• Interviews

Elaheh Nobakht on Creative Women in Middle Eastern Countries

Iranian movie producer Elaheh Nobakht spoke via Zoom from Lebanon’s Beirut Women Film Festival, for which she was elected President of the competition category Documentary and Animated Shorts. The Beirut International Women Film Festival focuses on Women for Leadership, and Nobakht talks about the role of creative women in middle eastern countries and her hopes for the future.

A regular attendee at international film festivals, she presented her documentary film Dreams Gate, the only Iranian Feature film at the Berlin Film Festival this year.  


Congratulations on being elected President of the jury. Can you tell me a bit about the Beirut Women Festival?

This is my second time here at the Beirut Women Film Festival and this year is focused on women filmmakers in the Middle East. For me, Beirut Women Film Festival is a fundamental and effective platform, especially for the young filmmakers from the Middle East who can come here with their short films, with their first experiences and to discover the world of other masterpieces and to have more support for their next films. For me, as an Iranian young producer, it’s always nice to share my experiences here and see films with my colleagues.

How many movies will be showing? How many documentaries, short films, etc?

We have 74 films, 22 feature films, 52 short, and they’re from 45 countries.

The success of this festival is an indication of how far women have come in this part of the world.

Exactly. Absolutely, absolutely true.

Regarding the limitations on women to operate as producers etc. in Iran, can you talk about the obstacles you face as a producer and as a woman? Is the situation improving? Is it evolving?

I’m not happy to say that unfortunately, of course cinema is not the first priority in Iran and I’m not happy again to say that even in Lebanon, in Beirut, because people are suffering from this bad and difficult economic situation. But still, they are trying to speak out. For me, in Iran, I don’t want to say it’s impossible, but it is very difficult, especially for documentary filmmakers who want to talk about the reality. When you’re a woman, you’re living in a country with deep challenges concerning the people, and the ideology for their primary rights. So yeah, I struggle even with 15 years of working in cinema. So, I hope that in the future we are doing something for the new generation because we are trying to provide a better, simpler way and hopefully give them more freedom for them to talk. My last five feature films are all about the social issues of families, especially women. It shows clearly how we have this concern between women, not only in the Middle East but actually between women in Europe. So, for our women in Iran and Lebanon, it’s very important to see what is happening and how they can help themselves and their family, and establish their rights in the society.

You produced the documentary Dream’s Gate, about a female Kurdish militia unit in the war zone of northern Syria. Did you personally go into North Syria?

Unfortunately, it was very difficult, impossible for us. The director passed the border illegally, so it’s very dangerous. It’s like impossible for us to be there.

How has the reaction been to Dream’s Gate? I hear you have had really positive reviews.

Yeah, hopefully. We were in Berlinale last month and we were the only Iranian film. We see the Iranian lady who is having the most difficult time of her life and then she decides to leave Iran and go to Syria to discover those girls who wanted to prove themselves because society doesn’t accept them, doesn’t see them. As women in the Middle East, we all have the same concern, but when our concerns have been … I don’t want to say forbidden, but women are ignored by the decision makers in our country, even by our own family, it’s time that we talk. And me as a filmmaker, we should make our films and bring out our content.

How did you get into this business?

I was 19 years old and I taught English. I was focusing on mathematics, but my English was good. Somebody came to me and they said, “Can you please do this translation?  I’m subtitling a short movie.” Until that moment I didn’t know anything about cinema, but by translating and doing subtitles, it made a huge impact on me. By watching each movie, it opened a door to a world I’d never seen. And I’m sorry to say that even as Women Beirut Film Festival is trying, we need to show and bring more attention to our young women to be closer with cinema. Just imagine if in Iran we have a women’s film festival? We don’t have even this permission to talk about it. Can you believe it? In this modernity, in this century which we are living in and Lebanon is our neighbor with whom we have common culture, but even our leaders, who have a very good communication, but in Iran still we cannot talk about it.

Can you talk about the importance of this festival?

This festival is important because we can encourage women and young women filmmakers to show [their work] and to share the success of other women from the Middle East with them. So I believe in Iran, we have a long way to go. Our problematic situation will not stop very soon. We have lots of thing to do.

You studied mathematics and you have a Master’s degree in International Business. What does your family think of what you do? Obviously, it’s an unusual career choice you’ve made.

At the beginning, they were not happy because I was talented in the university and they expected me to be a doctor or an engineer.  Cinema through their eyes was not work, it was not job. But during the last five years, my family has seen some of my international success, and especially my father, who didn’t believe you can earn money from cinema, because he would say, “Forget cinema.  It’s not a job, it’s for free time,” can understand better. And to be honest, I have to put so much energy into it just to prove myself that I can do what the other men do. 

What advice would you give a young girl in Iran that wants to follow in your footsteps?

What can I give… My advice? Just I can say don’t close your eyes to the reality. Insist on your dream, learn, and maybe it’s impossible for you to live in your country, but through cinema or art and culture at least you can know more about what is happening outside of your country. Discover that and bring your belief, find your belief, insist on that. Definitely it will happen. I mean, sooner or later definitely it will happen.

Is there any misconception about Iranian women that you would like to talk about?

Yeah, what I want to tell the world is that the women you see on the streets are not the only women of Iran. Of course, I appreciate them, I respect them, but there are thousands of women in villages in other cities of Iran that have lots of problem. The women have a responsibility for their families during the most difficult economic time of this problematic situation in Iran. What I want to say is that maybe we have to discover and to recognize other women of Iran too.