Jafar Panahi’s film opened on just 18 screens in the UK. It got some excellent reviews and its modest screen average doesn’t seem to have deterred subsequent bookings (you can find the next couple of weeks’ screenings here). It will travel around the UK but I still feel that it is something of an insult to one of global cinema’s finest filmmakers that his Berlin prize-winning film is treated in this way. Most of the bookings are in London and often the film shows just once. The UK’s three chains of supposedly specialised cinemas Picturehouse, Curzon and Everyman – are not showing this as a ‘circuit film’ even though it outstrips anything else they have to offer. Taxi Tehran is an unassuming masterpiece based on skill, intelligence, creativity and bravery – all attributes Panahi has consistently demonstrated in his ongoing satire on the absurdities of government control of artists in Iran. Don’t these clods ever realise what an alluring and joyful representation of Iranian culture filmmakers like Panahi are offering to the world? Perhaps this is the very reason why they try to silence him.
You may have read that Taxi Tehran consists entirely of footage taken by a dashboard camera in Panahi’s car as he drives through Tehran accepting passengers as if he was offering a taxi service. On a couple of occasions the footage is augmented by footage from his young niece’s digital still camera. If this sounds dull, believe me it isn’t. I won’t spoil the film by detailing all the ways in which the critique works. I’ll restrict myself to one example. When Panahi picks up his young niece outside her school, she comes on with a full diva stance – his car isn’t flashy enough for a famous director. She then tells him that she has to create a film for a school project and that the film must be ‘screenable’. It must conform to the criteria set down by her teacher. These ‘rules’ include all the proscriptions set out by Iran’s censors, including the ban on ‘sordid realism’ and any discussion of social, economic or political ‘problems’. Panahi’s film breaks all these rules in every mini-narrative which develops each time another passenger gets into his car. I admired Panahi’s earlier This Is Not a Film (2011) but it did involve some tedium and intellectual effort to ‘enjoy’. Taxi Tehran is pure cinema, start to finish as far as storytelling is concerned. If you can’t cope with the director as auteur you might find it irritating that several references to Panahi’s other films are important. Personally, I don’t care – Panahi the man comes across here as a lovely man I instantly want to take round to my local pub. He doesn’t have to drink alcohol if he doesn’t want to but I know he would make the lives of ‘ordinary’ people interesting. At one point, somebody asks him how they should find a story for a film. I thought he might use the neo-realist mantra. He doesn’t, but in practice he follows it all the time – stories based on the everyday encounters of people on the streets. Magnifique!
Abbas Kiarostami shoots his subjects tangentially; that is, he doesn’t necessarily place the camera in the obvious position to tell the narrative. Behzad Dorani plays the ‘engineer’, which is what the villagers in a remote location of Iran think he is, and we come to know the place through his observations. On a couple of occasions Kiarostami’s favoured long take simply focuses, from the position of the mirror, on the engineer shaving. The narrative, at this point, is carried by his conversations with the rest of his film crew; they are in the village to secretly film an ancient sacrament. Similarly, the opening sequence watches them arrive (see above) in extreme long shot, with the telephoto lens flattening the landscape; it makes strange what we recognise. We here the men in car trying to navigate via agrarian directions such as ‘turn left at the big tree’. Dorani, by the way, according to imdb, has only appeared in one other feature, which is remarkable given how brilliant he is in carrying this film.
For much of the film we are not clear what the protagonist is after; he seems to be waiting for someone to die. He spends his time wandering the village and, increasingly hilariously, rushing up the mountain to get a mobile signal. Not a lot is happening in a village where not a lot ever happens; except it does. The film covers birth, life, marriage, death, friendship, education, childhood. All of life in an exotic location is there for the spectator and it is beautifully shot; the colours are quite stunning, both the village, and its surroundings, occasional look like an Impressionist painting.
Making films in Iran is difficult unless they are treading the party line. Kiarostami’s success, and this film won the Palme d’Or, is rooted in his ability to appeal to the western art house audience. There is a slightly uneasy opposition set up in the film between the ‘town’ (the ‘engineer’ is from Tehran) and the apparently simple ‘country’ of the village. Despite the fact the film-maker is indigenous I think we are still being offered an ‘orientalist’ portrayal of a society we know very little of. The place is portrayed extremely sympathetically but we are no more than tourists. To be fair to Kiarostami, he probably feels that way too. Hence the village is ‘strange’ to my western eyes and is shot in a strange (arty) way; but what we learn is that, essentially, the strange is very much the same.
It might not be the same, though, I cannot tell from the film.
Unlike Keith I didn’t find style triumphed over content in this film – see here. Like the Before Sunrise-Midnight films, Abbas Kiarostami relies heavily on long takes, long conversations and entirely convincing performances. Of course Juliette Binoche can be expected to be absolutely wonderful but William Shimell . . . ? Kiarostami had directed him in a performance of a Mozart opera so knew he’d be up to the task; it’s inspired casting. Shimell has since appeared in Amour (2012).
Befitting of Kiarostami’s art house status, Certified Copy is more obviously intellectual than Richard Linklater’s films; which is not to say it’s better or worse. I wasn’t particularly interested in the philosophy of authenticity in art, or in relationships, but was riveted by the conversations, and the Tuscan landscape, that ran throughout the film. There’s a brilliant twist, about half way through so stop reading now if you plan to see the film.
It has appeared so far that Binoche’s Elle (a ‘universal’ ‘she’?) has been flirting with the intellectual James (Shimell) but, when they are mistaken as a married couple, she plays along with the error and then he too plays along . . . But are they or are they not actually married? It is a brilliant sleight of narrative that raises issues of longevity in relationships, memory, as well as gender roles. Unsurprisingly Kiarostami doesn’t bother to tell us the ‘truth’ of the situation, leaving us to ponder if we wish. I’m sure we’ll ponder the actors’ brilliance and, maybe, Kiarostami’s too. I’m not suggesting that his film is derivative in any way, he often uses long takes in his films and may have patented the car dashboard camera.
One clue to the film’s playfulness is surely the casting of Jean-Claude Carrière in a minor role. Carrière scripted a number of Luis Bunuel’s late films and surrealism is expertly interlaced with the ostensible realism of this film’s visual style and the performances.
Chambers Dictionary defines ‘circumstance’ as the ‘logical surroundings of an action’. For me, this film is itself a circumstance more than it is a film. My first thought was that it was an ‘event’ – there is so much surrounding it that is non-diegetic – outside the world of the film’s narrative. Let me explain. This is a film ostensibly about a social issue in Iran, namely the social and cultural restraints that govern the public behaviour of young women in the Islamic Republic. But, as is the case with several other significant Iranian films, Circumstance was made outside Iran (in Beirut) by an exilic/diasporic cast and writer-director using French and American funding. I’m using exilic here to refer to Iranians who have left Iran because of real or anticipated persecution and diasporic to refer to less contentious economic migrants, some from much earlier periods.
The story focuses on a wealthy Tehran family. I never found out what the father did, but he went to university in California and he loves classical music. The mother is a medical practitioner. The main focus is their 16 year-old daughter Atafeh who has developed a passionate relationship with a girl at school, Shireen. Shireen is much less wealthy and she lives with her aunt and uncle – her parents having been executed by the regime as academics with the wrong politics. She spends as much time with Atafeh as possible, visiting her and going on her family trips. The classic inciting agent in the narrative is Atafeh’s older brother Mehran who returns from rehab – required because of his drug problem. Mehran’s behaviour is ‘strange’ according to his father. He appears to have become religious in what has up to now been a secular family.
At points in the first part of the film I wondered if this was the same world explored in Asghar Farhadi’s films or those of Jafar Panahi (especially given Panahi’s own spacious apartment as revealed in This Is Not a Film). But it’s soon quite clear that this is a very different fictional world. I don’t speak Farsi so I couldn’t judge how the cast handled the dialogue, but a quick glance at the IMDb comments from Iranians suggests that most of the leads, apart from the actress who plays the mother, had major problems speaking the language. What I could spot, however, were the many holes in the plot. Farhadi’s films are very carefully scripted with intricate plot developments, but in Circumstance I literally ‘lost the plot’ at certain points as I simply couldn’t understand why things were happening. Some of the actions lacked credibility for me. (The same comments come from Iranians.)
At the heart of the film is the affair between the two young women. This is presented partly through fantasy sequences in which the pair imagine a ‘free’ world in Dubai where one will become a nightclub singer managed by the other. There are also ‘real’ sequences provocatively presented with manicured hands and painted lips caressing flesh – but little overt sexual display. At other times the girls visit daytime and nighttime underground clubs. The ultimate daring activity is to take part in dubbing foreign language import/black market DVDs, specifically Milk and Sex and the City. This underground alternative popular culture for the young in Iran is represented (in an earlier time period) in Persepolis. Although I haven’t seen it, I take it also to be present in Bahman Ghobadi’s No One Knows About Persian Cats. But Ghobadi and Marjane Satrapi were writing films about what they experienced living in Iran. Maryam Keshavarz, the young Iranian-American writer-director of Circumstance, says that she based her script on her experiences on holiday in Iran and talking to her relatives. I felt at times as if the film was an American perspective on Iranian culture. The major issue is the behaviour of the brother, Mehran. I couldn’t work why he did what he did, how he did it and why nobody stood up to him. I don’t want to spoil the narrative outcome, but at the end of the film I remained puzzled.
On the positive side, I particularly enjoyed the performance of Nikohl Boosheri as Atafeh and the film certainly has a vitality about it. I thought that the story about the two young women was going somewhere before the narrative veered off course. I’m glad I watched it but I fear its status will be more of an ‘event’ at the centre of a controversy rather than as a film.
Circumstance is distributed in the UK by Peccadillo Pictures. The screening I attended was part of the POUT Film Festival touring LGBT films around the country. It goes on general release on 24 August.
An American trailer which gives a taste of the film’s style:
It was incongruous watching This Is Not a Film on the giant IMAX screen at the National Media Museum in Bradford. The image only filled the centre of the enormous screen but even so this was probably the biggest screen the film has played in the UK. And perhaps it isn’t that incongruous since Jafar Panahi’s film is either the cleverest film I’ve seen in a long time or a film that through circumstance has become the ultimate statement about films and filmmaking. (It was on the IMAX screen as part of the Museum’s response to current distribution developments in the UK – though not ideal, using the screen for current releases allows extra flexibility and extends the run of films like This Is Not a Film.)
For anyone unaware of the background to the film, I should point out that Jafar Panahi, one of the best-known and most celebrated of Iranian directors, was arrested in December 2010 and put under house arrest after committing the ‘crime’ of voicing his support for the Green opposition to President Mahmoud Ahmadinijad during the 2009 election. Panahi has been sentenced to imprisonment and banned from making films and engaging with foreign critics for 20 years. This film is therefore ‘not a film’ but an ‘effort’ put together by Panahi and his friend, the documentary producer and director Mojtaba Mirtahmasb.
Panahi is obliged to stay in his apartment in Tehran. It’s a very nice and certainly a spacious apartment but it is still a prison. The film details a day of his incarceration from breakfast until evening time. For most of the time Mirtahmasb operates a small professional digital camera while Panahi has his iPhone with its camera facility. Little in terms of conventional narrative action takes place but the events of the day are loaded with significance – starting with a call from Panahi’s lawyer about the appeal on his sentence. There are several visitors/calls at the door and more phone calls that are played through a speakerphone. Panahi analyses/comments on three scenes from his back catalogue of productions which he plays through his TV set. He also attempts to tell us the story of the film he would be making if he hadn’t been banned. This sounds like a typical Panahi neo-realist film in which a young woman from Isfahan who wants to go to university in Tehran is locked in her room by her father . . . but perhaps she is actually more interested in a potential relationship with a boy? The final section becomes a little mini-narrative in its own right in which Panahi, now operating the main camera, ventures a few feet outside the apartment, following a caretaker putting out the bins. The day in question is actually ‘Fireworks Wednesday’, the Persian New Year when people celebrate with bonfires on the streets as well as fireworks. The TV reports at some point that Ahmadinijad has outlawed such celebrations because they are not ‘Islamic’ (I think they are Zoroastrian – see Asghar Farhadi’s film Fireworks Wednesday.)
On the one hand, the whole film is about imprisonment. Panahi shares his space with his daughter’s pet iguana, ‘Igi’, an enormous and very endearing creature who at one point crawls behind a bookcase, threatening to topple hundreds of books. A neighbour asks Panahi to look after a yappy dog for a short while but dog and iguana don’t mix. But even imprisoned, Panahi can’t/won’t stop being a filmmaker. He and Mirtasmasb make fun of the definition of ‘not making’ a film. “You can’t say cut!”. “Just keep the camera running”. What is a film? How do we separate the ‘meaningful’ and the ‘meaningless’? Nothing in This Is Not a Film is ‘redundant’. Panahi looks up from his MacBook (plenty of product placement!) to watch the TV screen for a few moments as the 2011 tsunami devastates a coastal village in Japan. How do we ‘read’ this scene? Later on, when Panahi asks a few simple questions of the stand-in caretaker, the answers reveal something about life in Iran outside the comfortable middle-class flat. Here is a young man studying for a Masters, but having to work doing several jobs to pay for his education – some of them unpleasant and jobs that must be done full-time by somebody else. This isn’t a critique of Iranian society as such but simply an example of what a student might face and that’s probably enough to anger the authorities.
Each of the three sequences from his earlier films that are shown on his TV set allows Panahi to demonstrate how his realist approach throws up interesting questions about cinema, in particular about ‘amateur’ actors interacting with a script and how the accidental mise en scène of neo-realism sometimes creates strongly symbolic images. And in a sense of course, this is the tease of This Is Not a Film – 72 mins of what seems to be a ‘day in the life’ of an imprisoned filmmaker, but which is actually an artfully constructed essay on cinema. It will no doubt become a film school classic as a film to study. But as we sit back and enjoy it, there is the real worry in that completing the film and smuggling it out of the country for international exposure, Jafar Panahi might have goaded his tormentors into an even harsher regime of repression for filmmakers. I hope not.
The film’s official website in the US also carries details of screenings in the UK. It deserves a much bigger audience than it seems to have been getting so far, so please don’t miss it.
About Elly at first sight suggests a familiar narrative idea – a group of middle-class Iranians and their young families arrive in a resort area by the coast for a fun weekend away from Tehran. I thought that perhaps it would turn into a Big Chill type narrative when I realised that the group comprised old friends from university – but then Elly was introduced. She is the nursery school teacher of one of the children whose mother has invited her to join the group, hoping to introduce her to one of the men who has just returned from Germany after his divorce. Elly seems a little reluctant because there are three other couples and just the two singles, but is persuaded to join in with the general festivities. However, the group has already begun to tell ‘little white lies’, joking to the owners of the house they rent by the sea that they have a ‘honeymoon couple’ in their midst (i.e. Elly and the divorced man). The next day an accident involving one of the children threatens disaster and in the mêlée the others realise that Elly is missing. Has she fallen in the sea and been swept away, has she simply gone back to Tehran without telling anyone?
From this point on the narrative ratchets up the tension as each member of the group makes suggestions, some of which make the situation worse and eventually the group finds itself mired in a sea of white lies. No one is prepared to be totally honest. When the authorities are summoned to mount a search, they reasonably ask about Elly and it becomes clear that nobody knows her full name or anything about her background. Was she left in charge of the children? If so, surely somebody knows her background? Her family has to be contacted – but this only makes matters worse when Elly’s real situation turns out to be not quite what the group expected.
I found parts of the film to be almost unbearable – in the sense of those embarrassment comedies where you find yourself crying out “No don’t say that, it’ll only make matters worse!” It was at this point that I realised that the three Farhadi films in the festival reminded me to some extent of Mike Leigh’s work. They all feature a small group of central characters in a relatively closed social situation and social class difference is a crucial factor. The emphasis on social interaction in a limited number of locations makes the presentation of the narrative more like theatre – and both Leigh and Farhadi started by writing plays. There is also a use of certain actors across different films. ‘Elly’ is played by Taraneh Alidoost who was Roohi in Fireworks Wednesday and one of the men in About Elly, Peyman, is played by Peyman Moaadi who also plays Nader in Nader and Simin: A Separation. At least three other actors appear in two of the three films. The odd thing is that though I admire and respect Mike Leigh as a filmmaker, I don’t actually like his films that much – I find them rather cruel towards the characters. Perhaps that’s because I am so close to the culture that produces Leigh’s characters whereas Farhadi’s are necessarily ‘exotic’ and I can be a much more distanced observer. Does anyone else make this connection or is it just me?
Like Fireworks Wednesday, I see About Elly as a satire. In this case there are two targets. One is the ease of lying. In this YouTube clip Golshifteh Farahani, the star who plays Sepideh (the character who invites Elly to the weekend away) discusses the film. She is an actor effectively in exile in Paris who has been criticised for appearing in a Hollywood film (Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies) and she argues that lying is absolutely essential in repressed societies in order to survive – but of course eventually the lies become a kind of false reality. In this sense the film exposes a systematic mode of self-deception. The second target for the satire is the underlying structure of a society that encourages the ‘polite lie’ to avoid offence. This structure sets up complex codes to do with gender relations, religious sensibilities and social class distinctions. So in About Elly, many of the lies arise from a middle-class guilt about being ‘found out’ for doing something silly (i.e. not really checking up on Elly’s background before leaving her in charge of children – note that this isn’t caused by anything Elly has necessarily done, but rather by the fear that if she has done something wrong, others might think that the group had been negligent. Although this has a distinctiveness associated with Iranian society, we all recognise the blustering middle-class person who berates the police to conceal their own failings when we know the officials are trying to do their own jobs professionally. (This also makes me think of another British playwright with an international reputation, Alan Ayckbourn).
The more I think about About Elly, the more it resembles the other two recent films by Asghar Farhadi. ‘Polite lies’ – well-meaning lies, but also real lies that refute the painful truth – are at the heart of Fireworks Wednesday. In A Separation it is not so much about lies but it is about who to believe – with the arbiter becoming the courts. In all three films, it is an ‘outsider’ who is charged with protecting, ‘looking after’, the younger or older family members which in turn becomes crucial in the struggle within the middle-class family or group.
Asghar Farhadi is a major talent and we now need the three films discussed here to be more widely available as well as his two earlier features (as well as scripts and television work).
Website of DreamLab Films – French co-producer/promoter/distributor of Iranian films with resources on both About Elly and Fireworks Wednesday (English version of the site available.)
Trailer with English subs:
Asghar Farhadi is the second of the featured directors in the festival with his latest film Nader and Simin: A Separation showing in the Main Competition. That film has already been shown in many territories, including the UK where it has been a big hit, not least with the contributors on this blog. I was eager to see the two earlier films by this director showing in the festival. These last three films by Farhadi are clearly all the work of the same extremely talented filmmaker and although they present three distinct stories, there are common themes, a common cultural location – Tehran’s middle classes – and the same sense of a subtle satire. I can almost imagine a DVD box set entitled ‘Marriage Iranian Style‘.
Fireworks Wednesday takes place over the Tuesday and ‘eve’ of the Wednesday of Persian New Year in Iran (thus the Iranian title of the film, referring to a Zoroastrian festival). There appears to be a similar sense of carnival and mayhem in the streets, with the letting off of fireworks and impromptu bonfires, as there is in the UK on November 5th (i.e. Bonfire Night and also the customs of Mischief Night). This then becomes the setting for a narrative about marriage. The narrative agent is Roohi (Taraneh Alidoosti), a young woman from the outer suburbs who is just days away from her marriage to a young man she clearly loves. She rides into the city as a pillion passenger on his motorbike and goes straight to the employment agency who send her to the other side of the city for a day as a cleaner. She then finds herself in the middle of a marital ‘situation’ in which Mozdhe is very much on edge in her large apartment. One of the windows is broken, all the furniture is covered in plastic and there is a general air of chaos. Roohi understands that Mozdhe and her husband Morteza are to go on holiday the next day but Mozdhe seems more concerned that Morteza may be having an affair with Simin, the divorcée next door who runs a beauty salon. Roohi is a ‘good girl’ who finds herself confused by both Mozdhe and Simin. She doesn’t know who to believe when Mozdhe asks her to spy on Simin (who gives Roohi some beauty treatment as a wedding gift). She accepts people for who they say they are, but ends up telling white lies to protect Mozdhe and Simin from each other. The complex plotting then leads Roohi to be forced to stay with Mozdhe’s family all day and to be driven home late in the evening through streets full of fireworks by Morteza.
The four central characters in the film are carefully drawn in the script by Farhadi and Mani Haghighi and beautifully acted. These are complicated individuals and there is no easy and quick identification with them. Mozdhe in particular is a woman on the edge who we both feel for and also want to scold. For me what is most interesting is the way that she treats Roohi. At some moments she seems cold and dismissive giving curt instructions but at other moments she is considerate and appears to want to help the younger woman. Is she a good or bad employer in the eyes of her cleaner/maid (Roohi is asked to carry out a very wide range of tasks)? The almost arrogant confidence of the Iranian middle classes, especially the women, is a feature of these three Farhadi films. The women are relatively wealthy and well-educated but also trapped by certain social conventions. I’m not sure the extent to which Farhadi is being satirical by exposing the behaviour of the Tehran middle classes. It certainly outrages one IMDb commentator who damns the film: “Awful, couldn’t be worse. If we have two or three of such movies per year, that will be more than enough for our society to break down.” (‘m-mirehei’ from Iran) This seems like a very conservative view. From a Western perspective the film seems ‘honest’ in its depiction of the characters.
The chador plays an interesting role in the film which I take to be metaphorical. In the opening sequence, when Roohi is on the motorbike, her chador gets caught in the back wheel, throwing her off the bike and jamming the wheel. I found this quite disturbing as in a famous incident in 1927 the dancer Isadora Duncan was killed by her own long scarf when it became tangled in the open spoke wheels of the car in which she was a passenger and her neck was broken. Roohi survives unhurt but the chador is a little torn. Later Mozdhe borrows the chador (without telling Roohi) and wears it in causing a scene outside Morteza’s office. This leaves Roohi ‘exposed’ (though she still has her headscarf) when she has to go and collect Mozdhe’s son from nursery school. I could do with some guidance here but there seems to be a deliberate and provocative reference to the chador and what it means about ‘respectability’ for Iranian women. I won’t ‘spoil’ what happens in these scenes but Mozdhe’s actions both put pressure on Roohi and in some way support her own fight against her husband.
Although the specifics of Iranian society are important to the film’s narrative, there is a strong universal appeal as well and there was a large and appreciative audience for the film in Oslo. There are at least two versions of the film free to view online if you search, one with subtitles and one with German titles taken from German television. But no release yet in the UK! The actors in these films are clearly important stars in Iran – see this fansite for Hedye Tehrani. I confess to having spent a long time in cinemas gazing at beautiful women and I have to say that many of the women featured in Fahradi’s films look just as stunning with their headscarves and long coats as most Hollywood stars in designer outfits. The excellent camerawork by Hossein Jafarian helps of course.
This film sneaked out on a single print in June 2010 in the UK and I missed it. I only became aware of it when researching A Separation. I’m glad that it is now available on DVD as it proves to be an interesting production for several reasons.
Shirin Neshat is an Iranian visual artist best known for short films that appear in gallery installations. Born into an upper middle-class Tehran family she left to study in the US around the time of the Iranian Revolution in 1979. This is her first feature film and she wrote and directed it in partnership with Shoja Azari, variously described as an Iranian-American artist and filmmaker. With two artists at the helm Women Without Men was unlikely to be made as a conventional feature and what was produced does not disappoint in that respect. Although ostensibly based on a historical novel by Shahrnoush Parsipour, the film proves to be a visual treat and something of a meditative art object despite some powerful and emotionally charged passages. (The novelist herself, a celebrated figure in Iran but now exiled in America, appears in the film as a brothel-keeper.)
The setting is Tehran in 1953 at the time of the coup d’état engineered by the British and Americans to secure their oil interests, bringing down the government of Prime Minister Mossadegh and reinstating the powers of the Shah. Four women from different backgrounds are featured with three of them eventually coming together in a large but isolated country house – more like a fantasy garden than a real location. The woman who owns the house is the wife of an Army General who has discovered a liberal café society since an old male friend returned from the West. Another is a beautiful but emaciated prostitute. The other two do know each other but they have different views – one conservative and orthodox but the other radical and not prepared to compromise. The latter leads us into the action of the coup and the attempts by radicals to resist it.
The look of the film is deliberate and very precisely controlled in CinemaScope images ‘painted’ in muted tones through a slow-moving camera lens. (The Tehran scenes are nearly monochrome but colour breaks through in the ‘garden’.) Several images are surreal and the overall effect is heightened by the production constraints. Presumably the two filmmakers were unable/unwilling (?) to return to Iran (the original novel was banned in Iran) so the production was based in Morocco. I have no real idea how Tehran looked in the early 1950s (apart from a few newsreel images) but I’m sure that it was probably significantly different from the Tehran of contemporary Iranian films. I have been to parts of Morocco and the locations used in Women Without Men did seem to cry out ‘North Africa’ pretty convincingly. I’m not suggesting that this is a problem, simply that it adds to the sense of ‘otherness’ as I take North African and Iranian cultures to be significantly different. (Neshat says that she thinks Casablanca does resemble Tehran in the 1950s.) Another way to approach the film is to see it as primarily a ‘globalised’ production. One of the women is played by a Hungarian, the film is photographed by a German and scored by Ryuchi Sakamoto and without the support of various European production funds the film couldn’t have been made.
The DVD carries a long and detailed statement to camera from Shirin Neshat who reveals some interesting aspects of the production. She tells us that the film was a long time in preparation in different countries and that it travelled extensively in post-production with different editors in each country. However, two seemingly contradictory factors held it together. The joint Austrian/Iranian design teams were meticulous in their research but Neshat and Azari didn’t want to make a ‘social realist film’. Neshat speaks about her admiration for East European/Russian and Scandinavian films and specifically mentions Tarkovsky as an inspiration. I did sense this in the film – partly perhaps because of the scenes in long shot in which crowds of protestors clashed with groups of soldiers or where the soldiers swarm into buildings. I was reminded of scenes in Andrei Roublev by Tarkovsky (and The Red and the White by Jansco). These sequences are contrasted in the more static tableaux and the scenes with the slow-moving camera. Neshin also speaks of Roy Andersson and I can see the link to his work.
What does it all add up to? I was struck by one comment on IMdb in which it was suggested that the film is metaphorical in terms of the women’s treatment by men and the damage this does to the prospects of democracy in Iran. The film ends with a dedication to the revolutionaries in Iran from the 1906 ‘Constitutional Revolution’ to the recent ‘Green Revolution’. The suggested metaphor then develops the house and garden in the desert as a kind of potentially democratic ‘paradise’ (the first shot of the film follows one of the women entering the grounds via an irrigation canal). The gardener/caretaker is one of the few men in the film shown sympathetically. Neshat herself refers to the garden as a central image in Persian culture and especially in poetry as a symbolic place to engage with the spiritual. The narratives of the four women each represent different aspects of women’s lives in Iran. The westernised woman, though wealthy, is marginalised because of her age and is caught between men of opposing views who both patronise her. The orthodox woman eventually comes to see that marriage in this society is a trap. The most dramatic stories involve the radical and the prostitute. The presentation of the radical character Munis is surprising and I won’t spoil it. No amount of distancing camerawork can negate the shock of the image of Zarin a terribly thin woman scrubbing herself violently in the hammam in a vain attempt to free herself from the disgust she feels at her use by men.
I’m not sure why this film received so little attention in the UK (it was promoted well in the US). I would say it is well worth seeing and especially in the context of the other films by Iranian women, both the internal critics such as the Makhmalbafs and the other diaspora director, Mariane Satrapi of Persepolis fame.The two major criticisms seem to be that a) there are too many ideas in the film and b) that it feels like four separate stories not successfully melding into a single coherent narrative. I don’t see the problem with too many ideas. The second is the view of Sight and Sound‘s reviewer Sophie Meyer who points out that each of the stories had first been presented as gallery installations. My response to this is to argue that art films don’t need to offer coherent realist narratives and anyway putting the installation work into a feature enables many more people to see it who like me are unlikely to be able to get to the exhibitions where the installations play.
There is a great deal of useful information on the filmmaker and the film in the detailed Press Pack available here.
Here’s the official trailer which gives a good indication of the style but also a couple of possible spoilers: