The short documentary The Doll, by director Elahe Esmaili, allows us a peek into the phenomenon of teenage marriages in Iran. The Doll proves once again that when it comes to Iran, complexities abound. Asel is fourteen and in the ninth grade. Her father works as a wedding photographer. Her father is approached by another man who tells him that his son, a university student, is interested in taking a bride. Arrangements are made and both men agree that their offspring would make a good match.
Asel seems enthused about this older university student. She is excited about marriage and her accelerated path to adulthood. But there is an obvious unsettling feel about the whole thing. It is disclosed that Asel played with dolls just two years before all the marriage talk. This is a girl that is still excited by someone gifting her gummi bears and Nutella. Some family members express concern over a father “giving” a fourteen-year-old up for marriage while others think that fourteen is an appropriate age if the bride is “mature.” It is revealed that Asel’s parents divorced. Asel’s mother left and her father was left to raise Asel. Verbal and physical fights were witnessed by Asel. Her father now has a fiancée and some in the family suspect that his plan to marry Asel off is motivated by a desire to get her out of the house so he can restart his life. Asel’s father even floats the idea of staging a double wedding with his daughter. The viewer begins feeling that there is a sordid sublayer underneath the entire marriage conversation. Esmaili does a very good job in slowly dripping the details of Asel’s family dynamic.
The social dichotomies exposed by The Doll keep the viewer engaged. The disagreements between family members as to the appropriate marriage age, the rate of divorces in what is still a quite religious society, and the different perspectives on how a wife should act are all fascinating. Exemplary of this dichotomy is Asel’s father. He and Asel’s mother divorced—a very modern legal procedure–but he makes statements such as: “I was forced to beat my wife,” and “I am an enlightened traditionalist.” This notion of an “enlightened traditionalist” perfectly captures the paradoxes of contemporary Iran. At one point, Asel’s father declares that he is quite a modern fellow in that he would allow his wife to work outside the home.
If there is one complaint about The Doll, it is that it devotes too much time to family members engaging in a circular argument as to whether Asel should or should not be allowed to marry. The back-and-forth become a bit tedious. But aside from that, Esmaili’s short documentary gives us a wonderful glimpse into Iran’s dynamics and tensions. Us in the West should be eternally thankful to Iranian filmmakers like Esmaili for bringing to our screens Iran’s multifaceted society.
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