Newsmaker: Leila Hatami

The award-winning Iranian actress enraged the authorities in her home country this week after an innocent peck on the cheek at the Cannes International Film Festival transformed into a diplomatic misunderstanding, writes Kevin Hackett.
Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National
When Herman Hupfeld penned the lyrics to the song As Time Goes By in 1931, he couldn't possibly have foreseen how they might apply to the latest diplomatic misunderstanding between the East and the West. Read the following and just try not to conjure up images of the bartender Sam crooning the lyrics in a smoky bar in ­Casablanca:

You must remember this

A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh

The fundamental things apply

As time goes by

As the Iranian actress Leila Hatami is only just discovering, a kiss isn't "just a kiss". Far from it. A kiss, even like the one that she received as the briefest peck on the cheek while at the 67th Cannes International Film Festival this week, from the 83-year-old Gilles Jacob (the president of the festival), can lead to nationwide indignation and a renewed surge in international fascination with cultural differences.

Hatami will no doubt be hoping that time goes by rather quickly at the moment. At the very least, she'll be rather worried about catching her flight back home, once the red carpets have been rolled up.

Hatami is there as one of the jurors for a film festival that is perhaps second only to the Academy Awards in terms of worldwide stature. To win at Cannes is very big news indeed, and it's served as the launch pad for many a glittering film career for directors and actors alike. But this week, the eyes of the world have been on a juror - Hatami - rather than the nominees.

It's a common gesture in France, never mind Cannes, yet the Hatami kiss has enraged the Iranian culture ministry. Sharia law, as interpreted by Iran, outlaws any woman having any physical contact with a man outside her family, which put Hatami in a dilemma when everyone around her was greeting everyone else with the same gesture. Perhaps the Iranian authorities would have preferred that she stay at home.

"Those who attend international events should take heed of the credibility and chastity of Iranians, so that a bad image of Iranian women will not be demonstrated to the world," said Hossein Noushabadi, Iran's deputy culture minister, on the website of the country's state broadcaster IRIB. "[The] Iranian woman is the symbol of chastity and innocence," he said, before adding that Hatami's "inappropriate presence" at the festival was out of kilter with the country's religious beliefs.

Noushabadi's opinion was that Hatami's actions undermined the image of his country's womenfolk. "I hope that those who attend international arenas as Iranian women would be careful about the chastity and dignity of Iranians so that the image of the Iranian woman is not tainted before the world," he said.

"If they respect Islamic norms and the national culture and beliefs of Iran, it would be a desirable thing for Iranian celebrities to go abroad, but if their presence lacks regard for social values and ethical criteria, the Iranian nation is not going to accept it."

By even extending her hand to Jacob, wrote Iran's state-operated Young Journalists' Club, Hatami was behaving in an "unconventional" and "improper" manner. .

As an actor, though, there was no way that Hatami was going to stay away from Cannes. Being invited to sit as a juror on the coveted Palme d'Or award is nothing if not a vote of confidence in a star's ability to take her craft seriously. This year, Jane Campion, Sofia Coppola and Willem Dafoe are all on the panel of nine, so Hatami is in good company, even if, as a juror, she would no doubt have to watch scenes in nominated films that would have her Tehran detractors even more upset than they already are. Hatami is a big deal, both in her home country and around the world. As the leading actress in Asghar Farhadi's Oscar-winning A Separation, which met with universal adoration in 2012, she's hot property. The film, written, produced and directed by Farhadi, centres around a middle-class Iranian couple who separate, and the conflicts that arise when the husband hires a lower-class caregiver for his elderly father, who suffers from Alzheimer's disease.

It won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film (the first Iranian film to win the award); the Special Jury Award at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival; the Golden Bear for Best Film and the Silver Bears for Best Actress and Best Actor at the 61st Berlin International Film Festival in 2011 (another first for Iran); as well as bagging the Golden Globe for Best Foreign Language Film. And it also picked up the Special Jury Award in the Narrative Competition at the Abu Dhabi Film Festival in 2011.

Even before it was committed to celluloid, A Separation was in the headlines when, in September 2010, Farhadi was banned from making the film by the Iranian Ministry of Culture and Islamic Guidance. He had made an acceptance speech during an award ceremony where he expressed support for a number of Iranian film personalities who had been in serious trouble with the authorities and permission to begin filming was only granted after he had made a public apology. But it was the powerhouse performances of Hatami and her co-stars that really got everyone talking and seeing Iranian cinema in an entirely new light.

Born on October 1, 1972, Hatami is the daughter of the influential film and television director, Ali Hatami, and the actress Zahra Hatami (née Zari Khoshkam), so acting is in her blood. She also married the actor Ali Mosaffa in 1999, with whom she has two children: a son, Mani, and a daughter, Asal.

Once her schooling was complete, Hatami relocated to Lausanne in Switzerland, where she looked to be heading in an entirely non-acting direction, studying electrical engineering at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology. That was evidently not for her, though, and she switched to studying French literature after two years of engineering. Two years after that, she was back in Iran, but later returned to Switzerland to continue and complete her studies. But she'd realised that acting was something that she couldn't avoid (she'd appeared in a number of television shows and her father's films) and her first professional film role, in 1997's Leila, where she met and co-starred with the man she would eventually marry, really got her noticed. Her performance in Leila, a domestic drama, garnered her rave reviews and a Diploma of Honour for Best Actress at the 15th Fajr Film Festival in Iran.

The prime roles and subsequent awards kept on coming. The Deserted Station, from 2002, won her the Best Actress award at the 26th Montreal World Film Festival and she has appeared in her husband's films as a director, as well as designing the sets and costumes for The Last Step, for which she received a nomination at the Fajr Film Festival for best production design and costume design. She's as talented as she is prolific.

Hatami is passionate about cinema and champions the right for women to be a part of it, famously bursting into tears when being interviewed on EuroNews regarding the treatment of women in the Iranian film industry before the Oscars in 2012. In other interviews, she appeared open and responded to questions with answers that could very well have landed her in trouble with her government long before this week's kiss furore. Subtle yet pointed (while director Farhadi played everything entirely neutral), her frustration at having to wear the veil and the general lack of freedom for citizens was made evident, but in ways that might not have been picked up by those who could be most upset. Hatami's frankness had some commentators wishing that she'd consider a permanent relocation to Europe, where she could be free from the constraints that her compatriots are subjected to.

It's a pity, then, that her current spot in the limelight is related to something other than her stellar work. Other people in her profession who have upset the Tehran lawmakers have disappeared into obscurity, so Hatami will no doubt be weighing up her options before returning home, mentally steeling herself for a possible, potentially very public, backlash. But with her reputation as one of the world's finest actresses, she's certain of a future, even if it isn't within the confines of her own country. Who knows? The first lady of Iranian cinema just might weather this storm and emerge as an even more prominent leading figure, a role model for women no matter where in the world they live.

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Published: May 22, 2014 04:00 AM


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