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Gordon Campbell on banning a leading Iranian film-maker

Gordon Campbell on the banning of a leading Iranian film-maker

For the past fortnight, New Zealand has been obsessing on the reputational risk to this country of being seen as a tax haven – despite the fact that (with the notable exception of the Australian Financial Review) few sources offshore have linked New Zealand to the Panama Papers. Well, here’s a far more palpable risk to our global reputation. Last month, Iran’s Foreign Minister visited here and discussed avenues for resuming trade with New Zealand.

This week, New Zealand chose to ban a temporary visit by the distinguished Iranian film-maker Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami, winner of 20 international film awards. During her visit, she would have - among other things - been screening and discussing her prize-winning new documentary Sonita. Filmed over the course of three years, this documentary traces the aspirations of an engaging and talented 14 year old female rapper. Along the way, the film deals with the selling by Afghanistan of young women as brides:

“Sonita" tells of a young woman who is geographically removed from traditions of child brides, but is pulled back into it. She fled the traditions of Afghanistan years ago to live in Iran (where women can choose if they want to be married or not), but now her brother wants to sell her so that he can buy his own bride.

Here’s a comprehensive backgrounder from the Hindu Times about the making of Sonita.

Is this decision by Immigration NZ to decline a visa to an Iranian who has made a film critical of conservative marriage norms entirely co-incidental? Hmm. I can’t prove that New Zealand has sold out its reputation as a defender of human rights in order to try and sell a few more sides of lamb to the mullahs of Iran. Some people though, might join those dots. At the very least, the sequence of events is interesting. In mid January, Sonita was one of the hits of the Sundance Film Festival. In early February, Newsweek ran an article headlined : “U.N. Condemns Iran For Increase in Child Brides As Young as 10” It included this passage:

The U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) said that Tehran must “repeal all provisions that authorize, condone or lead to child sexual abuse” and called for the age of sexual consent to be increased from nine years old to 16. The panel said that Iran “allows sexual intercourse with girls as young as nine lunar years and that other forms of sexual abuse of even young children is not criminalized.” The CRC added that an increasing number of “girls at the age of 10 years or younger... are subjected to child and forced marriages to much older men” and criticized a law that makes it necessary for wives “to fulfill sexual needs of their husbands at all times,” stressing that it “places child brides at risk of sexual violence, including marital rape.”

This wasn’t an isolated criticism. An earlier 2014 report by the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights In Iran – and also critical of the child bride situation in Iran - can be found here.

Last August, the Toronto-based Persian language newspaper Shahrvand published a report that put the number of registered underage marriages at more than 40,000 in 2014 alone.

“The National Organization for Civil Registration statistics show that in the past year, 40,404 girls under the age of 15 and 32,587 boys under the age of 20 have registered their marriages. According to the most recent statistics of the National Organization for Civil Registration, 419,488 girls under the age of 15 and 484,885 boys under the age of 20 got married between 2004 and 2014,” Shahrvand reported. Lawyer Shima Ghoosheh [said] that the official marriage age for girls is 13, because the government considers them to be sexually and mentally mature. “Thirteen-year-old girls can legally get married. But even if a girl is under 13, her father can ask a judge’s permission for her to marry,” she said.

On its website, the Iran Human Rights organization added this:

In late 2013, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) published official statistics from the National Organization for Civil Registration that showed births by mothers under the age of 19 made up 8.1 percent of all births in the country. According to this report, in 2012 there were four births by girls under the age of 10, 17 births by girls under the age of 11, 50 births by girls under the age of 12, 275 births by girls under the age of 13, 1,289 births by girls under the age of 14, 4,377 births by girls under the age of 15, 10,637 births by girls under the age of 16, 19,881 births by girls under the age of 17, and 31,494 births by girls under the age of 18.

Point being, we have a situation that should be of concern to all UN members. It should concern New Zealand, since we normally pay something more than lip service to the UN Convention On the Rights of the Child. Arguably, we should be bending over backwards to disseminate a film such as Sonita. Banning a film-maker who is throwing light on child bride practices is to put this country on side with some of the more misogynistic regimes in the world, in an attempt to win a few more export dollars. In Pakistan, young Malala Yousafzai got shot for standing up for the right of female children to an education. This time around, we’ve chosen the bureaucrat’s solution and denied a visa to a problematic artist.

Sonita, it should be stressed, is not a soapbox denunciation (a la Michael Moore) of the child bride situation in Iran. It is a celebration of Sonita’s spirit – and her love of hip hop music – in the midst of adversity. The dilemma facing her is a human one, and universal in scope – given that it is an extreme example along a spectrum of unequal rights of children and women, within the institution of marriage. Also, it is the child bride selling practices of Afghanistan that are the target of her film, not Iran.

Reportedly, the reason that New Zealand refused to give Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami a vistor’s visa was the fear that she might overstay, or claim asylum here. According to Immigration NZ:

Based on the information that you have supplied, you do not appear to have strong social, economic and family ties to the country of origin or residence, and we believe these circumstances appear to limit or discourage you from departing New Zealand. We therefore are not satisfied that you are a bona fide visitor to New Zealand, genuinely intending a temporary stay for a lawful purpose."

Give me a break. A film-maker based in North America, who has just capped her long and a distinguished career with a triumph in North America, would now want to run away to New Zealand? The funding for Sonita came via grants from Germany, Switzerland, USA and the Netherlands. TV channels from Japan, France, Germany, Switzerland, Korea and Taiwan were also involved. If Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami wanted a place of asylum, she would have many more convenient locations to choose from.

It is a complex situation. I’ve written in Werewolf before about the situation facing film-makers in Iran. There are famous exiles living abroad – such as Abbas Kiorastami – and famous directors who have been muzzled by the censors inside Iran, such as Jafar Panahi. Others, such as Asghar Farhadi (A Separation, The Past) continue to do great work inside the country. In February 2016, one successful Iranian film-director maker was asked to name the greatest misconception about her work:

‘They always ask me if it is difficult for a woman to make movies in Iran. Harsh censorship makes it difficult for all Iranian filmmakers, but being a woman does not make it more difficult. There is some misunderstanding, and [mis]taking Iran for Saudi Arabia. Also, there is a tendency in the media to magnify the "problems in Iran," but my movie is focused on the Afghan tradition of selling girls. In spite of having an Islamic regime in Iran, 20% of fiction-feature filmmakers and 35% of documentary filmmakers are females, according to the Iranian cinema guild.’

That film-maker was Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami. As is the case with any artist, she is engaged in a critical discourse with her country, without embracing a partisan view on the political – or gender – issues involved. A couple of years ago, Abbas Kiorastami expressed his own misgivings about the politicisation of responses to Iran’s movie output:

Kiarostami said he doesn’t have high hopes of making films in Iran in the near future because of the state of his nation, adding that Iranian cinema is now valued [abroad] in ways he is not comfortable with. “At the moment art in general has been intertwined with politics very closely, more than it is necessary,” he said. “Therefore it would make judgment [of a film’s quality] very difficult. But everyone knows it’s a reality that some movie is applauded because of the social and political uniqueness of the movie -- it’s not the work that’s applauded. The work is usually considered because of its origins or the position or situation of its director, so it would be very difficult to distinguish between the two.”

That’s the irony. Rokhsareh Ghaemmaghami is not an enemy of Iran. It is Immigration NZ that has chosen to treat her as one.


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