Growing up in Iran in the 50s and 60s, filmmaker Mehrnaz Saeed-Vafa remembers praying with her mother and experiencing a profound sense of magic underlined by a profound sense of despair. “I would go to mosques with all these mirrors and silver doors and become overwhelmed with the beauty. But then I would see women, including my mother, who cried when they prayed. I could sense their pain in the midst of all this beauty.”

As she got older Saeed-Vafa became aware of more conflicts. “I grew up with mixed messages. During the shah’s time Iran was very Western, but tradition was very strong inside families. I was brought up with both sets of values. My mother, however, was not a very traditional woman, and I got the message that I should promote my education and independence.”

So she studied business and economics during college in Tehran, but after one course in film production and theory she fell in love with filmmaking. At 23, against the wishes of her conservative father, she went abroad to study at the London Film School for two years. When she came back in 1976 she began working for Iranian National Television, first writing scripts and editing, then producing and directing. She also amassed an archive of documentary footage and photographs of her travels around the country.

In 1979 the Iranian revolution started, and she filmed swarms of men and black-veiled women protesting in the streets. A year later the Iran-Iraq war broke out. “Life was full of anxiety, because at every second you would expect to be attacked by an enemy who was invisible. When you heard a rocket you had to forget whatever you were working on and run around looking for shelter.”

Four years into the war she was increasingly frustrated and depressed about the fighting, about her family problems, about her work. She separated from her husband and joined her mother, brother, and sisters in Chicago, where she quickly found work as a film editor. Eventually she got her MFA in filmmaking from the University of Illinois, then took a teaching job at Columbia College.

But the experience of being an immigrant and adjusting to a radically different culture wasn’t easy. “The country that I left behind was full of pain, but when I landed here it felt as if this country was going on as if nothing was happening. This was the farthest I could go away from my country, and that was very difficult. I’m only beginning to feel a little comfortable after 12 years.”

One day she was going through a book on Tajikistan and came across a photograph of a young Muslim woman reading in front of a mosque. The unusual image reminded her of her own youthful innocence and curiosity. Using the photograph as a starting point, she began working on a video documentary exploring the cultural conflicts faced by Persian-speaking Muslim women refugees living in the U.S.

A Tajik Woman juxtaposes the photograph, her footage of the Iranian revolution, her own narrative, and interviews with Afghan and Iranian refugees who’ve experienced war and exile. A college student describes going to Bangladesh on a vacation with her parents, only to find that the trip was made with the intention of arranging a marriage for her. Saeed-Vafa’s mother expresses both her deep longing for her homeland and her sense of pride and guilt at being able to wear the color red in the U.S.

The 20-minute video won a grand prize at this year’s Festival of Illinois Film & Video and a first prize in the American Film Institute’s Visions of U.S. contest. Saeed-Vafa says it’s only the first in a series of films she’d like to make exploring the lives of immigrant Muslim women; she’s now writing a script for a film based on The Arabian Nights. “I find a lot of wisdom in that myth. The main character survives and helps other women by storytelling, because the king gives up his bad habit of killing women. I’m trying to relate some of the wisdom of that myth to the modern time.”

A Tajik Woman will be screened at the awards ceremony of the Film & Video festival at 7:30 PM on Saturday, September 30, at Kino-Eye Cinema at Chicago Filmmakers, 1543 W. Division. Tickets are $5; call 663-1600, ext. 5434.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Nathan Mandell.