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Dreamy and real

July 1, 2010

Artist Shirin Neshat's first film "Women Without Men," which has opened in Germany, tells the stories of four women in 1950s Iran and offers a window into a world that has parallels with today's protest movement.

a scene from "Women Without Men"
Rich in imagery - a scene from "Women Without Men"Image: Neshat

Anyone familiar with Iranian-born Shirin Neshat's video installations will recognize the trademark stark black and white imagery and richer, shifting hues of the scenes in the artist's first cinema feature "Women Without Men".

Loosely based on a magical realist novel by Iranian author Shahrnush Parsipur, the film is set in August 1953 in Tehran when an American-led, British-backed coup toppled Mohammed Mossadegh's democratically elected government and installed the Shah as dictator.

A scene of a woman wearing sunglasses in the film "Women Without Men"
The dominant image is of a garden that's real but also a dream spaceImage: Courtesy Co-Production-Office

The film's dominant image is of a garden that seems to be located in the real world, but is also a dream space. It's both jungle and desert, but also a safe haven.

Complex, cosmopolitan Tehran

This is where the four main characters - Tehran women from different classes and backgrounds - meet and tell their stories of resistance and suppression in 1953.

The most memorable of the four is Zarin, played by Hungarian actress Orsi Toth. Zarin is an emaciated prostitute who flees the brothel where she works to a women's public bath. In a graphic scene, she furiously scrubs her body raw in an attempt to erase the imprint of the men who have used her.

Besides Zarin, the other women include Munis (Shanam Tolouei), a single woman who shares a house with her domineering fundamentalist brother and later commits suicide, Faezeh (Pegah Ferydoni), a friend of Munis who is extremely pious and conservative and Fakhri (Arita Shahrzad), the disillusioned wife of a general.

It's through these women that Shirin Neshat explores in a dream-like way the hope and hopelessness, pain and awakening of a decisive moment in Iranian history that the film suggests marks the beginning of the country's present-day problems.

A scene in a hammam in "Women Without Men"
A key film in the scene takes place in a hammam or women's public bathImage: Courtesy Co-Production-Office

The film, shot in Morocco, evokes 1950s Tehran as a complex, cosmopolitan place full of scenes depicting mosques and hammams and stylish high-class gatherings.

"I wanted this film to show that life in Iran in the 50s was more colourful than it is nowadays," Neshat said. She added: "Back then, you saw a mix of western-oriented people, pious people, prostitutes, and so on. It was very different from today when everyone is being forced to be religious".

Mixed reviews

The film, which originated as a video installation, and is heavy in imagery and tragic feminist allegory has been relatively well recieved by critics.

German paper Sueddeutsche Zeitung said "the beauty and dream character of the imagery proves the invincible desire for freedom that is rescued and preserved in the Poetic after every defeat."

But others were more critical, saying the film was not easy to access.

"The film feels over-stuffed into its 99-minute frame. It's hard to take in the complexity of Iran's social changes when we're constantly asked to contemplate the meaning of a tree crashing into a house or - in one of the film's more precious, even kitsch images - Zarin planting a field of paper flowers," the Independent wrote.

A journey from East to West

Kitsch or not, there's little doubt that the personal and the political play a big role in Neshat's works.

Iranian-born artist Shirin Neshat
Shirin Neshat's works are banned in IranImage: Courtesy Co-Production-Office

The 53-year-old, who lives and works in New York, grew up in Tehran in a family firmly oriented toward the west and attended a Catholic boarding school. She emigrated from Iran to the USA in 1979 to study art, just before the Islamic Revolution that drove the Shah into exile.

She was banned from visiting Iran in 1966 for her critical, political works which deal with issues of violence and eroticism, tradition and modernity, exile and home.

Neshat first shot to international fame in the 1990s with a series of photographs called "The women of Allah." The pictures showed women in veils carrying guns, their skins covered in elaborate Islamic texts.

There's little doubt that Neshat's art is informed by her home country and her own personal search for identity.

"You can drive Iranians out of Iran, but you cannot kick out Iran from Iranians," Neshat said. "After so many years in the West, I am still an Iranian woman emotionally. On the other hand, I also feel western, in the way I think, the clothes I wear and the way I live."

Politics at the core

The artist said she deliberately avoided taking clear positions in politics and religious matters for a long time.

But all that changed last year when protests, mostly by young Iranians, exploded on the streets of Iran followed disputed presidential elections.

The government in Tehran cracked down and eventually crushed the demonstrations. More than 100 protesters were killed, more than 5,000 arrested.

Neshat said that from a moral point of view, she simply had to support the opposition movement. After all, she said, they were fighting for the same aims she believes in: freedom, democracy and human rights.

To her, the similarities between the events of 2009 and 1953 are obvious - above all when it comes to women.

A scene from "Women Without Men"
The film is full of stark imagesImage: Courtesy Co-Production-Office

"When it comes to political activities, women are different from men. I believe women act more emotionally, and that's positive. Women don't like violence, they cannot bear it. Men also don't like violence, but they bear it," Neshat said.

"During the upheaval last summer in Iran, we saw women trying to help protesters when they were beaten by the police. And that is what we see in the film, when the actor who plays the Muni character takes a dying soldier in her arms and cries bitterly."

Memories of a brief democracy

"Women without Men," was six years in the making and actually completed before last year's protests.

Neshat said she wants the film to honor those people who fought for freedom in 1953 although she is almost certain the film will never get past Iranian censors.

Her work is banned there, and she hasn't been able to visit the country since 1996. Still, some Iranians have seen the film through smuggled DVDs and that's the best she can hope for.

No matter how many people there do see pirated copies, the artist said she wants those who do to remember the short period, which seems so long ago today, when Iranians actually lived in a democracy.

Author: Sabine Damaschke (sp)
Editor: Anke Rasper