Reza Karimi, director of the Iranian film A Thousand Women Like Me, wrote:
A Thousand Women Like Me was a personal assertion. Cinema is basically the product of experience, and A Thousand Women Like Me is the product of thought, experience and an index of my capabilities up to this moment. Maybe there are flaws in the film, but I have decidedly overcome the shortcomings of the previous film. If I were to make a film one day that did not represent a step forward, that day would surely signal the end of my career.
Starring Niki Karimi, an international star from Iran (and a director herself), A Thousand Women Like Me tells the story of Sharzad (Karimi), a divorce attorney in Tehran who loses custody of her son following her divorce. The film is an indictment of the patriarchal custody laws in Iran, and ups the ante by having the main female character be a divorce attorney herself. She spends her days in court, fighting for her women clients to get access to their children. She now finds herself in the same situation, and experiences, first-hand, the unfairness, the helplessness, the absurdity of what her clients go through. Her son is 8 years old and is a diabetic. The father (played by the wonderful fox-faced Fariburz Arabnia) is lackadaisical about giving their son insulin shots, and refuses to admit that he is ever at fault, even when the son collapses in the schoolyard. Sharzad is allowed to see her son once a week, and her relationship with her ex-husband is still prickly and full of resentment. She shows up at his house, and ends up doing laundry for him, as he follows her around, giving her a hard time.
Sharzad, familiar with the loopholes in the law, starts to fight her own case before judges and intermediaries. If a father can be declared “incompetent”, then, and only then, will custody be granted to the mother. She documents her son’s illness, the hospital visits, the emergency room runs … to no avail. The court remains immovable. She becomes desperate. She fears for her son’s well-being. Her ex-husband is angry that she divorced him in the first place. He wants her to come home. Her family puts the pressure on her. She starts to see no way out. She kidnaps her son. They then are on the run. Police are looking for them. They sleep in her car. They hang out aimlessly in playgrounds. Her son cries that he misses his father. There are no villains here. Or, perhaps the villain is the culture itself, that devalues women to such a degree that it leaves them no recourse but to take the law into their own hands.
This is serious business. This is a movie about people’s lives. Sharzad is an angry woman, even more angry as she gets nowhere with the legal system, and she refuses to play by rules that she thinks are unfair or dangerous. Her family freak out. They cannot get behind her latest choice. She ends up crashing with a friend, while she is on the run, and there are long scenes of the two of them talking, trying to figure out what she should do. These are quiet human scenes, well-written and well-played.
Was she right to take her son? Probably not. Not really. She pays for that choice. Maybe she was right, in an idealistic way, but we cannot live our ideals, at least not without consequences. She is not alone in the world. She has an ex-husband, she has sisters and a mother, all of whom are worried about her. She has abandoned her lucrative and important business. Her son is traumatized by being kidnapped. He loves his mother, but he is the real victim here. He loves his father, too. Director Reza Karimi does not make the mistake of painting everyone with a black-and-white brush. Besides, when you’re talking about cultural and social issues with Iran, there really is no such thing as melodrama. Even in a simple film about adultery like Hemlock (my review here – another movie with Fariburz Arabnia as the male lead), the pressures of the culture at large elevate the sometimes shlocky material with true horror. It is difficult to not try to imagine yourself in such a situation, and how you would handle it. The best of Iran’s films show the price paid by all members of society living under such an authoritarian regime. The husband is baffled by the course his life has taken. He is not a bad man, although careless with his son. He punishes his ex-wife by refusing access to their son. And perhaps he has some resentment that their son is a bit high-maintenance, being diabetic. All of that is in the script and in the performances.
Karimi is riveting. She has a face the camera loves, with big glimmering eyes, but her performance goes deeper than that. She operates at an increasing fever pitch of desperation and fear throughout the film, and it is to Karimi’s credit that none of it goes “over the top”. Instead, it is harrowing. You ache for her, for what she has lost, and what she is willing to give up.
Arabnia, the husband, also manages to portray levels of subtlety here that a lesser actor would have missed. Watch the scene where the two make their son’s bed together. Filmed with cut-away shots of their hands, tucking in corners of the sheets, it calls to mind all of the everyday domesticity that both of them have forfeited and perhaps now miss. He is a cold man, kind of uncaring, but when push comes to shove, he does not want to harm anyone. Not for good, anyway. Divorce sucks, in any culture. She left HIM. He is pissed off and ashamed. But watch the scenes where he plays with his son, or chats with him on the phone. His situation is heartbreaking as well.
It’s a ruthless film, willing to follow events to their logical conclusions to put the final nail in the coffin to the conversation about divorce and custody in Iran. The fantastic 1998 documentary Divorce, Iranian Style was groundbreaking in that regard. Divorce is very easy to receive in Iran, if you are a man. Islamic law declares that a man can divorce his wife at any time, merely by declaring it. She has no equivalent rights. She cannot do the same. The burden of proof is all on the woman, should she want a divorce, and custody is almost never granted to the woman. A Thousand Women Like Me, from 2000, is a good companion piece to Divorce, Iranian Style, with its intimate look at what goes on in Iranian divorce courts.
The subtitles in A Thousand Women Like Me are extremely annoying and very poorly done. White subtitles against white background, completely unreadable. It gets a bit better as the film goes on, but the first 20 minutes are terrible. You have to pick up on what is going on from the behavior alone, because the subtitles are invisible. It actually was a little bit interesting, once I realized the subtitles were a lost cause. Yes, it was annoying, but I accepted the situation and stuck with it, thinking, “Okay. Let me see how much I can ‘get’ just from watching behavior and body language.”
The acting is good enough, the story clear enough, with or without subtitles. I reiterate that the subtitle situation does improve about 20 minutes in, but you have to put up with that first 20 minutes.
A Thousand Women Like Me is worth it.