Mahaya Petrosian: Iranian actress takes a turn behind the camera

Known for a wide range of roles in 23 films, she is directing her first short film, 'A Beautiful Snowy Day.'

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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    WIDE RANGE OF ROLES: Mahaya Petrosian has appeared in 23 movies, two TV serials, and a variety of short films and stage productions.
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    REHEARSAL: Iranian actress Mahaya Petrosian (r.) rehearsed the script with fellow actress Negar Abedi last August. Ms. Petrosian says that filmmaking has become more challenging under conservative President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad. She is directing her first short film, a format that offers greater freedom from official constraints.
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The Iranian movie actress can't contain her excitement about her latest project: a short film that is all her own.

"It was all on my shoulders," says the Iranian star, recalling the challenges and rush of creating "A Beautiful Snowy Day."

"I was everything: writer, director, producer, actress," enthuses Mahaya Petrosian, sitting in a coffee shop in Tehran, sunglasses with a few faux-diamond sparkles resting on the top of her head and a stylish black leather coat-manteau. "I was so tired, I became old doing this film!"

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Miss Petrosian is best known in Iran for her wide range of roles in 23 movies, two TV serials, and a host of short films and stage productions. First profiled in this newspaper in 1998 as Iran's rising star, she has since been married and widowed, and now is finding new joy in her first bid as director.

She was exhilarated by 20 days of filming in a village in the snowy Alborz mountains north of Tehran earlier this year. "It is a film of a woman and her little boy, and one day of their life. It is a day of great decision," says Petrosian of the 30-minute-long project, which she is still editing.

What happens? "No, I don't tell you!" she says, feigning objection though clearly eager to share the movie's secrets.

The film includes just two actresses and two actors, as well as a 3-1/2-year-old boy she selected at a preschool. But this is not the easiest business to be in these days, even if you can call on 20 years of experience, big acting talent, and dark eyes and soft looks that have captivated audiences, even from beneath the mandatory head covering.

Petrosian's image often peers out from billboards advertising films and posters at DVD shops. But just as politics in Iran has changed dramatically in the past decade, so has life for movies and their makers, which is famous for silver screen genius.

Iranian cinema continues to impress: The film "About Elly" went from victory at Iran's Fajr Film festival in early February to win "Best Director" for Asghar Farhadi at Germany's Berlinale Film Festival days later.

The star of that film, Golshifteh Farahani, drew authorities' ire – and was prevented last year from leaving the country for a time – after appearing in the Hollywood movie "Body of Lies," which starred Leonardo DiCaprio.

Comedy is safer for directors

Lack of cash, and tighter restrictions under the conservative government of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have meant that directors are becoming more commercial, veering toward comedies to guarantee script approval and public showings.

For purists like Petrosian, who won "Best Supporting Actress" at the Fajr festival in 2000, that complicates the creative process. "It's not a healthy economy for moviemaking right now, because there are not enough cinemas – it's like a wheel not turning," she says. She recently had three films completed, but none were yet showing publicly.

Times have changed since the reform-leaning era in which Mohamad Khatami was president – from 1997 to 2005. That period is remembered by artists of all stripes as the most open in the 30 years since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

"Now there are new regulations about content, and it has been whimsical; whatever they choose," says Petrosian.

In Iran, all films – indeed, all forms of public culture, from book publishing to gallery openings and concerts – must be approved by the Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance.

"Something that is possible now might not be possible six months from now," says Petrosian. "Naturally, directors make decisions on that. Finding capital for movies is more difficult now; that's why people make a movie with minimum risk, to be sure it will be shown.

"Producers have always worked within boundaries, but they are now more selective," she continues. "They don't go toward films that criticize society, and if they do, it's masked in comedy."

For short films, though, almost anything still goes, because they have such a limited audience. "With short movies, you are free to do what you want, you are more free," says Amir Toodehroosta, a well-known short-film director who made his first movie at age 14 and in 2007 shot "Black/White," for which Petrosian, playing a powerful lead role as an angry housewife, won a best actress prize at a women's short-film festival in Tehran.

"This is why, in documentary and short films, you see movies about politics and criticism – there is much easier approval," says Mr. Toodehroosta, who this year plans to start a feature-length film about different levels of Iranian society. "Short film has now become a route to long films."

"It's only creativity, and you are creating a new thing," says Petrosian. "You don't have to worry about money – there is none. And you can worry less about [ministerial] restrictions."

Petrosian finds another creative outlet on the stage. Last year, the actress spent weeks rehearsing for a modern play inspired by Chekhov's "Three Sisters." It fell apart just weeks before opening, because the adaptation had yet to be completed and one actress was injured.

This was to have been Petrosian's first stage performance in five years. But she trained in theater and holds degrees in drama. She clearly enjoyed herself at stage rehearsals.

"Normally [theater] has a very low budget," says Petrosian. But there is a silver lining: "In TV, you are always giving, but in theater you receive something back. It's like refreshing yourself. There is no chance for mistakes, so it is more challenging."

The test: seeing the final product

That doesn't mean there aren't challenging moments in film. One of the most tricky for Petrosian is seeing the final product for the first time. In February, when her film "A Night in Tehran" hit theaters, she crept in just after the lights dimmed to see the film and gauge audience approval, which was positive.

One of Petrosian's "bitterest memories" is the loss of her husband after four years of marriage. He passed away from illness soon after starting a career as a screenwriter.

She is tapping into work to overcome her loss. "Like all my colleagues, I would like to create a better situation so that innovation will be a routine thing," says Petrosian. "Nothing can drive me these days – except my hopes and my wishes to improve. It's hard, but it's our work."

[Editor's note: The original version had a misspelling in the headline.]

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