerable aptitude, he begins to play his part in weaving a web of lies. He reminded me of one of the Three Wise Monkeys, (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil), or so it appears to others. But actually, he hears and sees everything.. just doesn’t speak. Amin has learned a dreadful thing – that to survive in today’s Iran it is often necessary to lie and that adults are doing it all the time. It is such a terrible thing to understand at such a young age.

This story demonstrates that the contemporary way of life in Iran sometimes demands 100% sacrifice from many women, and in this particular story, demands 100% sacrifice from children too. Amin grows up much too fast.

It seems there is no provision for plight of widows in the Islamic Republic of Iran. I seem to recall that in Arabia there was a tradition that brothers of the deceased man would take in the widow as a second wife to take care of her. In this story there is no brother in evidence, and this is Iran, a different culture altogether. A different type of Islam, (Shia, not Sunni). I admit I don’t know what the tradition providing for widows is there if they have one.

However, I do know the director personally, and if Mahnaz Mohammadi says this is what can happen in Iran, I believe her.

“Son-Mother” is very good cinema – the directing, the screenplay, the cinematography, the editing, the acting, the sound… all of it.. and filmed in the actual locations in Tehran. Here is a debut film that looks like something from a long experienced director….and it is a must-see film. Even if I had never met Mahnaz I would be quite ‘knocked out’ by the quality of this strong feature film. I congratulate her, even while revealing to readers that she is a friend of mine.

By Cynthia Webb

copyright, December, 2020

About cynephilia

Lifetime student of and devourer of international Cinema. Artist, teacher, traveller - especially to my "other home", Java, Indonesia. Features writer for 14 years, for The Jakarta Post, national English language daily newspaper. I was born in New Zealand, but lived in Queensland, Australia since 1970. My profound link with Indonesia began in 1983, when visiting Bali (then an island of arts and of inspiration for an artist), and then again in 1994 when a visit to Yogyakarta, Java, began a process of that town and it's warm people becoming another home and extended family for me. Yogyakarta is the Artistic capital of Indonesia, and so it was the place for me. In 2000 I became a regular contributor about the arts for The Jakarta Post, and cinema, my lifetime passion, later began to become my focus for writing. The advent of The Asia Pacific Screen Awards, (APSA) in South East Queensland, launched in 2007 gave me opportunities to meet some the great film-makers of Asia, and see their amazing work. APSA is a kind of "Oscars" for the Asia-Pacific Region.
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