‘The Grand Lady of Iran’: Film Review

Courtesy of Documentary & Experimental Film Center
A tiny, tantalizing glimpse into the Khomeini household.

Documaker Mostafa Razzaq Karimi makes a respectful bow to Khadije Saghafi, the surprisingly independent wife of Ayatollah Khomeini.

The Grand Lady of Iran (Khadije Saghafi) is part of a small cultural revolution going on in Iranian cinema, where formerly hushed-up topics are being (almost) openly discussed. This curious documentary, directed by Mostafa Razzaq Karimi, is a true rarity, a glancing biography of the woman who married the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, leader of Iran’s Islamic revolution, and shared his life for 60 years. Karimi sometimes seems uncertain how far he can go in lifting the veil on a woman about whom very little is public knowledge, and when in doubt chooses a poetic approach that dances around his subject. Grand Lady won the best film award in the cinema verite section of the Iran International Documentary Film Festival.

Disconcertingly, the film’s subject doesn’t appear onscreen. One can’t expect to find her in newsreels or super-8 home movies of family outings, but it seems remarkable that there is a near total absence of photographs of Khadije Saghafi (sometimes transcribed as Khadijeh Saqafi.) Even the film’s publicity stills choose the discreet route of visual metaphor: a pair of eyeglasses reflecting the light on a book. The impression is that of a ghost. Surely this is a deliberate choice on the part of the filmmakers, cloaking the grand lady in a veil of mystery that well-suits Karimi’s delicate, respectful portrait of a woman who lived in her famous husband’s shadow.

The “mother of the Islamic revolution,” as she became known, died in 2009 at 93, survived by three daughters, who talk about her in the film. They offer insights into her steadfast character, but much less into her personal feelings about the whirl of earth-shaking events she lived through. "Patience" is the keyword as she weathers storm after storm like a rock, but one longs to know what else was going on inside her.

Born in 1913, she was the daughter of a scholarly Tehran cleric but was raised in her grandmother’s family. They were well-to-do people – it’s mentioned they had a private tailor at home – and the implication is that the 16-year-old schoolgirl Khadije probably expected a brighter social life than that offered her by the spouse chosen for her: a thin, pale theology student of 27 who was to be her husband for the next 60 years.

The couple’s first residence was in Qom, the holy city of Shia Islam and a major center for scholarship. Used to a comfortable life in the fashionable big city, young Khadije initially hated Qom and its narrow old streets and no doubt the austerity of their two-room apartment over a shop. She longed to go back to Tehran. Then seven children arrived – five of whom survived infancy – and she settled into a simple, financially restrained but happy married life with a loving husband who encouraged her to study French and Arabic.

Decades pass. The mature Khadije is now presented as calm, thoughtful, almost scholarly herself. Her unseen presence haunts darkened interiors full of books. From his headquarters in Qom, her husband has become a prominent critic of the Pahlavi dynasty, and in 1963 is arrested after criticizing the shah’s Westernization reforms as anti-Islamic. As he is calmly lead away by the police, he instructs his wife not to panic. The next three days see major rioting in the streets and many protesters mowed down by police fire.

According to the surviving members of the Khomeini family, who are interviewed mostly offscreen, Khadije found her home turned into a barracks where people came and went. The following year, she left her family and children behind to follow her husband into exile for the next 15 years, most of that time spent in Najaf, Iraq. Little clues are dropped about her feelings, like her difficulty tolerating the stifling heat of Najaf. The great blow came in 1977 when her eldest son, Mostafa, died under mysterious circumstances, possibly killed by the shah’s secret police. Pressured to leave Najaf by the Iraqi government, the Khomeinis moved to a house outside Paris but returned to Iran in February 1979 as the Islamic revolution exploded in newsreels of the day.

Khadije outlived her husband by 20 years, devoting her later years to her family and Persian poetry and literature.

Production company: Orooj Cultural Artistic Institute
Director: Mostafa Razzaq Karimi
Screenwriters: Mohammad Reza Karimi Rad, Mostafa Razzaq Karimi, Zahra Nabipour, Azam Behrouz
Director of photography: Reza Teimouri
Editor: Mohammad Pourfar
Music: Saba Nedaie, Armin Kheirdan
World sales: Documentary and Experimental Film Center
Venue: Fajr Film Festival (Docs in Focus)
82 minutes