Here is my first contribution to the Iranian Film Blogathon. A review of Marziyeh Meshkini’s stunning directorial debut, The Day I Became a Woman.
The Day I Became A Woman (2000), was director Marziyeh Meshkini’s first film, although she had worked as an assistant director before that on husband Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s films. Makhmalbaf produced The Day I Became a Woman. The film won awards around the world.
The film is broken up into three separate narratives, each one unconnected from the other in terms of character and continuity, yet the thread is obvious: the film shows, in succession, the three stages in a woman’s life: Little Girl, Married Woman, Old Lady. The cinematography (by Mohamad Ahmadi and Ebrahim Ghafori) is superb, totally memorable.
A lot of Iranian films, naturally, are set in Tehran, but The Day I Became A Woman is set on Kish Island, off the coast of Iran in the Persian Gulf, a spectacular landscape of white beaches and crashing surf. It’s a resort island, a vacation spot for the Iranian wealthy, and a place where it’s a bit more relaxed for women to hang out. However, The Day I Became A Woman does not show that aspect of Kish Island. You would never know it was a resort spot from what we see in the film.
The first story is about a little girl on her 9th birthday, the day she is slated to “become a woman”. From now on, she will have to wear the chador, not play with (or talk to) boys anymore, and basically begin her training to become a woman. Hava (the little girl) is a wild urchin whose best friend is a little boy named Hassan. But on this day, her birthday, she has to say goodbye to him as a friend. Her mother and grandmother give her a break, and tell her she can go off and see Hassan, but they put a stick in the sand and tell her she has to be home when the shadow of the stick disappears. Hava races off to find Hassan.
Throughout their interaction they share a lollipop, smacking their lips because of the sour-ness, and Hava keeps racing back to check the shadow of the stick. She doesn’t question her “plight”, she just knows it’s unfair, because she loves Hassan. Like most Iranian film-makers Meshkini uses a light touch with filming children. She does not overburden them with metaphor and meaning. They are uninhibited, and seem like the most child-like of children in film. Hava does not see herself as a victim of a patriarchal theocratic society. She sees herself as living in an unfair world because she can’t play with her best friend. It’s no different from other children wailing about how “unfair” it is that they can’t sleep over a friend’s house on a school night. I’m not saying the two things are equal, but it’s equal in the way it is portrayed. Children may be mischievous, and capable of the full range of human emotions, but they are not aware of the larger societal issues that make life the way it is.
Hava is too young to rebel in any meaningful way; she doesn’t see purdah itself as unfair. She’s too little for that. This is why the first segment of The Day I Became A Woman is so devastating, because Hava is too young to understand. But she will submit, because that’s what you do when you’re a kid. Little Hassan, sucking on a sourpop with his friend, is also an innocent. He is a boy, burdened with the status and privilege that that implies. But he, too, is just a little kid. It is unfair for him as well. Yesterday you were my friend and now you can’t walk on the beach with me? Why?
The third story in The Day I Became A Woman shows an old infirm woman going on a shopping spree. She is a widow, she has a little money, and has decided to buy all the things she wanted to buy during her life but never did. She is so frail that a small boy pushes her wheelchair around a glittery mall. The little boy is black, and a couple of comments from the old woman makes it clear that once upon a time she was in love with a black man, but was not allowed to marry him. She feels like the little black boy could be her dream-son. She buys so much stuff that an army of small boys are gathered to roll her purchases down the street on carts.
Instead of bringing the possessions to to a house or an apartment complex, they take them to the beach, and set up all of the stuff on the white sand.
I’m still thinking about the scene, and its images. There were moments when I thought of Fitzcarraldo, with the boat going over the mountain. By that I mean: What I was looking at was real, and was obviously really happening. But it had such a surreal edge, like something from out of a dream or a nightmare of a moment of deja vu. Filmmakers often try to film dreams and more often than not they fail. Here, what we are seeing is real, yet it launches itself into the vast undercurrent of our collective unconscious. These are images I have never seen before, strange and unique, and yet the reverb set off by them is one of inevitability and odd familiarity. I know this place…. I have been here before ….
Like most of us, I am used to seeing the same images over and over in films. Even very good movies lack imagination in how they show what they show. You know, you see apartments, and close-ups of faces, and shots of sunsets, and closeups of coffee mugs, and long shots of tall grass waving in the wind. But in The Day I Became A Woman, the definition of a personal film, I saw new things. A clothesline suspended on two offscreen poles, with pots hanging from the line, seemingly suspended in mid-air, with the blue sea in the background. The grandmother and two women sitting on the couch and armchair, chatting, surrounded by white beach.
Then, there were odd scenes, fragments, seemingly caught or stolen images: a little boy putting on makeup in the mirror perched in the sand. Another little boy trying on what was obviously the grandmother’s wedding dress once upon a time. A little boy dancing on a beach, wearing a wedding dress.
It’s artificial, it’s surreal in the classic sense of the word, but with a rough edge: it’s not a static image: people are alive in that surreal scene. It’s a theatrical psychological moment, the beach becomes a stage-set, the people living amongst their things on the sand actors, performing for an invisible audience.
But it is the second story that is the masterpiece of the film. As monotonous as it might sound, I could have watched an entire two-hour movie of that particular story-line. It was brilliantly executed. Words cannot describe the full-throttle catapulting energy of this section of the film, its movement and urgency, its sounds and its heaving breaths. It plays like a bat out of hell.
The second section, following on the heels of the sad goodbye between little Hassan and Hava, starts with a sandy expanse of land, and a man on a horse. The horse is a gleaming galloping black stallion, and the vision of the stallion, and the white sand, and the man in the billowing white shirt riding the horse as it flies across the earth – sets up the mood and the pace for the entire section. The first story was static, visually. The camera remained trained on Hava’s little face, as she chattered up to Hassan through the window, and they shared the lollipop. But the second story is all movement, all fast tracking shots, at times pulling back and swooping around, giving us an even wider perspective. The choreography of the camera in episode 2 is remarkable: There is never a shot with the camera stationary on the ground, with figures moving towards it. It is always in movement and so are the characters.
We aren’t sure at first what the man is doing, but it is pretty obvious from his body language that he is not out for a leisurely ride. He is looking for something. And then in the distance, we can see small figures moving in a horizontal line . He gallops towards them.
As the man approaches the distant figures, we can see the blue-green sea beyond them, crashing surf. There is a road along the sea. And along that road bicycle black-clad women, 40 of them, 50 … pedaling furiously, black chadors billowing behind them. We can hear the whizzing of the bicycle wheels, and the crank of the gears, and the little ringing bells when one wants to pass. It’s a race.
The women look identical, black cut-out silhouettes against the sea, but all wearing jeans and sneakers underneath. What we are seeing, like the man on the horse, is not a leisurely ride. They hunch over the handlebars, making themselves streamlined, small, their veils flying up and out behind them like crazy bat wings.
Sometimes one surges ahead, and you can feel the others start to pedal harder (“Oh shit … where does she think SHE’S going?”). The camera zooms along beside the bicyclists, but then sometimes we’re thrust into the thick of the race, we can hear the heavy panting breaths of the women, the whizzing wheels, the clink-clink of bicycle bells. The camera moves in front of the procession sometimes, leading them on, pulling them forward.
The man on the horse makes a beeline for the race, and gallops along beside the women, peering at each one.
But of course they are indistinguishable from one another, because of the veils. It eventually becomes clear that his wife, Ahoo (played by the wonderful Shabnam Toloui) has disobeyed his orders to not participate in the bicycle race.
He shouts at first about how she promised him not to bike anymore with her bad leg. She ignores him. He soon starts to shout about the shame she has brought to him, and that if she doesn’t stop the bicycle race he will divorce her. Ahoo keeps pedaling. Finally, he realizes it will do no good, and he gallops off.
The race careens on at breakneck speed. There’s a rivalry between Ahoo and another woman, who’s listening to a Walkman as she pedals. They are neck and neck. All we hear is her breathing, the sound of the gears and the wheels, sometimes a crash of surf. When music finally enters into the segment, near the end, it’s horrible: a keen of loss, a cry of pain. The music (original score by Mohammad Reza Darvishi) is an eerie portent, a distancing effect signalling to us: It’s over now, it’s all over. But up until then, the sounds are all human, full of breaths and grunts and cries, pumping legs, panting breath. The sounds of life itself.
Her husband gallops back, this time with the village mullah in tow, also on a horse. The mullah gallops alongside Ahoo, shouting at her that that is not a bike she is riding, but “the devil’s mount”. It takes a truly pathetic individual to be threatened by a bicycle race. This is a very angry film. Ahoo keeps riding. Faster, faster, never stopping. The two give up and gallop off.
We know now that they will return.
There’s a moment when a sign appears up ahead, along the side of the road. Ahoo, pedalling for her life, far ahead of al lof the others, careens past it. The sign says:
When I saw this in the theatre here in New York, there was a rustle through the audience at that moment. Some people laughed, not because it was funny so much, but because it was perfect. An angry pointedly political moment in the middle of a frenzied bike race, reminding us that this is not just an individual story, about an individual woman. It is about women in Iran. You. Are. Here. Nowhere else, but HERE. The map of Kish Island the stand-in for the whole. Put aside for the moment that the position of women leaves much to be desired in many places on the globe (and we’ve even seen a vicious underbelly recently in our own culture with the despicable treatment of journalist Lara Logan in the wake of the sexual assault she endured while on the job in Cairo): Iranian film-makers can’t afford to be humanitarians about the rest of the planet. Only privileged people have the time and energy to be worried about everyone else. Iranians must focus on themselves. Self-interest is one of the most important political motivations there is: revolutions come not out of altruism, but self-interest. This is universal. It is bad for US, we don’t like how it is for US, we have to change things for US. In that moment, as Ahoo whizzes by the sign that reminds her where she is (as if she could ever forget it), a giant accusing finger points in the right direction. It is not the husband who is the enemy, or the mullah, or the brothers chasing her. We know who is at fault. Meshkini, in that one shot, calls a spade a spade.
The husband keeps returning (we grow to hate the sound of hooves and whinnying), with other figures, all male, all galloping on horses. Her father screams that he will count to seven, and then she will stop bicycling. “Our tribe doesn’t divorce!” He threatens to send her brothers after her. There is no sanctuary. Family is as dangerous as the regime itself. Perhaps even more so.
Ahoo, pedaling, pedaling, pedaling, becomes one of the most heroic figures I’ve ever seen in cinema.
She’s an awesome athlete, first of all, with great endurance. She persists, she pushes on, she ignores the shouts and taunts, but there are times when you can feel it’s starting to get to her, and that’s when the other women start to catch up to her, and zip by her. This wakes Ahoo up to her situation, and she pushes forward, a burst of energy and speed. She has almost no lines. She doesn’t need them.
The bike race in The Day I Became a Woman is a spectacular and exciting bit of film-making, not just for a director’s debut, but period.
The camera never stops moving until the very end of the second segment … and as it slowly glides to a stop, the effect is shattering on the viewer. As long as there was movement, there was hope.
Will little Hassan in the first section someday grow up to be a man who chases his wife out of a bicycle race, enraged at her independence? It seems unthinkable, he’s such a little sweetie, and treats Hava like an equal. But that is what happens in a sexist society. Bigotry and bigoted expectations trickle down, make their mark. To try to maintain a human or egalitarian element in the relationship between the sexes is one of the major issues in Iranian film, never made more clear than here in The Day I Became a Woman.
Meshkini shows her deep understanding of cinematic language in the three sections of this brutal beautiful film, adjusting her style to fit the different storylines, adjusting her style to fit the different emotional subtexts. Each section of The Day I Became a Woman could be a stand-alone short film, and yet put together it is a devastating critique of the position of women in Iran, one of the angriest films I’ve ever seen, made even more angry due to the piercing beauty of the images. And the final shot of the film is so original, so authentic, so searingly ITSELF, that it stayed with me for days.
All of this is made even more poignant when you know that Shabnam Toloui, the actress playing Ahoo, was banned from working in film and television by the Islamic clergy once it was discovered that she was a member of the Baha’i faith (the Baha’is are persecuted in Iran, sometimes even executed). She finally couldn’t take it anymore and moved to Paris to pursue her acting career. I wish her the best of luck. In 2009, she appeared in Women Without Men, another award-winning film about the CIA-engineered overthrow of Iranian prime minister Mohammad Mossadegh in 1953. Toloui is unforgettable in The Day I Became a Woman. In my mind, she is pedaling that bike still.