Wednesday, October 30, 2013

"Women Without Men" as a US-Iran Cultural Bridge

I wrote about film from Iran several weeks ago, and it got me thinking a lot more deeply about some of those favorite films of mine.

from Women Without Men
I remembered that the first time I saw Women Without Men by Shirin Neshat, based on the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur, at the end I walked straight to the ticket window and bought another ticket and walked right back in and watched it again.

Below are some reflections on Women Without Men and why I think it has so much to say to us about the kind of dialog we should be having with our brothers and sisters in Iran.

The Garden: The first step towards liberation is to envision a free place

Garden in Women Without Men
In the film, the sense of the orchard/garden as an all-enveloping haven is extremely powerful.

This is a film that is not just about naming the oppression experienced by men, but also about suggesting a way out.

The garden in the film is the kind of magical place that evokes subconscious memories of the kind of woodsy refuges that we have all dreamed of.

The garden in the original novella is no less magical -- though the plot is more equivocal. (It should perhaps be titled Women Without Men (For a While, At Least).)

Taking the Leap

Munis "escapes" in Women Without Men
It was very shocking to me that the character Munis seemed to need to resort to leaping off a building to escape her predicament, but her entrapment by her family -- particularly her brother -- was so painfully realistic that (a) a comparably powerful means of escape seemed called for; and (b) under the circumstances "taking the leap" felt transcendent.


Bathhouse scene in Women Without Men
For me, the most memorable scenes in the film involved the prostitute, who goes to a community bathhouse and scrubs herself raw trying to wash away that which oppresses her.

It is unforgettable to see someone who is plagued by the feeling that, no matter what she does, she can't get clean.

There is also a sense of tremendous poignancy -- there is a woman's world in the bathhouse, and one gets the sense that, at least for a while, some women can find a haven and relief and community there. For the prostitute, this just doesn't feel available.

A Man's World

Banquet in Women Without Men
The dinner party thrown by the woman who owns the house in the garden gives a very clear picture of one flavor of male domination in modern Iran -- the public sphere, involving politicians and the military.  The scene around the dining room table says it all.

If anything, the film applies a light touch to the question of patriarchy. The novella, while not heavy-handed, is robust in its treatment of the way men dominate in the Iran being described.

The Coup and the Tree

Street demonstration in Women Without Men
The film, compared to the original novella, goes into a much more detailed portrayal of the circumstances of the 1953 [CIA-backed] coup that overthrew Prime Minister Mohammed Mosaddegh. I found this to be a helpful way to put real context around the many magical and quasi-magical elements of the story. At the same time, I would stress that this is not a film about politics: it could, I believe, be set in any era.

In contrast, the book leaves the episode of "the tree in the garden" as a briefly-noted mystery, rather than as a main plot strand with extensive development. (Does this leave an opening for a stand-alone film -- Mahdokht?

As I write this, I am realizing how difficult it is for the words I write -- dealing with the predicament of women in Iran -- to convey my belief that this film encourages a human, non-stereotyped relationship of American people to Iranian people.  And yet, as I look again at the images, I am once again convinced of their power to forge a people-to-people connection.

Related posts

I often refer to how important the films of Iran have been in helping me open my mind to the possibilities of a peaceful relationship with that country.  I have been fortunate to be able to go see some of the best films from Iran every year at the wonderful Siskel Film Center in downtown Chicago. The will be another Festival of Films From Iran showing there in February, 2014.

(See A Force for Peace: Getting to Know Iran Through Film)

As the Obama administration prepares in the days ahead to pivot from its focus on Syria to something truly startling -- talking to Iran! -- it is important that the American public devotes some time and energy to learning and thinking about Iran, the history of the U.S.-Iran relationship, and what the U.S.-Iran relationship means in the larger context of the effort to reduce the risk of war and violence in the world.

(See IRAN: 3 Reality Checks on the Emerging U.S. Narrative)

If we are going to stave off a U.S. war against Iran, we are going to have to have some very difficult conversations with other Americans. Some people are extremely hostile. It's confusing and a bit frightening, but we're going to have to confront it.

(See Why Does Iran Arouse So Much Hostility?)

In a composition suggestive of a yin-yang symbol, a woman in a burka (but wearing audacious red glitter platform heels) is surrounded by genie-ish tableaus of the many male obsessions/pastimes that some of us rail about frequently -- sexualized pop singers, professional sports -- as well as some that we probably should rail about more (such as patriarchy in religion and political violence).

(See VIOLENCE: " . . . and the women must live with the consequences . . . " )