HELSINGIN SANOMAT international

Culture - Tuesday 19.11.2002

Father left alone in Iran: new film tells other side of Not Without my Daughter story

 Sayed Bozorg Mahmoody tells his version in new documentary

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By Tomi Ervamaa

It is the autumn of 1984 and the situation has become unbearable.
   
The mother and her daughter come back home from the city, and the father is furious. He does not believe his wife's explanations for why they were away for so long, and he just keeps on shouting.
   
He is a typical family tyrant of the kind that can be seen occasionally in the check-out lines of Finnish grocery stores. But in this instance the shouting father is in the Iranian capital Teheran soon after the Islamic revolution.

The hell of their family life
is depicted in the book and the film entitled Not Without my Daughter. The story is that of Betty Mahmoody, an American mother who travelled with her husband Sayed Bozorg Mahmoody to visit his home country Iran. When they got there she was told that they would not be going back. A year and a half later the mother fled back to the United States with her daughter Mahtob. Once there, she told her story and became famous.
   
Now let's take that again: same place, same family:
   
It is winter in Teheran. Father and daughter are building a snowman. They give him a carrot nose and nuts for his eyes. The girl takes off her colourful scarf to put on the snowman. The story does not say where the mother is - perhaps she is shopping with her friends. The father has no idea that anything bad is going to happen.

The first version of the family's life
is the one that has prevailed in the public consciousness. "I was made out to be a liar, a wife-beater, a madman, and a kidnapper in the eyes of the world", says the father in the story, Sayed Bozorg Mahmoody - or Moody - as he sits on the sofa of a Helsinki film production company.
   
Moody refers to the vast power of Hollywood as a creator of mental images. Not Without my Daughter is a lousy movie, but it is also a skilfully- constructed drama starring Sally Fields, and its version of the story of the Mahmoody family has been told to millions of people.
   
Moody is in Finland because another competing version of the story has been completed.
   
Without my Daughter, a 1.5-hour documentary by Alexis Kouros and Kari Tervo, tells about Mahmoody's vain attempts to make contact with his daughter who was taken - kidnapped - to America. The film has its Finnish premiere on November 29.

Rarely has so much meaning
been heaped onto one family and two movies. What are the rights of women in Islamic countries? And what about a father's rights?
   
How sinister is American propaganda veiled as entertainment? What is the image of Muslim countries in the West, and what are the stereotypes and enemy images?
   
Images in the mind cannot be measured, but Not Without my Daughter has been more effective at moulding the image that people in the West have about Iran than any number of news items combined.
   
Betty Mahmoody continues to champion the cause of women's rights in the United States. For instance last summer her story was mentioned at a US Congressional hearing on the situation of American women married to Saudi men and living in Saudi Arabia.

Moody speaks English slowly
but well - after all, he went through medical school in the United States. Arguing violently would not seem to be the sort of thing that this quiet 65-year-old gentleman would be likely to do, but he does comment on accusations made against him when asked.
   
Betty claimed that Moody beat both her and the child. "That is not true", Moody says. In the new film those who knew him and Betty in Teheran insist that there was never any sign of anything of the kind.
   
Betty claimed that Moody would lock her and her daughter in their house. "Not true", Moody says. In the film their friends confirm that Betty moved about freely.
   
Betty says that fearing for their lives, she fled to freedom with her daughter Mahtob across the mountains of Western Iran.
   
This was an all-American story of heroism: the woman - an individual - had achieved the impossible with the help of almost nothing more than her own will power.
   
The new film suggests that the tale of heroism about the flight across the mountains is just that: a tale. There are other ways to leave Teheran - by plane, for instance.

Be that as it may
, the wife and her daughter disappeared, and the man realized in a state of shock that he had been left in Teheran without his family. There was no going back to America and their home in Michigan after Betty had told her story.
   
Without my Daughter is a father's message to his daughter. Moody tries to get in touch with Mahtob by e-mail, but he gets no answers. Perhaps the girl will see this film.
   
Memories live in the movie. Moody tells about how years ago the sun started to warm the snowman he built with his daughter, and how it melted and melted, until nothing was left but the scarf.

Both films appeal
to the emotions. Both tell stories that are powerful, and in their own way credible.
   
So which story should we believe?
   
At least now there is a choice. Besides, Without my Daughter is a painstakingly produced documentary, while Not Without my Daughter is a drama, which in true Hollywood style is "based on" a true story - which means that events are altered as the narrative requires.
   
On the other hand, the documentary is by no means the absolute truth about the story of one family.
   
The new film also has its ideological dimension, which it offers in response to the American pathos about freedom that permeated the first movie.
   
The documentary contains a comment from an American film expert who dismisses Not Without my Daughter, using a typical argument of the American left: The United States needed an enemy. Iran was made the enemy, and painted in dark colours. Therefore, Betty's story was seen as worthless.
   
Whereas the first Hollywood film shows the wife as good and the husband as evil, the story now shows the man as victim and the woman as being selfish and money-grubbing. Perhaps the only thing that is diferent is that the roles of good and evil have changed places in the new movie?
   
"No, the purpose of this film is not to make me out to be a good person: the purpose is to show what I really am like. You can draw your own conclusions from that", Moody answers.

So what kind of a man
is Moody really like?
   
When he first saw the Hollywood version of his story, he first thought that it looked like a realistic description of his family life. Then his character appeared on the screen, played by actor Alfred Molina: tall, muscular, with a thick growth of hair.
   
"I asked, is this supposed to be me? As you can see, I am short, bald on top, and I wear glasses: no resemblance at all, which tells a great deal about how realistic the whole movie is."
   
In Betty's book the horrible atmosphere is largely created by the change in Moody's personality.
   
When the father gets back to his barbaric home country, his eyes "grow dark and empty, like those of so many other Iranians".
   
Moody says that he changed only in his wife's imagination.
   
"I have always been the way that I am. I just have less hair now. I have always been a citizen of Iran, but she sometimes saw an American in me. It is the way that she saw me that changed."
   
First the wife baked her husband a cake with the Iranian flag on it. Then she wrote a book, which continues to shock with its imagery of the hellish East, stripped of all political correctness.
   
According to Betty everything in Teheran is filthy - cockroaches run around everywhere, mosquitos bite their child, smelly people do not wash themselves, and they allow their teeth to rot in their mouths, while spending all of their time gossiping maliciously and mindlessly.
   
"According to Betty, Iranians shower only once a year. Our religion alone requires that we wash regularly", Moody sighs.

When he has finished marketing
the new movie, the father in the story plans to go back to his home in Teheran, where he says that he enjoys his life, even though his family is not there. His work as a doctor takes up all of his time.
   
"If I were not here now, I would probably be sitting at home, reading a textbook in my own warm and comfortable corner."
   
That corner of his is in a completely different Teheran than the Eastern nightmare depicted in the American movie.

Helsingin Sanomat / First published in print 17.11.2002


TOMI ERVAMAA / Helsingin Sanomat
tomi.ervamaa@sanoma.fi

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