The May Lady


Iran / 1998 / Farsi

Directed by Rakshan Bani-Etemad

With Minou Farshchi, Mani Kasraian, Golab Adineh

Still from 'The May Lady'Rakshan Bani-Etemad’s The May Lady is an autobiographical work inasmuch as the protagonist is a documentary filmmaker and single mother living in Tehran. The woman in the film, Frough, is 42 years old, divorced, and lives with her son, Mani. In addition to taking care of him, she is at work on a film wherein she is trying to seek out the perfect mother. As she travels around the city, interviewing women, the stories that she hears put her own situation into perspective, as she tries to understand the choices that she has made, as well as the ones that now face her. Bani-Etemad offers a brilliantly self-reflective portrait of motherhood and independence, and an exploration of the broader roles that women assume in modern Iranian society.

Mani goes to school, preparing for college, meanwhile living the sort of extended adolescence enjoyed by the children of the wealthy in most parts of the world. He is bright and youthful, but with each passing scene looks more broken down and grown up. When his friends are around, he conceals his gaze behind a camera’s lens. Frough cares for the often stoic young man, even through his occasional rebukes and nights spent in jail. She tries to carry on a post-marital relationship with a doctor but worries about the effect that it will have on her son.

Professionally, she is focused and fearless, plunging into potentially fraught situations – recording the lives of the poor, their neighborhoods, their children. She interviews a woman who devotes all of her time to caring for a son stricken with cerebral palsy. Another interviewee is a factory worker and a mother of four. One of her sons is consistently in trouble with the law, and he is incarcerated at the time that Frough runs into her at the police station. At one point that woman, tired of being on camera all day, frustratedly admonishes her to look at her own life instead.

The mysterious doctor is Frough’s unseen lover, and the audience only hears him through the letters of beautiful words that the two of them exchange, their voices overlapping in narration. They only communicate on a distanced, poetic level, an outpouring of words covering a canyon of empty space. These interactions to her represent a type of freedom that she has not yet known, and is thus foreign, ephemeral, and idealized. She often mentions an unshakable choice that pursues her attention, between having a romantic life and really being there for her son, who is fast approaching maturity. The only reason why there need be a choice at all, in her mind, is because for so long Mani has effectively been the man in her life, and bringing another one in would compromise the mother and son relationship. He makes his feelings quite clear through his actions: he cannot suffer her having a boyfriend. While they do not talk about it, the contention is keenly felt. And motherhood is so much a part of her conception of who she is, that she feels a new relationship would somehow take away an integral part of herself.

Still from 'The May Lady'Bani-Etemad does not treat motherhood as a fixed, traditional mooring but rather a multifaceted set of meanings and attitudes, a role that connects most Iranian women. This is certainly true for her unconventional protagonist, who writes poetry in her small and modern apartment, and drives her car into the mists of mountain roads, wondering what it feels like to lead an unrestricted life. The companionship that Mani provides is also far from conventional, as he even accompanies her as videographer on some of her interviews. The bond that exists between them is powerful. And yet in spite of this she thinks of her consideration for him as separate from her professional life, the fruits of which, in spite of a generally positive reaction from people, she tiredly wishes she could extrapolate.

Frough starts to think about the distance between her and her subjects, and what it is that actually sets her apart. In light of what she sees, in front of the lives with which she engages, filmmaking itself becomes a strictly bourgeois activity, and a facile one of probing condescension. Of course compared to the other women, she is quite free, with the ability to move around as she pleases and examine the world through the video camera. In a similar way, Mani is entirely occupied by the minute distractions that confine the leisure class. He lives very much in a bubble, which is breached occasionally, like when he runs afoul of local militiamen patrolling the streets or the religion-enforcing police who bust up co-ed parties. Noticing that he isn’t taking his studies seriously, Frough tries to impress upon him the value of education, but he is too old for such domestic lectures, and there is only so much she can do. Since their relationship seems to lack that pedagogical element, it more resembles the married couple’s bonds of mutual need.

There are places in the world where the question still exists whether women can be something beyond just mothers, wives, girlfriends, laborers. Iran is not one of them; Bani-Etemad and her protagonist in The May Lady are confirmation of this. What the filmmaker is asking, however, is this: will society let someone inhabit both sides of this divide? Why is there a divide? What still stands in the way of a woman’s realization of what she wants to achieve? These questions and their implications would cause the character to look at, in addition to her own place in society, the influence that she has on it, both artistically and socially.

Still from 'The May Lady'Perhaps because she sympathizes with his some of his frustrations, Frough continues to contravene on Mani’s behalf. She does little to prepare her son for the authoritarian and fundamentalist elements that exert a great deal of power over them and their fellow citizens. The stresses on the mother and son relationship reveal a microcosm of the responsibilities that her generation, partially resigned to those forces (or at least knowing how to operate within them), have to a self-centered and rebellious new generation of adults who want more freedom than they had growing up. In Iran, a youthful nation in the sense that it has a relatively high proportion of young people, these issues take on a pressing weight as the need for a voice and for individual agency, one that was not in place for previous generations, makes itself known. The current guardians can either equip the youth for dealing with difficult decisions of their own or allow them to keep an optimistic view that they will soon live in a place where such choices won’t confront them.


2 Responses to “The May Lady”

  1. Mary Ann said

    Sounds like a timely and complex situation, intertwined with the issues of film-making and the question of “what is real.”

  2. chaiwalla said

    Very much so. And it’s always interesting to observe characters in the process of resolving a sense of their own reality, their methods for doing so, and what it means for them. It strikes me that in ‘The May Lady,’ this internal discourse is so often connected with observation itself, and the characters’ ways of seeing – both mother and son tend to engage with the world from the monitoring side of a camera, but have such different ways of doing so.

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