The Iranian film industry might be small, and it might be subjected to excessive scrutiny and restrictions at a governmental level, but it certainly punches above its weight when it comes to producing quality cinema. Producing directors such as Jafar Panahi, Abbas Kiorastami, Asghar Farhadi and Reza Mirkarimi, Iran seems a fertile breeding ground for filmmakers who can overcome whatever obstacles that may exist to deliver stories that possess universal appeal. With Daughter, Mirkarimi has crafted a narrative that explores the tensions between a strict father who wants to protect a daughter who is desperate for a little independence. This basic narrative premise is nothing new as we have seen many films that have followed a similar narrative trajectory and explored similar themes, albeit with variances in tone and technique, from the trite (10 Things I Hate About You) to the tragic (The Virgin Suicides), so it really comes down to the direction from Mirkarimi and the performances of his cast if Daughter is to stand out from the crowd. Fortunately, both are superb and Daughter soars as a moving and amusing drama that examines the struggles for young people in breaking free from the influence and expectations of their parents, particularly within a traditional culture where gender and generational expectations are entrenched in almost every aspect of day-to-day life.
The daughter of the title is Setareh (Mahoor Alvand), a young university student who lives with her family in a town situated in southern Iran. Saterah’s father Ahmad (Farhad Aslani) is a senior manager who works long hours at the huge industrial plant that seems to be the lifeblood of the city and the sheer size of the facility is beautifully captured by cinematographer Hamid Khozouie Abyane. Ahmad is strict and authoritarian both at work and at home, but there is a softer side to him that slowly reveals itself as events unfold. When Ahmad forbids Saterah from flying to Tehran to farewell a university friend, she decides to go anyway with a plan to return home before Ahmad is even aware she is gone. When a dust storm grounds her return flight though, Ahmad learns of her deception and engages in a typically alpha male course of action; hitting the highway for an all-night drive to retrieve her.
It is when Ahmad arrives in Tehran that we learn more about issues from his past and how these complex and complicated family dynamics have shaped his personality more so than religious doctrine. Yes, Ahmad is a traditional, Islamic father, but this is not presented as a stereotype. He is an absorbing character and the film becomes as much about Ahmad as it does Sateram, which only serves to strengthen the narrative. Furthermore, the group of friends with whom Satera spends a boisterous lunch challenge the more typical media representations of Muslim women. These are young women with aspirations and their frank conversation covers topics such as education, relationships and their various interpretations of freedom. Whilst it would be easy to suggest that such a story is one that draws on the specific cultural tenets of Islamic culture, any suggestion that the film is testimony to the oppression of women in Iran would be absurd. After all, a patriarchal cultural structure in which parents assert their values and beliefs on their children is not the exclusive domain of Islamic society.
Striking and captivating, it is not surprising to learn that the film, its director and stars have picked up several awards at various international film festivals. Aslani, in particular, has been celebrated for his performance, and rightly so given his ability to deliver a moment of emotion (anger, confusion, sadness, regret) without saying a word, but Alvand is equally impressive as the daughter who simply wants to spread her wings a little. Mirkarimi obviously has no interest in presenting Iran as an ‘exotic other’ and the scenes in Tehran show the Iranian capital as a modern, bustling metropolis that could just as easily be any city in Europe or elsewhere. He also resists the urge to wrap things up neatly, leaving many questions unanswered and a distinct lack of clarity with regard to the fate and future of the characters. On many levels, Daughter is an extraordinarily well-made addition to the ever-expanding canon of Iranian cinema.