From Cannes, a Cinematic After-Action Report
The 60th Cannes Film Festival drew more than 4,000 journalists, so it's possible you've heard a little something about the hits and misses there. Michael Moore screened a damning documentary about the U.S. health-care system, while singer Norah Jones made her acting debut in a film from Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai. Critic-at-large John Powers reports on other high- and low-lights.
Other segments from the episode on May 30, 2007
DATE May 30, 2007 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: John Powers reports on the Cannes Film Festival
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, TV critic for the New York Daily
News, sitting in for Terry Gross.
Our first guest today is a fellow FRESH AIR contributor, John Powers, our
critic at large. He's just back from the Cannes Film Festival, and he's so
enthusiastic about what he saw there, we thought we'd take the time to get a
John Powers, welcome back to the States. Welcome to FRESH AIR.
JOHN POWERS reporting:
Oh, glad to be here.
BIANCULLI: How good were the films this year?
POWERS: They were great. It's interesting. This is the 60th anniversary,
and I was there for the 50th, and when they had their big 50th anniversary
they had everything going, except that the films weren't very good. It wasn't
their fault. You know, you had every star in the world come in. There were
special fireworks programs and everything.
POWERS: But the films were lousy. This year, they had the stars, but this
year for some reason the films were just extraordinarily good from top to
bottom. You know, there are usually 20-odd films in competition, and what
happens most of the time is people spend most of the festival saying, `How did
that film get into competition?' You know, they'll say it of like 15 of the 20
POWERS: This year maybe people thought that of one or two. You know, that it
was so strong that even the movies that you didn't like, you thought, `Well,
that's actually a pretty interesting movie, even though I didn't like it.'
BIANCULLI: And sometimes if you have good films years, you have bad judge
years. What's your assessment of the judging panel that made the decisions on
what films won things?
POWERS: OK. Well, I think what's interesting to me about this is that I
spend every year, probably like most people spend at the Oscars, saying, `I
can't believe that thing won.'
POWERS: You know, normally, I just can't believe the jury of nine people
could be so wrong. This year, strangely enough, the jury chose almost
everything that I liked, but not just that I liked but almost everybody else
liked. I mean, it's a really odd thing because normally there are all these
weird agendas going on. You know, where something might be the best film, but
in fact the jury has a lot of people from Europe and they want to make sure
POWERS: So that in fact the third or fourth best film wins because it's from
Europe. This year, they had a jury headed by Stephen Frears, the director,
with four actresses on it, including Toni Collette and Sarah Polley. And one
of the funny things about it--and this reveals something about the way film
critics are, is that we were all faintly condescending going into the festival
about the fact that there were going to be four actresses on the jury, and we
all thought, you know, `Actors and actresses, like, they can't be trusted;
their judgment's terrible.' But in fact, all these actresses brought up the
best list I've ever seen.
BIANCULLI: Oh wow. Well, the winner this year was a film from Romania, "Four
Months, Three Weeks, and Two Days." What's your assessment of that one?
POWERS: Yeah. It's a wonderful film. It's a really terrific film, and
what's interesting about it is this is a film that nobody wanted to go to see.
I mean, it was always described as `the Romanian abortion film,' and what it's
about are two young college age women arranging to get an abortion in the
Romania of 1987 when abortion was illegal. And it sounds so dreary, and the
combination of illegal abortion and communist Romania is enough to scare off
almost anybody. But the story proceeds like a combination of social drama,
horror film and thriller, and as you follow these two women--in particular,
the friend of the woman getting the abortion--the action is unbelievably
exciting and incredibly revealing about what it was like in the days when
people actually had to go to fly-by-night people to get abortions. And as
you're watching, the film's almost perfectly turned. It has a superb lead
performance by an actress named Anamaria Marinca, who's just splendidly good
at conveying what it's like helping your friend get her abortion, even as the
friend is passively aggressively selling you out in all sorts of small ways.
And what's interesting about the film is that it's not really about abortion,
but more about how the process of getting the abortion changes the life of the
woman who helps her friend.
BIANCULLI: Wow. And so I guess the title, "Four Months, Three Weeks, Two
Days" is the term of the pregnancy to this point?
POWERS: Yes, it's the term of the pregnancy which actually makes it rather
late, which is actually one of the complications in the story, and which is
one reason why I think this film will probably be very controversial when it
plays in the United States. And it will play in the United States because it
won Cannes, and is a good film. But in fact, there's no question here about
the morality of the procedure. The whole thing is just about how they go
about doing it and how it affects them, and I can imagine that there's going
to be a lot of controversy from the anti-abortion forces when this film comes
out because, in fact, it's very tough and not at all sentimental about what it
means to abort someone in the fourth month. In fact, it's rather grisly and
nasty and the film shows you that. So in fact, I can imagine people being
really interested by this film and there being lots of debates around it.
BIANCULLI: Was anything else that politically sensitive?
POWERS: There's been a huge sea change. You know, two or three years ago at
Cannes, all the discussion had to do with Iraq, and it was kind of obligatory
for people to bash the United States for being at war in Iraq. You know, now
that the war has gone badly enough that Europe is kind of forgiving about it,
they're more obsessed with their own problems. I mean, one of the touchstones
of this was that, although Michael Moore's film was hugely successful, he
wasn't as big a deal this time. He was there with his film "Sicko"...
POWERS: ...which is his film about America's health system, and it was
rapturously received, but this was a case where it was only about America,
whereas when he was there with "Fahrenheit 9/11," which actually won the
festival, he was treated as a kind of god, you know, because here was an
America saying how awful America is...
POWERS: ...and the Europeans were eating that up, whereas here they just
liked the movie.
BIANCULLI: But in this movie, didn't he do--wasn't he comparing different
nations, types of health care, and being positive to France? And I would
think that would play fairly well in France.
POWERS: One reason why the Europeans loved it was that it actually did
suggest that their social services are better than America's. But, in fact,
it wasn't really so much of an America-bashing movie as sort of a
sad-about-America movie, and what's very smart about the movie--and I think
it's his best movie...
POWERS: ...is that Michael Moore does two things that are very smart. The
first thing he does is he says, `This isn't a film about people who don't have
any insurance. It's about people who think they're covered.' So the first
thing he's doing is saying, `This isn't just about poor people. This is about
everybody who thinks they have a health system.'
POWERS: Then the second thing he does is he says, `Let's take seriously the
idea of actually having a state-run health insurance company. Once you do
that, let's look at the things people have said about national health
insurance as a criticism.' And so what he does is he takes the various things
you might object to--`oh, you don't get very good care,' or that in fact the
doctors have to go broke to do it, and then he goes to different countries.
He goes to Canada and to Great Britain and to France and deals with each of
these issues, and basically goes and asks patients how do they feel their care
is. You know, he goes to doctors and says, `Do you feel poor?' and then you
go to the doctor's house, where he lives in this huge estate and he's actually
making $1 million a year...
POWERS: ...and he says no he doesn't feel poor but he wouldn't want to be on
a system like ours, where the health care is determined by financial
organizations like insurance companies. It's a very smart movie in that way,
extremely entertaining and, you know, to my delight, he's not in it very much.
BIANCULLI: I know what you mean by that, even without it being an insult to
POWERS: Oh, it is. I mean, it's partly an insult to Michael Moore. And, you
know, one of the funny things about the Michael Moore image around the world
is that, if you're in Europe, they think--and you hear people say--`Will they
really let Michael Moore show this movie?' And, you know, if you're an
American you're thinking, `I see Michael Moore every two minutes,' you know?
This is the least suppressed guy in the history of the country.
POWERS: You know, and so it's kind of nice to see a lower key thing that
isn't particularly a Bush-bashing movie. You know, it doesn't feel cheap.
You know there's one bad section, I think, where he goes to Cuba to make the
point that the Cuban health care system is actually fairer and, in some ways,
better than the American health care system, which might be a reasonable point
except he has some idealized photos of grinning Cubans, kind of like he had
the grinning Iraqis during Saddam's period in "Fahrenheit 9/11." I think he
just can't help himself in doing it, that kind of left wing habit just dies
hard. There's that little bit of propaganda in it. Besides that...
BIANCULLI: So it's Cuban propaganda that he's doing for Cuba?
POWERS: It's just that, you know, he takes a very funny idea, which is to
say, here are some people who were injured during 9/11, who were cleaning up
after 9/11 and they can't get care. The first thing he does is he says, `I'm
going to take them to the Guantanamo prison, because in fact the health care
system for the al-Qaeda suspects is better.'
POWERS: And he tries--ok? And he very wittily tries to get them in so they
can get the same health care as the al-Qaeda suspects, which is a very clever
thing to do. But they--you know, the government won't let them in, so they go
to Cuba, and that's when he starts talking about the Cuban health care system,
and what seems to be a reasonable point at first, you know, it just gets
sentimental and has, as I say, too many grinning Cubans and it seems a little
too beatific. You know, politically, I think it's a mistake because it will
allow his enemies to say, `He's idealizing Cuba,' and in fact, that's only a
very small part of the movie. I think almost anybody who has health care
would be interested in this movie because it really is extraordinarily
touching and scary, because the whole point is: No matter how much you think
you have, the health care system can get you.
BIANCULLI: How do you think it's going to do in the States? I mean, if he's
the most popular nonfiction filmmaker, do you think that he's going to be able
to top himself at the box office?
POWERS: I don't know whether "Sicko" can beat "Fahrenheit 9/11," just because
the war unleashed all sorts of feelings. I think it will be a huge hit. It's
an extremely entertaining movie, and I think it'll probably turn out to be an
important movie as you head into next year's election. And part of what will
make it important is that it doesn't seem nearly so much to be a Democratic
film as the last one did. I mean, the last one was so clearly an attack on
the Bush administration, whereas here, both parties are rather guilty of
letting our health system get to the state that it's in that I think it will
actually have a broader audience than the last one. And, as I say, it's
extremely funny and quite touching.
BIANCULLI: OK, another thing that's high profile over here in terms of the
movies is the one starring Angelina Jolie as Mariane Pearl, who was the widow
of Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl. How did that go over and what
was your opinion of it?
POWERS: It went over surprisingly well. I somehow had a sense that people
thought it was going to be a real bomb because, once again, it's one of those
films that you're not really sure you want to see. You know, `Do I want to
see the film with the wife of a reporter who was beheaded by monsters?' And,
you know, the answer is, you know, on the face of it I don't want to see it,
but when I got there, it actually gripped me and held me all the way through.
I mean, the interesting thing about it is that even though it's about Mariane
Pearl--she's the center of the film and Angelina Jolie is playing her--but
most of the film is more like a Michael Mann movie. It's a very procedural
guy film as they're trying--as they're following how Daniel Pearl got
POWERS: ... and trying to capture the people who caught him, so that
actually Mariane Pearl is more off to the side than you think she's doing to
be. You know, meanwhile she kind of strolls through the movie. A bit like a
movie star, in the sense that because her husband has been grabbed, no one
dares say no to her. And in fact, you know, she's treated with kid gloves
through the entire thing. So I think it's the role that Angelina Jolie would
know how to play. And she certainly goes for it.
I mean, I think the one problem is that I personally find Angelina Jolie so
vast a screen presence, which is distinct from, say, from being an actress,
that it's very hard to see her playing someone you know is a real person.
Because even when she's acting well, she's just so Angelina Jolie that, you
know, you feel like she should be on Mount Olympus...
POWERS: ...rather than in some apartment someplace. I mean, I think
it's--for me that's the most interesting thing about her career, is like how
do you find roles that seem big enough for her because I mean somehow, she
just pops on the screen. When she's there, she just--you're watching her and
BIANCULLI: John Powers, our critic at large.
More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to our conversation with John Powers, our critic at
large who just returned from the Cannes Film Festival. When we left off, we
were talking about some of the new American films.
There's some really exciting names, and the little word that has trickled back
is very puzzling. The Coen brothers have done a film that sounds darker than
what they've done before. Gus van Sant has one that sounds beautiful, and
Quentin Tarantino sounds like he didn't impress anybody. What can you tell us
about those films?
POWERS: I think the great joke for Americans was that--was watching the
Tarantino film, which had been very well reviewed in the United States just be
hated by the Europeans. You know, they thought it was completely worthless,
you know. Why would a person make a film like this? It's just girls talking
in a car chase. They didn't like it at all. You know? And you know, so it's
actually kind of funny, because normally Tarantino is the god of Cannes, and
this year people were saying, `He's all over. He's crazy. This is
But the films they liked were, as you say, the Coen brothers' film, and the
Coen brothers' film, which is a good film, it's an adaptation of Cormac
McCarthy's novel called "No Country for Old Men," and it basically follows the
story of a guy who finds some money. He's played by Josh Brolin, who then is
being pursued by a genuinely terrifying psychopathic killer, played by Javier
Bardem, who is in turn being pursued by Woody Harrelson and Tommy Lee Jones.
POWERS: And--OK? It's a superb cast and it features some sequences so
exciting that not only was my heart pounding as I watched it, I actually had a
nightmare about it when I went to bed that night, and you know, Javier Bardem,
who didn't win Best Actor at the festival when he should have, has come up
with probably the scariest psycho killer in a long, long time. I mean, it's
so spooky, it's not like--and it's not like Hannibal Lecter, who's sort of a
psychopathic relief serial killer.
POWERS: You know, when you put him in a movie, it's supposed to be sort of
fun, whereas Bardem's sort of fun, but he's generally disturbingly evil and,
you know, his weight really sticks with you. And the film is about, partly,
the persistence of evil, and good people trying to deal with the fact that
evil is powerful and persistent and almost, in a dark kind of way, demonic.
And so the film, you know, has a force and a seriousness that their other
films don't have.
BIANCULLI: It sounds like you liked it a lot.
POWERS: I liked it better than any Coen film I've ever seen. You know, I'm
not a huge fan of theirs, so it must be said that some people who like their
other things, you know, don't like it so much. But I think on the whole, it
was one of the two best-received films at the festival, the other one being
"Four Months, Three Weeks, Two Days." I mean, it was very highly received and
I think the reason it didn't win anything probably had to do more with the
jury deciding it was going to reward things that didn't start off with famous
American directors and big movie stars. That's actually what I think probably
BIANCULLI: OK. And what about Gus van Sant's "Paranoid Park"?
POWERS: Yes, well, Gus Van Sant's film is almost the direct antithesis of it.
It's small, elliptical, extremely beautiful, almost avant garde. And it tells
the simplest imaginable story. It's about a young guy who likes to go
skateboarding in this slightly dodgy park skateboarding area known as Paranoid
Park, and one evening he gets involved with a couple older guys, and he
accidentally winds up killing someone--and it is quite accidental. And that's
the whole story.
And what it's about is trying to capture the interior life of this young guy
and what he dreams of, because he's not very articulate or very expressive, so
we keep getting images that are actually going through his head of what he
thinks of as being exciting or transcendent. And at the same time, we get a
sense of the social world in which he lives, in particular, a world where
there is no such thing as adult guidance. You know, so that as he shows the
kids with their parents, you never see a parent standing there intact as an
actor. They're always either out of focus or you'll only see part of their
bodies. It's a very delicate, subtle thing. You know, in some sense,
probably the smallest miniature at the festival. You know, and this is at a
festival, you know, where lots of countries, like Japan, specialize in
miniatures, but I think the van Sant movie is this pure mood piece, and it's
extraordinarily ephemeral and delicate. I mean, when they showed the first
screening, the projector broke and there was a break in it, and you could
actually feel the air go out, because it in fact it kind of transports you in
a hypnotic way...
POWERS: ...and you realize that this is one of those moods that's so delicate
it's really hard on it to actually have a break of even 30 seconds because it
just pulls you along on gossamer wings.
BIANCULLI: Now, I know that when that film was brought to the festival, it
didn't even have a distributor. Has that changed?
POWERS: Yes. The van Sant film now does have a distributor, I think, and
will be coming out, I believe, this fall.
BIANCULLI: Oh, good.
POWERS: It will be in lots of other festivals. What's interesting, actually,
when you talk about distribution is that one of the frustrating things about
Cannes in some years is that you'll see very good films, and you'll think,
`Well, that one will never play in America,' whereas this year, almost all the
things that are good will get distribution, because they're enough better,
they have something going for them and that everybody was excited about them,
so virtually everything got picked up that was good, which is a really
exciting thing because one of the things that I get to do that many Americans
don't get to do is see what's going on out in the world in movies.
POWERS: You know, I mean, you know, we're living in a time when we're told
that the outside world matters more to us than ever before yet strangely in
some ways it's harder to have movies come to your theater that are from
outside the United States, and so it's actually a great thing when a festival
like Cannes is so strong that maybe 15 of the competition films come over, and
they are coming from South Korea or Russia or they're the little Gus van Sant
film that is such a delicate mood piece that, you know, sometimes it might not
get released at all.
BIANCULLI: Were there any trends this year that you noticed?
POWERS: Well, there were two big trends. The first of them was the triumph
of women. And it must be said--this has to be put in the context of the fact
that Cannes is traditionally a boys' club. You know, there's only been one
woman who's ever won Cannes, and this year, for their 60th anniversary, they
were asking international filmmakers to do three-minute films for a
compilation called "Each to His Own Cinema." And of the 35 people who did
them, one was a woman, and it was the same woman who'd won Cannes, Jane
So starting from that, the way the festival actually turned out is that a huge
number of the most important films of the festival were women-dominated.
"Four Months, Three Years and Two Days" was a great women's film.
Marjane Satrapi's animated feature called "Persepolis," about a young woman
growing up in Iran, you know, won a prize, was supremely good. You know, it
would be a big hit here in the United States, I think, as well because it was
just a great story. There was a South Korean film, and the actress in it won
the Best Actress prize, about a woman whose child is kidnapped and how she
deals with her grief, and it's this lacerating performance, just an amazingly
great performance. And all the way through the festival, the most interesting
things seemed either to be by women, starring women, or somehow to do with
women, which was very interesting because, as I say, Cannes is not famous for
BIANCULLI: John Powers, our critic at large. He just returned from the
Cannes Film Festival, where he saw more than 30 movies. We'll talk more with
John in the second half of the show.
I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli. Our critic at large,
John Powers, just got back from France, where he attended the Cannes Film
Festival and says that this year's festival was the best he's ever attended.
Let's get back to his remarks about what he saw and what we can hope to see
Was there anything else that you noticed, whether it was a coincidence or a
trend that was building in the movies you saw this year?
POWERS: Well, I think that the other big thing that's happening is, I guess,
some sort of idea of globalization in cinema, because it's really interesting
how many films either had to do with people crossing borders or were
themselves films in which people crossed borders. So one of the most
interesting films that I saw was a film set in Paris made by this great
Taiwanese director named Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and his film is set in Paris and is
about Parisians and, in fact, it turned out to be a really, really good film.
POWERS: Similarly, the opening night film called "My Blueberry Nights," which
many people were disappointed by, is by the Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai,
who made "2046," and a bunch of others. He was a huge international favorite.
POWERS: This was his first film in English and it was made in America and
takes place in New York and Memphis and Las Vegas. And then you have--in film
after film, you would see this process that either the films are about people
crossing borders or people crossing borders to make the films, and you
realize, oh, that that actually is the great story of our time, is people
crossing over borders to do things. You know, I remember Salman Rushdie
writing years ago that immigration was the great story of the 20th century,
and it seems to me now to be an even greater story in all sorts of interesting
BIANCULLI: So do you think that those films will touch certain nerves in the
US because it's such a hot topic here right now?
POWERS: Well, I think, actually, what's nice about the films is that they
make immigration seem appealing, and they show you the good things that come
from immigration. You know, to get back to the film called "Persepolis,"
which I've mentioned earlier, what's so fascinating to me about it is it's a
film that celebrates France, eventually, because the heroine of it, you know,
grows up in Tehran and eventually winds up in France, and it's only in France
that she finds freedom. By finding her freedom in France, she then makes
probably the best film by any French person in the festival, even though she's
BIANCULLI: Because we're talking about politics in film and stuff like that,
when that was shown at Cannes, was there a sense of how it might be received
back in its home country? Was there any of the sense of the stuff that has
just happened recently, where the country of Iran has basically denounced the
film and denounced, you know, the woman who made it. Or was none of that even
entered internationally at the festival?
POWERS: Now, we all knew that the Iranian government was going to hate the
film, and in fact, we knew it so much there was actually built into some of
the questions that were asked of its creator, Marjane Satrapi. I remember one
critic said, `Are you worried that this film, in its depiction of Iran, will
actually help the Bush administration in demonizing Iran in order to go to
war?' And she said, `Not at all. The Iranian people are great people. You
know, there are issues with the government but, in fact, if you watch the film
you will realize that the Iranian people are a good, big-hearted people and
that, you know, they're having problems but, in fact, it's a great culture.'
And, in fact, the film does show that. But at the same time, we all knew that
the Iranian government wouldn't like the way the country was depicted, in
particular the way that fundamentalist Islam was depicted by the film.
BIANCULLI: So this is sort of like filmmakers saying, `We're citizens, or we
are looking at citizens of these various countries, and don't judge us
necessarily by our leaders.'
POWERS: Yes. I mean, really what Satrapi does think is that you should never
judge any country by the policies of the government until you know more about
it, and the film is so loving in its portrayal of ordinary Iranian people that
I do think that, when you watch it, you will think, `Oh yes, they're a lot
like us,' rather than, `These are demons who must be destroyed.'
BIANCULLI: And finally, we've spent this whole time talking about movies that
you liked. Did you see anything that you really didn't like?
POWERS: Yes. The worst film of the competition, of the entire festival for
me, was an American film "We Own the Night," by this guy named James Gray,
who, the Cannes people, I think, think of as their discovery, and it's
basically the most routine cop brother movie imaginable. You know, Joaquin
Phoenix plays a guy who's involved in bad business. Mark Wahlberg plays his
honorable cop brother and then, eventually, the bad brother becomes the
brother and the two of them fight the Russian mafia. And it is so riddled
with stupidity and cliches that the American and English press couldn't wait
for it to end so we could all get up and boo, which, in fact, we did.
BIANCULLI: You boo at these screenings?
POWERS: Oh, of course. You know, part of the fun of it is that, unlike real
life, where people are restrained, here people boo or hiss or applaud wildly.
You know, or sometimes they do--one of the most famous things at Cannes is,
there are certain seats that really pop up hard so if someone's offended by
something you hear this thwack!, and you realize that somebody is very
prominently walking out of the screening.
So we were booing the James Gray film, and it was a lot of fun to boo, and,
you know, as we left, you could overhear that the French and Italian critics
were kind of liking it, and they thought it was really good. These same
people who disliked Quentin Tarantino's film, half of "Grindhouse," and
thought it was vacuous, loved this movie and thought it was pure cinema and a
masterpiece. And we were all flabbergasted. I remember saying to somebody
that it made me proud to be an American, you know, because in America we knew
that this movie was no good, whereas in France they actually thought it was a
work of brilliance. And so, it was just bad in the kind of ways that every TV
cop show in America's bad.
BIANCULLI: Hey, hey, hey. Not every TV cop show.
POWERS: Actually the example I would give, because I'm a great fan of some TV
cop shows, is that you would think that "The Wire" had never existed...
POWERS: ...watching this show, because it's so riddled with good cop/bad cop
cliches, evil mobsters with no dimension whatsoever. You know, family cops
with no dimension whatsoever that you think like this is a film from 1935
that's been transposed to the present day but made with less good technique.
BIANCULLI: Hey, thanks for doing this. This is, I think, the first time on
FRESH AIR that, even though I'm guest-hosting, that it's like two of us as
critics have gotten to sort of bat the ball back and forth. I had a good
POWERS: Yeah, so did I. Thanks for having me.
BIANCULLI: John Powers, our critic at large. He just returned from the
Cannes Film Festival.
Coming up, Iraqi women's rights activist Yanar Mohammed. This is FRESH AIR.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Yanar Mohammed, co-founder of the Organization for
Women's Freedom in Iraq on women's rights in Iraq
DAVID BIANCULLI, host:
Yanar Mohammed has taken great personal risk to run a women's rights
organization in Iraq. She was raised in Iraq, but left in 1993. She moved to
Canada with her son and husband and worked as an architect and sculptor.
After the fall of Baghdad in 2003, Mohammed heard from a friend about new
problems and issues facing Iraqi women. She returned to the country and
co-founded the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq. Mohammed criticizes
the war, which she says has cost Iraqi women their freedom and legal rights.
Her outspokenness and activities on behalf of Iraqi women have earned her both
acclaim and numerous death threats. Terry Gross spoke to Mohammed earlier
this month while she was in the US.
TERRY GROSS, host:
Yanar Mohammed, welcome to FRESH AIR. The invasion of Iraq was supposed to be
helpful for women's rights in Iraq. How have women's rights been affected by
the invasion and occupation?
Ms. YANAR MOHAMMED: Well, you know, when we speak about women's rights,
there are many parts of it. There's the legislation on one side and--but the
side of it which all of us women feel and live on daily basis is the way you
go to work, when you come back home how you're being treated inside your home,
and also, the streets where they are--are they women-friendly or not? Since
the invasion in March 2003, it was only a few months before we started to
receive horrifying news that women are being kidnapped on the streets.
GROSS: What are the kidnappings about?
Ms. MOHAMMED: There were different reports, but mostly it was young women
who were kidnapped to be sexually exploited for a few days and then thrown on
the side of the street. And the sad part of the story is that when some of
those women tried to go back to their houses, to their families, a good number
of them were killed by their families because the whole issue was considered
honorless. It has smeared the honor of the family and it was, you know, scary
to hear that, first, you can be kidnapped in the street by strangers who want
to exploit you sexually, and why would they do that? Just simply because they
can. There is no police. There is no government. Nobody to stop them. And
at that time, there was a big number of criminals that have left the prison,
so they were free to do whatever they want in the streets. The ousting of the
regime involves too many kinds of chaotic issues where we find out that women
are the most vulnerable to. So, in those days, in Baghdad, walking in the
streets, was very dangerous. You could be targeted just because you were a
GROSS: Is that still going on now, the kidnappings?
Ms. MOHAMMED: The kidnappings go up and down because the situation is
changing drastically, and the reasons for the kidnappings have been changing
for some time, like in the first two years, the industry of trafficking of
women had risen to numbers that were unprecedented in Iraq, or unknown even.
The numbers were in thousands, so at that time it was in order to sell these
women in sexual markets inside and outside Iraq. But later on, in this last
year, we heard that a good number of kidnappings were in order to ask ransom
from the rich families in order to give them back their daughters, and sadly,
some of those families would say, `We don't want them anymore because we don't
know what you have done with them.' So that's the honor killing mentality.
Ms. MOHAMMED: And the third part of this story, in the last, I would say,
four to five months, we heard in some of the Baghdad suburbs that sometimes
many females in one family are kidnapped at once, detained or assaulted, and
that's also a new story. And when we asked into the details, it turned out
that what is similar to a death squad.
GROSS: So are women being attacked by sectarian groups now?
Ms. MOHAMMED: At this moment, yes. A big number of women were attacked for
sectarian reasons. Their houses, their families get attacked first, the men
get detained, and when the house is empty of the males, these militias that
are affiliates of the police and the Islamists, the Shiite militias, they go
into the houses--we received many reports that after the men were detained,
the women were attacked in the houses, assaulted and, in many instance, raped.
A few of them were killed later on, to not to leave any witnesses of the crime
taking place and, in many situations, we hear that they were also kidnapped
GROSS: Can you dress as you please on the streets of Baghdad now?
Ms. MOHAMMED: This was a question, to be asked last year or the year before,
I would have answered you, `No, I cannot dress anymore in the way that I
please. I cannot show my hair. I cannot walk around in the jeans and the
T-shirt that I was used to wearing in Baghdad all my life.' But this year the
situation is much tougher. It's not just the veil that you have to wear. It
is the kind of veil that's the trademark of the Islamist militia that is
prevailing in your neighborhood or in your district. That is, in the Shiite
districts, you have to be veiled in black from top to bottom in a way that
could show your face, but in some of the areas under the Sadr groups, the
women have to do to go further than that, they have to wear black gloves and
black stockings so as not to show any part of their skin.
When you go to the Sunni, the areas, the districts dominated by the Sunni
Islamist militias--and those are, to make it clear here, most of them are
affiliates of al-Qaeda organization--in those areas, the woman has to wear
multi-layers of clothes. They are not black usually and you have, you know,
not a single part of your skin can show, but the hands do not have gloves on
them, and there is a part of your face that can show, so it's--you feel as the
flag that they use on their district to tell the enemies, `This is our power
zone. Dare not come into it.' And your dress code is just a tool for that.
But who is the woman inside that veil? Nobody cares.
GROSS: How is this enforced?
Ms. MOHAMMED: It happened gradually. Last year in one of the Shiite suburbs
in Baghdad, it's called Sha'ab area, they began to hang, not posters, flyers
on the walls, saying that the women, first, the veil is the beauty of the
women; and second, that you are not allowed to wear high sandals. You should
not wear high sandals. You should not show your hair. And they give you
details of what to wear and what not to wear. First, they publicize it.
Second, they tell you that you do not look decent. You should not be coming
like this, looking like this next day. And then they just start to force it
on you, and beatings have become a regular matter in this issue. And in some
of the areas, districts controlled by the Sunni Islamist militias, killing was
very regular. We heard many reports of women killed in
the...(unintelligible)...park area because they were not veiled, and sadly
enough, some of the Christian women or the Mendhi women, who are not Muslim,
and like in their faith there is no such thing as veiling, and it was enforced
on them, and a few of them threatened, or a few of them killed because they
did not wear the veil.
GROSS: As president of the Organization of Women's Freedom in Iraq, are you
now forced to work underground?
Ms. MOHAMMED: Actually, our women's shelters, we locate them in secret
places and we change those locations from time to time because the women that
we keep in there are wanted for honor killing, and if anybody finds out their
places, it's killing, not just for them but also for us. But the Organization
of Women's Freedom in Iraq, our headquarters in Baghdad, the address is known
to everybody, and we get a good number of visitors on daily basis. And it's
part of our mission, let's say, in Iraq, to go open about challenging the
misogynist and telling them our doors are open if they want to come in and
debate with us. We have been open in our locations, but I don't want to give
the wrong impression. We do not feel very secure. We have a few guards
around us, and I try not to be there for very long periods because I expect
that I would be targeted, and my being there for long periods could be
jeopardizing the other activists.
GROSS: I know you opposed the invasion of Iraq right from the start, but have
the US troops in Iraq been of any help to you in your work as a women's
Ms. MOHAMMED: On the day which I received the death threats that told me
that I was going to be killed in a few days, I knocked their doors and I told
them, `Just like you are providing facilities and some help for the tribal
heads, the ethnic heads, the religious heads, you give them cars, bodyguards,
and ways to protect themselves, I need the same.' On that day, the answer to
me was--and it wasn't directly from the official. He said it to his
assistant, the assistant said it to a soldier, the soldier said it to the
information man in the front gate, and they told me, `Oh, you are not the only
one targeted. We cannot give protection to everybody who knocks on our
doors.' So what kind of support did I get from them? Nothing.
GROSS: What kind of protection do you have?
Ms. MOHAMMED: With the few funds that we get from our supporters, I am able
to get one bodyguard that stays with me most of the time and some guards for
the organization. What can that do in front of a police squad that could
invade our organization at any point they feel like it? Nothing. That's the
security that we have now.
BIANCULLI: Yanar Mohammed, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this month. More
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
BIANCULLI: Let's get back to Terry's interview with Yanar Mohammed, president
of the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq.
GROSS: Are you getting the support of women in Iraq? Do women want the
rights back that they've lost and, even if they do, are they afraid to say
Ms. MOHAMMED: You know, sometimes when I make a protest demonstration or
speak over the television, some people try to tell me, `Oh, who do you
represent? Just yourself?' Well, you know, some of them try to keep the world
under the impression that women of Iraq do not want freedom, do not want to
live better off, do not want to have higher self-esteem. But who are they
kidding? Who likes to be slapped around at home? And who would like to watch
their husband marry another wife and just to shut up and watch? You know, I
have received, I would say, with no exaggeration, during these years hundreds
of telephone calls, e-mails and some visits in my organization telling me
that, you know, `You were the only one who spoke of our daily sufferings. We
do not dare to say them in front of our husbands or our brothers,' and this
means a lot.
GROSS: Something that's been very confusing about Iraq is, on the one hand,
the new constitution has an article that says that Iraqis are equal before the
law without discrimination due to sex. But at the same time, the constitution
also says that no law can be passed that contradicts the established rulings
of Islam. So like what takes precedent there? Do women have equal rights?
Or are women subjected to Sharia, which is Islamic law, which does not give
women equal rights?
Ms. MOHAMMED: The Sharia will be the base foundation for legislation in
Iraq, so they have imposed on us that Islamic Sharia prevails, and anything in
discrepancy with Islamic Sharia will not be allowed. Islamic Sharia allows
women, a female, to be married at nine year old. Islamic Sharia allows
multiple wives for one man. Islamic Sharia gives all the rights to men for
divorce and for custody, so you cannot go against those. And we have now an
article 41 in the constitution that says women can choose their family law,
whether to be dominated by the Islamic Sharia or to be referring to the
previous personal code in the country. But tell me, if you are a woman
surrounded by a big number misogynist males in your tribe and you go to a
court, can you tell them, `I do not want the Islamic Sharia to rule my family
life?' Like, who are they kidding? They have left millions of women in Iraq
vulnerable to their religious laws?
GROSS: Do you know men in Iraq who seem to be perfectly comfortable with
women's rights and the equality of women and who now seem perfectly
comfortable denying women those rights? In other words, are you surprised at
how some of the men you know have changed as the situation has changed in
Ms. MOHAMMED: Well, the important part of the story is that women's rights
is political issue and a political wave that runs in the country that affects
a lot of what society's tendency is like, and especially the prevailing class,
because they have all the media, they write the rules and they show tremendous
number of religious shows from day to night to all the males of the country,
some of whom happen to be opportunist and want to have seats in the
government, and for them it's more convenient to choose those norms where,
first, by choosing them, they are respected more by the prevailing class,
which is the Islamists that are ruling now. And second, for them, it's more
comfortable at home because they are being served by women, who have been
turned into servants inside their houses.
So do I know of a number of men who have turned from progressive to
reactionary inside Iraq? I would tell you yes, a lot. The prevailing
politics, they affect a big number of people who are not really keen on human
rights or do not have the access to the outer world or to the developed world,
where things are different for women or have a very determined agenda of
keeping the women equal to men. But then again, on the other hand, you have a
good number of progressive men, and some of them are members of our
organization and they do help us push the women's issue very much ahead.
GROSS: Well, I want to thank you very much for talking with us.
Ms. MOHAMMED: Thank you, Terry.
BIANCULLI: Yanar Mohammed, speaking to Terry Gross earlier this month.
Mohammed is the co-founder and president of the Organization for Women's
Freedom in Iraq. She's featured in an article in the current issue of Ms
Magazine. You can find a link to the article on our Web site at
freshair.npr.org, where you can also listen to the show and download a
BIANCULLI: For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.