Film still: one of the characters momentarily flies, launching herself from the rooftop.
How do you explain the interior workings of such a complex and beautiful thing as a woman? It’s a task that is never straightforward if the story being told is to have any integrity. Add to that the complexities 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.
Neshat explores the shared tragedy of every strata of women emotionally, thankfully without being gratuitously heart-wrenching. She eloquently conveys via imagery the symbolism these women hold at the centre of the tale. Intentionally she states that political events remain in the background. Likewise the Persian intelligentsia, the Communists and the police remain in the background. The story is of women, not men and herein lies the film’s point.
Neshat is known for her breathtaking pictures and individual depiction of beauty. The 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 starting this film’s production in 2005. Zarin is a thin 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.
Each of the four women represent 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 connect with are: floating a few inches of the ground as you lie down in the orchard and narrate your own inner seismic shift, being buried alive and coming back only to drown yourself again, losing everything to be reborn as the person you have longed to be (shown via the vehicle of death), losing the one sole thing you value then to realise your self esteem is in fact immovable, leaving the life you know without knowing if the life you hope for will be possible because it relies on the unspoken promises of another, the disappointment of ageing tempered with the joys of taking control, supporting others as far as you are able to – only to then let them down…these are the size of things we 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.
And in the spirit of sharing, you can read the original book online here.