Letter to my Mother by Amin Maher is Venice Intercultural Film Festival 2020 (VIFF) Winner.
A son pushes at the bounds of his relationship with his mother as he unpicks the psychological consequences of the childhood sexual abuse he suffered. In a bold and heartfelt cinematic letter to his mother, the filmmaker Amin Maher reveals the most painful of childhood secrets. The film explores gender confusion, sexuality, guilt, fantasy and repression in relation with violence and identity. “Letter to my Mother” is a means for survival, a way to stand and speak up and to understand. It is an attempt to break taboos and push boundaries – both social and personal, and to create life and art out of the darkest experiences. There are times when cinema itself seems implicated in this difficult story, an abuse that began at the exact time he was appearing in Abbas Kiarostami’s Ten (2002) which featured the real-life relationship between his mother and Amin.
How can we see Iranian culture in your work?
Iran reminds me of repression, the hijab of women and the Chador of my grandmother, silence, fears, having a hidden life, the great food, Ghorme Sabzi, the language Farsi, the war memories of my father, discrimination towards women and queer people, single-sex schools, and etc. If you might consider Iran as what I have said, then yes. My works deal with these elements and continue to do so. Thomas Mann said during his exile in America, “Where I am, there is Germany. I carry my German culture in me. I have contact with the world and I do not consider myself fallen.” I feel the same.
I am born and grown up in Iran, automatically but partly my works represent the Iranian culture. I carry my past with my body. In my last film Letter to my mother (2019) which is stemming from my own experience of being sexually abused as a child by a family member over a four years period, the shaving of my body became a metaphor for exculpating myself from traumatic events. Similarly dressing as a woman to relive the darkest parts of my experience.
I left Iran due to the films that I have created or participated in which are considered controversial. I could not make a documentary film openly about my own experience of being sexually abused as a child over a four-year period. I could not attempt to create life and art out of my dark experiences. It was impossible. It could probably have painful consequences. Within the multifarious strands of filmmaking practice, my filmmaking uses trauma therapy as a theme and it is characterized by a few key factors: its autoethnographic approach, a desire for an honest self-examination, and a play with notions of cinema, reality and life. As the direct victim of abuse, I felt able to give an insight into an experience that is impossible to imagine. I enjoyed when my rapist kissed my neck. As a child you might enjoy touching, hugging, kissing etc. This is one of the reasons of my silence. For ages, I felt guilty that I liked it. I still carry the pain. I still feel stupid. If I want to make films in Iran, I personally have to lie because my filmmaking requires madness, braveness and honesty. It deals with the themes of sexual violence and gender in relation to sexuality and power roles. I attempt to break silences and taboos. Therefor it crosses the red lines of Iranian regime.
I want to push the borders. Even in Berlin, which is currently one of the most liberal cities; I am the same. However, in Iran I have to hide and censor myself. I have to censor who I am. I left Iran after I was in the Evin prison due to my political activities. With my body, I carry both the words of my interrogator as well as the joy of mixing Ethanol with Coca Cola, drinking it in the park with friends when our dealer could not deliver beer or wine. Drinking alcohol is forbidden in Iran. I finished Letter to my mother here in Berlin. I do not call it an Iranian or German film. It is both or none of them. The film has no home like myself. It is the combination of Evin Prison, refugee camps and me. Me, Tehran and Berlin, Ghorme Sabzi and a cold dinner. Me, yelling at my mother in the streets of Tehran and me, wearing my pink Bra in Berlin to relive the darkest parts of my experience. I did not intentionally want to question identity; my life forced me to do it. The problem is that I could not make films in Iran. Sohrab Shahid Sales whom I know as the main figure of Iranian new wave cinema said, “The home is where I can freely make films.” I feel the same. If one day Berlin will be bombed again or they do not let me to tell the truth and represent the reality and confess or talk about my shames and pain, I will go somewhere else. Perhaps next time I ask for asylum in Mars. My home would be Mars, If I can make films there. I do not care that I cannot go back to Iran. I do not know what or where Iran is. I just know that I carry my past with my body like how I carry my eyes, my nipples and my hands or perhaps they carry me.
The loss of speech is a typical reaction of those who have suffered a trauma. For some shoah survivors, the silence lasted for 20 or 30 years. What did you think during your silence period and what made you talk?
Breaking the silence required personal observation, analysis and courage that came to being through my use of filmmaking tools and techniques – predominately through the use of documentary filmmaking tools, such as the use of archival material, interview, narration as well as recreations. This film evoked wider social debate, highlighting the need and benefit of survivors and communities being able to speak openly about these experiences.
During my silence period, I tried to ignore the trauma mostly. I tried to run away from the trauma. I guess this is what we all do. The trauma was stronger than I was. It was following me all the time and continues to do so. It is painful and destructive. Now I am stronger but I hurt and damaged myself a lot. Addiction, depression, attempting to committee suicide etc. I am not joking. It was seriously a dangerous situation. The trauma wanted to make me smaller and smaller, it wanted to kill me slowly but now at least it has no power to make it possible because I have good reasons to live and that is filmmaking. At least I found meaning for my life. I can feel useful. Still I have stories to tell. There are still secrets and truths that I have to reveal. It is a battle with myself. It is a duel. There is a war scene inside my body and mind. Who will win? I do not know. I fought, gave away and lost a lot until I discovered and rebuilt my identity. In peacetime, the fighters fight against themselves. I have often abused and killed myself, but I have rarely been reborn. Therefor I have to celebrate that I broke my silence and I am going to rebuild my identity.
After I broke my silence, my family and society shut me down. I was not able to ask for justice. I went to police station in Malaysia and Germany. My mother did the same in UK and Canada as she lives in London and the rapist lives in Canada. We reported the case but the answers were painful. They did not willing to help my mother and me. I hope you understand how this is painful for my mother. They said, rape happened in Iran and you should ask for justice there. They knew we cannot go back to our countries. Not that we want the revenge but it was for not keeping the silence and staying broken. It was not only about my right but the children’s rights, the human rights. We needed to fight in order to prevent similar cases but we were shut down, first by our family and then by the law, society and politic. It is painfully funny that our family as well as the law, society and politic protect not us but the rapist. The rapist is freely travelling around the world and has connections to everyone including children.
What I experienced, was not a once mellow abuse. It was harsh. It was a chart abuse with so much psychological consequences. I was silent for ages. I could not talk. However, therapy and filmmaking could help me to reveal these secrets. I broke my silence with the film, Letter to my mother (2019). I sent my mother a rough cut of the film and shared my childhood secrets with her. She needed to know what her family member has done to me. For ages, I carried the feel of guilt, shame and pressure. I tried a lot that my story will not be a victim story but rather an artwork out of the dark experiences, an examination to look precisely into the subject of child abuse. I thought many children are being sexually abused everyday and as same as me they keep their silence for ages or forever. My therapist, Dariush Baradari said, “Rape happen because people keep quiet about it.” I thought there might be other children in danger even now that I answer your questions. Even if my film would help even one more person to break her/his silence, it is worth. I thought I could create art and life out of my dark experiences. I can invite us to break our silences, to share our common global pain. I hope my filmmaking does not leave me alone because either I might become a criminal or end my life. The traumas might become stronger than I am. There is nothing left for me but my filmmaking. I broke my silence because there was no other way. The film, Letter to my mother (2019) was truly a means for survival, a way to stand and speak up and to understand.
C. Has cinema changed your life? How?
In many ways cinema has changed my life. Cinema is my life and my life is cinema. My life was in front of the camera since I was a child and I acted in the film, Ten by Abbas Kiarostami. My mother set up cameras in her car and home to film me. This material became the raw footage for the film, which was based on the real lives of my mother and I. Four years later, when my mother was diagnosed with cancer I acted in her documentary-fiction film, Ten + Four, which was about her battle for life, not knowing if she would survive the process. Following my involvement in these films and some others, I decided to use filmmaking as a form of self-exploration in my own projects.
Between my mother and I filmmaking became a means of communication. Despite our close relationship, some secrets have remained hidden. In my first film letter to her, Letter to My Mother (2019) I shared my deepest secret – that of my childhood sexual abuse that began at the exact time I was appearing in Kiarostami’s Ten. Finally, I felt uniquely comfortable confiding in my mother about these experiences, but the three-way relationship between my mother, myself and this traumatic history is of course extremely complex. My mother, Mania Akbari, is an established Iranian filmmaker, living in London. She decided to reply to my film, Letter to my mother (2019) establishing a project that has now built into an ongoing dialogue.
In my second film letter, I reveal a new secret to my mother for the first time. Issues of shame and blame may never be fully resolved, and I undertook these projects with the awareness that they must be approached intuitively rather than prescriptively. These difficulties were a central part of the projects and were dealt with as such. My relationship with filmmaking runs throughout my life, and there are times when cinema itself seems implicated in my stories. A central question, perhaps impossible to answer, is to what extent these desires are an intrinsic part of me and to what extent are they a result of my history? Are these two factors separable?
My film projects explore the notion of filmmaking as a form of Trauma therapy. For me, filmmaking has always been a process of self-exploration with wider societal implication. Recent neurological studies demonstrate how plastic and changeable the brain is, especially in the face of trauma. We are physically altered by these experiences. Filmmaking such as this is not about seeking solace, but rather actively confronting these changes.
Your mother seems to have played a very important role in the development of your artistic capacity. Is the reverse also true?
Well everyone thinks that having a mother who is an established filmmaker is only a great advantage, which this might be partly true, but no one sees the disadvantages. They do not see that how the mother and son relationship might be complicated. First, those who hate my mother or do not like her filmmaking automatically do not like me as well. And those who like her, always see me as a child and do not take me seriously. This is not fair, we are totally two different human being and specially that our filmmaking is very different. She is just 16 years older than I am but still we are coming from two different generations. Ofcourse there are some similarities but our mind set, our style, the themes of our films are very different. People forget how a filmmaker’s life might be complicated and difficult.
My mother tried always that I will not become a filmmaker. She always encouraged me to study math and become rich. Because she saw how is difficult to be an artist especially as a woman in Iran. She did not want the same pains and the same difficult path for her son. As a filmmaker, she never has time. People might not know that how is very difficult to become a filmmaker when your mother is an established one herself. It always requires a double effort. I prefer to continue making films rather than talking about them. It is not that easy to be a filmmaker’s child. There are new film letters to my mother that I am making now where more truths and secrets will be revealed. She is not aware of them but at one point, she should know.
Well, I can only dare to talk in front of my camera, not in an interview. Because the motion pictures only can reflect my emotions in an honest way and portray my shames and pains. Many aspects could be only said with the images that they move themselves and/or the objects move inside them. I need to work with motion and time in order to explore my emotions, my surrounding and myself. Everything is slow. You feel bored. All of a sudden, the truth is revealed, I look into the camera and confess how ashamed and guilty I feel. The razor cuts my nipple, the blood comes out and I would say cut! What is the next scene? I do not know yet.