Six women, who bravely defied the written and unwritten boundaries to freedom of expression in Iran, face the consequences of not conforming to censorship. An artist, schoolteacher, journalist, athlete, musician and actress experienced lay-offs, harassment and arrests. They are forced to either obey, or live a life in exile. Through their stories, this creative documentary questions what kind of sacrifices are required of Iranian women and what censorship, such as the wearing of the mandatory hijab, means for their identity, individuality and dreams. SĀNSŪR is the story of women seeking freedom, and as they leave behind repression, harassment, arrests and discrimination for the mere fact of being a woman, they slowly find little openings again to laugh, to sing, and to dance.
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Distributor subjectsIranian Women’s Rights & Fight for Freedom; Censorship; Gender Apartheid; Freedom of Expression; Exile
Sansur English Dialogue Subtitles, 86 min
I am an Iranian woman. I've always loved art, but society made me censor myself. I changed my studies from mathematics to art without telling my parents. It was the turning point of my life at the age of 18.
My first introduction to arts was in High School. The best year of my life because my only concern was painting.
I didn't know what censorship meant even when I was being censored. The first time was in art school. Because I had drawn human figures, the school officials covered my work. It was very upsetting.
The second time was when I sculpted female figures. I decided to make female figures because I know my own body best. I was not allowed to show my work in an exhibition.
I applied for a temporary Canadian visa but couldn't prove I planned on returning. I was denied. I had to stay in Iran. It was a difficult time. I couldn't do anything in my country and didn't have the resources to leave either. I felt I was pushed aside and had no place in society. I decided to move where I could grow.
On the map, Hormuz island looked isolated. I had not been there but heard it was beautiful. Compared to the rest of Iran, the local culture is relatively preserved.
Gradually, I started dressing like the locals to blend in. I learned new things. One of them is this ornamental face mask. It's an enigma. In the past, it was used to protect women against the gazes of unrelated men. Each color has a meaning. Black is for a widow. The bright colors are for a young woman of marriage age. The flashy ones are for weddings and henna ceremonies.
It's interesting how a mask can censor a woman and attract attention. I mean, even the strangest-looking mask is considered a proper face-covering here. I decided to turn these masks into wearable sculptures that are rooted in this culture. Masks used for both censorship and seduction. Like the resourceful people of Hormuz who can contribute to Iran's economy but have been repressed. They are invisible. They have no prospects. They are voiceless.
So, my masks could help raise awareness about the people of Hurmuz. It could also revive this old and dying tradition. It could also make the world wonder if censorship of women is effective. Isn't it better to let women participate in society? Isn't it better to provide possibilities for them?
Many fascinating questions come up when looking into it. For example, a woman can be considered loose despite covering herself, while another can be religious but doesn't cover up.
My goal is to be a mother. I want my child to be born in a good environment. I prefer my child to become an artist. Iran has a serious shortage of true artists. If there are any, they are restricted. I hope to be a role model for any ordinary woman to start by helping herself and eventually others.
I still live in Iran and must stay anonymous for my safety. I stand here, in Hurmuz, the Persian Gulf, and greet every Iranian woman wherever you are. I hope you can be our voice and our hope. May you pave our ruined path.
Here I am with my mask. Before I start my story, let me show you Tehran and Milad tower.
Are you talking to me, sir?
It's a personal film
Personal? What is this you are wearing on your face?
It's none of your business what I'm wearing on my face.
What is this film for?
Why is it so easy for you to meddle in someone else's business?
Give me your phone. Give
Give me your phone
Don't! Don't touch my phone. Stay away from me
Give me your phone before you delete it.
Step aside, please. Keep your distance from me
I saw you deleted it. Give me the phone
It's my phone. None of your business what I do with it
There are laws in this country. You can't do whatever you want.
It is none of your business.
Show me your permit.
Why do you want to know? It's none of your business how a person uses her phone?
I'm going to call…
Who are you going to call?
The morality police to come.
Go ahead. Call whoever you want. It's none of their business, either. Why do you think it's OK to interfere with people's lives?
Respectable lady, I am talking to you politely.
Mind your own business. Go away, you fool.
Well, I was going to start, but as you saw what happened. A man approached and asked why I was filming. I don't know why they think it's OK to meddle in people's private affairs. It's truly exhausting.
When I was thirteen or fourteen years old, seeing the injustice done to my mother or perhaps my own difficult experiences, I began wondering what kind of future I would have in this society as a woman.
Years later, after I lost my mother, I realized this inequality was not unique to my mother, me, or the women around me. Many women are struggling with it.
At the time, I believed I could change the patriarchal society and the misogynist government by entering politics. So, I began studying political science. In college, I had an opportunity to volunteer for an organization that helped abused women. There, I met women whose families had disowned them because they were divorced. I met women forced to sell their bodies to pay for their husbands' drugs. I met women whose lives were in danger. However, the saddest thing about all these cases was that despite the violence and injustice they had endured, the women were worried about losing their good reputation in society.
On the other hand, I had friends who were in college but didn't know their own rights and weren't interested in learning either. They were waiting for society's approval. To be chosen by a man to be happy. Seeing these issues made me change my path completely. After graduation, I applied for a teaching certificate to become a teacher.
Frankly, I think the lack of education and awareness makes us women conflicted about our identity. We don't know who we are. We are terrified of breaking the social norms that have forced us to conform to the idea of "a good woman."
I entered the education system full of hope as a fifth-grade teacher. Before being a teacher, I always tried to be a friend to the girls. I tried my best.
In class, I didn't force my students to cover their hair. I read Little Prince or other non-academic books to them. I never pushed my students to go to Friday prayers if they didn't want to. Or attend government-sponsored protests. Besides doing the schoolwork and other obligatory group activities, I always spoke to them about issues that were not talked about in school. For example, menstruation. I would say it's physiology and science. It's nothing to be ashamed of, afraid of, or feel weak because of it. I would even talk to them about their private parts and remind them that until they reach mental maturity, no one is allowed to touch them without their consent. If it happens, the only one to be blamed is the assailant. No girl should ever feel ashamed or guilty for the mistakes of an abuser. She should be able to talk about it.
Well, of course, I would get in trouble with the families because parents prefer that children never discuss such things. This is the same problem in our society.
I got a reputation for being an agitator and got in trouble. In Iran, everyone must undergo a selection process for government jobs that has nothing to do with qualifications and professional skills. It's entirely about your personal life.
Because I was deemed unsuitable for teaching by the education system, I was repeatedly reevaluated. I can even say I was interrogated.
During those interrogation sessions, I had to answer why I didn't attend school's mass prayers and didn't accompany my students in propaganda protests. Personal questions like why I didn't dress appropriately outside school and why I had inappropriate relationships. Political questions like Why didn't you vote in the presidential elections? Why haven't you visited the shrine of Ayatollah Khomeini? What do you think about him? etc. Eventually, I was fired for "spreading corruption and prostitution."
Now, I'm working at the woodshop in Khavaran. I make wooden puppets for girls. I'm still in touch with my students and I have the opportunity to learn from them. Doors have always been shut to women like me, but what's important is to find a small opening.
I cannot reveal my identity for my safety. I am an Iranian woman and a teacher.
Hello, my beauty
Will you help me
I came to Istanbul with one bag. I left all my life's work behind. I was told that Istanbul was not a safe place for former journalists or political activists, but I had no other option.
Istanbul was the only place I could go when the Revolutionary Guards gave my passport back. In the beginning, I was terrified. I wouldn't leave the house. If someone contacted me, I wouldn't respond. For many months, I lived in fear. I've lived here for four months, and I think this is my second time in a crowded place.
For two years, I worked on projects about underprivileged regions. My job was to take photos and write reports from poverty-stricken borders, often taking me to places like Sistan and Baluchestan, Southern Khuzestan, East, and West Azerbaijan, Kurdistan, Kermanshah, and Khuzestan. I gathered a valuable collection of photographs and stories. Unfortunately, when the Revolutionary Guards raided my home and took away my laptop, I lost them. When they returned my laptop, the archives I had worked so hard for were wiped clean. During interrogations, I learned they were very interested in my work on women's issues and the articles I had published in national newspapers.
The first time my team was under pressure was when we worked on the stories of acid attacks in the city of Isfahan. Because I was persistent in figuring out what was happening, I faced a lot of backlashes. A group of fundamentalists persuaded by the Friday prayers clergy was attacking young women by splashing acid in their faces. We covered it extensively. I was threatened for the first time. Anonymous people kept messaging me that I would get attacked with acid. It was so bad that even my news agency told me to forget about the story.
Hi, how are you, my dear?
I'm well, my love. You? I was researching to see what we should do. I think what you suggested. We have to go to City Hall.
I was talking to someone who said to get a marriage certificate, there is no need to go to the embassy.
Yeah, if I go alone, I might be able to get it
Let me go and see what I can do
I will not step a foot in the embassy
Yeah, I don't think it's necessary right now, but I will figure it out
I have brought these three items with me from Iran because I don't want to forget where I come from.
Hundreds of innocent protestors lost their lives in the September 2019 protests.
This one is about the crimes committed against the Kurdish human couriers. The of the Iranian government suppresses the economy of regions where Iranian Kurds live. Such an economic downturn has pushed people to become human cargo couriers.
The last item is about the Revolutionary Guards’ heinous assault on the Ukrainian commercial flight. It was very suspicious. Based on the evidence, my colleagues and I couldn't believe it was a mechanical failure. The crime scene was quickly cleared. Many officers were sent to clean the scene as if they were anticipating it. I had extensively reported on it. And this was the final reason that led to the events of January 26th, 2019 for me. It was 8:45 in the morning when the doorbell rang. I was getting ready to leave the house. They introduced themselves as bank employees. I had been summoned for questioning before, but my home was never raided. Suddenly, my mom, my younger brother, Arsha, and I looked at each other without saying a word. My brother opened the door and ran downstairs to see if they were really from the bank. We were wondering what business bank employees could have with us.
Then, I heard Arsha scream. He was yelling. My mother was at the door. I was standing by my bedroom. I saw that someone was pushing the door and my mother… It's not clear. I can't recall the details, but I remember my mother blocking the door and saying, "Yasaman, go." I could hear Arsha scream. Then, a few people came with a gun to Arsha's head.
I can't forget that moment. I can't get the image of fear on my mother's face out of my head. She always protected us, but this time she was scared and didn't know what to do. My brother was terrified. I was terrified. I always participated in street protests or reported on them but my activism didn’t affect my family.
I ran to my room and locked the door. I had many pictures and reports from other protests on social media. I quickly checked my phone to see if any of my contacts were still in Iran. I didn't want them to get in trouble. I always deleted contacts and didn't leave any trace of the information that could not be published in the Iranian media.
I didn’t have time. One of the officers kicked the door twice, broke it, and came to the room. He quickly grabbed my phone. After that, I automatically picked up my laptop, handed it to him, and said, "here, take it. I have nothing to hide!" and "why are you in my home?" I kept hearing my mom and Arsha saying, why have you come into our home? Eight men in our house were shouting. As I said, it's not clear and dark.
This used to belong to B***. She was my fiancé's sister. We lost her on the Ukrainian flight that was shut down by the Iranian government.
She had taken this to Canada with her. Never thought she'd be shot flying over her own country.
Won't you answer, my beauty?
Oh, you are filming!
My name is Yasaman Khaleghian. I am a journalist.
Looking back, I wonder what circumstances led me to make those life choices.
I didn't have proper guidance. I was fifteen, almost sixteen years old, when I got engaged. After I got married, I entered a family very different from my own. They were very religious. His parents were high-ranking government officials.
I had to wear the chador. I couldn't be myself. I wasn't myself.
I no longer wanted to be with him and asked for a divorce. Their pressure continued. They threatened me because divorce was taboo and shameful for them. They were worried about their reputation.
To cope with the situation, I exercised. I would put my best into every practice or competition.
I wanted a change. I wanted my depression to stop. Around the same time, I took up swimming and was serious about getting my coaching certificate. During the day, I would go to the pool and swim or to cricket practice and run for hours. Then, I was selected for the under 19s national team.
I can't get out this way. We must use the other door.
This is where I temporarily live. Since I came to the Netherlands, I've had to move several times. But this is where I'm waiting to find an apartment. In general, life is tough here. It mentally exhausts you.
The reason I left Iran is a long story in and of itself.
In 2017, Masih Alinejad started the White Wednesday Campaign. She asked women to wear a white headscarf in protest against the compulsory hijab. It awakened something in me. I realized as a woman and a member of society, I have the right to protest. For example, against wearing the compulsory hijab in public, private, or when playing sports. I realized as a woman, I must make my own decision. I was angry but didn't know how to protest. The campaign made me realize it starts with me.
That's how my challenges began. At first, I wore a white headscarf and sent videos of wearing it to Masih Alinejad. After that, I gradually found the courage to take it off. I found the courage to protest. However, given my athletic background, I didn't realize I was getting into trouble.
There were always a few favorites who would pray, dress appropriately, obeyed orders, attend meetings, Quran recitals, war martyrs memorials, etc. Well, I never did. I was completely different. Today, if I were in Iran, I would not choose cricket. At that time, it was the only thing I had. I was young, divorced, depressed, had no prospects, couldn't go to college, and was ostracized. Playing cricket motivated me to find myself and have a personal goal.
Finally, after a long wait, here is my home.
Please come in.
It's a bit messy, and I don't have any furniture.
I no longer have stress, and I'm starting to feel like I'm home. Of course, deep down in my heart, I still long for Iran, but I think things are starting to look up. I'm feeling at home again.
Should I put on some music?
New style! Today, when I woke up, I knew I needed a change.
I decided to cut my hair. I think today is the last day of the shoot. So, I did something new with my hair.
This mask has made its way to me from Hurmuz Island. I've been lucky to have the opportunity to wear this beautiful mask made by an Iranian woman. In a way, I self-censored myself here just as women have been censored in Iran, but I no longer need this censorship.
I am Soodeh Lashkari, a former member of Iran's national cricket team.
This place here makes wine. Reminds me of my grandmother every time.
She made wine. In secret, of course, because alcohol is banned in Iran. She'd use the cabernetgrapes. She had a cute ritual for when she was opening the barrel. She would recite, "In the Name of Allah, the compassionate and the merciful. Peace be upon prophet Mohammed and his family." She always opened her wines with lots of prayers. I see the big wine barrels and think of her.
Music for me began when I was nine years old. I remember TV was showing Le Professionnel. It's a French movie, but the soundtrack is composed by the Italian composer, Ennio Morricone.
It's an action movie. My father was watching it on TV. Toward the end of the film, this melody starts. It was like a spell. I ran to the TV to see what that sound was. The tune was very captivating. The melody with the scene where the actor was dying was magical. I was under a spell.
I love coming to the hair salon. I get my hair blow-dried almost weekly. I loved it even when I lived in Iran, but I didn't except for special occasions like weddings or parties. My hair was always a burden. I would tie it up or cut it short so it wouldn't come out from under the head scarf. I was already getting harassed on the streets for playing music. I didn't want my hair to be an excuse for the morality police. Plus, since women always have to cover their hair, there was no point in getting it done. But now, I've started connecting with my hair and body again. I want to take better care of myself. This way, my hair looks good all week and makes me feel good. I'm just starting to realize that my hair is also a part of me. A part that I have neglected for years. But now, I love it. I dye it. I cut it.
I got married at a young age. I think I was 22 years old. I wanted to become a mother right away, but I was lucky it didn't work out. Later, I got divorced. He was not fit to be a father. He was addicted to drugs, was very violent, and beat me. The last time he beat me, I was sitting on the couch. He grabbed my foot and dragged me down. My head hit the floor. When I stood up, he punched me so hard that my nose started bleeding. He broke it. My nose's been crooked ever since. When he was beating me, I promised myself that if I made it alive, I would leave him for good. I said no more. I said I'm going to change my life and save myself. And I did. I left. Sold my piano and rented a place, and was able to start again.
These two are my daughters, just like my own children.
I left Tehran Music Conservatory in 2009, even though I kept playing music. In 2011, I realized I wanted to pursue music. I wanted to play at a concert, but couldn't find a band. It was impossible. I wasn't an excellent piano player who could perform professionally. I was also playing the melodica and couldn't find a band that needed a melodica player. So, I started performing on the streets. I decided to be a street musician. I needed the money, and it was a job too. I wanted to be a street artist. I got a melodica and went out and began playing on the streets of Tehran.
I can certainly say, as far as I'm aware, I was the only woman playing on the streets. There were men, obviously. Some of my friends from my Conservatory days were the pioneers of street performance. But I had not met a woman going out alone and playing music.
Meanwhile, I had to fight three different groups. First, it was the police that treated me like a woman selling her body. Second, I had to fight the city workers that treated me like street peddlers disturbing the public. And welfare employees that treated me like a beggar who was panhandling.
So, every day, they would show up in order. First, the police would come yelling and arguing. Sometimes, they would either arrest me or leave me alone. Then, the city employees would show up. They are undoubtedly the worst. I can confidently say that they are more violent than police officers.
The story of me playing music in Tehran began with fights, arguments, banning, repression, censorship, and harassment. But it's all in the past, and I could start a journey. I ended up in another country where I could be free and comfortable. I have no fears. I'm no longer concerned for my instrument or my own safety. I don't have to hide or run away when I see a car coming.
Be careful, sweetheart. Leili, sweety, don't take off your jacket even if you are warm right now. You'll catch a cold.
Come on, throw the confetti. Look, Leili. Are you watching?
I always wanted to sing this song in Iran. I loved it so much that I named my daughter Leili. In my opinion, Leili is the symbol of love. Leili is the common name among Middle Eastern women. I wanted to sing it loudly in Iran too. I was sure if I did, many people knew the song and perhaps would have gathered to sing along with me. But I never found the courage to do it. The difference is that I sing it freely, without fear, and how I want to, but the audience doesn't know what it means to be in love with Leili.
I got the envelope. Let me take off this face mask so you can hear me. I've been waiting for this moment.
Should I take it off?
Oh no, I'm crying. Even though wearing it was difficult, I like it now. It's strange. I wore the mask because I wanted to honor the women who wore it before me.
They were wise to stay anonymous because they could have gotten into trouble. Artists and activists in dictatorship societies are often forced to hide their faces and identity for a long time. I believe the women who kept this mask on while telling their stories made the right choice.
Either way, it wasn't easy. Halfway through, I was exhausted and wanted to take it off. I respect women who wore it. I salute you. I am so proud of you for having the bravery to stay in your country and tell your story. I didn't do much, but please consider this my support. Please know that my heart was with you as I wore it.
Let's go mail it to the next person.
My name is Kimia Ghorbani. I am a singer and musician.
A package has been delivered. I have to pick it up.
I got into Iranian cinema because of my sister, Shaqayeq. When I auditioned and was chosen to be in The Pear Tree, we were scared to tell my dad. When we finally did, it felt like a funeral at home. My mom worried I’d stop taking piano lessons, which she was right. My dad was against me becoming an actress. But he couldn't say no because it was the renowned Mr. Mehrjui's film. The entire time I was shooting the movie, my dad was mad. He wouldn't speak to me when I returned from the film set.
But after I won the Simorgh prize from Fajr International Film Festival, he was delighted. I remember the ceremony was on a snowy day. Our car wouldn't start, and we had to take a taxi to Vahdat theatre, or Roodaki as it's now called. After that, he was pleased.
Whatever restriction existed in the Iranian cinema was there to be broken. Indeed, a well-defined framework existed, but we had to figure out how to convey our meaning without crossing it. For example, showing a couple made love or kissed without showing it. I remember a scene where the man comes out of the bedroom putting on his shirt. In theatre, the girl bites an apple and hands it to the boy to bite. I did that with grapes. That was even sexier than showing two people kissing because it's redundant. That's how everyone stayed inside the permitted framework. For me, limitations existed but didn't mean anything. Restrictions were merely there so I could break them.
I didn't leave Iran planning to work. I was forced to leave. I never wanted to go. Living in Iran was my greatest joy.
Life is like falling from a great height for someone who is leaving. She won't truly realize the difficulties of life in Iran until hitting the ground and seeing the scattered pieces everywhere.
My biggest challenge here was finding roles that weren't stereotypical or only about the Middle East or Iran. I wanted to play the role of a human regardless of her past. I wanted to be an artist, not an Iranian actress or a Middle Eastern actress. I think that was my greatest challenge.
I always think about what example from nature I can find that resembles empowering women and enabling them to be independent. It's very similar to how the earth is. The land is powerful, fertile, and full of natural resources, yet when angry, it destroys. An earthquake ruins. A volcano erupts. Nonetheless, it remains and gives us food. I always thought all this women's empowerment they talk of is not about women becoming like men or being able to do exactly what men can do.
Let me ask you this. Are land and clouds the same? Could land make rain? No. Individuals perform their best when they are where they’re supposed to be. Being calm doesn't mean being powerless. The earth is our home. That's why my biggest concern is the environment. One cannot talk about women without talking about the planet. One cannot talk about nature without women. If you leave nature alone, it spreads. This earth is the empire of plants. If left alone, it will take over. It will fix itself. It must be left alone! Just like women. They, too, must be left alone. They shouldn't be harassed so much.
When you are born a female, you are a battleground where everyone wants to march and parade on. It starts with the family that wants to have a say in everything a little girl does. Then, you start school and must wear a headscarf and uniform. Again, you realize your body is a battleground that they cover. When you are older, you are used in thousand different ways on your way to school. You get catcalls until your breasts grow. You slouch to hide them. You start menstruating and must not talk about it.
All of this gets stored in a girl's psyche. And when all this rage, cry, and grief explodes, none of it can be a conscious thought. This cry is the cry of a body.
Oh yeah, perhaps, I had no conscious thought when I posed nude for those photos. I was not planning to be a symbol of freedom or anything. I was that battleground I mentioned. I was a battleground that was screaming. All these years, you have been parading on my body, at least look at it. Look and see how threatening it is. Look at the reason for all the bloodshed, exploitations, and pressures. Is a woman's body really that threatening? So scary? So terrifying?
Yeah. I was not making a conscious decision. My mind was utterly empty. I was only a body. One of my sources of inspiration was Zahra Amir Ebrahimi whose sex tape was leaked. My body was the cries of Zahra's body. I told those who passed the DVD around that they no longer have to do it in secret! I was scared in 2012, but not anymore. It is not only my cry. It is the unconscious cries of my mother, grandmother, my great-grandmother, and all the women whose bodies have been battlegrounds.
The traveller of the dark city, where are you, kitty?
The kitty is a girl
On a narrow path toward freedom
The perfect moon sleeps in your eyes
I wish you were here by my side.
How did it go? I can't remember.
It was, "Every path is open to you. All roads lead to you." It was very nice. My brother wrote this song, and I composed the music for it many years ago. I haven't played and sang it in a long time.
Everything to you…
Anyways, I can't remember. I must ask my brother.
About this mask. This is not a mask. It's a veil. It's complicated because it's part of the traditions I like. For example, no matter the seasons, I wear a scarf like this. But I’d hate it if was forced to wear this mask. It's horrifying. I think anything that is not a personal choice becomes a burden. Many women love to wear the headscarf or the chador. Imagine those who are forced to wear them. It could weigh like an elephant on their backs.
Personally, I love anything that is from Iran. This is from Iran, made at the hands of a woman in the South. It feels like her hands are caressing me. I feel her in this veil. In this mask, I feel the South of Iran, Qeshm and Hurmuz Islands, Sistan and Baluchistan, those endless beaches of the South that go on for thousands of kilometers.
Right now, no one has forced me to wear this. I have chosen to wear it and can take it off whenever I want. There is nothing wrong with that. I can feel that woman who has made this, not the pressure of being forced to wear it.
My name is Golshifteh Farahani. Sometimes I act and sometimes I make music.