How Dare You Have Such a Rubbish Wish: this feminist Iranian essay film pulls no punches

This important film by Mania Akbari, an Iranian exile based in London, compiles dozens of clips of Iranian women in popular cinema from the silent era up until the 1979 Islamic Revolution to make an impassioned statement of female agency.

7 December 2022

By Carmen Gray

How Dare You Have Such a Rubbish Wish (2022)
Sight and Sound

“I want to reclaim my body. I am not making a film, I am gazing into your gaze,” says Iranian filmmaker Mania Akbari in voiceover in How Dare You Have Such a Rubbish Wish. It’s an unmistakable statement of intent, and part of a bold, confrontational reckoning with the male authorial perspective that has so dominated the cinema of Akbari’s homeland and has, she argues, commodified female bodies to serve oppressive patriarchal fantasies. Dozens of archival clips portraying Iranian women in popular cinema from the silent era up to the 1979 Islamic Revolution are woven together to accompany Akbari’s calm, accusatory address to the men behind the camera in this essay film, which screened in November at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam and the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival. Now based in London, Akbari has been calling out, from exile, the ways in which cinema has been weaponised as propaganda to keep Iranian women subjugated. How Dare You… also charts the legacy of female activist protest in Iran, which has been reignited there in recent months.

Akbari is a director with a well-established reputation for highly personal and associative works that straddle documentary and poetic reflection to explore culture, identity and the body. She has at times worked in a format of epistolary exchanges, with Mark Cousins on Life May Be (2014), and with Douglas White on A Moon for My Father (2019). How Dare You… could be described as the missing half of a conversation, in which the impulse this time is not the generative friction of fruitful collaboration, but a revisionist urge to redress a longstanding power imbalance. Akbari does not explicitly detail her own early career experience in Tehran within the film, though she has in recent years publicly voiced accusations of plagiarism, abuse and exploitation in the Iranian film industry.

The nearly 70 films drawn upon for How Dare You…, and their directors, are not labelled until the end credits. The excerpts, predominantly in black and white, merge into a parade of opportunistic, lecherous men, from a cabaret honcho offering a dancer stardom, to a kidnapper chloroforming his female target in the dead of night, in episodes originally played for rambunctious comedy or melodrama. Despite indignities and assaults, the actresses imbue the screen with an irreducible charisma and force, most strikingly one scene where they sing in solidarity in prison. The actresses are also listed in the end credits, acknowledging their contribution to cinematic history in a separate sub-heading not subsumed under the presumptive ownership of male auteurs.

Akbari, who has previously documented her own journey of breast cancer and surgery, has spliced in footage of herself getting a floral design inked over her breasts by a female tattoo artist. Functioning as political performance art, this willed act to augment her body with an image of her own imagining takes power back from both aggressive disease and gendered violence. The knife is the instrument of the honour killings that are abundant in Iranian cinema; conventionally, the voiceover declares, said instrument changes hands among men. Experimental insertions – Akbari in a bath of inky fluid, with an octopus over her torso; the movements of dancer Iante Roach in a studio – add symbolic layers around notions of oppression and free expression.

While the Eiffel Tower has become the go-to establishing shot to let us know we are in Paris, the voiceover points out that to situate us in Iran and ‘the East’, films typically show us a woman with a chador over her head. Akbari completed the film before today’s ongoing wave of women-led protests in Iran demanding an end to the mandatory hijab, which were sparked in September after the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, arrested by Tehran’s morality police for supposedly violating the law on veiling. This unrest adds urgent resonance to a film that shows the historical roots of this feminist activism, particularly in archival footage of women protesting in the streets against enforced modesty rules instituted by Ayatollah Khomeini after he took power in 1979. Before the hijab was mandatory, pre-Revolution cinema had already associated it with chastity, in a tyranny that had already begun to be enacted on women’s bodies.

The film’s title is taken from a line berating a female character who has acting ambitions. To dare and to desire without permission is the right that Akbari returns to her fellow female performers and creators, along with a new sense of agency to reframe their own images and place in cinema.

► How Dare You Have Such a Rubbish Wish was screening at the International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam (IDFA) and the Tallinn Black Nights Film Festival (PÖFF).

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