"The Hidden Half" - Tahmineh Milani (2001)

Tahmineh Milani is a prominent woman filmmaker and feminist in a place where it is difficult for a woman to be either of these things – Iran.  Probably her most impressive film so far is the insightful, The Hidden Half’ (Nimeh-ye Penhan, 2001), underlying the narrative of which are the provocative themes of politics and womanhood inside Iran.  Made during the relatively progressive period of Mohammad Khatami’s presidency (1997-2005), the film managed to get approval from the restrictive Iranian censorship authority, the Ministry of Culture, and was released inside the country.  However, shortly after its release and an interview with her was published in an Iranian newspaper, Milani was arrested for "supporting factions waging war against God”, a crime that carries the death penalty [1]. 

A  petition was quickly organized supporting Milani that was signed by hundreds of people from the international filmmaking community, and she was soon released on bail.  Although she has since been able to resume her filmmaking career, these events illustrate just how precarious is the condition of artistic expression inside Iran.  Nevertheless Ms. Milani has continued to speak her mind on socially sensitive issues that she believes in [2].

Much of what transpires in The Hidden Half takes place during the Iranian revolutionary period (1979-83), when the entire society was in tumult.   And in this film the focus is on women who were enthusiastically taking the opportunity to engage in political activities during these disruptive times.  You can well imagine that a film along these lines would come under close scrutiny of the Iranian censoring authorities.  However, Milani’s film (she both directed the film and wrote the screenplay) does not really adopt a controversial socio-political position.  Instead it primarily concerns a higher-level issue concerning how we all make judgements about people and social activities in our lives [3].  It is the presentation of this more philosophical concern that makes the film interesting to me, although some viewers only interested in melodrama may largely overlook it.  So in the discussion below, I will highlight points in the narrative that touch on the complexity of human judgement.

The film does suffer from being overly talky.  Many of the key events in the narrative are only described in spoken dialogue, and this misses out on some cinematic opportunities.  Nevertheless, we must make some allowances for the likely difficult production circumstances that can prevail in Iran when one wants to film women involved in political activities.

The story of The Hidden Half is relatively complex and feature events that are covered in an extensive flashback narrative, and even in a flashback within that flashback.  It transpires over roughly six segments.  To help trace the thread of judgement, I will label those points in the story that involve the topic of how we judge others with the symbol ‘J’.

1.  Fereshte’s Journal  
The film opens in “the present” (2001) and introduces a married couple: Khosro Samimi (played by Atila Pesiani) and his wife Fereshte (played by Niki Karimi, who memorably starred in two feminist-oriented films directed by Dariush MehrjuiSara (1992) and Pari (1995)). Khosro is a justice officer from the Presidential Office, and he has been summoned to go to the southern city of Shiraz to investigate and interview a woman political prisoner who has been condemned to death and is appealing her sentence. 

When Fereshte learns of this assignment, she becomes disturbed and asks her husband what political group the prisoner belongs to.  Khosro says, “what’s the difference?”, and Fereshte thoughtfully responds with, “you’re right”.   But she warns her husband, who is essentially a judge, not to be too judgmental – that is, not to make too-quick judgments before all circumstances are considered (J1).  This introduces the key theme concerning judgment in this film.  The point made is that one should always keep an open mind and see things from the widest possible perspective.  An overly rule-based mind may jump to conclusions too quickly.

When Khosro is about to leave, Fereshte is startled to meet Khosro’s travelling companion from the government office, Mr. Rastegar.  It seems that Fereshte has a past unpleasant history with this man.  Rastegar beseeches her not to judge him based on things that happened twenty years ago (J2).  People can change over time, he tells her.

Khosro and Rastegar depart, and when they arrive in Shiraz, Khosro checks into his hotel room and begins unpacking his suitcase.  He is surprised to discover among his things a journal that Fereshte has placed there about herself that she invites him to read.  In her opening message, she tells him that although she has been a dutiful wife and mother over the seventeen years of their marriage, he doesn’t really know her well as a person.  This, we are given to believe, is the fate of most married women, who are often seen by their husbands only as role-players and not as equal companions (J3). This journal is intended to introduce him to her hitherto “hidden half”.

So Khosro begins reading the journal, which tells him about her life before she met him.  Now the film moves into an extended flashback covering what Khosro reads.

2.  A Young Radical  
The scene shifts to 1978.  Fereshte, from a poor family in a provincial town, manages to pass the then highly selective Iranian college entrance examination and comes to Tehran to study at a university there.  Tehran was then embroiled in revolutionary uproar, as the government of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was soon to be overthrown by a host of revolutionary forces. Now exposed to a world of new ideas, Fereshte soon joins a Communist organization opposing the government.  Her all-female cell meets every afternoon at a local café to share their experiences and discuss Marxist ideology.  When Fereshte and her fellow Communist cell-member Zohreh (Pooneh Hajimohammadi) occasionally  mention their interest in things like love and beauty, their cell leader, Nasrin, who is a cordial but highly disciplined rule-follower, insists that such topics are outside the scope of their discussions. But Fereshte insists that all people are complexly different and should not be only thought of as identical members of a social class (J4). That is, one’s political decision-making should not be constrained by overly restrictive categorizations of human nature.

Then we see Fereshte and Zohreh carrying out their assigned political activities, which involve handing out and posting on shop walls handbills expressing their Communist messages to the people.  Occasionally, their work is broken up by Islamic Hezbollah ruffians (who locally seem to be led by a woman, Zahra Khanoom) who threaten to beat them up.

One afternoon at one of their cell’s café sessions, Fereshte overhears a man at a neighbouring table of older intellectuals expressing similar views to her own about the basic heterogeneity of people.  This older man, Roozebeh Javid (played by Mohammad Nikbin, who also happens to be Tahmineh Milani’s husband and the film’s co-producer), is suave and articulate, and the teenage Fereshte can’t help from being immediately attracted to him.  Her persistent staring at him causes the two of them to make momentary eye contact.

3.  Fereshte and Javid  
Fereshte wants to see more of Javid and attends a commemorative ceremony for recently deceased actor Parviz Fannizadeh, which she knows Javid is attending.  Since Fannizadeh died on 24 February 1979, the viewer can tell that we are now already in the era of the Islamic Republic, which was installed in early February 1979.  But no matter who is in power – whether monarchists or Islamists – the Communists here are perpetual outsiders and are always suppressed by the government authorities. 

At the ceremony, Javid is introduced to the audience as a famous writer (even as another Sadegh Hedayat!) and magazine editor, and he makes confident, extemporaneous remarks at the lectern that demonstrate his own celebrity status among the educated sector of society.  After his remarks Javid approaches Fereshte for some small talk.  But when he calls her “a little lady”, Fereshte takes offence and leaves the gathering.

Later when Hezbollahi thugs attack the Communist ladies distributing their leaflets on the street, Fereshte flees and fortuitously finds refuge when she comes across Javid’s office.   There she is introduced to Javid’s guest, Ms. Pahlevan, who is an older radical and spent five years in prison.  After a brief conversation, Ms. Pahlevan scolds Fereshte for only studying global Marxist theory and knowing nothing about Iran’s own political history.  Fereshte takes this chastisement to heart and realizes that one’s political judgements must take into consideration local circumstances and not just rely on abstract, context-free theory (J5).

Then at another meeting of her Communist cell, Fereshte again asserts that personal love is an important aspect of life, even for a revolutionary.  But the official response she gets from the Communist higher-ups is that considerations of love must be suspended while one is working for the Party.  Again Fereshte takes issue with such doctrinaire thinking (J6).

On another occasion Fereshte goes to Javid’s’ office  to see if he will publish some of her poetry. Javid condescendingly rejects her poetry, but insists that they get to know each other better.  He invites her to an upscale literary party where Fereshte feels out of place, but Javid shows increasing warmth towards her.  He gives her a ride home, but when they see her home is surrounded by Pasdaran guards ready to arrest her, she takes refuge in her friend Zohreh’s flat.

4.  Coming to Terms 
Javid, becoming more intimately personal all the time, now insists that Fereshte take refuge for awhile in the UK, a trip and sojourn that he will pay for.  After going to her village to retrieve her birth certificate for this purpose, she returns to Javid’s office where she is intercepted by Javid’s assistant, Mr. Mansoori. 

Mansoori informs Fereshte, to her shock, that Javid already has a wife and son.  Mansoori then takes her to meet Javid’s wife, who fears that Javid is planning to run away with Fereshte to the UK.  It turns out that Fereshte is actually a dead lookalike for Javid’s youthful flame, Mahmonir, back in 1953.  Mahmonir was a member of the Communist Tudeh party back in that period when the democratically elected Iranian President, Mohammad Mosadegh, was overthrown, and she was apparently killed during one of the disturbances that took place at that time.   

Fereshte is horrified to hear about this and realizes that she really represents merely another incarnation of Javid’s past beloved and that she is not loved for herself. She vows to fully disconnect from Javid.  When Javid comes to her to give her another ride in his car, he this time proposes marriage to her.  But Fereshte gets out of the car and runs away. 

5.  Hiding Away    
Fereshte’s world now continues to diminish.  The Islamist authorities launch the Iranian Cultural Revolution and close all the universities for four years in order to supposedly cleanse them of their secular pollution.  The authorities also break up the girls’ Communist activities.  Their cell leader, Nasrin, is arrested and executed.  And given that their activities were organized as a clandestine cell system [4], the elimination of their cell leader meant that the rest of the girls in the cell were cut off from any further contact with the larger Communist organization.  Fereshte’s cell-mates Farkhondeh and Maryam are given long prison sentences, while Zohreh manages to escape to Germany.  Fereshte, herself, manages to hide away by getting a full-time, live-in job taking care of an old lady.

Four years later Fereshte meets the old lady’s son, Khosro, who had been away studying overseas.  He helps her get back into a university when they are finally reopened, and this means overcoming the nasty interference of a Hezbollah student, Rastegar, who is familiar with her Communist past.  Eventually Khosro proposes marriage to Fereshte.

6.  Back to the Present  
The closing segment of Fereshte’s journal concerns what happened when she attended the funeral of her long-imprisoned friend Farkhondeh’s father just two days earlier.  Javid, whom Fereshte hadn’t seen for twenty years, was unexpectedly there, and they guardedly exchanged polite pleasantries.  Javid tells her that one of his only regrets is that she only listened to his wife’s claims and never gave him a chance to tell her his side of the story.  Fereshte concedes the point to herself and knows that she will always wonder what his side of the story may have been (J7). 

She closes her journal by saying that she has revealed so much about herself, her hidden half, to her husband, knowing that the information will remove her image for him of innocence and purity but hoping that it will help them love each other more as equal partners.  In order for him to love her fully, she feels, he must know all about her.  And so she finally urges him not to pre-judge the woman prisoner in Shiraz until he has fully heard that woman’s own side of the story (J8).

The final scene of the film shows Khosro at the prison listening to the woman prisoner’s story.

Although The Hidden Half shows women activists trying to exercise their right of free speech to oppose the government, the film doesn’t present explicit criticisms of the existing government.  Nevertheless, it does offer an implicit critique of the way things are run in Iranian society.  Iranian society has long been governed by people relying on a highly restrictive set of narrow-minded rules covering all aspects of human behavior.  To deal with this social coercion, Iranians have organized their lives into two  distinct social spheres – the public sphere and the private sphere.  Of course, we could say that almost all societies make this distinction, but in Iran this separation is severe [5].  In the public sphere, the coercively enforced rules and social norms place harsh restrictions on human autonomy.  But in the private sphere, which Iranians go to some lengths to maintain private, social interaction is often much more open and liberal.  The public morality guardians are not supposed to cross the domestic doorsill and intrude on more personal interactions.  This protection of the inner social life is, of course, particularly important for women, who have much more opportunity to be themselves behind closed doors.

But this situation is a difficult compromise, and Tamineh Milani sees problems arising from it, becaise it leads Iranians to often mask themselves for their own survival [2].  The separation between the public and private spheres can never be absolute, and so people must always be somewhat on guard.  This can be an impedance to authentic human interaction.  In this regard, she is implicitly asserting that we need more openness. In particular, we should ensure that our judgments of others, as suggested by the encounters listed J1...J8 above, have the widest scope and tolerance as possible for the variety of influences on human behaviour. 

We are all thinking, feeling, and loving human beings, and many of us are likely to have our own “hidden halves”, too.  We need to withhold critical judgement until we have empathically looked at all aspects of others that we encounter.  And even if we can never see that hidden half of another person, we can still accommodate the possibility that it is there, anyway.  This is a message that I doubt goes down well with the oppressive Iranian authorities, but it is something that applies to all of us, everywhere. In that sense The Hidden Half is a thoughtful piece of universal human wisdom, and Tamineh Milani and her collaborators are to be commended for it.
  1. Steve Ross, “Thorn in Their Side”, The Guardian, (2 November 2001). 
  2. Richard Phillips, “Iranian director Tahmineh Milani speaks with WSWS”, World Socialist Web Site, International Committee of the Fourth International (ICFI), (29 September 2006).   
  3. Sandrellita, “Iranian film The Hidden Half, directed by Tahmineh Milani”, Sandrellita on Cinema and Culture, (16 March 2011).   
  4. “Clandestine cell system”, Wikipedia, (27 March 2018).    
  5. Hooman Majd, The Ayatollah Begs to Differ: The Paradox of Modern Iran, Anchor, (2009).

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