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A year and a half after her divorce, an Iranian woman went out to dinner with her son, her ex-husband, and her ex’s dad. Afterward, as they were saying their goodbyes, her former father-in-law said that he had a gift for her, for taking such good care of his grandson. She giggled and demurred. And a few seconds later, her “clothes were melting”: He’d thrown acid at her.
Masoumeh is the story of this titular woman, opening with the disfigured Masoumeh playing chess with her son and cooking, even though she now has slits for eyes and is blind. Director Sona Moghaddam focuses on Masoumeh and her struggle for custody as well as her remarkable attempts to still live a full life. (She has more hobbies than most sighted people.) But other victims of acid burning, including a child, get to tell their stories, too, as Masoumeh tries to organize them and fight for change in misogynistic Iranian law.
The documentary, while demonstrating the hope and resilience these women share, is often anguishing to watch. One victim says that “happiness has left our life”; indeed, her teenage daughter was also attacked and died from her burns, while her son and her sister have attempted suicide because of their grief. Another says that after her soon-to-be ex-husband burned her, “he returned with a dagger and wanted to run me over by car.” None of these women nor their families can even speak about retribution—if anything befell the perpetrators, who largely receive no punishment, they would be sentenced without hesitation.
There’s talk between Masoumeh and her lawyer about lex talionis, which is essentially a legal form of the saying “an eye for an eye,” but it’s unclear what exactly that entails and why Masoumeh must give up that right in exchange for the possibility of retaining custody of her son. During these discussions, the film drags a bit; it’s obvious that the law is treating these victims unfairly, but the unexplained intricacies alienate the viewer. What is clear, however, is that their stories are horrific, with Moghaddam saving the worst gut punch—photos of the women before they were disfigured—till the end.
Screens tonight at 5:30 p.m. at the Miracle Theatre.