Elahe Esmaili’s short film The Doll holds a mirror up to society on what it is like to survive as a woman in a man’s world. The documentary explores a 14-year-old girl’s underage marriage to a 21-year-old man in Iran, with her 35-year-old father’s consent.
As individuals in the family and community have different perspectives, they grapple with the decision of underage marriage.
The title alone, epitomizes the way girls and women are often perceived in the world, as beautiful objects— and objects that can only be used and taken from, not loved.
An object like a doll is expected to look beautiful, remain pristine, obtain society’s idea of perfection, and is purely to be on display. The needs of a doll or object are not considered, for she is seen as inanimate. Additionally, the porcelain anatomy of a doll is fragile, as is the makeup of a girl’s innocence. Watch the trailer below:
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Director, writer, producer, and Iranian native, Esmaili has a passion for issues concerning children’s and women’s rights; issues like child marriage, child abuse, neglect, or violence by parents, rape, women-against-women, and social inequalities, leading to her to direct her very first short film The Doll.
This female filmmaker is currently in London enrolled as an MA Student at National Film and Television School and is a BA alumna from Tehran University of Art.
Her neutral documentary style of filmmaking is powerful, as she just presents the facts and allows the audience to make their own decision with the stark information recorded. As an Iranian woman, her neutrality is also a necessity.
The censorship and violence on women in Iran is a part of the societal pressure the female endures and often suffers through; this mentality perceives any kind of emancipation or agency from men as a threat.
In a sense, being a woman who does not chose to fill the traditional role of just a wife is a risk. Being a female filmmaker is a risk and exposing these kinds of stories as a woman is an even bigger risk.
Elahe both carries the gentleness of a woman and an inner fortitude which champions her passion to tell stories for women. She expresses that inspiration for The Doll and her work at large is that, “my hope with everything I do is to make things better for the girls and the women that come after me.”
She has watched many women close to her marry young due to societal pressure that results in divorces, abuse, mental health issues, broken dreams, and sacrificed self actualization. In short, the weight girls and women carry from the male expectation, treatment, and brainwash is heavy.
Any woman— no matter her culture or the magnitude of her abuse at that hands of men— can relate to this film’s innocent bride to be, uncertain of the pitfalls that lie ahead due to her brainwash by the male authority figures around her.
“Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she is mine for life,” the classic novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark encapsulates the fragility of a young woman at this pure time in her life in one line. This perfectly illustrates the vulnerable space within girls the The Doll explores, and even the feminine within women, exploited by men.
In the culture of Iran and on different ends of the spectrum in the world at large, girls’ strengths of empathy and gentleness are used against them and capitalized upon by men who use them for their own selfish desires.
The 14-year-old girl in The Doll—and in the world at large— are expected to take care of others, specifically men. Whether it be the very committed sense of becoming his wife and caretaker in Iran or girls in American society who have to adjust their attire, behavior, etc. for the comfortability of me—and for their safety from men—women are conditioned to conform to the will of men.
The woman the girl grows up to be will be expected to give, and care for, and sacrifice all for men’s ease. Girls in Iran are shaped to think that they are good only when they serve others, and are selfish if ever they focus on their own needs, desires, and education. The threat of a self sufficient woman terrifies these men, even to the point of violence against them.
The filmmaker shared with me the numbingly routine headline of the day in the Middle East in which an all-girls school was attacked by men against women’s education in which 85 young girls died and another 147 were wounded.
The one surviving girl who was absent the day of the attacks is expected to continue her education in a graveyard classroom, while carrying the trauma of the loss of her entire class of young women and the PTSD of the risk of being a woman seeking an education in the Middle East. These are the kinds of stories Elahe has dedicated her life and work to.
The line in The Doll that cut the deepest and showed femininity in all it softness was when the young 14-year-old bride to be gushed about her fiancé, “he bought me gummy bears and Nutella, I was very impressed, if he hadn’t have done that, we probably wouldn’t have gotten engaged.”
This sentimentality and vulnerability at the core of woman that is touched by the intangible things in life like gummy bears, Nutella, flowers, and poetry exposes her weakness in a man’s world. Something as simple as this makes an impressionable girl- and even a the softness of a woman- vulnerable to a man’s capacity to take from her most pure space.
In Iranian culture and the world at large men capitalize off of girls’ softness, their openness and instinct to nurture and help others. This intrinsic quality of women must be appreciated and not abused. Societally we must do much more to protect girls who turn into women, not only against the extreme ways girls’ rights are often violated, but also the more subtle injustices and attitudes that so often go unnoticed or excused.
Elahe’s goal for The Doll in particular is to “gain international recognition so that I can gain better screenings in Iran to raise awareness globally.”
The Doll and this female filmmaker are definitely part of raising awareness on the inhumane injustices and attitudes that reduce women to anything less than the resilient, nurturing powerhouses that we are.
This documentary short received its World Premiere at Oscar-qualifying Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival 2021 and was also be screened at the Atlanta Film Festival 2021, another Oscar-qualifying film festival.
The Doll is available to watch in the United States June 2nd-6th at Full Frame Fest.
Megan Penn reports on the indie film market and anything that empowers women and underrepresented groups.