Film still: one of the characters momentarily flies, launching herself from the rooftop.
How do you explain the interior workings of the complexity and beauty that it is to be a woman? It's a task that can never be straightforward if the story being told is to have any integrity. Add to that the complications of Iranian society transitioning backwards and forwards between Islamic and western-leaning times, and you have a true conundrum.
With this film Neshat pioneers a new way of telling a story, the attitude to the narrative is an experiment. Adapted from the novella of the same name by Shahrnush Parsipur the story follows four women during the 1953 coup by the CIA, British Petroleum and the UK, which brought in the west-friendly absolute monarch the Shah and overthrew the Iranian people's democratically elected government. The book is in the genre of 'magical realism' and "has the surreal beauty of South American writers like Borges, the portrayal of life's absurdity stuck in a loop of Kafka and the existentialism of Camus."(1)
Interestingly Parsipur appears in a cameo as the Madame of a brothel.
This scene (not featured in the film) is a still from one of the installations by Neshat preceding the film. It happily reminds me of Daria Martin's work.
Neshat explores the shared tragedy of a variety of women in an emotional way while thankfully not giving in to some of the gratuitous heart-wrenching ingredients we see in other films. She eloquently conveys via imagery the symbolism these women hold at the centre of the tale. Intentionally, she states, the political events remain in the background. Likewise the Persian intelligentsia, the Communists and the police remain at the periphery of the tale. The story is of women, not men and herein lies the title's point.
Neshat is known for her breathtaking photography and her very individual manner of depicting beauty. Her film draws you in from the first moment with its artistic framing, enticing colours and luscious location choices - Morrocco, as like many contemporary film makers, Neshat cannot return to Iran. Neshat had studied one of the characters before: Zarin, in a short film of the same name before the feature film's production in 2005. Zarin is an emaciated and silent prostitute for whom men have become faceless. The fact that she barely speaks a word during the film but tells us so much (for example when she breaks down and scrubs herself red raw in a public baths), is itself a point about her character as a woman.
Film still: the peaceful bath-house scene before Zarin silently breaks down in public.
Each of the four women represent different episodes experienced by women, regardless of where they are from. In that the film is a triumph, even before we consider the groundbreaking experiments that Neshat has worked into the film's story telling and visual imagery. Moments to look out for are when characters float a few inches of the ground while lying down in the orchard and narrate their own inner seismic shift, being buried alive and coming back only to drown again, losing everything to be reborn as the person the character had longed to be (portrayed via the vehicle of death), losing the one sole thing the character values then to realise her self-esteem is in fact immovable, a character leaving the life she knew without knowing if the life she'd hopes for will be possible because it relies on the unspoken promises of another, the disappointment of ageing tempered with the joys of taking control, one character supporting others as far as she is able to - only to then let them down...these are the size of things all women live through in a lifetime if not in these exact situations, then in others.
The story then is not the polemic against men or society as you might expect, but more a study of the hardships of being a woman who solves her own problems and takes her life in her own hands. It is not as it appears, a dark film, but about strength in hard times and if you pay attention you will see the positive message of women's strength even in the face of defeat, within this film. There is victory and an element of, as Samuel Beckett put it, the capacity to "Fail better".
And in the spirit of sharing, you can read the original book online here.