Leila Hatami, the first Iranian woman to sit on the jury of the Cannes film festival, is long practiced in the art of appearing on the international stage without offending hardliners in her home country.
She has never appeared in public without some form of head covering, be it a hat or elegantly arranged headscarf, and has even walked the red carpet of major festivals wearing a simple shaw or manteau-like dress. In Cannes this week she observed the Islamic Republic’s dress code as well, her sleeves reaching her wrists, her collar high, and a shawl over her hair arranged like a hat.
Despite her modest appearance, intended to preserve her ability to act and work freely in Iran, photographs of her greeting the octogenarian festival director Gilles Jacob have sent Iranian conservative politics into a tailspin. Hardline media have roared their disapproval and prominent conservative politicians have joined in.
Mocking Someone’s Culture
“Leila Hatami kisses a strange man” ran the caption that many hardline media outlets used to accompany the pictures. The hardline newspaper Kayhan accused Hatami of mocking her country’s culture and used the occasion to recycle the old news about Asghar Farhadi, the director of the Oscar-winning “A Separation,” shaking hands with Angelina Jolie.
The first official reaction was a quiet scolding from Deputy Minister of Islamic Culture Hossein Noushabadi, who told the Iranian parliament’s website that “Iranian women, artists and non-artists, have always been a symbol of chastity and purity. The inappropriate things that happened at the Cannes festival are not in line with our religious beliefs.”
Iranwire reached Noushabadi for comments, but he declined to speak to non-domestic media. In his published remarks, he also spoke on behalf of 70 million Iranians, noting: “The Iranian nation would not tolerate the presence of artists in international festivals if our social and moral values are ignored.”
Laleh Eftekhari, one of the handful of women in Iran’s parliament, told IranWire that “such behavior is utterly inappropriate. Our artists must be good role models for Muslim women and not behave like Westerners.” The Ministry of Culture, she said, “must clarify its position vis-à-vis these artists who do not respect the place of Iranian women outside the country.”
Eftekhari vowed to raise the matter with the parliament’s Cultural Commission. “Such behavior demeans the blood of our martyrs,” she said. “These people have benefited from the resources of the system but they have brought it shame.”
Iran’s hardline establishment has been deeply exercised in recent years by what it deems the salacious and inappropriate behavior of Iranian film people on the international stage. When Asghar Farhadi shook hands with Angelina Jolie two years ago at the Golden Globes awards hardline figures reeled.
Fars News Agency, which is associated with the Revolutionary Guards, wrote that “with his action, Farhadi showed that he knows nothing about the diplomatic relations of the Islamic Republic and the authorities at the Ministry of Islamic Culture and Guidance did not teach him anything.”
The conservative movie director Farajolah Salahshdor joined the outrage and wrote Farhadi a scathing open letter, asking “why would a director from the Islamic Republic not understand the international rules of Iran and shake hands with a notorious Zionist woman who makes movies against Islam and Iran?”
For a time Niki Karimi, the actor and director, served as the bête noire of the hardline media. She embraced the 86-year-old actor Ezzatolah Entezami at a ceremony and smiled at the cameras, and further offended fundamentalist sensibitlies when she appeared at an Abu Dhabi film festival with some leg showing. Aslani, head of the women’s corps of the paramilitary Basij, asked that Karimi’s pictures be banned from the media. Bulletin News, a hardline site, published photos of Karimi but gave her a zero for conduct.
The authorities banned the publication of pictures of another Iranian actress, Fatemeh Motamed-Arya, when she appeared at the Cannes film festival without a headdress. Kayhan called her a “seditionist” because she was a supporter of the Green Movement and also reported that a 1990s video taken at a private party sometimes showed her dancing -- “a clear offense to the martyrs.”
After the report the authorities banned Motamed-Ayra from working for a period. In 2012 she appeared in France to receive the Henri Langlois prize for best actress at the Vincennes International Festival, and earned herself another suspension by allowing the presenter to kiss her on the cheek. It was only in January of this year that the Rouhani government permitted her to work once again.
The Excruciating Lean-in
Perhaps Gilles Jacob did not anticipate the world of trouble he would create for Leila Hatami when he brought his face forward, but it’s clear she did. A video from the opening ceremonies of the festival shows Hatami’s discomfort clearly. She is standing on the red carpet next to other jury members when Jacob enters and proceeds to greet each one in the European manner. Each jury member steps forward, embrace Jacob and kisses him on the cheek. Hatami is standing behind the others and when it is her turn she extends her hand but Jacob puts his hand on her shoulder and lowers his head toward hers.
Hatami hesitates briefly and then does the same, like many Iranian actors and directors who have faced such moments in the past, choosing civility over professional expedience. The isolation and uncertainty is clear in her eyes, and the conflict she faces displayed in her expression. A woman recognized by the world of film, presiding as as judge at Cannes, is still forced to fear the Islamic fundamentalists back home.