True Talent Will Find A Way
Akram, an Iranian wife and grandmother, has a passion for painting that will not be denied. Her canvasses are large, colorful primitive images of things she's imagined, often in dreams. A flock of peacocks, perhaps, and lots of images of women.
Akram is a latter day painter, whose talent blossomed when she was in her 50s, and she was helping her grandson with his homework. She knew nothing about art. She'd never studied. In fact, she'd dropped her formal education when she was just nine years old - and engaged at that tender age to her husband, Heydar, who was 28. Actually, she left school because of Heydar, who'd threatened to kill her if she obeyed school authorities and removed her head scarf when the Empress Farah arrived at the institution for a prearranged visit and tour.
Arkram not only didn't remove her head scarf that day, she never went back to school. This is part of the painter's back story, as revealed in Going Up The Stairs, the absolutely delightful documentary by Iranian director Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami.
When Opportunity Knocks
Akram is presently well-established as a painter, a fact of life that is ignored rather than supported or even merely accepted by her husband.
Akram's studio is the second floor of the pleasant Tehran home she shares with Heydar, her grumpy, overbearing husband. The studio's walls are lined with Akram's canvasses, and there are dozens of paintings stacked several thick against the walls and stair railing. The studio environment is a barrage of color. In the middle of the room, Akram sits on a Persian rug with a canvas on her lap and paint brush in hand. She scrubs a canvas and repaints it. She has a dilemma, and it's not just what to do with this painting that dissatisfies her.
Akram has been invited to Paris to exhibit her paintings in a gallery. She's thrilled, but she has to ask her traditional husband (remember her story about the head scarf and school) for permission to leave Iran and go to France for ten days to open the show.
The film is all about how Akram gets her cranky husband to allow her to go -- and her negotiations are a real revelation about female-male relationships in contemporary Shiite homes. Akram is so charming, you could hardly deny her anything. However, her husband, who doesnt want her to go, is very cunning about finding reasons why she should stay home. With long-practiced skill, excruciating patience, the persistence of a pit bull, and promises that her daughter will accompany her at all times, Akram finally convinces her husband to grant her permission to go to Paris. But only at the last minute. And that's about half way through the film.
Discovering A New WorldIn Paris, Akram's exhibit is a huge success. She sells a lot of paintings, and not only becomes the toast of the art world, she is introduced to the work of famous painters whose names and work she'd never known before. Picasso's Guernica is a standout that makes a particularly strong impression because of its subject and composition and, especially, its size. By the time she returns to her home in Tehran, Akram's imagination has expanded, and so have her imaginary images. She begins to paint huge canvasses and the walls throughout the house. When Heydar complains about this and tells her to stop, she's quite comfortable about ignoring his orders and carrying on with her work.
The Bottom Line
Akram's story is a success story. She's on the front line of the struggle against the repression of freedom of expression and for the assertion of women's rights, and she triumphs in her own situation. She doesn't rail against the system. She just goes ahead and does what she has to do to do what she wants to do. And, in being the thoroughly endearing subject of this film, she lets us see just how she manages to triumph without railing against the system or ruffling feathers. She's terrific, and so is the film. A must see!
(DISCLOSURE: I first saw 'Going Up The Stairs' at Sheffield Doc/Fest in 2012, where it won the Alliance of Women Film Journalists' EDA Award for Best Female-Directed Film. I was on the jury for the award, and am president of the AWFJ
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- Title: Going Up The Stairs
- Director: Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami
- U.S. Release Date: March, 2012
- Running Time: 52 mins.
- Parental Advisory: Content advisory for parents
- Location Countries: Iran and Paris
- Language: Farsi and French with English subtitles
- U.S. Distributor: Women Make Movies
- Official Trailer