FunAstrology"Ballad of the White Cow" from Iran: "You Must...

"Ballad of the White Cow" from Iran: "You Must Be Willing to Pay the Price"

Interview with Iranian filmmakers Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha on “Ballad of the White Cow” and censorship in the Islamic Republic.

Frankfurt – It’s amazing how, despite the strict censorship requirements in the country, Iranian filmmakers repeatedly manage to pick up politically explosive material and implement it with great artistry. This was the case, for example, with the episodic death penalty drama “There Is No Evil”, for which Mohammad Rasoulof, who is still under house arrest, won the Golden Bear at the Berlin International Film Festival in 2020. In 2021, Rasoulof, who joined via Zoom, was himself a member of the Berlinale jury and was delighted with the competition film by his compatriots Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha, which won third place in the one-time audience award of the “Summer Special”: The “Ballad of the White Cow” is a rigorously filmed, intellectually complex, and morally ambivalent masterpiece that nonetheless has many heart-rending scenes.

The story takes place in contemporary Iran: Mina’s husband Babak has been executed due to a wrongful retaliatory sentence. When his innocence is discovered a year later, his wife, played by co-director and screenwriter Maryam Moghaddam, appeals the verdict to the competent court. While Mina fights against the mills of bureaucracy, judge Reza (superb: Alireza Sanafar), who was responsible for enforcement at the time, is plagued by a bad conscience. He quits his job and looks for a way to make amends. Without giving any information about his true identity, he becomes friends with Mina and her deaf daughter.

Now the symbolic drama of guilt and atonement will also have a regular theatrical release in Germany. Our author Marc Hairapetian, whose Armenian father is from Iran and who himself experienced Tehran as a fairytale New York of the Orient as a child in the Shah’s era, met Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Saneeha at the “Summer Special” in the Hotel Lux Eleven Berlin-Mitte. During the uncensored talk about censorship, they wear sunglasses, which they take off for a group shot. The two are now back in Iran, the country they love and want to continue living in. When asked via Instagram, Maryam Moghaddam said that her husband Behtash Sanaeeha and she are doing well, but “Ballad of the White Cow” is still not allowed to be shown in Iranian cinemas.

Ballad of the White Cow
production country France, Iran
original language Farsi
Publishing year 2021
theatrical release February 3, 2022 (Germany)
directors Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Sanaeeha
script Maryam Moghadam, Behtash Sanaeeha, Mehrdad Kouroshniya
production Gholamreza Moosavi, Etienne de Ricaud
camera Amin Jafari
cut Ata Mehrad, Behtash Sanaeeha

“Ballad of the White Cow” in the cinema: Interview with Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Saneeha

In your film “Ballad von der Weißen Kuh” (The Ballad of the White Cow), the taciturn Reza helps Mina, played by you, Ms. Moghaddam, and her deaf daughter after the head of the family has been executed through a miscarriage of justice. Only at the end does Mina find out that the alleged boyfriend is the self-reproachful judge who once signed the death sentence against her husband. Was it difficult to film this explosive and moral story in Iran?

Behtash Sanaeeha: We struggled tremendously to make our film in Iran. It took almost three years just to get the filming permit.

Maryam Moghaddam: I have to say that the censorship authorities in Iran make a difference between granting a filming permit and allowing the film to be shown in our country.

Sanaeeha: And we still don’t have permission to show the film in Iran.

Moghaddam : It’s always easier to get permission to shoot because then they can reassess you or rather ‘judge’ you when it’s done… Shooting a film and then not being allowed to show it is that actual punishment.

Did you at least get the filming permit without further ado?

Sanaeeha: Over the three years, various committees read the script and rejected it three times. But we adamantly insisted on filming it without any changes. At the end I said to them: “We will shoot the film without your permission!” Of course I was treading on thin ice with that.

Moghaddam: We have our strategies. Sometimes it’s really easier to shoot without permission. It’s risky, of course, but the lengthy procedures of getting permission are tedious. We kept insisting on “Ballad von der Weißen Kuh” to shoot the film and also to get permission to show it in Iran, because we want to say to the people in our country with it: “It’s about you !” Of course we also want to show it to the rest of the world.

“Ballad of the White Cow”: Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Saneeha on Censorship in Iran

You succeeded at last year’s Berlinale “Summer Special”, where the audience voted it the third-best competition entry. Your criticism of the system manifests itself in many small scenes. For example, the neighbor’s little dog runs into the new apartment that the judge got for Mina and her daughter. The woman begs him not to report this. And he doesn’t either.

Moghaddam : It is forbidden in Iran to walk dogs in public places. It is also strictly forbidden to keep them in houses and apartments. But we love dogs. They are man’s best friends. That is why they are kept secret in Iran.

Sanaeeha: We incorporated this injustice as a footnote. We make films in order to show them – and not only to the honorable specialist audience at festivals, which of course makes us very happy. But if you shoot an underground film in Iran, you can only present it at festivals or put it on the internet. After all. But that’s not our favorite way.

Moghaddam: It seems hopeless. You talk and talk to the censorship board, but keep getting turned down when you try to put your foot over the red line. But we don’t give up.

Can you tell me which scenes the censorship board wanted to remove?

Sanaeeha: That’s so many places, our interview wouldn’t be enough to name them all! They wrote us a letter. A total of 25 to 30 minutes should be cut, especially various dialogues. We just didn’t accept that. We told them, “We’ll stop our work until you change your mind!” (laughs) Maybe in a year, two, five years. I dont know. But the day will come. In the end, nothing was cut in our film, but that’s exactly why it can’t be shown in Iran.

I remember the scene in which two agents from the secret service interrogate the reformed judge: “What are you doing right now? Do you want to be a human rights activist?”

Sanaeeha: Yes, that’s one of the offending points.

Should the two sentences be cut out?

Moghaddam: Not just them! The whole human rights scene should be deleted!

Sanaeeha: There are two different “permission offices” at the censorship board: one where a film is to be shown in Iran, the other outside the country. Actually, neither of us have… It was our own decision to take the film with us and present it abroad in its entirety. We don’t know what will happen after that.

Moghaddam : We are now approximately halfway through the Judgment Period. If you criticize their rules and laws, you must be willing to pay the price…

Our film is a plea against the death penalty

Maryam Moghaddam

“Ballad of the White Cow”: Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Saneeha explain the Sura of the Cow

At the beginning and end of your film, a white cow can be seen in a barren prison yard, while people dressed in black, perhaps inmates, stand against the walls. That’s a powerful metaphor – for what exactly?

Moghaddam: The cow sacrificed to God, with its white color, is a symbol of innocence in Eastern countries, especially in Islam. In fact, we have it in a prison yard where executions are carried out and the people are inmates. Our film is a plea against the death penalty. Even the so-called “blood money” that the bereaved receive does not bring an innocent person sentenced to death back to life.

Sanaeeha: There is a wider meaning to the scene: it is an allusion to the second sura of the Qur’an, known as the ‘Sura of the Cow’. With its 286 verses, it is the longest in the collection of texts that still forms the basis for much of public and social life in Iran today. Archaic concepts of guilt and forgiveness, from a jurisprudence based on the principle of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth: if someone is killed, the one who killed him should die too. In our case, it is the judge who signed the death sentence. Incidentally, the value of the human being is calculated in the “Sura of the Cow”: The debt payment for severed limbs or gouged out eyes is precisely defined…

Shortly before the cow reappears, Mina hands the judge, who is impressively played by Alireza Sanifar, a glass of milk. He drinks it, then collapses and dies. Then, Ms. Moghaddam, leave the room. When they look back, Reza is back at the table. Is this the memory of him or is he not dead at all?

Moghaddam: As you say, it can mean both: the memory of him or he but he is still alive because she only carried out the revenge internally.

Sanaeeha: We have a technique in our literature, especially in poetry: we call it: “The double meaning”. We also use this technique in our film: is it Mina’s revenge or just thinking about revenge?

Moghaddam: Even if she didn’t actually kill him, she didn’t forgive him. She leaves the room. Her love for him has died.

Sanaeeha : She doesn’t forgive him for the verdict against her husband, even if he tries to make amends. But she is not a murderer. She doesn’t want to be like him and his “friends” from the court.

Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Saneeha on life in Iran

You two are a couple yourself, Ms. Moghaddam and Mr. Sanaeeha: How did you meet?

Moghaddam: Behtash was once an actor on a film set I was shooting on. Many years later we met again at a mutual friend’s house. And it “sparked”! After a year of being together, we also worked together. We wrote a lot because at that time I was forbidden to leave Iran. My passport was confiscated after the Berlinale 2013, where I was a guest with the film “Pardé”. I wasn’t allowed to leave the country for three years. During this time we were almost always at home and took care of my sick mother. I no longer had a work permit. So we wrote a lot of scenarios. The screenplay for “Ballade von der Weißen Kuh” was written before our first joint feature film “Risk of Acid Rain”, which we were finally able to produce in 2015

How could you survive in Iran if you were not allowed to work?

Moghaddam: We taught acting and dramaturgy from home. Believe me: we in Iran are used to dealing with these problems. Not just us, but all people affected by it!

Sanaeeha: That’s why we’ve only been able to shoot two feature films in the last seven years. We just couldn’t get permission and it’s difficult to get funding because the investors think, “This movie is probably going to cause problems.” Once the film has been hit by the spell, they fear they won’t get their money back from the lack of box office receipts. So we primarily got support from friends who love our kind of films. In the time when we don’t get permission to shoot, we at least have enough time to write screenplays.

If we leave our country, it means that we will really be stopped in the first place

Behtash Sanaeeha

Have you ever thought of leaving the country forever?

Moghaddam: First and foremost, we want to make films about the problems of our people. We can only do that if we experience them up close and personal. We still have a lot to say. And that’s why we stay.

Sanaeeha: We see so many difficulties in our culture and our society that we want to express with our film stories. It may sound paradoxical: if we leave our country, it means that we are really stopped in the first place.

Moghaddam: It’s strange: every artist wishes to be a philosopher too, thinking about human values, but in countries like ours with so many problems, you’re just too directly confronted with politics and don’t have the time to debate deep human values. In Iran you don’t have the luxury of being a philosopher. You want it as a filmmaker, but you have to take care of your people first.

Finally, allow me a question with a personal background: My father grew up as an Armenian in Tabriz and Tehran before he came to Germany. Isn’t it amazing that the Christian Armenians in Iran, whether in the more western Shah times or now in the ultra-conservative Islamic Republic, didn’t have to endure any major reprisals and don’t have to?

Sanaeeha: Maryam and I are Muslim by denomination, but that doesn’t play a role in our friendship with many Armenians in Iran.

Moghaddam: There have always been many faiths and different peoples in Iran, such as Persians, Azeris and Armenians. To also emphasize the positive: Iran can serve as a prime example of how peaceful, even friendly coexistence is possible in politically difficult times. Because: The teachings of the Koran and their application is one thing and what the majority of people in our society really want is another. And that also gives us the courage to continue our film work.

The interview was conducted by Marc Hairapetian.

Autor Marc Hairapetian (rechts) mit Maryam Moghaddam und Behtash Sanaeeha.


Author Marc Hairapetian (right) with Maryam Moghaddam and Behtash Sanaeeha.

About the people:

Maryam Moghaddam , born October 19, 1970 in Tehran, is a Swedish-Iranian actress, screenwriter and film director. She is also known by the names Maryam Moghadam or Maryam Moqadam. Since the early 1990s she has acted in over a dozen Iranian and Swedish film productions. She repeatedly accused the Iranian authorities of having imposed professional sanctions on her.

Her husband Behtash Sanaeeha (born January 11, 1979 in Shiraz) graduated as a civil engineer. He then began writing screenplays and directing various short films, documentaries, commercials and animated series for television. In 1998, he took on an acting role in Ziaeddin Dorri’s Iranian drama film Sinama Sinamast (1998), which also co-starred with Maryam Moghaddam. He then used it himself in his 2010 film Chalsio. Sanaeeha co-wrote Moghaddam’s screenplay for his debut feature film, Risk of Acid Rain (2015), in which she played the female lead.

In 2021, Sanaeeha and Moghaddam received an invitation to the competition of the 71st Berlin International Film Festival for their second feature film “Ballad of the White Cow”, in which the actress again played the female protagonist. At the Berlinale – “Summer Special” in June 2021, a third place followed in the one-time Berlinale Audience Award for the best competition film. At the festival Der Neue Heimatfilm in August 2021 in Freistadt, Upper Austria, her work was awarded the Feature Film Prize of the City of Freistadt.

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