Threat of execution doesn't faze director

Iranian filmmaker Tahmineh Milani calls the threat that she might be executed a mere "misunderstanding."

Once it's cleared up, she hopes to continue making internationally acclaimed, socially conscious movies on budgets that would hardly cover the coffee breaks for the crew on a Hollywood film.

In a possible test case of the level of artistic freedom in Iran, the director-scriptwriter has been accused of "exploiting art as a tool to promote the ominous aims of counter-revolutionary groups."

Ms. Milani's latest battle with her country's censors comes across over her just-released film "The Hidden Half," which traces political and feminist struggles after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. It has won film festival awards and played to overflow audiences in Tehran, Iran. But after Milani criticized the state-run television network for not advertising it and commented on one of its main themes - the thousands killed and jailed after the 1979 revolution - she was arrested twice and the picture taken off Iranian screens.

Moviemakers from around the world - including such Hollywood figures as Sean Penn, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Spike Lee - are among the more than 1,500 who have petitioned Iran to drop the charges.

Now out on bail on the personal recognizance of a high government official, she and her husband and co-producer, "Hidden Half" co-star Muhammad Nikbin, plan to return to Tehran to make more films.

While democratically elected moderate President Mohammad Khatami supported Milani's release on bail, the fundamentalist Islamic Revolutionary Council, under the control of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has been regularly arresting cultural figures who question the council's values.

Mr. Nikbin says the council took this direct action against a filmmaker to cow other directors who he and his wife hope will join them in exploring controversial issues.

Though her films may not strike Western audiences as daring, they have regularly offended Islamic values. Milani, with her husband translating her words, says fundamentalists "think I make Iranian women very aggressive and rude."

Milani's international breakthrough came with the 1991 "Legend of a Sigh," which explored the experience of four women from various social classes. Her 1999 film "Two Women" contrasts a university graduate who decides her own fate with one forced into an arranged marriage. An instant box-office hit in Iran, the film wasn't promoted on state-run television because it contained shots of the Tehran University dormitory, a site of student unrest.

Milani hopes "The Hidden Half" will begin the exploration of a part of Iran's history that the country's artists haven't dared to touch - the repression of ideas after the revolution.

The film's heroine wonders whether "all revolutionaries of the world look like us" - dressed in head scarves and figure-concealing clothes. She declares that she's "sick and tired of revolutionary cliches."

Twenty years later, as a demure housewife, she discloses her activist and romantic past to her husband, a judge, hoping he will be lenient with a woman condemned to death for political activities. Milani had to couch that "confession" in the form of a long letter, since she says no Iranian woman would mention such things to her husband's face.

Milani, who began her film career as a researcher just after the revolution, adeptly plays her country's rigorous censorship game. Her idea for a film about children's environmental consciousness was thwarted because her 8-year-old heroine wasn't wearing a head scarf. Until a few years ago, Iranian films couldn't show women running, singing, dancing, or in close-up.

In Iran, if filmmakers' plans survive the idea stage, they must then submit a short outline of their project. If this is approved, they must do the same with the screenplay, and then hope their cast and crew is politically sound enough to obtain work permits. After a film is shot, officials can mandate revisions and then "grade" it on its level of ideological purity.

And, as Milani's case shows, the Revolutionary Council can stop distribution and arrest the director even after she cleared all the official hurdles.

Why don't Milani and her husband make films in another country? Because, he explains, they can shoot them in Iran for only $200,000 to $300,000 by controlling their own production facilities. And Milani feels more productive in her homeland, where she finds that women in particular appreciate her concern with their problems. Not that she's complacent about her achievements.

"As an artist, you can't be a political person - you have to be apolitical and keep a very wide perspective," she says. "We need to talk, to have a dialogue, to explore hatred. Unfortunately, a small part of society didn't appreciate that. I hope my small step will continue."

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