Under the Skin of the City

Rakshan Bani-Etemad was born in 1954 in Tehran, and studied film at the University of Dramatic Arts. She started working in television in 1973 and in 1977 began as a documentary filmmaker. She made her first feature Kharej az Mahdudeh (Off the Limits) in 1987, and continues to work both in the documentary and narrative form.

Unlike many of her male contemporaries, Bani-Etemad’s work is made primarily for a domestic audience, but she is receiving progressively more international festival recognition. Nargess (1992) won the Best Director prize at Iran’s Fajr Film Festival and Rusariye Abi (The Blue Veiled, 1995) won the Bronze Leopard at the Locarno Film Festival.

Made in 2000, Zir-e poost-e shahr (Under the Skin of the City) is her most recent narrative feature. Set in contemporary Tehran, in tells the story of Tooba (Golab Adineh), a factory worker, and her family. Tooba’s husband is an invalid and she supports the family with the help of her eldest son, Abbas (Mohammad Reza Foroutan). Her eldest daughter is in an abusive marriage, while her younger son and daughter are at school. They are a close and loving family, despite economic difficulties. Things begin to disintegrate when Abbas, desperate for a visa to go work in Japan, secretly sides with his father to sell the family house. Meanwhile, the neighbor’s daughter, often beaten by her religious brother, runs away from home. When Tooba’s younger daughter visits her at a local park they are both arrested for vagrancy. Unable to use the sold house as collateral for bail, Abbas takes on a drug smuggling job which his younger brother sabotages in a misguided attempt to help. The film ends with Abbas on the run, and Tooba struggling at the factory. The film is set during parliamentary elections, and is framed by two TV interviews where Tooba is asked her opinion of the political situation.

What struck me about Under The Skin of the City, as opposed to other Iranian films I have seen, was how familiar it felt. Despite coming from a culture of which I have no experience, it did not seem exotic. Much of this must be attributed to the fact that it takes place in a large city in the present. This sets it apart from previous Iranian films that seemed so different – the village life in much of Kiarostami, the setting in the past of Makmalbaf’s Bread and Flower (1996). This familiarity I felt with the film and the world it represents made me think about the presentation (and even the concept) of the exotic in cinema, and about the nature of the relationship between the other and the self.

The other is always present – in cinema, as in life. From the most extreme, the un-human, through to different cultures, classes, and sexes, to even the smallest, but by no means least significant of others, the reflection in the mirror. Cinema is itself a mirror image. It is a perfect tool for the exploration of the other. One of the first things that moving images were used for were the recording of exotic people in faraway lands, as illustrated by the Lumière Brothers who sent cameramen across the world looking for strange and interesting things to document. To this day, the fascination with the culturally different remains – it seems that frequently films from other cultures are appreciated as much for these revelations of difference as for their worth as films. In some ways, this is as it should be. Just as, when children, we are fascinated by our mirror image, this thing that both is and isn’t us, so we are fascinated by the other mirror image these films present to us; still a person, still a part of the thing that we are, and yet so different. So not-us.

And yet there is a drawback to the obsession with the other, with the fetishization of difference. It places the object of the gaze away, in a different space. It makes it less real, less relevant to the viewer. While Kiarostami’s films have moved and fascinated me, there’s always been a part of me whilst viewing them that watched the clothes the people wore, admired the colors of the walls, the architecture of difference, and that didn’t move beyond these surface details into the film. This isn’t always a drawback. Kiarostami himself often plays on it. In And Life Goes On (1992) he places himself (or a mirror image of himself) on the screen, also an outsider looking in on something different and exotic, fascinated with it, relentlessly questioning, trying to understand. But the fact remains that difference separates.

This separation can be profound. It is easy, after seeing films by Kiarostami or Panahi to think too simply – oh, so that’s what Iranian cinema is about, stubborn children on simple quests, how beautiful. This is not to disparage films such as Where is the Friend’s House (Abbas Kiarostami, 1987) or The White Balloon (Jafar Panahi, 1995). On the contrary, these films are breathtaking – both in themselves and in what they reveal about the possibilities of cinema, of what can be a compelling story, of what a story is even made of. When these films first arrived in the West, they were a revelation. What is so interesting about watching a film like Under the Skin of the City is how it makes you realize that, even in admiration, it is possible to minimize – to “other-ize”, what is different. Under the Skin of the City is not like other films that I’ve seen from Iran. Suddenly, Iranian cinema has grown. It would never occur to me to simplify the huge range of cinema coming from America, from mainstream Hollywood to the intelligent independence of Chris Smith to the complex experimentation of Stan Brakhage and James Benning. And yet it was easy to do this with Iran. It was done without even an awareness of its being done. Beyond its merits as a film, Under the Skin of the City serves as a realization that the other-ness of Iran is partly cosmetic. Iran is, of course, different from the West. The houses are different. The government is different. The women wear veils. But perhaps the difference is just that, a veil, a veil that can be removed, and underneath which is something, someone, that is not so different at all.

The most important factor in the lessening of this sense of difference is the setting. Under the Skin of the City is the first film I have seen that presents Tehran as a city with computers and elevators as well as one with scooters and old-fashioned cars. The film’s title emphasizes the importance of the city itself in the lives of its characters. The city holds the family whose story is being narrated and it also creates that story. The way the city is presented, in all of its complex workings and mixtures, means that those of us who live in cities cannot fail to identify with the film’s city-ness. Unlike much of Kiarostami’s work, Under the Skin of the City is primarily intended for a domestic rather than international audience. It is ironic that perhaps it is this that creates much of the film’s lack of exoticism. The film is presenting its audience with themselves. Therefore what we see, even though it may seem different to us, is not presented as difference. It has no self-consciousness of its own difference, and therefore the difference is suddenly much less important. In fact, not only is difference gone but suddenly we are brought to realize that everything is normal to those within it. Those we find different, find others different in their turn. Abbas’s friend fetishizes Japan, with his full size geisha poster and his noodles and chopsticks, just as I fetishize the courtyard of Tooba’s house and the exotically ethnic meals she cooks in her kitchen.

The other great difference between this film and better known Iranian work is the sex of the director. Bani-Etemad is not the only woman making films in Iran, but hers is the only work I have seen. I do not want to limit what she does by overemphasizing her position as a woman, but it is nevertheless an important factor in this film. Under the Skin of the City consistently pushes the limits of Iranian censorship, and every time it does so, it is though the representation of women. There are two specific broaches of the Iranian cinema code. A woman’s hair is seen, which is forbidden and a woman and a man have physical contact, which is also forbidden. That this film was released domestically says a lot for Bani-Etemad as a powerful and determined woman, but it says more about her skill as a filmmaker. Each breach is built deeply into the plot and the characters in the film. When Mrs. Tooba is washing her hair, the focus of the shot is not on her, but on her husband as he watches her. Theirs is a marriage with clear difficulties. He watches her in orange lamplight, the hair barely visible, yet clearly present. He desires her and she refuses him. The hair, the forbidden thing, the barely seen thing, represents the unattainable object of desire, more erotic and poignant than anything more tangible might have been. At the other end of the spectrum is a moment of intense energy. Furious with her neighbor for his mistreatment of his sister, Tooba’s young daughter slaps his face. Even for those not aware of the breaking of a ban, this moment is both shocking and cathartic. One is aware that the girl, the figure without the power, is the figure carrying not only the moral right, but for this moment, the moral permission to carry out punishment.

These breaches of censorship are important, but it is also important to understand that this is not a film whose primary goal is to challenge authority or critique the regime in Iran. Rather that calling for change, Under the Skin of the City uses its characters and their interactions to examine the society in which they live, as well as themselves. The use of the veil is an important factor in this, and in the representation of women. The veil is an emotive issue in the West, but here, the veiling of women is placed in context. It is not much more of an imposition in this city than the fashions imposed upon and followed by so many Western women, or indeed, the sari’s of Indian women or the rolled woolen hats of the Afghans. It becomes just what is worn in that country. When Mrs. Tuba wears the veil, either the flowing black one in which she faces the public or the lighter ones for inside the house, it never feels repressive. Her religion also doesn’t seem repressive. When she calls on God in her troubles and out of habit, her faith seems strong and good, not imposed on her, not a burden. There are even times when the veil becomes a symbol of Tooba’s powerful spirit, flowing about her in black folds as she marches down the street, like liquid armor.

But when Mahmoud, the girl next door, is beaten and abused (and in the name of the same religion that comforts Tooba) her veil becomes a symbol of her personal repression at the hands of her brother. When she is a runaway she no longer wears the veil, though she still covers her hair. The image of Mahmoud, in dark glasses and Western cloths, next to her neighbor, who is still veiled, is striking and important because it is the veiled woman who seems most free. It becomes clear that it is not the veil itself that is problematic. Viewers of this film, especially Western viewers, are not allowed the luxury of such simplistic thinking. While the repression of Mahmoud, first represented by her veil and then by her lack of it is a reflection of a greater repression present in Iranian society, it is also shown to be specific. The repression in the culture can be taken on or not taken on by the individuals of that society. Mrs. Tooba’s family don’t use it, their neighbor’s son does. These people are all individuals making their own choices within a larger frame, as are we all.

Looking at Under the Skin of the City as a film directed by a woman, what seems most striking, above the breaches in censorship and the representation of the veil, is the intimate nature of the film. Many Iranian films have a monumental nature, even when exploring seemingly simple plots. The final shot of And Life Goes On by Kiarostami, for example, arguable one of the most perfect shots in the history of cinema, is absolutely monumental in its nature: the struggle of the car up the mountain side, the profound moral question of whether or not a lift will be offered to the man on foot. Under the Skin of the City has nothing of this – but it has something else. It has Abbas dancing in the kitchen with a mechanical doll. It has Mrs. Tooba washing her hair while her husband watches. It has two girls on ladders, talking over a wall. It has a bride more concerned with her sister’s whereabouts than her coming marriage. It has Tooba’s young son painstakingly teaching his mother how to read. It has an intimacy that seems so important to me, and also deeply feminine. The grandeur and power of this film does not come from a gaze that looks from the outside, seeing the whole picture, but which comes from the inside out, navigating its way to truth through detail – even banality. It is domestic, not proprietorial. This has always been the woman’s point of view.

For the heart of Under the Skin of the City is in the family that it represents. The city is crucial, as the title reveals, but while the city is a container, what lies within, under the skin of the city, is this family, and it is the family, ultimately, that removes the film most completely from the role of the fetishized other. Because she looks from the inside out, because she deals in intimate moments rather than in grand events, Bani-Etemad creates a family we recognize, with all its complex interdependence and shifting balances of power. It is by creating this real, functioning family that she manages to really cross the mirror line of otherness. All families are different, but we all of us come from them, and none can fail to recognize their potent mix of love, frustration, safety and claustrophobia. When we look in a mirror what we see fascinates because it is and isn’t us, and the gulf between the ‘is’ and the ‘isn’t’ both intoxicates and terrifies. When we look at films that show people different from us, it is the fact that they are and aren’t different that captivates. The fact that they aren’t the other species they seem. By working her way under the skin of a real city to locate a real family, Rakshan Bani-Etemad places her film directly in the gulf between the ‘is’ and the ‘isn’t’. She manages to pull viewers from different cultures through the differences of living into a cinematic universality of lived experience. In doing so she reveals not only the richness of this one film, but the richness of a national cinema, one we may have thought we already knew all about.

About The Author

Tamara Tracz is a filmmaker, writer and mother living in London.