For the Iranian Film Blogathon: I discuss director Maryam Shahriar’s debut film: Daughters of the Sun.
Daughters of the Sun, the debut feature by Iranian director Maryam Shahriar, is told with almost no dialogue. The story reveals itself through a collage of images, giving the film a haunted and poetic (sometimes overly so) mood.
The opening scene shows a young woman (played by Altinay Ghelich Taghani, who has no other credits) getting her long black hair cut off, as people stand around watching, the shrieking mountain wind the only sound. Head then shaved, and dressed as a boy (it is not explained why), with a pack on her back, she sets off on a lonely road, her family standing in a clump watching her go.
As she travels, through a magnificently empty landscape, we hear her singing a song in voiceover. There were no subtitles for the song, so I do not know what the lyrics were, but I suppose I didn’t need to know. Her voice sounds childlike, almost as though she is singing her way into a hopeful outlook, remembering back to when she was a girl. We don’t know where she’s going, or why, although we can make a guess: it is obvious everyone in this region is devastatingly poor. She looks so tiny tromping through that vast landscape.
We soon come to learn that her family has sent her to a village to be an apprentice to a rug weaver. She is talented at weaving, and is accepted immediately as an overseer of the other workers (all of whom are women). The women workers sit before the looms, colored balls of yarn hanging above them, and they glance over at their new co-worker curiously, wondering who is the young man with the shaved head, and how did he learn to weave so well.
The employer is a harsh suspicious man who beats the workers for small infractions, withholds any letters they receive, and keeps the door to the small stone weaving hut locked from the outside. One of the female workers is blind and pregnant. A couple of times a day, the door is unlocked and an unknown hand places a tray of food on the floor. Most of the girls “commute” to work (one girl rides on the back of her brother’s bicycle every day for their miles-long commute), while others live in the surrounding village. All of them sit at their looms, silently working, cringing and freezing-up any time the employer enters. We get to know them all in fragments.
Taghani has taken the name Aman, as a boy, but being a boy does not protect her from harsh treatment. The employer beats her when the others are found slacking off, because it is Taghani/Aman’s job to keep everyone productive. A letter to her from her family somehow gets through to her, with word that her mother is very sick. She is not allowed to leave to go home to see her mother. As a matter of fact, she very rarely leaves the weaving house, and the few times we see her on outings to gather wool, the sense of freedom and air and cold on her face would be exhilarating if the whole situation weren’t so sad.
You would never know we were in the 20th century in Daughters of the Sun. There are few cars in the village. The weaving hut has no electricity. Life is narrow and difficult. Snow-covered mountains surround the plains like jagged teeth, a ruthless boundary. Marriage might be an escape, but when one of the workers marries her cousin, the ceremony is so solemn (the procession marching through the graveyard on the side of the hill) that it might as well be a funeral. The woman being transported passively from one prison to another.
In the middle of this harsh world, a friendship blossoms between Taghani and another co-worker named Belghies (played by Soghra Karimi). Belghies is young but has already had a harrowing life. She grew up in Tiva, a place she remembers fondly, but as one who remembers a world that has completely disappeared. There was an earthquake in Tiva, and her entire family was killed, leaving her alone. She wandered through the rubble, for days, until finally her uncle took pity on her, and sent her to the rug weaver to make her living.
This all comes out in an unsolicited monologue from Belghies to Taghani, with the loom of wool strands between them, giving the scene the feeling of a confessional. (I would say that, being a Catholic, but I can’t imagine that that effect is not deliberate.) Only with something between them, only with that barrier, perhaps, can Belghies be honest.
It is left unclear whether or not Belghies knows that Aman is actually a woman. Belghies intercepts a letter to Aman from Aman’s parents, and reads it. In it comes the news that Aman’s mother has died. But that is all we learn. Was there any other information in the letter? Did the letter plead with Taghani to “be a good girl”, thereby blowing her cover? Daughters of the Sun does not say, and the fact that we don’t know whether or not Belghies understands that the person she has fallen in love with is actually a woman adds a layer of tension and strangeness to an already strange tale.
The film was also written by Shahriar, and while she takes a pretty heavy hand sometimes with her symbolism giving the film a feeling of an undergraduate creative writing assignment (a black horse in a nearby paddock escapes, a donkey also escapes from the barn, and is seen throughout the film, in long shot, wandering free through the fields, with towering mountains in the background), what I enjoyed about her style is that she is obviously in love with images themselves, and the putting-together of images to make her story. The cinematography is a secondary star here. The film is spectacular-looking. It is not a tale told literally. It is more of a tone poem. The language is sparse. The emotions raw.
I have heard the film compared to Boys Don’t Cry, but except for the fact that our lead character is a woman dressed as a boy, I see that as a rather facile comparison, giving the film short shrift.
This is not a story of a girl coming out as a lesbian, or the story of a girl realizing she is transgendered. This is not a story, at least in our privileged Western sense, of gender fluidity, and gender politics, although there are subtle elements of all of that going on. For example, when the employer is away from the hut, sometimes the women have fun by making moustaches out of black wool and wearing them on their upper lips, laughing hysterically. If you’re a woman in this world, making fun of men helps take the edge off. But then there is the twist that there is a “man” in their midst (Taghani) but he’s “different”, so they like him. So there is obviously something being said about gender in Daughters of the Sun, an opportunity to look at love between human beings, and the position of women in a world where they are not free to maneuver on their own, and where men, even husbands and fathers, are jail-keepers. But this is not a Western story of a girl wanting to “just be herself”. This is a story of brutal survival on a Dickensian scale, despite the fact that it takes place in the modern age. Men here are almost universally oppressors. There is an old man who works for the weaver, and he seems to be kind and supportive, but he is too old to do them any harm (or any good).
Taghani has dressed as a boy. It is never said why. Perhaps it was hoped by her family that being a boy would spare her some of the harsher indignities of life as a single woman out in the world on her own. But it doesn’t really spare her, from beatings, from fear of being caught, and from the sneaking suspicion that a couple of the people in the village (a wandering slightly sinister guitar-player, in particular) are onto her. What would happen to her if she is discovered?
The cinematographer is Homayun Payvar, who also shot Abbas Kiarostami’s world-famous Taste of Cherry, and his photography is sensitive and powerful. Taste of Cherry was another film with long stretches of utter silence, the car circling around the monochromatic construction site outside of Tehran, and the scope of his photography, the shot composition, all of that helped the film achieve what it did. There are no colors other than brown in Taste of Cherry, and Payvar wrings every bit of poetry he can out of what could have been a one-note film. The natural landscape in Daughters of the Sun is captured in all its strangeness and isolation, and the shots of the women in the weaving house could have been monotonous, but he chooses angles and perspectives that always give the screen some interest, something new to look at and ponder.
There are a couple of extraordinary scenes:
After having a conversation with Belghies, Taghani is alone in the weaving house at night. She sleeps there, unlike the other workers. She sits alone on her bed, and suddenly, for the first time, we hear music, insistent guitar music, making the atmosphere intense and taut. A shaft of yellow light hits her face, the rest of the screen being in darkness, and she slowly moves her hands up and down her jaw, the camera coming in closer. Her face is eloquent, yet mysterious. I put many different interpretations on the moment. It looks like she is crying at one point, but then in the next, she looks exalted. Is she feeling her smooth skin, reveling in the fact that she is a girl? Or is it that she has fallen in love with Belghies, and love makes her soft, yearning for touch, and the closest thing to touch is herself? It could be either. In the next moment, she stands, and picks up a flowered skirt on the ground, putting it on, and then – whirling around, holding the skirt out. In the middle of this workhouse environment, to see someone taking simple pleasure in … her identity, of all things, is quite moving.
In another scene, Taghani has been horribly beaten by her employer. Her face is battered. Left alone at night again in the weaving house, she wanders around, and one would perhaps expect her to weep, or to curl up in bed and moan. Instead, Taghani approaches the batches of colored wool hanging from the line above, wool that bleeds its colors into the darkness: majenta, blue, yellow, bright red … the only colors in this film, really, exotic and beautiful. Lush and deep colors. And Taghani, blood coming out of one of her nostrils, walks beneath the wool, head flown back, a rapt smile on her face, letting the wool brush over her face, a startlingly sensuous moment of pleasure for the sake of pleasure.
Persian carpets are a hot commodity on the world market. An entire book, The Carpet Wars, has been written about the carpet industry, its thousands-of-years old tradition, and the people who make these rugs. I thought of that book as I watched Taghani. The rug she is making in the cold stone hut in the mountains in Iran will be on display in a boutique in Manhattan by the following year, or draped across the floor of a mansion or a library or an arts club in Tehran or Istanbul or Paris or London. The inequities of the situation are obvious. However in the scene where she runs her face through the wool, I thought of another aspect of it. Taghani has a gift for weaving, that is clear to everyone in the hut. She knows her stuff. She doesn’t need to talk about it. She just does it. These carpets are works of art. Taghani is not allowed pride in her work because her life is too hard. But there she is, poverty-struck, dressed as a boy, and in an unguarded solitary moment, she revels in those colors. Even more so than Belghies, they are her companions. By talking about the moment too much, I feel that I lessen the impact of it (this is so often the case). But all sorts of associations were let loose in my mind when I watched Taghani, face battered and bloody, burying her skin in the dark rich colors that will become a world-class carpet.
In the scene with the flowered skirt, Taghani revels and takes joy in being a woman. In the scene with the wool, she seems to revel in her own artistry.
There are horrors here, and the unremitting Badness of men can start to seem a bit too much. The obvious symbolism sometimes gets the better of the young director: the insistently poetic can become, despite the intent, the most literal thing on the planet. Flocks of swooping birds = Freedom. Wedding Processions Goes Through Graveyard = Marriage Is Death. There is a recurring plot-line interspersed through the rest of a man in a battered jeep trying to find the village. He asks passersby, he stops people on the country roads … all to no avail (which just goes to illustrate how isolated the village is). It is not explained until the very end who he is. He picks up a hitchhiker and they converse as they drive towards the village, and he explains that he is with the Department of Labor and Social Security. That is all he says, but it is immediately apparent that he is out there to investigate the weaver’s employment policies and how he treats his workers. Naturally, he arrives too late. Tragedy has struck. This is an amateurish device, put in to raise the stakes, and it is not necessary. The stakes are high enough.
But Daughters of the Sun shows Shahriar as a director with a sure storytelling hand, an understanding of the visual image, and a commitment to art. If there is an artful way to show a moment, Shahriar will find it. She lets her screen fill with quiet, which allows the emotions to pour forth intensely, not relying on language or explanations. Her actors, most of whom have no other credits, are amazing. Taghani’s face fills the screen. It is a beautiful face, one we can invest in, because of its openness, its emotionality and vulnerability.
My final thought, though, in terms of Daughters of the Sun is of poor Belghies: in love with the young kind gentle cropped-headed boy in the weaving house, yearning to return to Tiva, where life can be good, where the two of them can live together in the future, as man and wife, where they can get a little cottage together, and be happy, have a better life. But even as she speaks of her plans, her voice and spirit tell another story. She tries to speak her way into belief, but it is a fantasy, a dream of the glories of drowned Atlantis.
For a time, Taghani believes in the dream, too. Belghies asks Taghani to marry her. In a stunning moment, Taghani says Yes. In that moment, I fully believe that Belghies knows that Taghani is a woman. They understand one another. They know what they are saying yes to.
Daughters of the Sun is a romance, I would say, although there are no obvious love scenes. Word has it that the director was forced to cut more explicit scenes of courtship in order to “pass” with the censors in Iran. No matter. There is one moment when we see the two through the loom, sitting side by side. In the shot, they both are looking forward at their work. And then, slowly, Belghies turns to look at Taghani. They do not speak. Silence stretches out, yawns around them, the wind battering the stone hut. Then, slowly, Taghani turns to meet the other woman’s eyes. There is a pause. Potent and huge.
That is the entirety of the scene, and it is breathless with the possibility of love. Doomed, perhaps,and borne out of convenience and fear. But love. It is there in the silence, in what is not being said. A tragic Rosalind and Orlando, Iranian-style.
Maryam Shahriar has not made another film since this one, her first. I do not know the reasons for her silence, although I can make a couple of guesses. It is already a loss. In another culture, such a director would be onto other things, traveling to festivals with her films, getting her name out there, giving interviews, hustling to get her films made. Maybe there are other reasons for her silence. I don’t know. But if Daughters of the Sun is your freshman effort, you could pretty much do anything.