50 Iranian Women You Should Know: Leila Hatami

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Leila Hatami was the leading role in “The Separation,” the first, and to date, only Iranian film to get an Oscar. She is a highly-acclaimed actress. She is also the first and only Iranian woman to sit on the panel for the Cannes Film Festival.

Leila was born in 1972 in Tehran, Iran. Her father, Ali Hatami, was a renowned movie director and her mother, Zari Khoshkam, was a popular movie star before the revolution of 1979. Leila first appeared in a film when she was 10, one of her father’s films, which was about the life and times of the 19th century Iranian painter Kamal-ol-Molk. In it, she played the painter as a young boy. She also appeared in a TV series.

Then eight years later in 1992, she appeared in another one of her father’s films where she played a blind girl. However she did not originally intend to pursue acting. At high school, she studied physics and mathematics and then went on to study electrical engineering in Lausanne, Switzerland. But two years later, she had a change of heart and swapped to French literature. Then her father became ill and she went back to Iran. He died in 1996.

That same year, she played her first adult role in a film called “Leila,” which was directed by prominent film director Dariush Mehrjui. In the film, she played a woman unable to have children. Her acting received praise both inside and outside of Iran.

But during filming, a second story unfolded behind the camera. In the film, she acted alongside Ali Mostafa, who played a loving husband in the film who resisted his mother’s pressure to marry a second wife so that she would have grandchildren. In real life, they fell in love and quickly got married.

In several films, Leila and Ali played a couple on screen, which film critics praised every time. They have two young children, a boy and a girl, who frequently appear alongside their parents on the red carpet in festivals across the world.

Alongside numerous Iranian nominations and awards for her acting, Leila has also received international acclaim. In 2002, she was named winner of the best actress award at the Montreal World Film Festival for her part in a movie called “The Deserted Station.”

After Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became president of the Islamic Republic in 2005, Leila and her husband opened a small café inside a cinema, which they called “Entr’acte.” In the café, they screened short, documentary films. The café became a hangout for intellectuals and artists. However in 2009, the café was burned down after Leila spoke out publicly in support of the former reformist candidate President Mohammad Khatami. The fire was declared arson.

In the troubled aftermath of the disputed 2009 presidential elections, the number of acting jobs for Leila, like other actors, dropped drastically. Then in 2011, she starred in “A Separation,” which was directed by Asghar Farhadi and won an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film in 2012. Before that, Hatami received the award for best actress at the Berlin Film Festival and the Palm Springs International Film Festival for her part in the film.

The censors missed it

But when Asghar Farhadi delivered his acceptance speech, Farhadi said, “At this time, many Iranians all over the world are watching us and I imagine them to be very happy. At a time when talk of war, intimidation, and aggression is exchanged between politicians, the name of their country, Iran, is spoken here through her glorious culture, a rich and ancient culture that has been hidden under the heavy dust of politics. I proudly offer this award to the people of my country, the people who respect all cultures and civilizations and despise hostility and resentment.”

However this speech infuriated hardliners. Like every film in Iran, “A Separation” was granted permission by the government. But following its international acclaim, censors began paying greater attention to the content that portrayed Iran as a dysfunctional society and culture through the misfortunes of ordinary people.

“The image that ‘A Separation’ depicts of our society is a dirty picture that Westerners hope for,” said conservative writer Masoud Ferasati. “On the one hand, they impose sanctions against us and on the other, they give our films awards to send us a positive message. [But] I think the film’s success is an illusion. This is not a good film.” Many other commentators also condemned the film.

Then in 2014, Leila was made as a member of the Cannes Film Festival panel. She has always observed the Islamic dress code and she made no exception at Cannes. However on the last day of the festival, conservatives in Iran still found a way to condemn her actions. When the festival’s president Gilles Jacob was greeting jury members, he kissed her on the cheek, an act that caused an immediate reaction in Iran.

President Rouhani’s Deputy Minister of Culture, Hossein Noushabadi, said that Hatami’s appearance in Cannes violated “religious beliefs.” And the Hezbollah Students, a group that is affiliated to the Revolutionary Guards, filed a complaintagainst her with the Iranian judiciary and called for her to be flogged. Pressure mounted to such an extent that she was forced to stand up publicly and apologize for the incident. She explained that she had tried to stop the kiss but she was placed in an “impossible” situation.

Leila tends to not give interviews. However in an interview at the Cannes Film Festival, she discussed her experience as an Iranian actress. “The work is more difficult for Iranian actresses in that it is extremely restricted aesthetically,” she said. “On the level of the image, a certain aesthetic and artistic freedom is lacking and as far as acting goes, to the extent that we do not have the same kind of accessories to make the acting more credible, we must use physical expression more than our bodies.”

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