Artistic breakthrough: 'Going Up the Stairs' profiles a bold Iranian painter


In Iranian filmmaker Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami’s Going Up the Stairs, we meet Akram, an extraordinary artist and devout Muslim who will not travel to France for the first foreign exhibition of her work without her husband’s permission. As the date of her show approaches, Akram and her daughter, a strong advocate of her work, are unsure what the man of the house will decide. A surprisingly moving portrait of an artist, Maghami’s short celebrates one woman’s capacity to flourish despite incredible adversity, including being misunderstood by the man with whom she has spent the last 50 years of her life.

FJI: I imagine you are still celebrating the election of your new president.

Maghami: Yes, we finally got rid of Ahmadinejad. It is a great relief for us. We had celebrations in the streets the night the results were announced. Rowhani is not an angel, but he is very wise. As you may know, he participated in nuclear negotiations before Ahmadinejad came to power.

FJI: How did you find Akram, your artist-protagonist in Going Up the Stairs?

Maghami: For the first time, there was an exhibition and conference in Tehran for artists who are out of the mainstream, and I went there to introduce Jamshid, the protagonist of my film Cyanosis [2007]. I wanted to get him space at the exhibition. I met Akram there; she had already been discovered. I fell in love with her art, and in fact now own some of her paintings. I began visiting her to see her paintings, and little by little I gained her trust. She finally gave me permission to film her.

FJI: Your portrayal of Akram provides a picture of aging as rebirth, which I think is unusual.

Maghami: Akram started painting at the age of 50, and she’s now 62. I did not think of that aspect of my film, but, yes, Akram finally found a way to talk about herself. This is an interesting idea—you mean that she became a child again?

FJI: Yes, but also that it is unusual for an older person to discover such talent at 50 or 60.

Maghami: You mean that it is unusual because it is a time when people may be thinking of retiring?

FJI: Yes, in part, but aging here in the U.S. is not often seen onscreen in such a positive, creative light.

Maghami: Well, that may be true, but my mother began playing football at the age of 70. [laughter] She is playing with other older women in a hijab, in an open playground so that others will see them. I think it is a wise idea to start something when you are this age. You are not working. You don’t have small children. It is a time to follow your passions.

FJI: Your title, which refers to Akram’s climbing to the second floor to paint, has several shades of meaning. She is painting in what looks like a family room. Is that correct?

Maghami: I found the geography of her house very interesting. She paints on the second floor, and she was living there all the time. Downstairs was used for guests and for formal occasions. Upstairs is her studio, but it is also the place where she eats with her family. In the movie, I wanted to emphasize the separation. When she goes up, she paints, and when she goes down, she starts fighting with her husband.

FJI: Do Iranians believe, as Westerners do, that high places are sacred?

Maghami: Yes, and I believe this is a universal idea, that sky and mountains and all elevated spaces are holy.

FJI: Akram does not walk up the stairs very easily. Does she have a physical ailment?

Maghami: Yes, she has problems with her knees.

FJI: Why were the stairs significant for you?

Maghami: It represented becoming an artist. Moving from housewife to artist is to elevate your everyday sorrows and longings to something better. I wanted to show her climbing the stairs in her home and ascending the Eiffel Tower. I don’t know if I showed this in the film, but in fact Akram uses ladders in her paintings. When I asked her why she puts a ladder in her work, she replied that it was because you can go up a ladder and go to God.

FJI: While Akram is an observant Muslim, rather than her religion, I felt this overwhelming sense of her spirituality. Her art is informed by her dreams, and her real life is accessible to her only when she paints. Was it your intention to emphasize spirituality?

Maghami: Yes, and I agree that I found Akram more spiritual than religious. Sometimes, she did things that were not acceptable in Islam. For instance, she prayed at a church when she went to France for her exhibition. A religious Muslim would not do that, but Akram feels God everywhere. She cares about the heart and about feelings. She is like a Sufi. She focuses on love and being pure more than she does about prayers and rules.

FJI: Akram was a child bride, and her relationship with her husband is very complicated.

Maghami: Yes, it is. Sometimes she told me she loves him and, at other times, as she says in the film, she told me she hates him. She confessed to me some terrible stories about him that I did not put in the film because they were too private. They were family secrets, things about her husband that even her children did not know. Akram never had a chance to meet another man, so she just projected all the love she had in her heart on this man because she could not do anything else.

FJI: Most dramatic for me was the scene in which he tells her what’s wrong with her painting.

Maghami: Yes, to control her.

FJI: Akram paints peacocks. Is the bird especially significant in Iranian culture?

Maghami: In Iranian literature, the peacock is a symbol of beauty, yet the legs are ugly. It means that everything beautiful has an ugly side. Iranians say that peacocks are ashamed of their legs, but Akram never talked about this. For her, the peacock is only beauty.

FJI: Her peacocks are transcendent.

Maghami: Yes, it’s a magical bird. You cannot believe your eyes when you see the feathers.

FJI: Is it significant that Akram’s peacocks are male?

Maghami: I do not think Akram knows that. For Mother’s Day, she painted a very beautiful, colorful peacock with smaller peacocks that represent her daughters. They are always female for her.

FJI: Your film suggests the many ways in which women are marginalized and oppressed. How would Iranian audiences view these issues in your film?

Maghami: Akram did not want this film screened in Iran because it exposes personal sides of her life, so I did not hold public screenings here. In the beginning, she asked me to agree to this limitation. I don’t know how Iranians would react. My friends said that they saw in Akram their mothers and grandmothers.

FJI: Western audiences may focus on the issue of Akram being a child bride, and also having an abusive husband. Can you discuss these issues?

Maghami: I have shown the film in California, for audiences at the United Nations, and in Europe and South Korea. Western people try to generalize the circumstances of Iranian women, or they ask me if Akram’s life represents that of Iranian women. Actually, it is the life of women of older generations. Things are very different now, although women are still fighting for the right to travel after marriage. For instance, you can retain these rights by writing them into your marriage contract. Many young women do this.

I read a review by a blogger that was linked to HRWFF, saying that Iranian women cannot show their art in exhibitions. It is not true, and the review made me angry because of its generalizations. We have many problems in Iran, but this is not Saudi Arabia. Iranian women have an identity. There are exhibitions of Iranian women painters. Of course, there is censorship. It is hard to be an artist. Painters cannot show nudity, for instance. It is difficult for anyone who wants to be an artist in Iran.

FJI: What would you like audiences to think about after watching Going Up the Stairs?

Maghami: That all human beings can find liberation in art. Art is a way to resist against oppression. Akram fights restrictions peacefully. When I was editing the film, I started to think of Akram’s husband as a symbol of an oppressive regime, and Akram as the Iranian people who are fighting against it in a very peaceful way, and in a wise way.

See also our Human Rights Watch Film Festival interviews with Raoul Peck, Nagieb Khaja and Harry Freeland.