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 Miklós Jancsó). These sequences are contrasted with 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: