Happy Birthday, Hediyeh Tehrani

I first encountered Iranian actress Hediyeh Tehrani’s work when I covered the Tribeca Film Festival in 2006 (it was my first real “gig”). was assigned to review Fireworks Wednesday. This was my introduction to Iranian film. Fireworks Wednesday was intriguing enough for me to institute a crash course. I saw as much as I could get my hands on. Fireworks Wednesday was a good “way in” too: It was directed by Asghar Farhadi, who would go on to win the Oscar for A Separation – and finally, recently, About Elly (which I consider equal to A Separation) was rescued from obscurity for a long-delayed U.S. release. Fireworks Wednesday was also my introduction to Tehrani – as well as to Taraneh Alidoosti – (she was also the “Elly” in About Elly, as well as the wife in The Salesman). But Tehrani was the one who intrigued me first, who pulled me in, who made me sit up and pay close attention. “Okay. Focus. This actress is GOOD.”

Hedieh Tehrani, “Fireworks Wednesday”

Tehrani is so beautiful it almost acts as a smokescreen. It doesn’t allure, it is a distancing factor. Tehrani often plays emotionally distant women, you could even call them “cold”. She holds herself under control, but you can always sense all this other STUFF going on. When she plays a character containing weighty symbolism (as she did in Half Moon), she is almost otherworldly. There are moments where her actual face seems to take on the frozen heroic qualities of the face on a statue in a museum, the statue of some mythical figure of antiquity, the profile on an epic Roman frieze.

She understands the Epic. She looks like Michelangelo’s David there. Her character has been living in exile, hidden in an isolated village, her musicianship/voice silenced because of the Iran’s laws barring female singers from singing in public. She is a symbol to those searching for her, a martyr, mythical, her gifts only whispered about, her presence still felt. When she emerges, and all the women stand on the roofs holding their huge drums in respect and tribute, it’s goosebump-worthy.

There is nothing mannered in Tehrani, there is no artifice. She has no qualms about playing imperfect people. She has spoken of her admiration of Meryl Streep, and you can see the influence in her work, and you can see it in particular in Fireworks Wednesday, because Mozhde, the character she plays, is unpleasant: an unhappy upper-class wife, paranoid about this lower-class more traditional (i.e. chador-wearing) cleaning woman she’s hired (played by Alidootsi). Mozhde is losing her grip on her husband, and she takes it out on her new maid, threatened by this younger woman, threatened by the appeal she – and that damn retrograde chador – may have for her angry husband. She’s so exhausted her glamorous sister tells her, “Get yourself together, you look like shit”.

Hediyeh Tehrani and Sahar Dolatshahi, “Fireworks Wednesday”

Because this is Farhadi we’re talking about, this domestic drama crackles with the a class critique (which reaches full bloom in A Separation. It’s central to About Elly too). What ends up happening is that this upper-class “modern” woman goes after the “traditional” woman, who is pure in a way that Mozhde can never be, and also innocent of what Mozhde accuses her of. Roohi is no threat to her. There is a seething sense of Mozhde’s sense of superiority over someone like Roohi, who clings the chador over her mouth, conscious of not letting it slip down. But – crucially – Mozhde has Roohi all wrong. Roohi is not up to no good. Roohi is not what Mozhde thinks she is.

Taraneh Alidoosti and Hediyeh Tehrani, “Fireworks Wednesday”

Mozhde is so paranoid she misinterprets everything, to disastrous consequences.

In the course of just a couple days working at this new job, Roohi quits. But the damage has been done. She’s been corrupted.

Many film critics “follow” a director, going through his/her chronology. I have done that too, but I usually follow the actor. (When you “follow the actors” you see more than you see if you were just following the “auteurs”. Go off the beaten path.). Deciding to “follow” Tehrani was challenging in the era before streaming and – ironically – more was available on DVD and VHS than is available now on streaming. There’s less available on streaming with every passing day – because the wrong people are in charge. Of everything. Back in the day, I got a list of Tehrani’s credits, and went to work seeing as much as I could. There were soapy melodramas, syrupy “anti-war” statements, glorified TV movies of the week about subjects affecting normal Iranians (like “temporary marriage”, for example: basically an excuse for married people – men, that is – to fool around. It’s gross and exploitive.) Tehrani was good in everything. If you can find these films listed below, you should see them. I will never EVER give up “physical media” because with each technological “advance” more is lost.

I have written about many of these films, so I’ll provide links. Tehrani continues to be a major player in Iranian film (she is doing a TV series right now, which I would love to get my hands on). She’s also a photographer and a patron of the arts.

In 1997’s Siavash, directed by Saman Moghaddam, Tehrani plays a photographer for a woman’s magazine, who meets a young musician Siavash (Ali Ghorbanzadeh) at one of his concerts. Outside the concert hall, a man comes up screaming at her, and Siavash “rescues” her. The two of them talk. There’s chemistry. Siavash is an anti-war film addressing the open wounds of Iranian people following the decade-long Iran-Iraq war, and the impact the war had on the next generation. The next generation is a “lost” generation, since they did not fight in the war. The older generation looked at the younger generation with contempt over their softness. (This generation gap replicates itself in every culture. War does that to people.) Siavash is also a love story, peppered with haunting beautiful musical numbers, from Siavash’s concerts. Turns out, the man who accosted Tehrani outside the concert hall, is not just some random weirdo infuriated by the presence of a working woman – but a guy she knew in college who “obsessed” on her, and his obsession is now a murderous fatal attraction. In college he was so in love with her that – in the topsy-turvy world of male lunacy – he reported her to the morality police at the college for insufficient hair coverings and immoral behavior. Typical. So if he can’t have her, he will destroy her. This is a very hard-hitting film looking directly at the sickness baked into Iran’s society, its relationship to the war with Iraq, and its cruel double-bind-requirements of women. The yelling guy ends up beating Tehrani’s character so badly she ends up in the hospital. I wrote about Siavash here.

Right after Siavash she made Hemlock, directed by Behrouz Afkham, and Hemlock is a Lifetime movie Iranian-style, with a cultural critique of Iranian attitudes towards marriage and women embedded into the at-times mawkish material. The romance in Hemlock is that of “temporary marriage” (sigheh), which basically makes extramarital hookups legal. And so the shady businessman who travels constantly can form a “temporary marriage” while he’s away. His traditional wife stays home. While in Tehran, he meets a Sima (Tehrani), a nurse, who could not be more different from his religious conservative wife. Sima is a modern woman, living alone, working. The man courts her. He convinces her to have a “temporary marriage” – although she’s not sure about it. The best scene – a scene I think about all the time – is its most subversive. (After Hemlock came out, many nurses in Iran wrote an open letter protesting the “stain” Tehrani brought to their profession.). Sima senses her new man is conflicted by her modern attitudes, and, on a whim, she goes into a clothing store and tries on veils and chadors. Why this is subversive is all in how Tehrani plays it.

A lesser actress would have played it as: “I need to change myself for my new man. He is threatened by my modern dress and so I will wear traditional clothes to please him.” In other words, a lesser actress would have played it in a submissive way.

Tehrani plays it playfully. She plays dress-up. She finds it funny, she finds herself in a full chador funny. But there’s something else in the scene. It’s sexual. She tries on a full veil, covering her face, and instead of the scene being about a woman “retreating” into a traditional role, instead it feels like she’s going shopping for a role-play sexy game later that night. The chador, in Tehrani’s hands, is a burlesque, a sexy get-up to titillate her man. You can’t even see her full face, but the glimmering mischief in her eyes says it all.

It’s my favorite of all of Tehrani’s scenes.

I wrote more about Hemlock here.

In 2001, she appeared in The Party, also directed by Saman Moghaddam, another film I highly recommend. Party is a political thriller, starring Tehrani and the wonderful Ali Mosaffa (one of Iran’s best actors). Again, the Iran-Iraq war is the background. The Party is about a journalist (Mosaffa) making the risky choice to publish his brother’s war-time journals in the newspaper where his girlfriend (Tehrani) is the editor. The pair knows how explosive the material is. The journals tell the truth about the war, and the “truth” is in opposition to the official propaganda put out by the State. The journalist is kidnapped, tortured, imprisoned. Coming into this fraught political situation is a younger man who wants to make some money by “hosting” illegal parties. This is yet another custom in the restrictive Iran: there are floating “parties”, held in empty houses, or houses on the market not inhabited yet, where young men go to drink illegal beer and dance to illegal music. Illegal music meaning: The Beastie Boys. (The title echoes one of the Beastie Boys’ most famous songs). Since there aren’t nightclubs in Iran, this “scheme” is a way to create a rolling nightclub, with a high price of entry. Everyone attending risks arrest. It’s a fascinating film, grounded by the relationship between Mosaffa and Tehrani: they are so good together. (I wrote about the film and its background here.)

2003’s Donya is a fascinating film where expectations are subverted, and Tehrani – whom we are swayed towards in affection and allegiance, as we are with all stars – is revealed as a ruinous woman out of a film noir. A destroyer of lives.

The way the film keeps you unbalanced is the source of its power. Without Tehrani’s presence, the film could not be what it is. She plays a snotty woman, used to taking care of herself, with a breezy contempt for her home country and its ridiculous rules. She’s lived much of her life abroad. She feels “above” it. Tehrani understands all this deeply, and yet never gives too much away. There’s always more she’s not showing, and this gives her screen presence the tension all great stars command. In Donya, Tehrani plays the “surface” – the breezy confidence and independence – but also has in place the schemes of manipulation going on inside, completely hidden, not revealed until the end.

I absolutely love Bahman Ghobadi’s films, and Half Moon is just rapturous.

Half Moon is about a musician who wants to give one last concert, and travels through the Kurdish area of Iran, seeking out the musicians he wants, many of whom live in hiding, in fear for their lives, their music silenced (by law). The person he most wants is the famous Hesho (Tehrani), banned from singing in Iran because she is a woman, living her life persecuted and hounded, and now hiding in a small village, protected by the villagers who revere her. It would be like if Taylor Swift had to go into hiding. There would be many loyal fans who would be happy to stand guard over her and lie to the police about whether or not Taylor is huddled in the basement. When Hesho finally emerges, all of the villagers stand in tribute. It is a truly epic moment. Tehrani, her hair long and grey, with a look of outlaw yearning, wordless endurance, and determination on her face is a magnificent symbol of the silenced woman, the enduring woman, and the Kurdish people in general.

I saw this one in the movie theatre and it was a thrilling experience. I wrote about Half Moon here.

As I sat through Abbas Kiarostami’s Shirin, which is basically a Who’s Who of Iranian actresses (plus Juliette Binoche) …

I was waiting for Tehrai to show up and of course she did. It was so good to see her.

I wrote about Shirin here.

Tehrani continues to act – although I haven’t seen her in anything in a while. She often lives abroad. Her work in photography has brought her fame. She travels through the wildest areas of Iran, the Northwest areas, the Kurdish areas, photographing the landscape, the people, the rituals, the lifestyle – capturing these lives for posterity. She created art collectives and galleries.

A sensitive actress, flexible and fearless: I look forward to many more performances in the years to come. The only time she worked with Farhadi was Fireworks Wednesday. I would love to see another collaboration!

I celebrate her, the woman who cracked open the rich and textured world of Iranian film for me, for which I am truly grateful.

Thank you so much for stopping by. If you like what I do, and if you feel inclined to support my work, here’s a link to my Venmo account. And I’ve launched a Substack, Sheila Variations 2.0, if you’d like to subscribe.

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