"Women Without Men" - Shirin Neshat and Shoja Azari (2009)

Women Without Men (Zanane Bedune Mardan, 2009) is an Iranian film based on Shahrnush Parsipur’s 1990 novella of the same name. Parsipur’s work tells the stories of five different women and how they come together in a rural estate south of Tehran both to seek refuge from the various forms of male harassment that they have experienced and perhaps also to find their own way in life. The appearance of the film attracted attention among Iranians for several reasons:
  • Parsipur is a well-known Iranian writer who has spent several years in prison merely for expressing her views. Not long after Zanane Bedune Mardan was published, the book was banned by the Iranian government.
  • This was the debut directorial outing of well-known New York-based Iranian multimedia artist, Shirin Neshat (but note that Shoja Azarin is also credited as “collaborating director”).
  • The film is set during a critical, and to Iranians eternally fascinating, period in Iranian political history when Prime Minister Mohammad Mosaddegh was overthrown in a American/British-assisted coup d’etat.
  • The story was known to cover adult themes about the sexual activities of some of its characters, which is a taboo subject in the Iranian public space.
  • In addition, the Iranian government unwittingly undertook measures guaranteeing an even larger audience for the film by attempting to coerce the Canadian authorities into barring the film from public exhibition.
Parsipur’s novella has a “magical realism” style, with bizarre, surreal events occasionally embedded in the historical setting of the early 1950s. I am not sure how that kind of thing works out in the book, since I have only read summaries of it, but some reviewers have criticised the odd admixture of disconnected plot elements. Whatever narrative deficiencies the book may have had, though, they may well have been worsened by the film-script adaptation made by Neshat and Azari. Their script deletes one of the five main characters in the book and passes on some of her characteristics and narrative activities to the remaining four women. In any case these changes may well have been approved by Parsipur, since she participated in the film by playing one of the supporting roles (a madame of a brothel).

For a film likely to be banned at home and cater mostly to an Iranian audience abroad, Women Without Men has surprisingly high production values. It also has a suitably Iranian look to it, but given the explosive subject matter, it was necessarily shot abroad in Morocco and features Iranian expatriate actors and actresses.

The four main characters in Women Without Men are
  • Munis is an intelligent and relatively liberal young woman who is approaching the age of thirty and still single. Her domineering and abusive brother, Amir Khan, feels that it is a disgrace to his pride for her to remain single and wants to make arrangements for her to marry an older man. But Munis resists these efforts and wants to live her own, independent life.
  • Faezeh is younger and a good friend of Munis, but she is much more conservative and routinely wears the chador (veil) everywhere (in the period of this film, wearing the chador on the streets was not required, but it was practised by women from conservative families). Despite her demure nature, though, Faezeh has romantic longings for Munis’s brother, Amir. Later she has the misfortune of getting raped by some men in the city and subsequently has fantasies about having sex with men.
  • Zarin is a young prostitute who works in a big-city brothel and who seeks some sort of release from the travails of life.
  • Fakhri is a wealthy, fifty-year-old woman unhappily married to a general in the Shah’s army.
As the plot unfolds, the narrative threads of the four women are separated, and the women, except for Faezeh and Munis, do not know each other. The transitions between these threads are often confusing and temporarily disorienting – the viewer is often suddenly cast into a different thread of the story, but there is not enough motivation or background contrast to cue the viewer that one is now following a different character.

After awhile, Munis, apparently in despair of her brother’s bullying, commits suicide by jumping off the roof of her apartment building. Later Faezeh revives her friend’s dead body from her backyard grave and sees it magically rise up and jump into a household pond, plunging down to the bottom and presumably to further oblivion. But later in the film we see Munis walking around the city and seeking to get involved in the political crisis that was brewing on the streets of Tehran at that time. There is no explanation given concerning how or why she came back to life, and she seems to be unfazed and unmindful of her recent death and apparent resurrection.

The political events of this time are only alluded to in the film by showing street protests. But this was the period when the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, nationalized the Iranian oil facilities and defied the reigning Shah of Iran, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. With the sovereignty of the monarchy challenged by the government and the people, the Shah fled the country, but he soon returned after the military staged a coup d’etat with the help of the U.S. CIA. Munis becomes fascinated with the activities of the local Russian-supported Communist party, the Toudehs, and befriends a young Toudeh activist who is trying to drum up support on the streets. The Toudeh party, inherently aligned as it was against Western imperialism, opposed the Shah and supported Mosaddegh at this time.

Faezeh, meanwhile, hopes to marry Munis’s brother, but she is dismayed to learn that he has gone ahead and married someone else. Nevertheless, later he proposes to her to be his second wife, a rather diminished status that was not at all what she had wanted.

Zarin, the prostitute, is perpetually glum and unresponsive, as she almost mindlessly languishes in her brothel chamber while her clients use her body. Eventually, she looks up on one occasion from her bed and is horrified to see one of her clients without a face. The sight is so shocking that she flees her establishment and takes to the road.

Fakhri lives the life of a wealthy socialite, but she is unhappy with her married life (this is never explained), and she leaves her husband to go live in a villa with a large garden to the south of Tehran.

Eventually Munis, Faezeh, and Zarin show up in the villa, too, and for the first time all the women are together in a sort of women’s refuge centre that frees them from the abusive men in their lives. This bucolic community provides them with some tranquillity, but it doesn’t evidently lead them to immediate salvation. And just to complicate things a bit further, a senior military detachment then shows up at Fakhri’s villa estate and challenges her possession of it. They are eventually appeased, but not before they can display more imperialistic and male-chauvinistic behaviour in front of all the women.

The film ends enigmatically, with some of the women dying and others facing uncertain futures and their problems unresolved. But so much is left unexplained. This, unfortunately, is not a poetic virtue, but a severe fault of exposition. In fact there are a number of significant problems with this tale:
  • Narrative elements from the novella’s missing fifth character, Mahdokht, have apparently been included in the film without explanation. For example in the novella, the Mahdokht character turned herself into a tree, and indeed a huge tree does at one time mysteriously intrude into the villa’s vestibule. There is no reason for inserting this event into the film (or perhaps leaving it in the film), other than its possible association with a character who was subsequently excised from the story.
  • Although the four women finally get together in the villa garden, there is no narrative connection ever made between them. It is still a tale of four separate women.
  • As mentioned above, Munis’s suicide is never motivated or explained or reflected upon. In the novella, she is accidentally killed by her brother, and it is not evident why Neshat and Azari chose to alter the cause of her death and make it into a suicide. It is also not clear why Munis later knows about the existence of or how to get to Fakhri’s villa.
  • There are several unmotivated long shots of some of the women walking down a long road into the distance. These shots presumably signify the journey to the rural villa and could conceivably have metaphorical significance, but they seem meaningless.
  • The political theme concerning Mosaddegh’s fall, which the novella only barely touched on, is expanded in the film, but to no purpose. There is no connection between these events and the stories of the four women, leaving the viewer set up to expect something of significance that never appears.
Despite all these narrative shortcomings, Women Without Men has a certain visual charm that lingers in the mind. Neshat seems to have a talent for composing haunting, static shots that have a life apart from their narrative context. There are many such dreamlike images in the film, and together they conjure up an evocative mood in their own right that carries the viewer along. As a result, all of the characters in Women Without Men seem innately interesting. In particular, the performance of Orsolya Tóth, as Zarin, is especially compelling. Perhaps because she is Hungarian and probably unfamiliar with the Farsi language, she has very little to say in the entire film. This absence of speech leaves her role to be artfully conveyed by her brooding face and angular, lissome body language (there is a considerable amount of nudity in her sequences). At the end, we want to know more about her and the other characters, too, but we are only left with just those enigmatic hauntingly-composed images to remember long afterwards.

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