Shirin Neshat’s striking tragedy about four women in Iran.
It’s rumoured that when the former British Prime Minister Tony Blair asked in all seriousness why Iran disliked Britain, he was told that it had to do with the 1953 Anglo-American coup to overthrow Mohammad Mossadegh, the democratically elected Iranian leader who nationalised Iran’s oil in 1951 (thereby taking it out of British control). Blair purportedly replied, “Who?” Such a response might not be that uncommon these days, although not for those who choose to see Shirin Neshat’s impressive feature debut, Women Without Men.
That CIA-backed coup d’état provides the backdrop to the story, but the impact of the event is firmly, at times viscerally located within the four central female characters, especially Zarin (played with great commitment by Hungarian actress, Orsi Toth), a prostitute so spiritually and emotionally poisoned that she is on the verge of irreconcilable despair. However, she and the other women stumble (in turn) upon a near-magical place of solace that provides respite from the encroaching turmoil.
Shirin Neshat is a widely renowned photographer and visual artist—Aucklanders may recall her 2004 Art Gallery exhibition, Through The Eyes Of Shirin Neshat. Women Without Men is an adaptation of a novel by exiled Iranian writer, Shahrnush Parsipur (who has a small role in the film as the madam in Zarin’s brothel), a book that has provided inspiration for a number of Neshat’s video and photographic works. While the narrative aspects of the film are at times a little clunky, the visual and conceptual qualities are striking. The beautiful tracking shots and evocative, often poetic imagery are reminiscent of Andrei Tarkovsky, and there are moments that recall the work of Abbas Kiarostami, Mohsen and (more evidently) Samira Makhmalbaf. But these are passing and by no means imitative references. The dominant voice firmly belongs to Shirin Neshat, and as she navigates the political, religious and social complexities of Iranian society, the notion that the personal and the political are patently inseparable is powerfully affirmed. If you are still considering your festival selection, Women Without Men is well worth putting a ring around.