A group of intellectuals and artists sit around a table in a restaurant, drinking wine, and talking about Camus and democracy. Camus’ comments on freedom are approved of by some in the group, and rejected by another, who argues that democracy cannot take root in a country that is not prepared for it. This is the context of Shirin Neshat’s extraordinary 2009 film Women Without Men, which details the time in Iranian history (1953) when Prime Minister Mossadegh, who had made the world-unpopular but Iranian-popular decision to nationalize the country’s oil supply, was ousted in a coup engineered by the British and Americans. It was a heady time in the Iranian nation, so constantly riven by revolutions and counter-revolutions. Mossadegh was a nationalist, and he was in direct opposition to the Shah, who was seen as an effete Westernized puppet (and in many ways he was). Mossadegh was threatening the world order by making the outrageous claim that Iranian oil actually belonged to Iranians. The response from the world was swift. Iranian tankers were blockaded, there were standoffs in the Persian Gulf, and an embargo was put in place. Mossadegh (or “Old Mossy” to Iranians) stood strong, and people took to the streets, some in support, others in protest.
There was a Communist Party fighting against the Shah and fighting for Mossadegh. There were fascists fighting against Mossadegh and fighting for the Shah. The Western-educated Iranians were more often than not in favor of the Shah, because of his relaxed and modern policies that directly benefited them. (Meanwhile, though, the Shah’s regime was a brutal and ruthless dictatorship and millions starved under his rule, while he slept on satin sheets. Welcome, Ayatollah Khomeini, the ground is ripe for your arrival.) The tragedy is that there was a truly democratic movement on the ground during the Mossadegh situation, and it had nothing to do with religion or theocracy (as would be the case in the 70s, when Khomeini hijacked the nationalist “the Shah must go” revolution and made it a clarion call to return to the purity of the 4th century). The people were demanding a piece of the national pie, and the betrayal of the imperialist forces was a wound that still exists in Iran today. (Ask an Iranian cab driver about Mossadegh. And then just sit back and let them talk.) While Iran could not be called strictly secular in the 1950s, the opening of the country to the West was a boon for the elite class. There was a flow of ideas with the outside world. There was not the horrifying brain drain which has now decimated the Iranian population of its best and brightest. People were staying in Iran. The issues were complex, although perhaps not to those who were partisans for either side. The Shah was an autocrat, and his secret police (SAVAK) were notoriously ruthless. It was not a free country. But he courted the West’s money, and for a brief window of time there was freedom, education, a flow of ideas going back and forth. The tensions between modernism and traditionalism still existed, naturally, but the elite were rising. It is the elite who learn how to do things: they learn surgery, they learn engineering, they work with lasers and X-rays, they participate in development. Those left behind, the uneducated, the poverty-struck, will always feel resentment, especially if there is not an incentive to get ahead. These cross-currents were all working in Iran during the final 30 years of the Shah’s reign. So when the battle cry “THE SHAH MUST GO” began echoing across the land in the 1970s, there were those who were thrilled and hopeful that the democratic revolution was finally, finally, upon them, the revolution they had been denied in 1953.
Following the 1953 coup and the downfall of Mossadegh, retaliation against those who had supported Mossadegh was brutal and all-encompassing. The Communists were rounded up and arrested. People lived in fear for their lives. The Shah punished those who had not shown loyalty. And so the situation stood until a cleric in exile saw which way the wind was blowing in his home country and therefore saw his opportunity. It was yet another betrayal.
I feel I must get this out of the way before I talk about this poetic and magical film, which takes as its background the context of the coup in 1953 to become a meditation on the role of women in Iran, and, on a more profound level, the revolution of women operating without a male presence and living their lives as they see fit without a male stamp of approval. In Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, the following exchange occurs between protagonist Esther Greenwood and her psychiatrist:
“I don’t see what women see in other women,” I’d told Doctor Nolan in my interview that noon. “What does a woman see in a woman that she can’t see in a man?”
Doctor Nolan paused. Then she said, “Tenderness.”
That shut me up.
Such situations have always made men nervous because it upsets the status quo (those in power or not, and if you live in a patriarchal society than even the men closest to you have ultimate authority over you), and Women Without Men is both explicit and poetically subtle in ways that it evokes that tension. Based on a novel by Iranian author Shahrnoush Parsipour (the book, not surprisingly, is banned to this day in Iran, and its author was jailed upon its original release), Women Without Men tells the story of four very different women, whose paths cross on what appears to be an alternate plane of existence, during the upheaval of 1953. There is a lush orchard behind a wall outside of Tehran, and, somehow, without knowing why or how, the four women are drawn there.
It is a place not just to hide from the various forces trying to crush them (as well as the political forces roiling the country), but a magical peaceful place where red flowers bloom in the desert, where water flows freely, and where the normal rules and restrictions of urban life in Tehran vanish. The women cook for one another, they don’t wear their veils, they spend their days reading, contemplating, singing, and it seems that they may have outrun their various pasts. The tragedy, of course, is that they have not. But Women Without Men presents, without irony, the beauty and freedom of what it would be like if men weren’t running the show. And it don’t look half bad. Out in the streets, the fight goes on, the radio blasts the latest news, and the opposition tries to organize itself against the Shah’s return. The women are not indifferent to these issues. As a matter of fact, they are highly involved (one personally, her husband being a General in the Shah’s Army), but once set free in the orchard, quiet, peace, and freedom surround them like a gentle flow of water. It seems, there behind those walls, that there may be a chance. If not for Mossadegh, then for them … to live quiet lives of integrity. None of this is spoken outright. There is much mystery at the heart of the motivations of the women. They are drawn to the orchard, as if by magic (quite literally). They do not know why they have come. There is no map. But there they all end up.
First we have Munis, played by the remarkable Shabnam Toloui, who made such an indelible impression on me in The Day I Became a Woman. Munis is “almost thirty” (as her pious brother never fails to remind her), and unmarried. She lives with her brother who keeps her a prisoner at home, and invites suitors to come over, even though Munis shows zero interest in romance. All she does, all day long, is sit by the radio, listening to the dispatches from Radio Iran, trying to read between the lines what is happening out in the streets with the protests. Munis is a political animal, with no chance for an outlet. She wants to go out and join the protests. She wants to show her support for Mossadegh. She doesn’t care about getting married. Remember: if you live in a patriarchal puritanical society like Iran, marriage can be freedom (you get out from under the thumb of your parents, and, as a single woman, you have zero protection in the culture and cannot navigate freely), but seen in another light it is swapping one prison for another. Munis is an adult and it is outrageous that her brother (played by the wonderful Essa Zahir, who manages to show us with compassion the struggles of a traditional man, fearful of modernization and fearful of societal change) should wield so much power. He threatens to break her legs if she leaves the house without his permission. She rolls her eyes and turns back to the radio.
Munis yearns for the clash and energy of the streets, for meaning, for purpose. She speaks with her friend Faezeh early in the film, and mentions that she wishes she was out joining the protests. Her friend is baffled. “Why? Those people are idiots.” The tension in the country seen in the tension between the two women.
Munis’ good friend, Faezeh, played by the extraordinary Pegah Ferydoni (she has one of the best cinematic faces I have seen in a long time), is more traditional than Munis, and wears the full black chador. She is in love in an unrequited way with Munis’ brother, and is dismayed when she learns he is engaged. He treats her with kindness (perhaps he recognizes in her a “modest” and traditional woman, the kind of woman which he approves of), and is protective of her. “Miss Faezeh, you shouldn’t be out in the streets,” he scolds her when she comes over. She glows at this show of paternal kindness. Faezeh is annoyed by Munis’ intractability, and doesn’t understand why she doesn’t, you know, open herself up to some of the suitors, see if she can make a life for herself that is better than the one she knows. But as Munis says in the voiceover that ends the film: “All that we wanted was to find a new form, a new way. Release.” The “old way”, marriage and babies, is not what Munis wants. She cannot make anyone understand that, there isn’t even a context for her to even want that. And so Munis has descended into an almost wordless depression, spiked with urgency, a desire to get out there in the streets and start screaming. Faezeh worries for her friend. There is a gentle conversation had in the garden of Munis’ house. Munis waters the flowers and they talk about virginity. Any culture that fetishizes female virginity, the fact of it and the symbol of it (the hymen, which, naturally, can vanish after a vigorous bike ride), is not a culture that is good for women. It reduces women to their genitals, and places value solely on what is between their legs. When people refer to the religious right in America in its current manifestation to the Taliban, it is not an inappropriate comparison. Women being reduced to their reproductive functions first of all discounts the value that women have as people, whether or not they have children. What about infertile women? What about post-menopausal women? What about the elderly? What about little girls? Their value decreases precipitously in a culture that values reproductive functions above all else. Munis laughs and says she’s thirty, she probably lost her hymen a long time ago climbing a tree. Faezeh cannot understand why she is so cavalier and explains to her that the vagina is a small hole that is meant to be widened by marriage. (Can you see how such explanations get inside of women, reducing them? Women then participate in their own oppression. Of course they do.) Munis says, “Where did you hear that?” Faezeh is worried about virginity and, unlike Munis, feels some urgency about her marital prospects. The man she is in love with is engaged. She is still a young woman, an innocent in many ways, and having an unrequited crush on someone seems more than enough. Over the course of the film, Faezeh’s innocence will be stolen from her, and she will emerge as a woman, unwilling to compromise her newly-found freedom (freedom she didn’t even realize she wanted) for domestic security. The prize Faezeh pays is high. In one moment in a dark alley, all of her ideals for herself and illusions about herself are torn from her. She will never be the same again.
Orsolya Tóth, an extraordinary Hungarian actress, plays Zarin, a young Iranian woman who works in a whorehouse in Tehran. She is skin and bones, and clearly traumatized by the sex she has to have, in an assembly-line fashion. She lies curled up in her room as the whorehouse madame (a fantastically chilling cameo by the author of the source material, Shahrnoush Parsipour) screams at her to “pull yourself together, you have another client waiting.” Zarin smears red lipstick on, and then lies passively as a man pumps away at her from above. Orsolya Tóth has no lines in the film and yet her performance has such great impact that she could almost be said to be the lead. It is her fragile journey that is the most tragic, the most doomed. It is she who needs saving the most. She is the forgotten, the lost, betrayed by the world into which she was born, betrayed by her gender, class, and status. She is clearly not emotionally equipped to be a whore. I remember the early scenes in McCabe and Mrs. Miller when McCabe, in carving his new town out of the forest, knows that he has to have women there to service the men. He grabs vagrants and lost souls, not professional whores (like Mrs. Miller), and in one horrifying scene early on one of the whores freaks out on one of her clients and stabs him to death outside of her tent. A brutal scene, and even more brutal is McCabe’s response to it (albeit a practical one): “I’ve got to get some professional whores up here, gals who can handle it.” A brutal world requires a brutal response. Zarin, so skinny it looks like you could snap her in two, is not like the worldly women circulating in the downstairs foyer of the whorehouse, women who negotiate their reduced circumstances with aplomb (seemingly). Every man she fucks traumatizes her further. In one terrifying scene, a client gently strokes her arm. He is a kindly older gentleman and looks upon her with tenderness, like a father. But when she looks up at his face, his eyes and his mouth have been blotted out. She leaps out of bed and flees the whorehouse, pulling a blue blanket over her for cover.
And finally we come to Fakhri, a woman married to a General in the Shah’s Army, a woman close to the concentric circles of power in the Iranian state. She is played by Arita Shahrzad, and it is hard to believe that this phenomenal actress has only two credits to her name.
Fakhri’s marriage is unhappy. She has a lost love in her past, a cultured man she runs into again early on in the film, who spends a lot of time in the West, and he tapped into something in her that she cannot re-capture in her marriage or her life. He recites to her a poem she wrote years ago. “I can’t believe you remember it,” she says, with sadness flickering through her eyes. He asks if she still sings. She says sometimes, but only for herself. Her husband (Tahmoures Tehrani) is a bigwig in the Shah’s Army and so naturally she runs in an entirely pro-Shah circle. Her friends are the elites of the nation, who do not wear veils, who drink and dance, who talk about poetry and art, and who participate in Western ideas. And yet still, at home, alone with her husband, more traditional rules apply. He accuses her of flirting with her old love. “You’re post-menopausal,” he throws at her, an unforgivable remark. He threatens to take a second wife because she no longer satisfies him. She begs him to leave her alone, to stop treating her so disrespectfully. At the end of the day, the patriarchal structure of the religion seeps into even the most Western of marriages. He wants a nice little wife at home. There is no mention of children. One wonders what happened there. Running into her old love sparks a change in Fakhri. She starts to see her marriage as a sham, a prison. She is a wealthy woman and decides to leave her husband and purchase a walled orchard outside of Tehran. On the grounds is an old furnished house, with cobwebs draping the bookshelves, and dust coating the plates still left on the table. I thought of Miss Havisham. Time has stood still in this remote location.
The script for Women Without Men is intricate and yet maintaining strong symbolic throughlines. It jumps around in time and space, and yet you never lose your orientation as to where and when you are. The director, Shirin Neshat, is a visual artist, and her main experience was with creating video installations. The script for Women Without Men was developed at the Sundance Institute, and Neshat wanted to bring her expertise in collage to something feature-length. Her challenges were many: how to tell the story while also telling the story beneath the story, how to honor the source material which is in the Magical Realism school of literature, how to devote herself to the Images, without sacrificing story and sense. The result of her strong visual background is that every shot in Women Without Men, every single one, is beautifully composed, startling and original, with a depth to the image that seems to grow the longer you look at it. Faces are often placed to the side of the frame, with a blurred or black background off to the side, encouraging thoughts of the vast forces at work here on the individual. Although Women Without Men has scenes of realism, there is always a symbolic element at play. For example, the Communists all dress in white shirts and black pants. This was a deliberate choice, underlining the separation of the different political movements surging through Iran at the time. You can recognize the Communists by their outfits. The soldiers all wear khaki. And the fascist Shah-supporters are head to toe in black. This results in some beautifully almost balletic images, involving large groups of protesting people converging on one another. While there is always realism at work in the film (it does not soft-pedal the scenes of sex or violence), the images themselves transcend the grit, and become something other than a documentary reality. This is what the cinema can do like no other theatrical artform.
The screen itself pulses with energy, vitality, and meaning. The images are portraits, windows, they are inherently psychological and poetic in nature. This sort of thing can become dreary when it is not anchored also in some kind of reality, it can become self-indulgent, the image in love with its own beauty. Women Without Men does not make that mistake. It balances the urgency of the real-life moments with the dreamy magic alternate universe that occurs in the walled-in orchard. There is no divide. Writers and travelers who visited the countries behind the Iron Curtain during the darkest days of the Cold War often remarked upon how vividly and enthusiastically the citizens of these countries pursued their personal lives. In the absence of the possibility of political involvement, the personal life takes on much more import. I thought of this as I watched Women Without Men, and the passionately colored and deeply evocative images that came one after the other, in a potent emotional collage.
Munis wants political involvement. She cannot get it. Faezeh wants domestic happiness. She cannot get it. Zarin wants release from the trauma of poverty and sex-for-money. She cannot get it. And Fakhri wants freedom to throw parties and be fabulous and enjoy the loving attention of a kind man who refers to her as “looking like Ava Gardner.” She cannot get it. And yet the film is about the attempt of all four women to realize their dreams, to live their dreams, to entire into the reality they can see for themselves, but also sense all around them as a potentiality. In this sense, Women Without Men owes much to Chekhov, and I thought of The Cherry Orchard (the final moment with the horrible sound of the axe chopping down the first tree) and The Three Sisters, about women who dream as hard as they can, while going nowhere, about getting to Moscow. In Women Without Men, Iran has been thrown into mayhem by a coup (there is a chilling moment when the coup is announced, in obfuscating language, over the radio in a crowded tea house), and yet women’s ability to be “involved” is completely blocked. Therefore, it is best to retreat, to enjoy one’s personal life, to live in peace and read and eat and think about things and garden, without interference. In the context of a patriarchy and a potential theocracy, a personal life becomes the brightest example of being free. Yes, the political solutions are important, as always. But when more than half of your population lives under the thumb of the other half, having the freedom to have “a room of one’s own” is also a revolution.
Rebecca West famously wrote:
“[Women] are idiots and men are lunatics. It’s a perfectly good division. The Greek root of idiot means “private person”; men “see the world as if by moonlight, which shows the outlines of every object but not the details indicative of their nature”. It seems to me in any assembly where you get people, who are male and female, in a crisis, the women are apt to get up and, with a big wave of the hand, say, It’s all very well talking about the defenses of the country, but there are thirty-six thousand houses in whatever (wherever they’re living) that have no bathrooms. Surely, it’s more important to have clean children for the future. Silly stuff, when the enemy’s at the gate. But men are just as silly. Even when there are no enemies at the gate, they won’t attend to the bathrooms, because they say defense is more important. It’s mental deficiency in both cases.”
In this excerpt West speaks of women in privileged societies like her own, the ones who declare, as though it is a badge of honor, “I never watch the news. As a mother, it is just too upsetting.” West is right to call such women “idiots”, and is right to dismiss them with contempt. (She is also right about the lunatic men as well, but the point I am going after is about women.) But in a totalitarian society, the personal IS political (if we can remove that overdone phrase from its mostly 1970s American concept). We can look at it through the prism of revolution and fascism and dictatorships. If every aspect of your public life is hemmed in, if you have no freedom to navigate, travel, speak openly in public, or, hell, even vote, then of course the personal becomes more vivid, of course things like film and art and theatre and poetry take on vast importance, messages saying, “Your thoughts, your heart, cannot be policed.”
Vaclav Havel, during his years of persecution and constant imprisonment and harassment, said that he made a decision early on to live “as if” he were free. Historically speaking, the phrase “as if” could be the most important phrase ever uttered. “As if” automatically propels you outside the box. (There is also a connection to Stanislavsky’s “magic if”, which is necessary for any actor, no matter what tradition. To succumb to the make-believe world of the story you are telling, you must ask yourself questions of the character, and the “magic if” helps you remove your own context, and enter the context of the character. “If this happened to me, how would I react?” “If I were in this situation, what would I do?” Never underestmate the power of the “magic if”. Children do it automatically. Adults need to re-learn it.) “As if” leaves no room for imprisoning yourself by the rules of others. “As if” means you sit at a whites-only lunch counter, “as if” means you get married to your boyfriend even though gay marriage is still not legal, “as if” means you write the book you want to write, even though you know it will mean imprisonment. “As if” means you continue to operate as though freedom existed and was yours to grasp, even though the culture at large is devoted (sometimes with laws, sometimes with firehoses and riot gear) to keeping you held back. However much dictatorships yearn to atomize the individual, and perhaps in countries such as North Korea that atomization is now complete, the human heart is an extraordinary organ, and the human imagination is stronger than any prison walls. This is why certain remarkable POWs can survive imprisonment and brainwashing without cracking. They take refuge in their own minds. They know that the prison is not in there.
During the Iranian Film Blogathon that I hosted last year, as a small protest against the imprisonment of Iranian filmmaker Jafar Panahi, my friend Ted wrote a gorgeous essay about Abbas Kiarostami’s challenging film Shirin. (I wrote about the film here, and that is the clearest I can get about the importance of Story to the human race.) While Ted’s essay is so worth reading in its entirety, due to the fact that he had multiple responses to the film and breaks his process down for us, I do want to excerpt him here, because it dovetails with what I am trying to say. Ted writes:
Now Shirin became a meditation on individualism. Each woman’s face was a voice. Each voice was silent outside, but in the darkened theatre they were free to sing their private songs. Now I loved knowing of their manipulation because I was aware how private their inner content really was. It could, in fact, have nothing to do with Shirin. And in light of that it was unrepressable. Kiarostami himself could tell them whatever he wanted, but Juliette Binoche or Hedye Tehrani were free to remember their first kiss or think of what they would have for dinner that evening. This was more like going to a gallery than a film, I became more aware of what I was bringing to the story (although I had brought something before – I had brought along my slightly judgmental artist-self – but I wasn’t aware of that context, nor did I get absorbed enough in the film to shed it). Now, half in touch with my own life the whole time, I looked deeply into a face sometimes, drifted off at others. I looked at one face while remembering another. Then I dipped into my own private memory. It’s the way I look at paintings or photographs. This time I came to the film with a mission to speak out on behalf of the silenced voice of a fellow artist. I’d like to think, perhaps, that that motivated state is a little closer to what it it’s like to watch the film as an Iranian (although I am surely exaggerating the similarity as my circumstances are far safer and more comfortable). Now the layers of narrative – the epic poem’s, Kiarostami’s, the actress’s, my own personal and political – interacted: the historical facts of the poem, the mundane tangible realities of making and attending an art film, the psychological reality of the woman as actress, and then as the character of “audience member,” the psychological reality of myself as another audience member, the private thoughts and fantasies I brought to viewing the film. No wonder dictatorships fear artists – religious dictatorships even more so – they would like to dictate each citizen’s inner content: their morals, their symbols. The complexity of the contributions meeting in this film is uncontrollable. And this film of women’s faces is a powerful protest in a culture in which so many women are silenced by the wearing of the veil. Shirin now became a protest film because its about the kind of speaking-out that it much harder to stop. Granted, imprisonment is stopping Panashi’s film output, but it is not necessarily stopping his thoughts, nor is it stopping the many other like-minded souls giving their individual thoughts a voice, even if they are currently just thinking those thoughts to themselves in the darkness of a theatre.
Women Without Men, with its dreamlike passages where women levitate above the water lilies, and women can actually come back to life after being buried, is devoted to Story on that primal and poetic level. This is what it looks like when there is no divide between the personal and political. This is what it looks like to live a revolution.
Munis is forbidden by her brother to leave the house. He wants her to accept a suitor, get married, and start being “decent”. Feeling trapped and helpless, she jumps off the roof of their home, dying on her back on the stone patio. Her brother and Faezeh discover her there, and bury her in the garden. Soon afterwards, during the wedding reception for Munis’ brother and his new wife, Faezeh goes to bury a Love Charm in the garden, given to her by a fortune teller, a charm that will help her love see her with new eyes. As Faezeh buries the charm, she begins to hear, horrifyingly, Munis whispering from where she lies, beneath the dirt only a foot away. “Faezeh … help me … I can’t breathe …” Faezeh digs up her friend, in a panic, and Munis emerges from the ground, seemingly unharmed. She has been resurrected. She stands up, walks to a nearby pool, and steps into it, her full skirt pouffing around her like an undulating jellyfish or parachute.
This event occurs almost halfway through the film, and it is foreshadowed in the opening shots, so by the time it comes, we accept it. We may ask the questions: “Is she a ghost?” “Is this really happening?” These questions are appropriate, as well as somewhat irrelevant. On the ground in Iran for women, with second-class citizenship and zero freedom, not to mention a giant international incident playing out on the world stage, it would be quite easy to feel that life has taken on an entirely surreal aspect. Munis is a ghost. Munis has been resurrected. Munis obviously still exists on a corporeal level, she joins the Communist Party, she takes to the streets with her comrades, passing out fliers and screaming “LONG LIVE MOSSADEGH”. She is clearly there. But is she? Politics seem real to those who participate in them, and of course politics have very real consequences. But there is a feeling that she is participating in something that has already been doomed, she is marching and screaming for a world that has already been lost. She stands surrounded by screaming protestors, and looks about her, her voiceover saying, “I felt that I was here not to watch, but to see.”
Feazeh, traumatized by the fact that her friend appears to have come back to life, follows her around trying to get Munis to talk to her. The first thing Munis does upon being resurrected is pull her chador on and run to the nearest coffee house, to sit amongst the men and listen to the news from the radio. She is the only woman in the establishment, but Faezeh appears to be the only one concerned about that. Faezeh, alone on the streets, does not have the protection that Munis, the ghost, the resurrected, appears to. She learns that almost instantly, and Munis finds her huddling in a doorway. I loved the shot of the two black-draped women talking to one another. You see no skin, no facial features. But there is no doubt of the emotions involved.
Munis leads the ruined Faezeh to the orchard, in a wordless sequence. Zarin, having escaped from the brothel, already found herself there, and was taken in by the kindly and concerned Fakhri. Faezeh, devastated, finds gentleness and ease in this new and protected world. She can sleep. She can let her hair down, literally. The orchard is a place where your past is irrelevant. The three women do not sit around and tell their stories. No, the bond that exists between them is a silent one of understanding, and space. Boundaries are re-asserted (after the world they came from, where women are basically the public property of every male they know and don’t know). Zarin gardens. Red flowers begin to glow in the middle of the desert. Faezeh is drawn to Zarin, and a gentleness replaces the anxious tension of her face when we first met her. Zarin is fragile and traumatized. Faezeh now is, too. Fakhri has created a space for herself where she sings all day long, and enjoys cooking and caring for others, as well as herself. It is an oasis, even more fragile-seeming since it is intercut with scenes from the protests going on in Tehran. How long will the peace last? Peace is an illusion, you get that right away, and the tragedy of that breathes through every frame. In one frightening sequence, a huge tree falls through the front door of the house, with no warning, in the middle of a bright sunny day. Fakhri and Farzeh stare at it, troubled. How long can they keep the world out? It’s going to come to get them after all.
The clash between the modernist forces, the nationalists, and the fascists come to a head when Fakhri decides to throw a house-warming party for her elegant friends from Tehran. The snooty Tehrani inhabitants wonder why she would choose to live in such an out-of-the-way area. Neshat directs the party scenes with a keen eye for the irony and wit of the Iranian people. A coup is going on just down the road, and here, the Iranians dress up in tuxedos and cocktail dresses, dancing and drinking and cracking jokes. One could see it as the elite being shown as the empty people that they are, but I do not see it that way. I see it as a brave and proud people asserting that their minds and hearts are their own, that love, wine, and song are important parts of any culture (and certainly an essential part of Persian culture, who brought us Rumi, Shiraz wine, and the passionate whirling Dervishes of Sufism), and that to suppress the way a culture expresses itself (its poets, its music, its thoughts and philosophy) is to cut a nation off at its knees. There is a reason why oppressed people so often revere their writers and artists more so than in freer countries (see Ted’s comment above). It is because the artists speak the dreams of the people, the artists help keep things alive as political structures crack apart. Watching these elite Iranians dance and play drums and sing is a serious reminder that only 20-some years later, this world would disappear. It would be these Iranians who would flee the rise of Khomeini. Every single thing these people are doing, with impunity, in this scene, would become illegal under the reign of the mullahs. So the Iran portrayed here is in living memory of current-day Iran, which is difficult to believe, but goes a long way towards explaining the admirable feistiness of the Iranian people, who continue to revolt and protest, despite the increasing persecution.
Soldiers arrive to break up the party. They race up onto the patio with their stomping black boots and surround the house. But after the soldiers are served a dinner (as the rest of the group stands behind them, watching them eat, nervously, in a very funny scene), they all basically just join the party. It happens seamlessly. One minute they are dominant, the next minute they start chatting and drinking with the others. There are scenes with Fakhri finally consenting to sing for the group, and at the end you see young soldiers clapping enthusiastically. The commander, an imposing bald handsome gentleman, who seems terrifying at first, is next seen talking to an American woman at the party, holding a glass of wine, and proclaiming drunkenly, “Iran is a high culture country. I love my country. To Iran!”
How beautifully subversive.
It is not the soldiers whom the orchard dwellers have to fear. The soldiers are one of them. All Iranians share the same cultural memory, and of course it is behind the walls of the orchard where all can come together, despite the chaos in the country at large. When the soldier says, “To Iran”, he knows what he means, and so does everyone around him. The problem is not the soldiers. The problem is the culture itself. The problem is the giant creaking mechanism of tradition, clashing with the thrust of exciting nationalist concerns, clashing yet again with the forces of modernism. In any such intersection, women will find themselves on the chopping block.
Men are not the enemy in Women Without Men, although to poor Zarin they are, and that is an understandable reaction for this abused woman, covered in blood and bruises from the rough and constant sex she has had to endure. Munis’ brother seems more trapped than any of the women, because he resists progress and seems so dismayed at the impending loss of his perceived status. He cannot understand why he, a male, cannot bend his sister to his will. He is not a bad man. He is a trapped and unimaginative man. He will never find freedom in a personal life. He is too worldly (ironically, considering his pious nature), too concerned with what everyone else is doing. He has no business playing on Faezeh’s affections, since he married someone else, but he cannot help it. Faezeh is a woman, and therefore under his domain. Imagine the pressure of that. Imagine how unhappy you therefore must be if that is your attitude.
So no, men are not the enemy. But because of the high status of men, even men of a low-class, it is rare that men can provide “tenderness”, as Doctor Nolan points out in The Bell Jar. Tenderness exists in the chirp of birds and the flow of water in the oasis of an orchard. Only space can provide intimacy, something the women discover once they actually have that space. Faezeh watches Zarin plant the red flowers in the psychedelic desert and a look of tenderness akin to Mary’s expression in the Pieta comes across her features. It is a look we have not seen from her in the film, and a look we never see from her again. She does not go to Zarin, she does not approach her, or cross that boundary. To do so would be to shatter the intimacy. Language would ruin it, as would gesture.
Tenderness can only exist in the spaces between people, not in their physical closeness.
The road to the orchard is vast and surrounded by empty space. The women travel back and forth, the air yawning around them, with space to move and breathe. They are veiled, they are not veiled, they are in a car, they walk. Nobody bothers them. They are running from things, they are running to things, they are trying to remove the context of their own pain.
But the tree falls through the front door. The space is growing smaller and will grow smaller, still. And tenderness will vanish, too.
This beautiful and powerful film is dedicated “to the memory of those who lost their lives in the struggle for freedom and democracy in Iran: from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to the Green Movement of 2009.”
Pierced with unforgettable images and powerful and emotional performances, Women Without Men is a searing tribute.
The importance of “As If” remains.