It’s fantastic to see women film directors from the Middle East finally getting the chance to tell their own stories, with their own voices and those stories gaining international attention. The most prominent recent examples are probably the groundbreaking Persepolis (2007), directed by Iranian Marjane Satrapi and Wadjda (2012) directed by Saudi Haifaa Al-Mansour, which both gave a unique insight into their cultures from a young female perspective. Now we have Mona Zandi Haqiqi’s Tehran-set sophomore film African Violet, which is based on a true story and concerns an older woman this time. Shokoo (Fatemah Motamed-Aria) makes the life-altering decision to take her ex-husband Fereydoun (Reza Babak) out of the nursing home where their children have put him and brings him to live with her and her second husband Reza (Saeed Aghakhani).

Apart from the performances and writing, the biggest strength of African Violet is the depth and detail in the world-building of the locations, sets, production design and costume design (set and costume design are both by Ali Abedini). Shokoo uses the space outside her house to dye wool, so the action is frequently surrounded by stunningly bright colours, with the long strands of wool hung up to dry around the courtyard. This is also where Reza’s tool-filled workshop is, as well as vegetables being grown and some ducks or geese occasionally waddling through shots. The meals that Fatemah provides for the men in her life look incredible, too. It is a fully realised, lived in world, beautifully shot by Farhad Saba, to emphasise unusual angles and framed with interesting, colourful objects. As well as the beautiful visuals, the score by Peyman Yazdanian is also a real highlight.

The central performance by Fatemah Motamed-Aria is full of warmth, humour and humanity – she is clearly guilt-ridden about her more elderly ex-husband and torn between helping him (even if he is resistant to her help at first) and her loyalty to her current husband. Fereydoun refuses to speak or walk at first, he has shut down while in the nursing home and he is extremely concerned about his dignity, not wanting to be a burden. Seeing him come out of his shell is one of the joys of the film and is well acted by Babak.

Reza is perhaps the most complex character, with a layered performance from Aghakhani. He is concerned about the community knowing their business and he can be harsh with his wife at times. However, he clearly has a good heart and is softer on the inside, to have agreed to the unusual arrangement in the first place and it is clear that he loves his wife. Some of the best scenes are shared by the two men, such as them playing backgammon together or when he helps Fereydoun after an embarrassing bed-wetting incident. The acting from Babak emphasises Fereydoun’s pride and Aghakhani is incredibly tender and humane under Reza’s brusque surface.

It is Shokoo’s nature to be involved in others’ business and she tries to help others whenever she can. This leads to her being arrested at one point, when a young woman goes missing, but she’s actually eloping. Although some incidents reveal societal pressures or the hardships of life, everything is always interwoven with a gentle humour and levity “a night in jail might not be such a bad idea for her!” says Reza. The sense of community is hinted at with a game that Fatemah plays with both Reza and Fereydoun, where they sit on their balcony, people-watching and guessing where their neighbours are going or what they’re doing. But Fatemah is cheating because she doesn’t have to guess, she already knows everyone’s business.

All in all, this may seem like a short and simple film, but the characterisation is more richly realised than in most big-budget Hollywood films. Each of the central three characters feel authentic, with a shared history and connections to a wider community that seem in no way contrived. It may be a cliche, but film gives us the opportunity to travel the world and dip into lives vastly different from our own and discover our shared humanity. Having the chance to do that, especially now, when many of us are stuck at home, is a gift. As always, I will urge you to support smaller, independent films from voices that we don’t get to hear often. This colourful jewel of a film is well worth your time and money.

African Violet is available to rent via Laemmle Virtual Cinema in the US now.

Rating: ★★★★