Directed by Shirin Neshat; written by Ms. Neshat and Shoja Azari, based on the novel by Shahrnush Parsipur. Cast: Pegah Ferydoni (Faezeh), Arita Shahrzad (Fakhri), Shabnam Tolouei (Munis) and Orsi Toth (Zarin).
Visual artist, Shirin Neshat, is not stranger to controversy. Her provocative photographic series, Women of Allah, has been banned in her native country – Iran. Her video installations, dual screen projections representing male/female dynamics under fundamentalist rule, have been banned as well. Still her work manages to penetrate the fundamentalist veil, she is widely accepted as Iran’s premiere artist using coded visual language to speak against the oppressive government. Most recently, she has completed her first feature length film, Women Without Men, based on the novella of the same name written by fellow Iranian, Shahrnush Parsipur. It has won a number of awards on the festival circuit, most notably the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. The film continues to make the festival rounds screening at this years New Directors/New Films organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York City and will screen this month (June 4-11) at the Clay Theater in San Francisco. She was gracious enough to take time out of her traveling schedule for an email interview.
FLABmag: I read that the film took six years to complete. When did you decide to make the film and now that it is completed is there anything you regret or wish you had included or edited out?
Shirin Neshat: In 2002, I decided to take the challenge of making my first feature length film, but the process didn’t begin until Jan 2003, when I went to the Sundance Film Institute’s writers’ lab to develop the script. My reason for making a film was mainly my desire to question whether I could make this transition from visual art to cinema; from making conceptual photos and video installations to making a narrative film, and most importantly whether I could reach the film audience beyond the gallery and museum audience. Of course this transition was not easy both artistically and practically, but the process became a true education, which I absolutely don’t regret it. At last, I reached my goal of making a film with a theatrical release, and have embraced a new audience.
FLABmag: There has been some vague criticism (from U.S. reviewers) that you over-politicized the story. However, do you feel that anything related to Iranian history or culture is ultimately politicized regardless of the intention of the artist? That it is almost inescapable as an Iranian artist to make work that is not political? And to that end, sharpening the focus on the Coup of 1953 is not an over emphasis but a necessary means to an end? Or perhaps, merely giving the audience what they expect anyway?
Neshat: I don’t believe I have ever made a work of art that has not in one way or another encountered the question of politics. What I have always tried to explain is that today it is impossible to be an Iranian artist and not make work that is not somehow political. Whether living inside or outside of Iran, artists’ lives have been defined and directly impacted by their government’s oppressiverules, political ideologies and censorship. On personal level, from the start, my artistic activity began as a way to cope with my own intense sense of loss, separation anxiety and unresolved relationship to my family and country.
With “Women Without Men,” I found it extremely important to revisit history, the film tries to speak to the Westerners who mostly remember Iran after the Islamic Revolution (1979) and their impression is that of a country that has been eternally a religious, fanatic society and now they find another Iran, a secular and sophisticated society. This film also speaks to Iranians, most of whom the younger generation (70% percent of population,) were born after the Islamic Revolution, and are rarely able to be faced with their own country’s cultural, political history.
Finally, I also felt certain frustration regarding how in the West particularly in the United States, after all the debates about Islam and Middle East after Sept 11th, there seems to be such an amnesia about the CIA organized Coup of 1953 which overthrew the democratic government of Iran and brought back the Shah. Many of us Iranians blame this pivotal event for eventual formation of the Islamic Revolution and the sense of anti American sentiment that has grown ever since in Iran.
FLABmag: In the novella Munis is murdered by her brother but in the film she commits suicide as a means of freeing herself; then is reborn a political activist. What was your thought process on this decision? Did you have a specific interpretation in mind? Meaning the audience would understand this choice in a specific way? Clearly it is symbolic but is it something very specific to the time or the story that we might miss? An insider comment of sorts?
Neshat: First of all, I must say that the film is only 30 to 40 percent faithful to the original novel, which was written by Shahrnush Parsipur. About this particular character, I really appreciated Munis as an allegorical character, in the way that she dies and later is resurrected, only to be free, an experience that she could never have when she was living. However, a brother killing her sister was too extreme and problematic for me, rather I changed him into an oppressive, traditional brother who would not allow her sister to participate in the street protests.
Also, Munis’s suicide is not a realistic but an allegorical death. The idea of ‘flight’ is a powerful metaphor in our tradition of mysticism; therefore, Munis’s suicide suggests an idea of reaching true freedom, not an end to human existence.
Also, Munis serves the purpose of a narrator, telling us the stories of both the women and the country of Iran as they each go through personal and social crisis to look for an idea of ‘change’ and ‘freedom’. Finally, when Munis falls and lands on earth, we are faced with a ‘martyr,’ one who sacrifices her human life and self interests for a greater social cause, justice and democracy.
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