THE FAMILY Law Courts, Tehran. At one entrance men are being frisked for weapons, at another women are being made to remove their make-up. "It's a metaphor," says producer Ziba Mir-Hosseini of these opening shots, "two different entrances, two different sets of rules."
Welcome to Divorce Iranian Style. Currently screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival, this grainy slice of cinema verite offers a fascinating insight into the everyday workings of the Iranian legal system. In particular, it is the story of three women who visit a cupboard-sized courtroom to try to transform their lives. Jamileh is punishing her husband for beating her. Ziba is a 16-year-old schoolgirl trying to divorce her 38-year-old husband. Already on her second marriage, Maryam, meanwhile, is fighting for custody of her daughters. These, then, are our central characters. But, like all good docu-soaps, there are a host of colourful supporting players: the wry, conciliatory judge, the exasperating clerk ("your file is lost, come back in ten days"), the hawkish secretary and her smart young daughter, Parnise. Images of alien bureaucracy - an open-air bazaar of petition-writers crouched over their typewriters - combine with the universal language of courtroom drama and familial tension.
"The thinking behind the film," says director Kim Longinotto, "was to debunk stereotypes and to make a film that was fun, one that people could get in to, without just being told what to think. A lot of documentaries set in Iran focus on things completely foreign to Westerners such as martyrdom, or the war with Iraq, or the fatwa against Salman Rushdie. One of the things we wanted to do was to show the parallels in family life."
While filming, Longinotto dispelled a few myths of her own. "I thought that Iranian men could have four wives and gain a divorce by saying `I divorce you three times'. There are a lot of misconceptions."
"We just wanted to show ordinary Iranian women, and their family problems," agrees Mir-Hosseini. "Marriage is a difficult institution and when it breaks down it is always painful. Societies have different ways of dealing with it. This film was looking at those common problems in a specific cultural context."
Unlike Longinotto, it's a context with which the Iranian-born producer is all too familiar. "My interest in the subject started with my own divorce in 1984. I was an anthropologist but without much knowledge of Islamic family law, so I educated myself and managed to negotiate an out of court settlement with my husband." Now based in Cambridge as a research fellow, Mir-Hossein's subsequent book, Marriage on Trial, was the inspiration for Longinotto's documentary.
With her intimate knowledge of the legal system, Mir-Hossein secured Longinotto and her camera unique access. "Ziba was my guide," remembers Longinotto, "she told me what to do. When I first got there I kept trying to shake hands with people, but as a woman you're not allowed to touch men. The first time we went to the Embassy together, I was chasing this poor man around the room with my hand and he was backing away, terrified."
Finding willing subjects had its obstacles "Some men would not allow their wives to be filmed," says Mir-Hossein, "but most of the women were really upfront and excited about the documentary. In Iranian family courts, the atmosphere is informal and very emotional. Women would just start directing questions at us. Our presence encouraged them, but they were very, brave …